“I look to the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me. All who walk in the way of perfection shall be my friends.”[1] – Psalm 101:6

 Four years ago, my friend Tim recommended that I read The Philokalia. “They know what they’re talking about,” he said, referring to the Christian monks whose writings were compiled in this volume. They knew what they were talking about. Considering that Tim was pursuing a doctorate in patristics, I trusted that he knew what he was talking about, so I ordered the book.  My life has never been the same since.

In The Philokalia I found not just wise spiritual teaching, but a community.  These monks did know what they were talking about; they wrote about the spiritual life from a perspective of genuine submission to God through lives of prayer and asceticism which seem utterly other-worldly to us today. Though many were “solitaries,” they didn’t live these lives alone.  They were guided by the instruction of wiser teachers who had gone before them, and much of their writing was done for the sake of passing along the wisdom of the desert to their disciples. They possessed and shared wisdom concerning precisely how “to lay aside everything that hinders and the sin which so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race set before us” (Heb. 12:1-2). These monks were part of the “great cloud of witnesses” for each other, and have since become part of the great cloud of witnesses to whom I look for encouragement and guidance as I run my race. Reading their words, I sense that I’m entering deeper into the “communion of saints” which we confess in the Apostles’ Creed.

For example, one such saint from The Philokalia is known as Mark the Monk, or Mark the Ascetic. The works he produced in the fifth century grew to hold enormous and enduring influence in both the Church and the monastic world. In the fourteenth century, Mark’s writings were held in such high esteem that the slogan “Sell everything and buy Mark” was common advice for those entering monastic life. During the Reformation, both the Reformers and the Counter-Reformation tried to claim Mark as a supporter of their cause.

In my first reading of Mark, I was intrigued by his sense that the teachings of Scripture could be and were meant to be lived: “Understand the words of Holy Scripture by putting them into practice, and do not fill yourself with conceit by expiating on theoretical ideas.”[2] When I was fresh out of seminary, filled with such theoretical ideas, Mark’s challenge to live the Scriptures gave me practical direction as I ventured into the work of church-planting.

Mark’s teaching on baptism had an even more profound effect on me: “Everyone baptized in the orthodox manner has received mystically the fullness of grace; but he becomes conscious of this grace only to the extent that he actively observes the commandments.”[3] I had been baptized as an infant, but my faith came alive later in life.  Mark’s teaching gave me a new sense of the gift and gravity of my infant baptism. I began to see my infant baptism as a moment of grace which gave me the ability to later respond to God in faith and obedience, a perspective which was echoed by John Calvin (Insitutes IV.16.20) and thus led me into a deeper appreciation of my own Presbyterian tradition.

Now, having read Mark multiple times, words from his writings frequently pop in my mind. Sitting down to work, I hear him say, “Whatever we do without prayer and without hope in God turns out afterwards to be harmful and defective.”[4] When I have an opportunity to teach, I remember him writing, “If you want with a few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer, right faith, and the patient acceptance of what comes.”[5] When exercising or eating, I think of Mark’s words that “Those engaged in spiritual warfare practice self-control in everything.”[6] The nearness of these words makes it feel like Mark is a companion, a brother in Christ whose fellowship stretches across fifteen centuries for him to impart wisdom to me today.

Now when I read the words of Psalm 101, and think of being friends with those “who walk in the way of perfection”, I think of Mark the Monk. By God’s grace, Mark has become less of a source to be cited and more of a conversation partner. I do look to the faithful of the land – saints such as Mark – that they may dwell with me. All who walk in the way of perfection are indeed my friends, for they are leading me into that way as well.

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How have you grown fonder of your own faith tradition through works of the saints?

[1] From John McGuckin’s adaptation of the Grail Psalter, printed in Prayer Book of the Early Christians (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press 2011) p. 74

[2] St. Mark the Ascetic “On the Spiritual Law” no. 85 in The Philokalia vol. 1 (London: Faber & Faber 1983) p. 116

[3] St. Mark the Ascetic “No Righteousness By Works” no. 92 in The Philokalia vol. 1 (London: Faber & Faber 1983) p. 133

[4] St. Mark the Ascetic “No Righteousness By Works” no. 36 in The Philokalia vol. 1 (London: Faber & Faber 1983) p. 128

[5] St. Mark the Ascetic “No Righteousness By Works” no. 102 in The Philokalia vol. 1 (London: Faber & Faber 1983) p. 133

[6] St. Mark the Ascetic “On the Spiritual Law” no. 134 in The Philokalia vol. 1 (London: Faber & Faber 1983) p. 119

Christopher Brown:
Christopher Brown is an Organizing Co-Pastor of The Upper Room (http://www.pghupperroom.com), a Presbyterian church-plant in Pittsburgh, PA. He writes at his own blog (http://christopherbrown.wordpress.com) and for the House of St. Michael the Archangel (http://houseofstmichaelthearchangel.org/), a patristic-oriented intensive discipleship community. Chris is also currently writing a book about the spiritual discipline of living with honesty and integrity.
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