St. Mark the Ascetic wrote 265 aphorisms under the title: On Those Who Think That They are Made Righteous by Works, or, No Righteousness By Works. Today this essay is part of the Orthodox Christian Philokalia. Mark is not anticipating a Reformation debate, but addressing a fundamental paradox of everyday life assumptions.
There are those who, despising the less zealous because of the rigor of their own ascetic practice, think they are made superior by physical works. But how much more foolish if we rely on theoretical knowledge and disparage the innocent.
With this passage, Mark criticizes both ends of behavior: practice and theory. Both are the dwelling places and refuges of the solitary, so we would be wise to heed Mark’s admonishing.
Our tendency as solitaries is to escape into ascetic practices to justify our separation from others — either in physical isolation or psychological distance. Our pleasure is in not being with others because we are not “like” them. Our practice then becomes a posteriori or after-the-fact proof of this difference. Or so is our temptation. We can argue that at least the practice is better than not practicing. Well, that’s a start.
Mark sees the fallacy of intellect and knowledge (worldly or scholarly) as a worse folly in that it can justify us without practice. The mind can conspire with conscience to assign to ourselves not only a righteousness but a superiority. The escape to theory is a worse menace to the solitary because the mind can operate without suffering the repercussions that our bodies suffer from asceticism.
And yet the mind is the core of the self, the core even of the body. To avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of false practice and false mindset, we must recognize the overarching operation of the ego. For Mark, the ego must be subordinate to Christ. Mark uses the vocabulary of his age in saying that the ego or self must be a slave in expecting nothing, servicing all, and receiving freedom as a gift. Today we may look askance at this imagery, but there is a core of wisdom here because the psychological processes are universal.
“Expecting nothing” but that-which-is means extinguishing desire, so that the flames of the world are successively quenched. “Serving all” is serving both practice and knowledge, both the body and the mind, for in that we become clear and humane and personable. That is how we service all, how the solitary is genuinely solitary yet servicing all. Emptied of self, connected to no one thing, not even desire, the solitary is free to pursue life without assuming an air of superiority, an assumed righteousness.
Finally, too, continuing Mark’s notion of the slave — we receive our freedom as a “gift.” As all traditions emphasize, life is a gift, and we often find ourselves reluctant to express or offer gratitude because life seems to be such a given, a necessity. Like Sartre, we may be tempted to say that we are “condemned” to live, after all. But the moment we say this we are theorizing, we are mentally contriving. That theorizing is what Mark considers such a great folly. This theorizing is the opposite of freedom, of the liberation from desire, for theorizing contrives a purpose that is only supported by theory itself and not by the fruits of practice.
And so we are back to the importance of practice in strengthening the mind and will. What a paradox that Mark considers the ability to abstract and theorize to be so bad for the solitary, but he wants us to check the excess of contrivance and desire before sanctioning what we have concluded and think to act upon. Mark reminds the solitary to monitor motives, to pursue ascetic practice and to think based on the virtuous fruits of practice. To do so is the core of being solitary and the solitary does so not to impose the ego on our beleaguered selves or upon others.