‘A Lover of Knowledge’
Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Mark the Ascetic (5th c.), also known as St Mark the Monk. Although St Mark wrote some very important hesychastic treatises, which have been included in the Philokalia, little is known about his life.
An ascetic and wonderworker, he was made a monk at the age of forty by his teacher, St John Chrysostom. Mark spent sixty more years in the Nitrian desert in fasting, prayer and the writing of instructive books. He knew the whole of the Holy Scriptures by heart. He was very merciful, and wept for the distress of any one of God’s creatures. He was once weeping for the blind whelp of a hyena when the whelp received its sight. In gratitude, the mother hyena brought him a sheepskin, and the saint forbade the hyena in future to slaughter the sheep of poor people. He received communion at the hands of an angel. His homilies on the spiritual law, on repentance, on sobriety and so forth fall into the first rank of ecclesiastical literature; the great Patriarch Photius himself held them in high esteem.
Like Diadochus of Photike, he stands in the spiritual lineage of Macarius of Egypt and the early Fathers of monasticism, whose teaching he transmitted to new generations: “Everyone baptized in the Orthodox faith has received all grace secretly. But he only receives full certainty of it by fulfilling the commandments…. Nothing is more powerful than prayer to grant us divine energy …. The entire practice of the commandments resides in prayer. For nothing is stronger than the love of God.‟ ‘Full certainty’ and ‘energy’—these terms certainly express the vocabulary of the spiritual experience in Macarius. Here it appears as the unfolding of the grace of baptism, obtained by practicing the commandments and unceasing prayer.
Second, looking forward to St Mark’s successors, we note that his work played a major role in the life of the 11th-c. hesychast, Saint Symeon the New Theologian. Speaking of himself as about someone else, the latter tells us:
This young man, then, made the acquaintance of a holy monk who lived in one of the monasteries in the city [Constantinople]; and to him he opened his soul and from him he received a short rule which he had to keep in mind. He also asked him for a book giving an account of the ways of monks and their ascetic practices; so the elder gave him the work of Mark the Monk, On the Spiritual Law. This the young man accepted as though it had been sent by God Himself, and in the expectation that he would reap richly from it he read it from end to end with eagerness and attention. And though he benefited from the whole work, there were three passages only which he fixed in his heart.
The first of these three passages read as follows: “If you desire spiritual health, listen to your conscience, do all it tells you, and you will benefit.‟ The second passage read: “He who seeks the energies of the Holy Spirit before he has actively observed the commandments is like someone who sells himself into slavery and who, as soon as he is bought, asks to be given his freedom while still keeping his purchase-money.‟ And the third passage said the following: “Blind is the man crying out and saying: “Son of David, have mercy upon me” (Luke 18:38). He prays with his body alone and not yet with spiritual knowledge. But when the man once blind received his sight and saw the Lord, he acknowledged Him no longer as the Son of David but as the Son of God, and worshipped Him‟ (cf. John 9:38).
On reading these three passages the young man was struck with awe and fully believed that if he examined his conscience he would benefit, that if he practiced the commandments he would experience the energy of the Holy Spirit, and that through the grace of the Holy Spirit he would recover his spiritual vision and would see the Lord.
Adapted from Logismoi, “A Refuge for the Weary and the Oppressed, and a Treasury of Good Counsel and Wise Lore”