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The Purpose And Method Of Christian Life

The Purpose And Method Of Christian Life - St Shenouda Monastery Pimonakhos Articles

Christian salvation is fundamentally the same, whether pursued in the world or through monasticism. It is this foundational unity, which is the unity of the Holy Spirit himself that makes monastic spirituality and literature so valuable for the lay Orthodox. Lay and monastic life have the same purpose.

According to Abba Moses, a monk’s life has a “goal,” (also referred to by him with the Greek word scopos, meaning “target”) and this life has a proper “end” or telos (simply the Greek word for “end”). These terms require some definition, and Abba Moses gives it. He explains that every human pursuit, whether spiritual or worldly, has both an end and a goal. The two go together, but are distinct. One example he gives is a farmer, whose sought-after end is a comfortable life with enough to eat, but who pursues the specific goal of getting his fields weeded and cleared of stones in order to eventually attain this end. The farmer’s goal, as any goal in Abba Moses’ particular usage here, is an intermediary to his end. What is more, and this is important, the farmer’s goal is something he hopes accomplish by a specific action, or set of actions, while his end is a state of being that he wishes to attain. His goal, then, is something he works toward concretely, while his end is a state that he seeks only through the goal. A second example used by Abba Moses illustrates well this point about the difference between the two. A person, he says, who desires fame and glory might pursue a particular political office of high esteem. Such a person works concretely toward the goal of becoming, say, a governor, while his desired end is to be famous and powerful, something he cannot strive for directly, but will arise for him if and when he accomplishes his goal.

An end, then, is the reason for pursuing a particular goal. What is more, the two are tied together in that a end follows on the attainment of a goal by necessity. If one attains his goal, he will necessarily reach his end, and, conversely, if one fails to attain her goal, he cannot reach the desired end. Abba Moses uses yet another illustration here, this time describing how people who wish to win an archery contest aim at a small target ( their goal) and when they hit it, they immediately receive a prize (their end). However, if an archer loses sight of his target, he will by definition be unable to obtain his prize. Goal and end are thus conceptually distinct, but they go necessarily together.

Abba Moses now describes the goal and end of Christian monks specifically. Abba Moses goes on to say that the work of the monk is aimed concretely at attaining purity of heart, and if he attains this goal, the natural result, its end, will be the kingdom of God. We will explain what he means by these latter terms (“purity of heart” and “kingdom of God”) in just a moment.

We must first make note, however, that it will be an operating principle for us that the lay Christian has the same goal and end as the monk. Our use of this principle needs only a little justification.

One must merely think about what it would mean to argue that a lay person and a monk actually differ in their end or goal to see why it makes plain sense to assume that they do not. Could one reasonably argue that a lay Christian is not called to pursue purity of heart, or to attain the kingdom of God? Even without fully defining these terms yet, it is clear that one could not. For all people, then, the goal of Christian life is purity of heart, while its end is the kingdom of God.

So, what do the terms “purity of heart” and “kingdom of God” mean? We begin with purity of heart.

Abba Moses connects purity of heart to a variety of other terms and concepts that help give us a picture of what it means to him. At one point, for example, he defines it simply as “holiness;’ a term he does not further discuss, but one that is probably quite familiar to most readers.

Abba Moses finally connects purity of heart explicitly with love, saying that purity of heart is specifically the kind of love that St Paul talks about when he says that “If I gave all my goods to feed the poor … but I did not have love, it would profit me nothing.”

Holiness, tranquillity, love-these things define purity of heart for Abba Moses, and from these three terms alone, we get a good picture of what it means. Still, this is not all that Abba Moses has to say about purity of heart. Indeed, he is in fact probably most clear about what it really is when talking about what it is. Purity of heart, for Abba Moses, is the state of the soul in absence of the passions. By passions he means, as the passage implies, any of the myriad human temptations and inclinations to evil, along with the active carrying out of such inclinations. He lists some of the worst such passions here directly, saying that in not engaging these passions, the human being offers God a pure heart. Purity of heart, then, is what is left in us when sin has been dismissed, when all the accouterments of vice are set aside, and, in short, when the human being ceases to fall away from holiness, tranquillity and love. If the Christian forgets his goal, all is wasted, a lack of tranquillity results, and life begins to fall apart for him. Thus, from Abba Moses’ teaching we arrive at our summary observation about the purpose of Christian life according to the fathers. Christian life is meant to be a life in which absolutely every action, thought, and word is directed toward obtaining purity of heart. When this purity of heart is reached, the Christian end, the kingdom of God, becomes manifest. When it is forgotten, attaining the kingdom is impossible.

By Abba Moses – from the Conferences of John Cassian