‘The beginning of salvation for everyone is to condemn himself’. This axiom, attributed to Nilus of Ancyra, is the very foundation of asceticism for the desert Fathers. The death of ‘self’ is the sine qua non condition for salvation. But this condemnation of the Self does not imply a negative attitude; it is tied up with one’s positive attitude to the Other, with the liberation of the Other from his or her evil qualities, so as to be fully affirmed and accepted. Evil is not ignored or overlooked, but is passed from the Other to the Self. The Other has priority and supremacy over the Self; he must not be judged; he must be stripped of his moral qualities; he must be simply himself and loved for who he is.
A remarkable presentation of this ethos is also to be found in the alloquia of Zosimas, a desert Father of the sixth century. Not only is the evil act of the Other against someone forgiven and eliminated by him, but the Other is regarded as a benefactor for having helped him to blame himself for this evil act.
All this may appear to be totally irrational or, at best, an exercise in the virtue of humility with no ontological foundation or truth for its justification. And yet, if it is carefully analysed, this attitude is found to be based on a firm theological and ontological foundation. The theological justification is Christological: Christ himself made his own the sins of others on the Cross, thus paving the way to self-condemnation so that others might be justified. ‘Christ became a curse for us’ (Gal. 3.13). ‘For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5.21).
Behind the ethos of self-condemnation for the sake of the Other lies the Christology of kenosis. The application of this theme to the ascetic life was well developed by the late Father Sophrony (Sakharov). The famous saying of his spiritual master, St Silouan the Athonite, ‘keep thy mind in hell and despair not’, inspired Father Sophrony to develop the theology of ascetic kenosis by extending Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ to the point of reducing oneself to nothing so that space may be made for the reception of the Other. Kenosis and its manifestation as self-condemnation are to be seen in their positive significance, as they develop ‘the hypostatic modus agens – the entire giving over of the I to the other, and the same modus patiendi – the receiving of the other in his or her fullness.’ Therefore, self-condemnation has no meaning whatsoever outside an understanding of the Other as having primacy over the Self. Ascetic life aims not at the ‘spiritual development’ of the subject but at the giving up of the Self to the Other, at the erotic ecstasies of the I, that is, at love.
John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness. Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, London, T & T Clark, 2006. 82-84.