Entering the Vaults of Heaven, Theognostos, Philokalia 2, pp. 375-377

Theognostos, has already addressed the need for priests to remain free of passions and, if unable to do so, humbly leave the priesthood.

In these last few pages of his essay, he begins by defining more precisely the nature of a priest’s purity and preparedness.  His highlights in that definition are interesting.

He first talks about fragmentation and the pain of living inauthentic lives, torn between what we say and what we do, who we are and who we say, and want others to believe, we are.

…appearing exalted in the eyes of many but being in reality a corpse to be wept over because of your unworthiness.

He, moreover, discusses the relationship of the priest to his fellow men and the necessity of true love toward them. Love in God is not abstract. It is manifested by humility, exquisite sensitivity, care and compassion.  

Humble yourself like a sheep for the slaughter, truly regarding all men as your superiors, and strive not to wound the conscience of any man, especially without reason.

As the narrative progresses, we slowly ascend to the mystery of mysteries, Holy Communion, which heightens dramatically the importance of the priest’s role and the rewards he can obtain.

If you celebrate the divine, revered and awesome mysteries in the proper manner, with absolutely nothing on your conscience, you may hope for salvation.

Conversely, Holy Communion can also be a source of damnation for the unworthy, unprepared priest.

Do not dare to touch the holy gifts unpurified, lest you should be burnt like grass by the divine fire and destroyed like melting wax.

While addressing priests he also uncovers the deeper meaning of Holy Communion for all of us.

During this awesome mystery, Theognostos says, the priest have “an angelic, or even archangelic, office,” so “he needs to be like the angels and archangels.”

For we, priests, sacrifice, set forth and offer in intercession the Only Begotten Himself who in His freely-given compassion was slain on behalf of sinners

…And what boldness must he not have as mediator between God and man, having as co-intercessors the most holy Mother of God, all the heavenly, angelic powers, and the saints from every age?

Through the liturgy we undergo a process of slowly shredding passions and material concerns to finally unite with God through communion. Theognostos describes a similar process in life. In our journey toward theosis, we keep shedding passions until, purified and pure, we experience complete union with God. Paradoxically, we reach that height in our lives on earth through our preparation for our death as a form of communion.

…even though you fully and consciously experience the kingdom of heaven within you, do not allow yourself to be released from the flesh without foreknowledge of your death.

Prepare yourself constantly for death, casting aside all fear, so that, traversing the air and escaping the evil spirits, you may boldly enter the vaults of heaven. Ranked with the angelic orders and numbered among all the righteous and elect, you will then behold the Divinity, in so far as this is possible. You will perceive, that is to say, the blessings that come from Him, as well as the Logos of God.

“RISING WITH JOY, COURAGE AND THANKSGIVING:” Theognostos, Philokalia vol. 2

To ease us from this life into eternal life, Theognostos poses a question for us. In refering to “the world-saving and holy sacrifice” for forgiveness of sins, he asks:

Who after your death will offer it ( on your behalf with such concern?

He advises that, not only should we not fear death but, strive to die metaphorically before our actual death.

Anticipate wisely, therefore: bury yourself and commemorate yourself in advance.

This self-inflicted death is the opposite of resignation, self-harm, or despair. It refers to the death of the passions that keep us in perpetual torment and distance us from God. Through the death of our passions, we experience inner peace and reconciliation with God and men and are thus filled with hope.

None the less, if you drive off the dog of despair with the stone of hopefulness and supplicate boldly and insistently, your many sins will be forgiven you.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the inner stillness of the death of our old selves and passions?  In these few pages, Theognostos cites three obstacles.

  1. Lack of fear of God. In addressing priests, he warns:

If there is no fear of God before your eyes, you will think it a trivial matter to officiate unworthily, for you will be deceived by your own self-love into imagining that God will be charitable to you.

For all of us, lack of fear of God levels distinctions and turns everything into trivia. What is the big deal about casual sex, harmless small deceits, getting back at those who offended us, obsessing over status or job promotions, indulging in “me” time and excessive pampering, prioritizing self-preoccupation over care for others? Without fear of God, these all seem normal for today’s man or woman and expected while “small transgressions” are ignored and forgotten.  

Fear of God, for Theognostos and other patristic writers, is the beginning of reconciliation with God, the first step of the journey toward inner stillness.

2. The games we play in ignoring the voice of our conscience and justifying our decisions.

In addressing priests who perform their duties mechanically without spiritual preparation and readiness, Theognostos admonishes:

Otherwise, slighting your office, and using specious arguments against your conscience when it rebukes you , you will say in your agony as you are condemned on the day that all things are judged and set aright : ‘The fear that I feared has come upon me, and what I dreaded has visited me’ (Job 3 : 2 5″).

For all of us the trivialization of life and Christian principles leaves us fragmented and torn by contradictions. There is a “disconnect” that we have come to accept as normal between believing one thing and doing another, theory and action, remembering “God” on Sundays at church and putting Him on a shelf the rest of the week.

We are so accustomed to living life in a broken state that we cannot even envision a life of wholeness, consistency, and inner stillness. We ignore the inkling that something is wrong and the discomfort of our conscience to return to our default position of brokenness we have become accustomed to.  

3. Lack of humility and overreaching:

Overreaching and being ambitious are good things in modern culture that encourages the development of driven, hard-pressed, busy and obsessive personalities. I am one of them. It has been difficult for me to relish an achievement or moment of peace because I am already thinking of the next, and the next milestone to be reached.

We fear that simply being our true selves is not enough to believe that life is worth living. Theognostos understands the exhaustion brought about by efforts at impressing others, comparing ourselves to those more successful, striving to achieve more than our colleagues or friends, constantly raising the bar of achievement and the prerequisites for our contentment.  

The enemy attacks us with fierce and terrible temptations when he perceives that our soul aspires to scale great heights of virtue. This we learn from the words of the Lord’s Prayer and from our own attempts to ascend beyond the material duality of our flesh and sensory things.

The difficulty of restraint and temptation of passions are not new. The commonality of the struggles of the soul is what makes Philokalia so very relevant to the modern world.

“No struggle is greater than the struggle for self-restraint and virginity,” Theognostos tells us. Throughout his text, he advises us to relinquish our own sense of time to God’s time.

It is important to note that freedom from passions, humility, restraint, and inner peace do not refer to a state of stasis. The process from self to God does not call for lack of growth and stagnation. On the contrary, it involves a journey of constant improvement and spiritual ascension through a paradox.  The more we empty ourselves, the more we make space for the presence of God within us; the more we relinquish the burden of self will and control, the greater the peace and clarity of vision we experience.  

Theognostos does not separate life from death. He puts us in a continuum from life on earth, to our transition toward death, the realm of eternal life and, finally, resurrection through Christ’s second coming.  He prepares us for each stage of this continuum and gets us to see our present as an unbroken piece among the interconnected steps to God and our Resurrection. There is no fear at any point within the journey if we prepare for it. Theognostos offers a lyrical description of the beauty of death for a soul that has been prepared:

Inexpressible is the soul’s delight when in full assurance of salvation, it leaves the body, stripping it off as though it were a garment. Because it is now attaining what it hopes for, it puts off the body painlessly, going in peace to meet the radiant and joyful angel that comes down for it, and travelling with him unimpeded through the air, totally unharmed by the evil spirits. Rising with joy, courage and thanksgiving, it comes in adoration before the Creator, and is allotted its place among those akin to it and equal to it in virtue, until the universal resurrection.

BECOMING LIKE GOLD AND SILVER : Theognostos, Philokalia vol. 2

pp.371-372

Theognostos once again focuses on the person of the priest, while creating a structure that can be applied to all of us.

Priesthood, he says, is a light yoke for those who have the right disposition and commitment and a heavy burden for those still engrossed in the material world.

Those for whom “the priesthood is light and its yoke easy,” have mended their “ways and expound the truth rightly, thus working out [their] salvation with fear and trembling.”  

Theognostos does not ask for perfection but for a complete re-orientation from self to God. Those seeking inner peace in a union with God, especially priests, must commit to a life of continuous ascension through repentance, renewal, and forward progress.

One of the great temptations for priests, as well as for the rest of us, is to mistake the dignity and authority of their role or office for an opportunity for personal power and gain. When the grace of the Holy Spirit is viewed as a commodity “for sale,” or means for one’s own gratification, priesthood becomes a burden.

When what is beyond price is bartered in the name of human expedience and for perishable gifts, and when the call is not from above, the burden is heavy, indeed; or it is borne by someone unworthy, whose powers it exceeds. The yoke is then extremely harsh, chafing the neck of him who carries it and sapping his strength; and unless it is taken from him, it will exhaust and destroy him utterly.

Theognostos makes it clear that God’s wrath does not descend upon us from the outside-in but rather as a consequence of our own choices.

How often do we create our own “yoke” around our neck, for example, by allowing the quest for power and control to drive our personal or professional lives? Perhaps we measure workdays by our perceived increase or decrease of status and recognition; our effectiveness as parents by our children’s professional success and willingness to follow our script for them. Constantly preoccupied with our self and personal advantage, we miss opportunities for love and connection and widen the distances between us and God.  

In my consulting work, I have observed countless of organizations decline because they forgot their original mission of providing value to their clients. Over time, the interests of the organization, including people’s positions and personal agendas, outweigh the welfare of clients. Eventually, organizations become so self-involved that their clients and communities are perceived as annoying distractions, rather than the very reason for their existence. As the distance between providers and those they serve grows, organizations lose the sense of shared purpose that inspired and united them. They become fragmented into silos, inward-oriented, and fraught with power and political conflicts.

The more we focus on our own glory rather than God’s, the greater our distance from Him.

“Salvation is attained through simplicity and virtue,” Theognostos says, “not through the glories of the priesthood.”

The wrath of God that the fallen priest, and the rest of us, may experience is not simply an act of revenge or punishment, Theognostos shows, but the result of our own lack of preparedness for the love of God.

As Vladimir Lossky puts it: “At the second coming of Christ … [t]he love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.” (Quoted in Dylan Pahman’s blog post, Grace and Wrath in the Orthodox Tradition, (February 10, 2015).  

Archimandrite George, Abbott of the Holy Monastery of Gregoriou on Mount Athos, gives another practical example from everyday life (in “Deification as the Purpose of Man’s Life.”)

Let us mention a somewhat relevant example from things human. If we grasp a bare electric wire, we will die. However, if we connect a lamp to that wire, we are illuminated. We see, enjoy, and are assisted by the energy of electric current, but we are not able to grasp its essence. Let us say that something similar happens with the uncreated energy of God.

In the same vein, Theognostos, tells us that “even though “our God is a consuming fire,” you can touch this fire without being burned if, like the three children in Babylon, if you “are as gold and silver.”  However, “if you are like grass or reeds or some other easily combustible material as a result of your earthly thoughts, then tremble lest you should be reduced to ashes in the heavenly fire…”

We have the choice of adopting the attributes of gold or grass, braving the fire without harm, or being consumed by it.  

Theognostos has, however, empathy for the priest who has lost his way, for whom priesthood has become a yoke that will eventually “exhaust and destroy him.”   Even then, there is hope in the choices a priest can still make. Specifically, “…you escape God’s wrath by quitting the priesthood.”

Such choice requires a great deal of discernment and humility in recognizing the options before you, acknowledging your shortcomings and making the decision to leave:

Either then, you should become dispassionate like the angels, in thought and purpose superior to the world and the flesh, climbing the ladder to heaven in this way; or else, aware of your weakness, you should in fear avoid the high rank of the priesthood, terrified of the great fall should you prove unworthy of it.

Theognostos offers the choice of leaving the priesthood without judgment or shame:

Choose the form of life followed by the laity,” he says, “for it brings one no less close to God than priesthood.”

Ultimately even the highest and most coveted positions in life can become burdens if we do not achieve reconciliation with God and have love in our hearts.

St. Maximos presents the state of mind of someone on the path of theosis which we should all aspire to as our most cherished destination:

When a man’s intellect is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and his incisiveness is completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance his intellect becomes totally filled with light; and when it has reintegrated its passable aspect, it redirects this aspect towards God, as we have said, filling it with an incomprehensible and intense longing for Him and with unceasing love, thus drawing it entirely away from worldly things to the divine. (Four Hundred Texts on Love).

The Power to Repent and Rise Again: Theognostos, Philokalia vol. 2

pp.369-370, #.44-50.

Do not die “in the winter of the passions,” Theognostos advises. He has compassion for us and wants to equip us with wings for the flight toward a state of inner peace in which we feel an assurance that we will be with God.

Just as it is impossible to fly without wings, so we cannot attain the blessings for which we hope without already in this life receiving an assurance that is beyond doubt.

This feeling of assurance stems from the peace we experience once we are reconciled with God. We become reconciled with God when we reach a state dispassion. Dispassion, in turn, can only be achieved through humility.  

Because of their extreme humility, or through the grace of the Holy Spirit, such assurance is given to those who have been reconciled with God, and who possess a dispassion that is less or more perfect in proportion to the degree of their reconciliation and purification. Those who depart from the body before receiving this assurance die while still in the winter of the passions

Theognostos makes clear that “the practice of the virtues does not by itself bring you to the dispassion that enables you to pray undistracted and in purity, by themselves…”  

Assurance is not an entitlement or the automatic result of external actions. Reconciliation with God and inner peace are the results of a gradual and continuous process or inner transformation. This is why humility and love, “the two sisters,” will intercede for us with God and please Him more than “the host of virtues deposited there by others.”

If you wish to present Him with gifts, gratefully offer from your widowed soul two tiny coins, humility and love, and God will accept these in the treasury of His salvation more gladly than the host of virtues deposited there by others (cf. Mark 1 2 : 4- 1 -4-3).

Theognostos’ writing is filled with love and compassion for his reader. He becomes our coach, holding our hand through the passage to death, guiding us toward inner peace and preventing us from sinking into despair. “When you fall from a higher state,” he tells us gently “do not become panic-stricken.”

In his depiction of sin, he presents a living, understanding God who is angry at the evil committed and not at us.

We will not be punished or condemned in the age to be because we have sinned, since we were given a mutable and unstable nature. But we will be punished if, after sinning, we did not repent and turn from our evil ways to the Lord; for we have been given the power to repent, as well as the time in which to do so. Only through repentance shall we receive God’s mercy, and not its opposite, His passionate anger. Not that God is angry with us: He is angry with evil.

His message is full of hope and joy. What a glorious and loving gift from God “the power to repent” is. And how comforting it is to know that we have also be granted “the time in which we do so.”

Theognostos does not want sins committed to become a trap for hopelessness and despair. He wants us to remember that our God-given ability to repent opens to us the path to salvation. He wants us to focus on this gift and the eternal possibility of restoration rather than immerse ourselves in remembrance of past sins and the despair this ensues.  

He wants us to always remember that no matter how many times we fall, we can rise again and again.

…through remorse, grief, rigorous self-reproach and, above all, through copious tears shed in a contrite spirit, correct yourself and return quickly to your former condition. Rising up again after your fall, you will enter the joyous valley of salvation, taking care so far as is possible not to anger your Judge again, so as not to need atoning tears and sorrow in the future.

FREEDOM AND RESTRAINT (St. Theognostos, Philokalia, vol. 2)

pp. 367-369

# 37-43

We cannot unite with God if we are impure, Theognostos tells us, for “corruption does not inherit incorruption” (1 Cor.)  

To achieve a state of purity requires restraint. “…Without self-restraint, you cannot live with God.”

Theosis, the ultimate union with God, is the purpose and guiding principle of Eastern Orthodox Christians. The fathers of the church do not present theosis as a rational process leading to a body of theoretical knowledge. On the contrary, theosis is a transformative process that leads to a mystical union with God, transcending the limits of human reason and freeing us from the turmoil of passions.

Modern thought tends to associate freedom from limitations with passion, restraint with oppression. Longing is fulfilled by satisfying your passions.

In Christian thought, however, indulgence in passions is slavery and control over them leads to freedom.

Passion is not absent from Christian thought, however. Theognostos blends passionate language, when referring to the longing and love for God,  with a call for restraint.  

Paradoxically, longing engenders self-restraint because the object we long for is worth the self-sacrifice required to attain it.

Chastity and self-restraint arc born of a longing for God combined with detachment and renunciation of the world.

To unite with God necessitates a systematic process of “emptying” oneself to make room with Him. First, we must free ourselves from the tyranny of anger. As we realize all that we have squandered in anger, recrimination, self-pity and self-preoccupation, our tears will flow. With this cleansing and with out transformed perspective, we will grow in humility and our ability for self-control. These, in turn, will bring us inner freedom and, eventually, allow a state of constant prayer, spiritual contemplation, dispassion and discrimination.  These are the essence of inner peace.

…and they are conserved by humility, self-control, unbroken prayer, spiritual contemplation, freedom from anger and intense weeping. Without dispassion, however, you cannot achieve the beauty of discrimination.

Theosis then is not an object or a linear destination. Instead, it is a process of continuous transformation; the re-ordering and redirection of priorities, perceptions, and the gifts that God gave us. The steps of the journey are synergistic, with each step achieved, becoming the gateway to the next. Faith enables spiritual knowledge and spiritual knowledge, love.

 You will not be worthy of divine love unless you possess spiritual knowledge, or of spiritual knowledge unless you possess faith.

Theognostos plunges head on into the question of faith. Faith is not merely theoretical, he tells us:

I do not mean faith of a theoretical kind, but that which we acquire as a result of practising the virtues.”  

Knowledge and faith must be manifested through virtuous action while virtuous action, in turn, will increase faith and spiritual knowledge.

Theognostos warns of “fake” virtues. For him and the other fathers of the church, virtues are not merely mechanical acts of duty but vehicles for continuing transformation and theosis. They are components of a larger synergy between human actions and God’s energy.

We recognize real virtues by the fruit they produce. If they produce no fruit, Theognostos writes, “then we labour in vain, and our apparent virtue is not genuine; for if it were it would have produced fruit as well as leaves.”

Without the right motive, a virtue “is false, a matter of self-satisfaction, or else something feigned in order to gain the esteem of others or from some other motive not in accordance with God’s will. But if we correct our motive, we shall undoubtedly receive the grace of God that bestows both spiritual knowledge and dispassion at the time and in the measure appropriate.”

Seek the knowledge that does not make you conceited but leads you to the knowledge of God. Pray to be released from the tyranny of the passions before you die, and to depart this life in a state of dispassion or – more humbly – of compassion for the sins of others.

In our lifelong journey of ascendance to God, nothing is random, casual or without purpose. “Faith and hope are not merely casual or theoretical matters,” Theognostos says. “Faith requires a steadfast soul, while hope needs a firm will and an honest heart.”

Above all, we cannot achieve unity with God on our own, without God’s grace for “how without grace can one readily believe in things unseen?”  

By committing ourselves to this journey through both faith and action, we lead lives that are whole, free of fragmentation and contradiction. Nothing is random, isolated or meaningless in such lives and, hence, we experience peace, harmony with God and each other.  

Faith and hope, then, require both virtue on our part and God’s inspiration and help. Unless both are present, we labour in vain.”

.

GO TO THE ANT: ACHIEVING PEACE BEFORE OUR DEATH

(Philokalia, vol. 2, St. Theognostos)

pp.365-367, #30-36

The moment of our death can be frightening, warns Theognostos, if we are still tormented by anger, regret, anxiety, jealousy, fear and all the other passions that make our lives turbulent and painful. He elucidates and makes concrete this moment so that our preparation for it become urgent.

Strive to receive a sure, unequivocal pledge of salvation in your heart,” Theognostos tells us “so that at the time of your death you will not be distraught and unexpectedly terrified.

A vigorous discussion ensued in our group last Friday. In Orthodoxy there is no guarantee of salvation ahead of time. No one can claim to know who will be saved and who will be doomed. What could Theognostos mean by having us seek “a pledge of salvation?

Yet, Theognostos here, makes no argument for predestination. “You have received such a pledge,” he explains, “when your heart no longer reproaches you for your failings and your conscience stops chiding you because of your fits of anger ; when through God’s grace your bestial passions have been tamed ; when you weep tears of solace and your intellect prays undistracted and with purity ; and then you await death, which most people dread and run away from, calmly and with a ready heart.”

Pledge of salvation then is not a doctrine but a state of heart. The higher you ascend on the ladder from the tyranny of passions to inner freedom and union with God, the less your heart will be prey to anguish and fear. When passions no longer drive you and God’s peace dwells in your heart, “then you await death, which most people dread and run away from, calmly and with a ready heart.”

Theognostos makes it clear, however, that you cannot simply fast track the path to  dispassion.

Do not try to attain dispassion prematurely,” he tells us, or we will suffer what Adam suffered when he ate too soon from the tree of spiritual knowledge (cf. Gen. 3 : 6).”

He ate too soon” implies that Adam had the potential to eventually acquire spiritual knowledge at a time that God had appointed. For Theognostos, and the other dessert fathers, God does not simply withhold spiritual knowledge from us humans because such knowledge is a privilege, destined only for God and his saints. On the contrary, God made man in his image, with inherent capabilities for attaining spiritual knowledge and becoming a partaker of the divine through theosis. Yet such knowledge cannot be acquired through our will alone but only through the grace of God. In fact, if we make dispassion and salvation our personal goals, assigning them our own timeline and anxiously pushing ahead to expedite the process, we remain within the tyranny of our own will and passions and cannot achieve inner peace.

Theognostos advises patience and humility. He asks us to “labour on, with constant entreaty and self-control in all things,” rather than be tormented by the anxiety of pushing our own agenda through.

Do the work, humbly and patiently, he tells us, and the results will follow as “you will then in good time receive the grace of dispassion.” Instead of constantly pushing for the next and the next milestone, he wants us to become like the ant of the proverbs:

Go to the ant, you sluggard;

    consider its ways and be wise!

It has no commander,

    no overseer or ruler,

yet it stores its provisions in summer

    and gathers its food at harvest.

(Proverbs 6:6-11)

Like the worker ant, we are asked to patiently do the work and trust Him for both the steps of the journey and the results.

The stages that lead to inner peace are intertwined and based on each other. You start with faith and detachment which, in turn, enable pure prayer and fear of God. From the ability for pure prayer and awe of God, emerge love and dispassion which ready us for a peaceful passage to death.

So much of our anxiety comes from our value of quick results over the value of the journey that leads to them; the rush to skip steps and struggle over patience, our will to impose our own agenda over God’s will. Theognostos asks us to commit to God’s will and the timing of our journey in order to reach a state of dispassion and inner peace.

You cannot achieve a condition of total poverty without dispassion, or dispassion without love, or love without the fear of God and pure prayer, or fear of God and pure prayer without faith and detachment ; for it is when winged by faith and detachment that the intellect discards all base concern and soars upwards in search of its Lord.

Theognostos: Passing from this Life to the Next

Philokalia, vol. 2, St Theognostos, paragraphs #24-29

I must admit that I think of afterlife as an abstraction, separate from my life as is. St. Theognostos connects the two, on a gritty, experiential level, as he focuses us on the moments of transition from present to eternal life.

He points out that we are especially vulnerable during these moments.

When the soul leaves the body, the enemy advances to attack it, fiercely reviling it and accusing it of its sins in a harsh and terrifying manner.

We cannot face this transition unprepared. This means that, in addition to our preparation for afterlife, we must also arm ourselves with practical weaponry for this very moment of transition.  

Theognostos zeroes in on this moment, giving instructions and advice with the practical, thorough, matter-of-fact air you would expect to find in a sophisticated travel guide or self-help book. To prepare for our journey, Theognostos advises:

Ask for assurance of salvation, but not too long before your death lest “you should delude yourself into believing that you possess such assurance only to find, when the time comes, that you have failed to attain it.

He gives us encouragement for the journey:

The devout soul, however, even though in the past it has often been wounded by sin, is not frightened by the enemy’s attacks and threats.

He continues with a blueprint for action outlining specific instructions for what to say and do at that time.

First, we must take courage, remembering that we are “strengthened by the Lord, winged by joy, filled with courage by the holy angels that guide it, and encircled and protected by the light of faith…”

Though our inclination may be to be intimidated and flee, Theognostos tells us to do the opposite—shed our fears and go on the offensive. Instead of shrinking in terror, we should be unafraid to confront the forces of evil with “great boldness.”

The poet Dylan Thomas encourages to “talk back” to the forces of darkness:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas rages at the human condition that makes us subjects to decay and death, wishing for earthly immortality. Theognostos accepts earthly life as temporary and longs for the peace and joy of the life beyond, in Christ’s presence.  

Instead of raging at God, he directs our rage to the dark forces preventing us from entering heaven, through words such as:

Fugitive from heaven, wicked slave, what have I to do with you? You have no authority over me; Christ the Son of God has authority over me and over all things. Against Him have I sinned, before Him shall I stand on trial, having His Precious Cross as a sure pledge of His saving love towards me. Flee from me, destroyer! You have nothing to do with the servants of Christ.

He gives us hope by enabling us to confront the devil and showing us that it is possible to defeat him:

When the soul says all this fearlessly, the devil turns his back, howling aloud and unable to withstand the name of Christ. Then the soul swoops down on the devil from above, attacking him like a hawk attacking a crow. After this it is brought rejoicing by the holy angels to the place appointed for it i n accordance with its inward state.

To transition peacefully from this life to the next, requires inner peace which, in turn, requires detachment from passions.  Theognostos tells us that when we are “shackled by an attachment to earthly things,” we are “like an eagle caught in a trap by its claw and prevented from flying.”

Even when you believe that you have battled passions successfully and have achieved a degree of peace, you may be still deluded:

for your soul may still bear within it the imprint of the passions, and so you will have difficulties when you die.

Yet this process of purification takes on a different sense of urgency and concreteness when Theognostos makes us envision our process of transition from this life to the next in minute detail.

This is not simply meditating to achieve a temporary state of serenity on a yoga mat, but a “practical” necessity for achieving the peace that comes from detachment and love before the real moment of transitioning.

For changeless dispassion in its highest form is found only in those who have attained perfect love, have been lifted above sensory things through unceasing contemplation, and have transcended the body through humility.

St. Theognostos: Living in God’s Time

(Philokalia, vol 2)

When I was little, I remember listening to a song by a group called, The Byrds:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

This is based on a passage in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8  

For everything there is a season, and a time for every [a]purpose under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

In the decades that followed, I found waiting for the right time to be my hardest challenge. I simply hated to wait and expanded considerable efforts in forcing time to bend to my will. I was also sure that nothing would be ever achieved unless I willed it and made it happen, myself. Imagine the weight of this responsibility. I could never allow myself to be still. Even before the next self-appointed deadline was reached, the next goal and then the next had begun crowding the horizon.

How many of us have no faith in our children’s ability to correct mistakes and learn from them, or in the possibility that we lost a promotion because it wasn’t God’s time for it?  How many of us have arbitrary timeframes for assessing our, and others’, value as human beings?

He is 40 and still in middle management or still unmarried.”

In forcing our own script and timelines, we lead lives filled with anxiety, disappointment and fear– longing for but never achieving a sense of peace.

Theognostos applies similar examples of desires to control and impatience with slow results, to the pursuit of theosis. It is only when you free yourself from such passions that you can ascend higher levels of spiritual knowledge.

If you wish to be granted a mental vision of the divine,” he says, “you must first embrace a peaceful and quiet way of life and devote your efforts to acquiring a knowledge of both yourself and God.”

We cannot jump to the end of the journey by skipping steps.  We cannot experience the peace and joy of union with God by forcing our timeframe or using shortcuts—alcohol, drugs, fantasy, overwork, delusion and other forms of escape.

Do not try to embark on the higher forms of contemplation before you have achieved complete dispassion, and do not pursue what lies as yet beyond your reach. If your wish is to become a theologian and a contemplative, ascend by the path of ascetic practice and through self-purification acquire what is pure.

While Theognostos sees true longing for God as the engine that drives our journey, no matter how hard, he differentiates it from ambition.  To admit lack of readiness and submit to God’s time and will, takes humility.

If you want to be known to God,” he tells us, “do all that you can to remain unknown to men.”

Consciously look on yourself as an ant or a worm, so that you can become a man formed by God. If you fail to do the first, the second cannot happen.

Blind ambition is usually influenced by what others do, what we think will get us their approval, jealousy, insecurity and other passions that enslave rather than free us. Paradoxically, humility raises us to God. It is only by descending that you will rise.

“The lower you descend, the higher you ascend,” Theognostos tells us.

It is not by forcing the destination and willing its timing that we will achieve a state of true contemplation, but by submitting to God’s will and time and patiently completing all the stages of your journey.

 If you do this and achieve a pure state untroubled by any passion, there is nothing to prevent your intellect from perceiving, as it were in a light breeze.

Abba Philimon (part II): Stillness and Warfare

Philokalia, vol. 2, pp. 348, 353

“The only path leading to heaven,” Abba Philimon says, “is that of complete stillness, the avoidance of all evil, the acquisition of blessings, perfect love towards God and communion with Him in holiness and righteousness.”

He recounts the story of an old monk who prayed to God for two years, “unremittingly” and with his “whole heart,” before he was granted the gift of continuous and undisturbed prayer and, through it, stillness.

This is a tall order and there is no shortcut.

What, then, is that precious, hard-fought stillness?

Unlike other meditation techniques, stillness is not simply a state of complete relaxation. It is not an opportunity to cast away worries so that you can appreciate more deeply the sound of raindrops or fragrance of flowers and contemplate the beauty of the world. Philimon, in fact, asks us to do the opposite, admonishing us not to “grow slack” and urging us not to be afraid to face evil and ugliness.

Only in stillness can God dwell within us and our hearts be filled with joy and longing for Him. Instead of lulling us to sleep, however, a life of stillness sheds the scales from our eyes and elucidates a reality we could not perceive before. We are no longer a leaf tossed in the wind but are able to discern our purpose.  

And He will illumine your heart about the spiritual work which you should undertake.

Without the distraction of vain thoughts and our constant struggle to impress and please others, stillness enables us, not only to perceive and participate in God’s greatness, but also to clearly recognize the enemy, and face head on the full extent of his evil. The passage quoted from Job below does not offer us a disembodied concept of evil. On the contrary, it is epic in its scope and detailed in description, personalizing, and capturing, the symbolic and physical impact of evil.   

Burning torches pour from his mouth, he hurls forth blazing coals. Out of his nostrils come smoke of burning soot, with the fire of charcoal. His breath is charcoal, a flame comes from his mouth, power lodges in his neck. Destruction runs before him. His heart is hard as stone, it stands like an unyielding anvil. He makes the deep boil like a cauldron; he regards the sea as a pot of ointment, and the nether deep as a captive. He sees every high thing; and he is king of all that is in the waters’ (Job 4- 1 : 1 3 , 1 9-2 2 , 24, 3 1 -3 2 , 34-·LXX). This passage describes the monstrous tyrant against whom we fight.

It is only by fully perceiving the force and extent of evil that we can defeat it. Yet Philimon sweetens the hardness of the struggle with hope.

First, he reassures us, since we have freed ourselves from attachment to material things, the devil has no purchase on us.

Yet those who lawfully engage in the solitary life soon defeat him: they do not possess anything that is his; they have renounced the world and are resolute in virtue; and they have God fighting for them.

Secondly, God wants us to win and partake of His Kingdom. Spiritual warfare, born of stillness, is a path to salvation.

God wants us to show our zeal for Him first by our outward asceticism, and then by our love and unceasing prayer; and He provides the path of salvation.

Unlike passions that toss us around violently and plunge us into despair and isolation, we are neither alone nor directionless in our fight for God and against his enemies. We become members of an army of brothers and sisters, joined by shared purpose, fighting the same fight and supported by God’s right arm.  

Aware of this, brother. Recognize that you are fighting in the thick of the battle and that many others, too, are fighting for us against God’s enemy. How could we dare to fight against so fearful an enemy of mankind unless the strong right arm of the Divine Logos upheld us, protecting and sheltering us? How could human nature withstand his ploys?

We grow spiritually, when our soul is not allowed to “grow flabby” with passions. While passions deplete our souls and distance us from God, spiritual warfare is in synergy with God since we act on His behalf and with His help.  

Who has turned to the Lord with awe and has not been transformed in his nature? Who has illumined himself with the light of divine laws and actions, and has not made his soul radiant with divine intellections and thoughts? His soul is not idle, for God prompts his intellect to long insatiably for light.”

It is through the constant pursuit of stillness and spiritual warfare that we are continuously transformed and move increasingly closer to God and the salvation of our soul.  It is this pursuit that allows us to fulfill God’s purpose for us and the capabilities He gave us to accomplish it.

God created human nature a partaker of every divine blessing, able to contemplate spiritually the angelic choirs, the splendour of the dominions, the spiritual powers, principalities and authorities, the unapproachable light, and the refulgent glory.

A Discourse on Abba Philimon: ACHIEVING INNER STILLNESS

Philokalia, vol. 2, p. 344,

We don’t know much about Abba Philimon except that he was humble, devoid of passions and uninterested in worldly things. This essay about him tells us that he was “initiated into ineffable mysteries through the pursuit of contemplation, he was enveloped by divine light and established in a state of joyfulness.”

His message is direct. It is simply impossible to unite with God “without complete stillness.” Hence, his lifelong goal was to achieve complete inner stillness.

Like all hesychasts, Abba Philimon’s premise is that passions bar us from ever becoming close to God. Passions are not to be toyed with, he tells us, because they are addictive and rapidly mushroom out of our control.

When they are stimulated and aroused, they grow more savage and force us into greater sin; and they become hard to cure, like the body’s wounds when they are scratched and chafed.

Whether it is love for our work or for another person that becomes addictive; obsessive thoughts, jealousy or preoccupation over material goals, passions make anxiety the norm and clutter our minds, leaving no space for God to enter.  

Only stillness allays passions. When we are in a state of stillness, the intellect has “attained a royal dignity.”  We are anchored in firm ground and are no longer tossed in all directions by passions.

Zhou Yi, an 18th century Chinese seal carver and poet captures that state when writes: “I am so relaxed that I feel the white clouds are in a hurry.”

Abba Philimon’s teachings focus like a laser beam on the details of this journey from passion to stillness, unlocking a logical sequence of steps that guide us to God:  

stillness gives birth to ascetic effort, ascetic effort to tears, tears to awe, awe to humility, humility to foresight, foresight to love; and how love restores the soul to health and makes it dispassionate, so that one then knows that one is not far from God.

The progression is one of increasing clarity, inner freedom and unity with God and men.   Achieving a state of inner peace, gives you detachment from the passions that throw you off course. With this calm state of mind, we are able to shed tears.

Why tears? Note that these are not tears of frustration, sadness, or self-pity. They flow freely because, without the clutter of noise and delusion, we are suddenly able to see things we could not discern before. These are tears of awe and gratitude as the world is renewed for us and the glory of God becomes palpable. Awe, in turn, leads to humility as we see ourselves in true perspective –as pieces of God’s synergy and not as solitary beings lost in our own concerns and agendas.  Purified and enlivened, we reach the ultimate goal, love, and are restored to full health.

In this essay Philimon is presented as a spiritual master of asceticism, initiating us in meditation and a life of inner stillness. Stillness is not an abstract concept or expression of disembodied bliss. Philimon elucidates the rigorous process for attaining and maintaining it and gets to the nitty-gritty of daily practice.

Like a medical examiner performing an autopsy, he reveals the minute details of muscles, organs and circulation systems, hidden under the external form of a bod, and gives practical advice.

The description of his own ascetic rule is an example:

The rule of the holy Elder was as follows. During the night he quietly chanted the entire Psalter and the Biblical canticles, and recited part of the Gospels. Then he sat down and intently repeated ‘ Lord have mercy’ for as long as he could. After that he slept, rising towards dawn to chant the First Hour. · Then he again sat down, facing eastward, and alternately chanted psalms and recited by heart sections of the Epistles and Gospels. He spent the whole day in this manner, chanting and praying unceasingly, and being nourished by the contemplation of heavenly things. His intellect was often lifted up to contemplation, and he did not know if he was still on earth.

He is equally practical and detailed in his advice to others.

When asked how to avoid fantasies in one’s sleep, for example, he suggests reciting prayers before going to sleep, especially psalms, and the creed.

He responds to the question about how to meditate inwardly with the admonishment:

Keep watch in your heart; and with watchfulness say in your mind with awe and trembling : Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me.

He knows that the state of stillness, especially in the beginning, is fragile. His advice to a person who lost the brief stillness he had achieved was to be patient and work to recapture it:

Pray without ceasing” ( I Thess. lj : I 7). Pay strict attention to your heart and watch over it, so that it does not give admittance to thoughts that are evil or in any way vain and useless. Without interruption, whether asleep or awake, eating, drinking, or in company, let your heart inwardly and mentally at times be meditating on the psalms, at other times be repeating the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” And when you chant, make sure that your mouth is not saying one thing while your mind is thinking about another.

Even though we are not ascetics, the process of attaining stillness and the presence of God must be always in our mind, as background music to our actions.

 Even when carrying out needful tasks, do not let your intellect be idle but keep it meditating inwardly and praying, whether eating or drinking, in company or outside your cell, or on a journey, repeat that prayer with a watchful mind and an undeflected intellect; also chant, and meditate on prayers and psalms.