Abba Antony said: “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear” [cf. 1 John 4:18]
St. Antony’s saying, like much ancient Christian wisdom, is both simple and profound. He does not operate, like some do today, under a defeatist mentality when it comes to the spiritual life. Many today, I know, repeat to themselves the destructive mantra: “I am a sinner, and that is never going to change in this life.” Such a perspective, I fear, portrays the Gospel as the worst good news anyone could ever hear.
According to the Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). This is quite true. If one does not, like St. Peter, for example (cf. Luke 5:8), realize one’s own unworthiness in the presence of the divine, one has yet to be truly awakened to that reality and cannot expect to grow in knowledge, not of the kind that truly matters, anyway. Nevertheless, while fear of the Lord, or “caution” toward temptation, to use a technical term, is the beginning, it is not the end. Referring back to my first post in this series, it is clear that Abba Issac knew this, since he understands “vows,” the type of prayer that corresponds to it, to be the second form of prayer not the last, coming after supplication in a progression of four, leading last of all to “that spark-like prayer which no mortal can understand or describe.”
It is true that for Christians of all times and places remembering that one is a sinner is good spiritual practice. However, it is at the very beginning of the road. Perhaps we come back to it daily in remembrance that we can make a new beginning each day, but it would be a grave misunderstanding to take such an admission in a fatalistic sense. Thus, once a person has learned to embrace and utilize supplication, as is appropriate for times of contrition, one continues down the road to vows or pledges or … well, I’ll get to what that seems to really mean in a minute. The point being that the Christian cannot be content to be in a state of continual contrition. For true contrition always abides with hope.
Vows, as Abba Isaac—or rather his translator—puts it, are prayers such as that from the “Our Father”: “lead us not into temptation.” They are not, so much, oaths in a legal sense. If that were the case, one could quite easily fall into that all-too-common, defeatist spirituality. No, this is not so much about the sort of prayer where a person swears never to do X sin ever again (and this time really means it). It is rather about right orientation. It is a plea for deliverance from the sin that so often weighs us down, which would not be logical unless we could actually hope for real deliverance.
However, our lives are dynamic realities. We do need to ever make a new beginning. But it is more a new beginning in the sense of a mountain climber who, after reaching one plateau, must begin again the climb to ever greater heights. Sometimes we do not succeed as quickly as we would like. The healing of the soul, like the healing of the body, is a process that takes time and has its ups and downs. These vows are prayers to God in confidence that he who did not shrink back from death itself for our sakes is determined to guide our feet along the way of life.
And once we have learned to cultivate a proper caution toward our sins through such prayers—in addition, of course, to other spiritual disciplines—then we are one step closer to the height of heights, that love which knows no fear. A child once punished for an act of disobedience does not fear further punishment for the same sin from a good father. Rather the child knows that the discipline was for correction and that such a relationship cannot be so easily damaged. Having put the misdeed behind themselves, good children resolve not to repeat the same mistakes and endeavor to do so. And though perfect reformation may not come in an instant, through the father’s calm, patient, and persistent love, all such fear is cast away.