What is the Spiritual Law?
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
When St Mark the Ascetic defines and interprets the theme of spiritual law he has in mind what the Apostle Paul says about spiritual law, as recorded in his Epistles (see Romans, Chapter 8 and elsewhere). Abba Mark writes: “Because you have often asked what the Apostle means when he says that ‘the law is spiritual’, and what kind of spiritual knowledge and action characterises those who wish to observe it, we shall speak of this as far as we can” (1).
His text contains an exposition on the subject of how the law is spiritual, what sort of knowledge those who want to observe it receive, what action those who desire to keep it in their lives should take, what they should look out for on their spiritual journey, what secret and subtle signs there are on this path, what the consequences are of their careless behaviour, and generally how the spiritual law operates in the lives of Christians who strive.
The basis of the spiritual law is that God Himself is the beginning, middle and end of everything good. Man can only do and believe what is good through his union with Christ, which comes about through the Holy Spirit (2). This is not a matter of some abstract impersonal good. Man must have steadfast faith in this struggle of his, and this faith is a “strong tower”. Christ becomes everything for the man who believes (4).
Everything good that we possess and acquire in life is providentially given to us by the Lord. Whoever has unshakable faith that this is so, will never lose this good gift (3). Clearly it goes without saying that, when someone does not believe in this fundamental principle, he will lose everything good. As God is the beginning of every good thing, every intention to strive for purity of heart should be inspired by Him, and man should ensure that whatever he does is done according to God (5).
In these first chapters St Mark the Ascetic lays the foundations of the spiritual life, the basis on which the law of the spirit, what we call the spiritual law, operates. Everything that a person achieves in his spiritual life is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and is bestowed on him through his union with the Triune God. Only with this sort of faith is it possible for someone to live the spiritual life.
Since man has been blinded by sin and cannot see this fundamental principle of the spiritual life, he needs to call continually upon God to open his spiritual eyes that he may see the benefit “of prayer and of spiritual reading when understood and applied” (6). It is evident here that he is referring to purifying the eyes of the nous, which comes about through prayer and reading the Scriptures. However, such reading must be linked with experience, meaning our existing experience, but also the application of what we are studying.
God’s law was originally given in man’s conscience, which is why the conscience is also “nature’s book”. However, only if this natural book is read in a practical way does a person experience divine assistance (186). It is not easy to read this natural law.
The spiritual law is mainly to be found in Holy Scripture. The Holy Scripture is “the law of freedom”, because it frees man from every dependence and teaches the whole truth (30). But even this law is not easy to understand, because when someone reads the Holy Scripture he must perceive its hidden meanings (26). This is no easy task, because humility and spiritual work are required if the reader is not to make misinterpretations (6). An external knowledge of the Scriptures is insufficient, although many people stop at this sort of knowledge. Inner understanding is required. Only a few people are able to understand the Scriptures, and this comes about “in the degree to which they practise the commandments” (30). The words of Holy Scripture are to be read by putting them into practice, not with conceit (85).
The words of Holy Scripture are also referred to as God’s commandments because they were given by God to lead man to salvation. They are not merely human injunctions, because the Lord Himself is hidden in them, and those who eagerly keep them will find Him (190). It is impossible not to find God in the commandments that He gave, and peace is the sign that God has been found (191).
It is an inviolable spiritual law that the law of freedom, which is present in Holy Scripture, is read by means of true knowledge, understood through the practice of the commandments and fulfilled through the mercies of Christ (32). When one of these three factors is absent, the law of the spirit is not the law of freedom. Without Christ’s mercies man cannot be made perfect (33). Moreover, if someone preserves these essential prerequisites and has a profound understanding of God’s commandments, even then he should not grow conceited, lest he fall victim to the spirit of blasphemy (11).
These laws of the spiritual life are indispensable for a person striving to find God’s will, and anyone who does not keep them will not be able to achieve his goal.