“WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?” This question is posed by a young Jewish leader whom Jesus meets on His way to Jerusalem. At first glance it seems a reasonable inquiry, one that many people would still ask today. Tell me what prayer to say, what shrine to visit, what project I can take on which will guarantee that I’ll get to heaven.
Church Fathers, however, saw this as a trick question, seeking to trap Jesus into setting some new requirement not in the Law. The Lord does not give him another thing to do, adding to the list of precepts which devotees of the Torah felt set forth God’s will for them. Rather Jesus says that to be perfect you must “sell all you have” and commit yourself completely to Him. Perfection does not come from performing this or that isolated action, however good it may be. Perfection comes from entrusting one’s whole life to Christ.
In the Pastoral Epistles we see some consequences of this life in Christ as it was perceived in the apostolic Church. The “elect of God” (Colossians 3:12) have died to the world, buried in Baptism and are now alive in Christ. Their way of life is to be Christ’s, embodying the compassion and forgiveness of Christ Himself. They are to bear with one another (after all, others are putting up with them). They are to build up one another’s faith “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16), thankful for the grace filling their hearts. This is certainly in stark contrast to the way of the world, where self-love, resentments, grudges, and slanderously tearing others down is the norm for many.
One of the first qualities of someone dead to the world mentioned in Colossians is humility, a virtue most associate with monasticism rather than life in the world. In fact, as the Church grew, perfection came to be associated increasingly with some kind of ascetic life. At first people like the “sons and daughters of the covenant” in the Syriac Church lived in the world, but somewhat apart from others, devoting themselves to prayer and good works. By the third century ascetics like St Antony and the Desert Fathers lived as hermits in the wilderness, completely apart from others. Monasticism brought like-minded people together to live in a community, where they could commend themselves and one another and their whole life to Christ God while being apart from the world at large.
But the Gospel is not addressed simply to monks and nuns; it is meant for all believers. How does a Christian in the world “sell all” and follow Christ? Is there a way for a believer to live in the world but not be of the world, as Christ enjoins? It is not wearing some distinctive dress that says “I am different.” It is rather living by a different set of principles, given by Christ.
The popular book, Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, affirms that our “wealth” is nothing less than our self-centeredness:
“Take a look at yourself and see how bound you are by your desire to humor yourself and only yourself. Your freedom is curbed by the restraining bonds of self-love, and thus you wander, a captive corpse, from morning till eve. ‘Now I will drink,’ ‘now I will get up,’ ‘now I will read the paper.’ Thus you are led from moment to moment in your halter of preoccupation with self, and kindled instantly to displeasure, impatience or anger if an obstacle intervenes” (p. 5).
Colliander stresses that asceticism is the only path to victory over our self-centeredness. He gives some practical suggestions for living an ascetic life in the world. Like St Paul, Colliander begins with meekness and humility. He contrasts true humility with the desire to be perceived as humble:
“We notice the person who is forever bowing and fussily servile, and perhaps say, ‘How humble he is!’ But the truly humble person escapes notice: the world does not know him (1 John 3:1); for the world he is mostly a ‘zero’” (p. 26).
Humility is rather a matter of not always putting forth one’s own will. Colliander teaches that following the Church’s tradition for fasting is the most basic school for obedience. We fast when the Church says to, we do not fast when the Church says not to. We fast not to be “righteous,” but to be obedient.
Ordinary life provides countless other occasions for us to develop a humble spirit through obedience. Colliander notes,
“Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour” (p.44).
To “sell all one has,” then, ultimately means to give up one’s own will to follow Christ. Along with a certain simplicity of life and chastity appropriate to one’s marital state, we attain what St Tikhon of Zadonsk called “interior monasticism.” We put aside the values and pursuits of the world to follow Christ along the way of perfection in whatever state of life we find ourselves.