The first chapter read almost like a "name it and claim it" book to my recovering Protestant sensibilities. It sounded very much like some of the theology I grew up with and rejected later in life. It tells us what is required of the Christian (perfection), how we must struggle to achieve it, and how this must be our chief goal. It reads, put simply, like works-righteous pietist Protestantism. Then comes the second chapter, which starts as follows:
Avoid self reliance in spiritual warfare. The nature of our struggle requires that we learn not to rely on ourselves. This requirement, beloved brothers and sisters, is absolutely essential to the victory. You must be certain of this: if you rely on yourself, you will be unable to resist the smallest attack of the enemy. Engrave this truth deeply in your spirit and heart.Despite the weakening of our spiritual and moral powers that resulted from the transgression of our forefather Adam, we are inclined to think very highly of ourselves. Even though our daily experience proves to us very effectively that this opinion of ourselves is false, we continue to believe that we are something and, indeed, something very important.
Father Jack then goes on to say:
Indeed. And so it is that every time I begin to see in Orthodox theology something that appears to beckon me to think every so highly of myself and my ability to be ascetical, to achieve virtue, to work toward perfection, I also find the spiritual counter to that hubris -- the realization that nothing I do is good in and of itself, but my good deeds, good thoughts, good intentions are good only because of God, Who is the source of all that is good.
While God abhors this sinful charade and foolishness on our part, there is nothing He loves and desires to see in us more than a sincere consciousness of our insignificance and inability, together with a firm and deeply felt conviction that any good we may have in our life comes from Him alone, since He is the source of all good.
And it is precisely due to this grounding that we are free to discuss asceticism in the first place. Free to discuss struggle to begin with. Orthodox Christians are free to actually work toward our salvation, because we are grounded in the knowledge that this work is itself grace, that we have been given that freedom by God in His infinite mercy. In large part, I am still hampered and hung up by my late-in-life rejection of my Arminian Protestant roots. I have to learn to stop looking for the boogeyman under the bed. Orthodoxy may be superficially similar to Arminianism, but it is not and never will be Arminian in its theology (if for no other reason than that she precedes Jacobus Arminius by roughly 15 centuries).
And with that, I'm looking forward to the rest of this book.