patristic text study: st philoxenus' discourses
In his second Ascetic Discourse Mor Philoxenos of Mabbugh tells us that faith comes before everything else, because without it we cannot even begin to construct our spiritual edifice, and when he speaks of faith he means much more than a passive belief ("the devils also believe, and tremble," James2:19).
Faith is an absolute,unconditional surrender to the very fact of God.We surrender ourselves to God the Creator and Sustainer of all things, we surrender to the absolute truth of His words and deeds, and we surrender to Christ, the crucified and resurrected Redeemer.Moreover, our surrender must preclude all questioning,all investigative probings into the nature of God and the whys and wherefores of His actions, and our surrender must preclude any demands for proofs.
If this need for unquestioning surrender seems harsh, then we must remember that Mor Philoxenos was caught up in the severest period of Christological disputes in which human beings who professed Christ tried to tear His Body, the Church, apart with relentless quarrels.Mor Philoxenos was actually martyred at the hands of fellow "Christians". The point he is making was reiterated by another great Syriac saint, Mor Jacob of Serugh, who rejected pointless, fruitless investigations into Christ's nature, advocating instead an attitude of wonder before the fact of the Incarnate Word of God.
All our attempts to investigate God,all our demands for proofs, arise from our pride, that pride which allied us with the serpent and led to our Fall from Paradise and which acts as a rigid barrier against our surrender to God. Human pride seeks to place our very limited reasoning powers on the same level as God's limitless power and wisdom, and when,inevitably, our puny powers fail to capture and categorize the Triune God, this same pride then begins to criticize and condemn the Deity.
Following the words of Christ (see Matt18:1-5) Mor Philoxenos tells us that
we must be before God as little children, full of love, trust and obedience. It is no accident that this exhortation in St Matthew's Gospel follows hard after Christ telling His disciples that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they would be able to move mountains, "and nothing shall be impossible unto you." (Matt17:20)
To acquire true faith we must humble ourselves. Turning our backs on the "wisdom" of this world and surrendering unquestioningly to God, we will discover the extraordinary power that faith conveys.
Just like St Paul in the Letter to the Hebrews (Chap 11) Mor Philoxenos gives glorious examples of the workings of faith, which is the animus of the spiritual life, without which nothing we do is of value. For Christ made faith the very foundation of the Church.
It is typical of Mor Philoxenos that he both lingers on the marvellous workings of faith and has also the candour to place the most difficult thing of all, reaching a state of humility in order to acquire true faith, at the very beginning. But this cannot be helped. All those who strive to follow Christ must expect to be assailed by the sly powers of evil, and no human being can defend his or her self against these attacks alone.Without absolute surrender to God and absolute trust and confidence in Him then we will leave cracks and fissures of doubt and fear through which demonic powers will creap into our hearts to dishearten and poison us.