Why does God allow evil things to happen? For centuries people have agonized over this question.1 St. Mark the Monk (or the Ascetic) has the answers to it. The purpose of this article is to summarize briefly without much comment St. Mark’s resolution of the notorious mystery of suffering.
By way of introduction, St. Mark the Monk seems to have been a spiritual giant who escaped detection; at least modern scholarship does not have much to say about him.2 Tim Vivian suggests a mid-fifth century date, but finds no evidence to tie St. Mark to any area.3 What we do know is that he was very popular reading. A monastic slogan recorded in the 14th century was, “Sell everything and buy Mark” (p. 32).4 When the Philokalia was compiled, St. Mark was naturally included. He wrote two works—both of which are in the Philokalia—which delve deeply into evils and sufferings: On the Spiritual Law and Those Who Imagine They Are Justified by Works. Our plan is to use these works to summarize his doctrine that there is no mystery of suffering.5
Now, our thesis is that St. Mark does not recognize the afflictions of this life as constituting a mystery of suffering because, in short, they are good for us sub specie aeternitatis (in the very long run). Since On the Spiritual Law (SL) and On Those Who Imagine They Are Justified by Works (JW) are organized in chapters—i.e., in loosely linked strings of comments—St. Mark nowhere provides an organized doctrine of affliction. However, due to the organization of his mind, it is easy enough to sketch out his case that afflictions are not evil.
A note on organization. I decided to give the relevant chapters in order of appearance within each work, since I do not possess any insight as to how they should be ordered to anyone’s benefit. St. Mark is best left to speak for himself.
One theme which St. Mark dwells on is the future value of earthly sufferings.
A seed will not grow without earth and water; and a man will not develop without voluntary suffering and divine help (JW 70).
If we fulfil Christ’s commandments according to our conscience, we are spiritually refreshed to the extent that we suffer in our heart. But each thing comes to us at the right time (JW 93).
The greater a man's faith that Christ will reward him, the greater his readiness to endure every injustice. (SL 44).
When harmed, insulted or persecuted by someone, do not think of the present but wait for the future, and you will find He has brought you much good, not only in this life but also in the life to come (SL 114).
Accept present afflictions for the sake of future blessings; then you will never weaken in your struggle (SL 156).
He who wishes to avoid future troubles should endure his present troubles gladly. For in this way, balancing the one against the other, through small sufferings he will avoid those which are great (SL 187).
THE BLESSINGS OF AFFLICTIONS
Another theme he develops is that our afflictions procure us blessings in the present.
Unexpected trials are sent by God to teach us to practice the ascetic life; and they lead us to repentance even when we are reluctant (JW 8).5
If you want with a few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer, right faith, and the patient acceptance of what comes. For all else that is good is found through these (JW 94).
The mercy of God is hidden in sufferings not of our choice; and if we accept such sufferings patiently, they bring us to repentance and deliver us from everlasting punishment (JW 139).
He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction (SL 43).
By praying for those who wrong us we overthrow the devil; opposing them we are wounded by him (SL 45).
Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin (SL 67).
Just as the bitterness of absinth helps a poor appetite, so misfortunes help a bad character. For the first benefits the physical condition, and the second leads to repentance (SL 115).
THE ACQUISITION OF THE VIRTUES
Still another benefit of suffering is its contribution to the acquisition of the virtues.
Just as suffering and dishonor usually give birth to virtues, so pleasure and self-esteem usually give birth to vices (JW 157).
He who accepts present afflictions in the expectation of future blessings has found knowledge of the truth; and he will easily be freed from anger and remorse (JW 168).
Wisdom is not only to perceive the natural consequence of things, but also to accept as our due the malice of those who wrong us. People who go no further than the first kind of wisdom become proud, whereas those who attain the second become humble (JW 206).
If you do not want evil thoughts to be active within you, accept humiliation of soul and affliction of the flesh; and this not just on particular occasions, but always, everywhere and in all things (JW 207).
He who willingly accepts chastening by affliction is not dominated by evil thoughts against his will; whereas he who does not accept affliction is taken prisoner by evil thoughts, even though he resists them (JW 208).
THE REMEMBRANCE OF GOD
Another blessing conferred by suffering is the remembrance of God.
Distress reminds the wise of God, but crushes those who forget Him (SL 56).
Let all involuntary suffering teach you to remember God, and you will not lack occasion for repentance (SL 57).
If you wish to remember God unceasingly, do not reject as undeserved what happens to you, but patiently accept it as your due. For patient acceptance of whatever happens kindles the remembrance of God, whereas refusal to accept weakens the spiritual purpose of the heart and so makes it forgetful (JW 125).
OUR CONTRIBUTION TO OUR OWN SUFFERINGS
St. Mark’s opinion that suffering is a source of blessings does not mean that he divorces sin and suffering.
We cannot with all our heart forgive someone who does us wrong unless we possess real knowledge. For this knowledge shows us that we deserve all we experience (JW 49).
Real knowledge is patiently to accept affliction and not to blame others for our own misfortunes (JW 56).
Everyone receives what he deserves in accordance with his inner state. But only God understands the many different ways in which this happens (JW 67).
If, as Scripture teaches, everything involuntary has its cause in what is voluntary, man has no greater enemy than himself (JW 104).
Trials come upon us because of our former sins, bringing what is appropriate to each offence (JW 154).
If you refuse to accept suffering and dishonor, do not claim to be in a state of repentance because of your other virtues. For self-esteem and insensitivity can serve sin even under the cover of virtue (JW 156).
He who fights against others out of fear of hardship or reproach will either suffer more harshly through what befalls him in this life, or will be punished mercilessly in the life to come (JW 171).
He who does not understand God’s judgments walks on a ridge like a knife-edge and is easily unbalanced by every puff of wind. When praised, he exults; when criticized, he feels bitter. When he feasts, he makes a pig of himself; and when he suffers hardship, he moans and groans. When he understands, he shows off; and when he does not understand, he pretends that he does. When rich, he is boastful; and when in poverty, he plays the hypocrite. Gorged, he grows brazen; and when he fasts, he becomes arrogant. He quarrels with those who reprove him; and those who forgive him he regards as fools (JW 193).
Unless a man acquires, through the grace of Christ, knowledge of the truth and fear of God, he is gravely wounded not only by the passions but also by the things that happen to him (JW 194).
When the evil conduct of one person begins to affect others, you should not show long-suffering; and instead of your own advantage you should seek that of the others, so that they may be saved. For virtue involving many people is more valuable than virtue involving only one (JW 214).
No one can experience suffering and remorse in a way that accords with God’s will, unless he first loves what causes them (JW 218).
St. Mark’s view then is that when we suffer, we acquire many blessings: suffering prepares future blessings for us, procure blessings in this life, help us to acquire the virtues and to remember God. In view of these facts, we may conclude that there is no mystery of suffering. Suffering is good for us.
An example may help us. Whether we get a cavity because we did not brush them, or because of our genes, going to the dentist is still good for us. Yes, the dentist visit is in this scenario suffering, though the metaphor should not be pushed so far as to make the dentist a devil.
Another example: consider a cat that must receive medical treatment. Because we cannot explain why we have to do something painful to it, the cat can only look upon us as doing evil. Now God has spoken through the Bible and the Fathers about the importance of suffering, so that we can apply their doctrines to our lives as St. Mark urges us. Unfortunately, because we cannot believe that what the Bible and the Fathers say really applies to us—surely it is my neighbor who must walk the extra mile!—we imagine we have grounds for grievance. St. Mark warns us that we have no such grounds.
Let us close with St. Mark’s advice on how to suffer.
Afflictions that come to us are the result of our own sins. But if we accept them patiently through prayer, we shall again find blessings (JW 9).
A sinner cannot escape retribution except through repentance appropriate to his offence (JW 58).
When a sinful soul does not accept the afflictions that come to it, the angels say: ‘We would have healed Babylon, but she was not healed’ (Jr 51:9) (JW 82).
Escape from temptation through patience and prayer. If you oppose temptation without these, it only attacks you more strongly (JW 106).
Do not say that a dispassionate man cannot suffer affliction; for even if he does not suffer on his own account, he is under a liability to do so for his neighbor (JW 123).6
He who wishes to be spared all misfortunes should associate God with everything through prayer; with his intellect he should set his hope in Him, putting aside, so far as possible, all concern about things of the senses (JW 172).
When tested by some trial you should try to find out not why or through whom it came, but only how to endure it gratefully, without distress or rancor (JW 198).
I encourage everyone to read St. Mark for himself—he wrote deeply and lucidly about things besides afflictions in a way that is very accessible. Three of his works are available in the Philokalia. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has printed all of his known works in one volume in their Popular Patristics Series (see n. 2).
- DAN MONROE
1. I am relying on Niels Christian Hvidt for the background which follows (see “The Historical Development of the Problem of Evil” in Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil, ed. Murphy, N., R. J. Russell & W. R. Stoeger (Vatican City State: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley & Vatican Observatory Publications, 2007), which may be accessed at tro-helbred.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/ Hvidt-CTNS-Final.pdf). In brief, the mystery of suffering or (more generally) the problem evil is a recent preoccupation even in the West, surfacing there only in the 17th century. It was then that Leibniz attempted to rebut the rationalists of his day, who faulted the Creator for allowing evils to exist. As Hvidt points out, Western Christian teaching on this question had been unchanged since the beginning: all evils ultimately stem from the fall of Adam (p. 19). In the West, the doctrines of original sin, massa damnata and double predestination were significant means of explaining both the causes and the effects of this fall; we may well imagine that these doctrines would sooner or later have created doubts in the minds of the thoughtful. In the East, the emphasis was on corruption, an effect of the fall which anyone can verify for himself with a history book, a newspaper or experience. Hvidt observes that before the Enlightenment, the discussion of evils—whether moral, natural or personal—was conducted within a Christian perspective; beginning with the Enlightenment, the same discussion attempted “to provide reasons for [the Christian] perspective” (p. 24). Christians from the earliest days conceded presumptively that God was just; the only question was how His justice was to be traced; Leibnitz accepted the originally te unquestioned starting point (God’s justice) as the bone of contention.
2. All the information on St. Mark in this paragraph comes from St. Mark the
Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, ed. & tr. Tim Vivian and Augustine Casiday (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). The Prologue from Ochrid gives little enough information on his feast day (March 5). It supports Vivian’s surmise of a 5th century date, but places the saint in Egypt, not in Asia Minor. Modern scholarship tends to be tight-lipped about assigning dates and places or about accepting the explicitly stated motives of the Fathers at face value, whereas the underdogs of history—most famously in our age, the Gnostics—are treated generously and excused when necessary.
3. Idem, p. 24 f.
4. Idem, p. 32.
5. I have used G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (trans. and eds.) for “On Those who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred Twenty Six Texts” (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, vol. I [Faber & Faber, London & Boston: 1979], pp. 125-146), available as a PDF at jbburnett.com/resources/mark_ascetic-righteousness.pdf. To cite “On the Spiritual Law Two: Hundred Texts,” I have relied on the same translation, found at https://archive.org/details/Philokalia-TheCompleteText. Vivian and Casiday’s translations are vitiated by political correctness.
6. Note the proviso “by divine dispensation.” This phrase is our assurance that suffering in and of itself is not a blessing and will not procure for us any blessing unless by divine dispensation. As Somerset Maugham wrote in The Moon and Sixpence, “suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”
7. This is confirmation of St. Mark’s doctrine that sufferings are a source of blessings, for we are nowhere asked to sin on behalf of our neighbors.