Humans as God’s Co-Creators: The Sixth Stage of Contemplation (continued), St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia III

In this portion of the sixth stage of contemplation, St. Peter unveils for us our potential for both wonder and demise.

The intellect, being spiritual, is capable of every spiritual perception when it purifies itself for God, according to St Gregory the Theologian.

He urges us to contemplate our human nature “with wonder, conscious that [our] intellect, being infinite, is the image of the invisible God.

We have already been told that, with a purified intellect, we can suddenly see the true nature and order of things: “the equilibrium, the proportion, the beauty, the rhythm, the union, the harmony, the usefulness, the concordance, the variety, the delightfulness, the stability, the motion, the colours, the shapes, the forms, the reversion of things to their source, permanence in the midst of corruption.”  All this is revealed to us so that our entire perception of the world and ourselves is transformed.

Everything around us engages us in a process of continued revelation. The Scriptures, for example, “speak to us of the most astonishing things” when we look beyond words and ink:

by means of words and letters-through fragments of inanimate ink-God has revealed such great mysteries to us in the Holy Scriptures

When we see all things as they truly are, we suddenly perceive the universe and ourselves as whole. We are able to realize “how, by virtue of His wisdom, opposites do not destroy one another.

Man, however, does not remain simply a discerning observer. First, when our intellect is “taken up into God,” it is capable of imitating God ’s order, harmony and complementarity without being pulled into all directions by conflicts, contradictions and uncertainty.

…we should marvel at how the intellect can preserve any thought or idea, and how an earlier thought need not be modified by later thoughts, or a later thought or a later thought injured by earlier ones. On the contrary, the mind like a treasure house tirelessly stores all thoughts.

We have the capacity to duplicate the order we now discern in God’s creation. We are able to see the thread that links together things that appear to be opposite on the surface. We now understand…

that there is nothing incidental or evil in creation, and that even what takes place against God’s will is miraculously changed by God into something good.

Even beyond imitating God, however, St. Peter sees humans as His co-creators, albeit in a minor role.  This is because, not only can we store and organize thoughts, but we can also express them:

And these thoughts, whether new or long held in store, the intellect when it wishes can express in language; yet although words are always coming from it, it is never exhausted.

Through art, we are told, we can bring to light the true nature of things that we detect beneath the surface, transforming them into song, poetry, painting, speech and myriads of daily expressions of beauty. Peter quotes St. Gregory the Theologian:

 He perceives, too, how God’s goodness and wisdom, His strength and forethought, which are concealed in created things, are brought to light by man’s artistic powers.

Peter reminds us also for our potential for demise through pride:

it is wrong to think, as some do, that the soul is an emanation from the supraessential Godhead, for this is impossible. As St John Chrysostom says, ‘In order to prevent the human intellect from thinking that it is God, God has subjected it to ignorance and forgetfulness, so that in this way it may acquire humility.’

When we readily acknowledge our ignorance, however, and contemplate in humility, our view of the creation and of ourselves is transformed and made whole.

In these few paragraphs, St. Peter shares his amazement and wonder that we are gifted with the capacity to participate in God’s creation by transforming understanding into art and intellect into prayer.

Discerning Beauty Amidst Imperfection: Peter of Damaskos, 6th Stage of Contemplation, Philokalia, vol.3

In the first pages of this chapter, St. Peter of Damaskos defines the 6th stage of contemplation as that in which “one begins to look without passion on the beauty of created things.” Beyond this advanced state of thought, however, he conveys a message of extraordinary hope in which we can contemplate the universe dispassionately yet without demonizing the forces and objects that would prevent us from doing so.

To put things in context, he presents to us “three categories of thought: human, demonic, and angelic.”

When we think on the human level, we simply identify what we see, without being able to put things in perspective or decipher the deeper meaning of things beyond the surface.

Demonic thought, on the other hand, envelops all things we see, in passion and confusion. Objects may evoke greed or envy, for example. People become objects of our desire or hatred, opportunities for social advancement or obstacles to our ambitions. We are trapped inside our passions. We can only see the world through a very narrow lens and miss the beauty and cohesion of a universe inhabited by God.

Angelic thought, however, “consists in the dispassionate contemplation of things, which is spiritual knowledge proper.

Imagine a world experienced in a state of inner stillness in which we pause the frantic pace of ceaseless hustle and see objects and living beings for themselves rather than as tools for our convenience and objects of our passions. Imagine if, even when gazing at man’s depravity, we can also perceive the miracle and beauty of his creation. Imagine the luxury of a dispassionate mind when, freed of the burden of our own will and agendas, we can take the time to uncover beauty in ordinary things and seemingly uninteresting people.

By thus contemplating dispassionately the beauty and use of each thing, he who is illumined is filled with love for the Creator.

Next, St. Peter, introduces nuance in our choices and the need for balance and discernment. Love distorted by passion, he tells us, is not proper love.

For if we do not love things as they should be loved, but love them more than we love God, then we are no different from idolators, as St Maximos says.

Yet, having distinguished between proper and improper love, Peter establishes even a more powerful theme, one of hope, reconciliation, and personal responsibility. While aiming at achieving angelic thought, he says, we must ensure that we are not pulled to the extremes in either direction:

But if, on the other hand, we hate and despise things, failing to perceive that they were created ‘wholly good and beautiful’ (Gen. 1 : 31), we provoke the anger of God.

Demonizing the things that tempt us and the choices that differ from ours will prevent us from inner stillness and, hence, the discovery of beauty. High principles and political positions, however lofty they may be, pose a risk of filling us with anger, hatred or anxiety when we see them as indicators of our superiority over others.

Instead of judging and demonizing, “we should look on man with wonder,” St. Peter advises, “conscious that his intellect, being infinite, is the image of the invisible God.”

He brings up the example of gold. Gold, he explains, is not evil in itself, but only in the way it is used.

…so far as gold is a perishable and earthly thing, it is not to be preferred to the commandments of God; yet as something created by God and useful for bodily life and for salvation, it deserves, not our hatred, but our love and self-control.

It is the same thing with the intellect. Our intellect is a gift from God that allows us to gain spiritual knowledge and live in God’s image. However, when it goes astray through pride and pseudo-confidence, it is an obstacle that keeps us from unity with God and humans. St. Peter here asks for discernment, balance and reconciliation:

In this way, the intellect does not go above its true goal out of pride or self-esteem, thinking it understands things merely through its own power of thought; nor does it fall below its true goal, prevented by ignorance from attaining perfection. It does not veer to the right through rejecting and hating created things, or to the left through mindless affection for them and attachment to them.

How often do we get caught in passionate discussions in which our conflict with others’ opinions grows exponentially as one party reacts to the other and their sense of self-righteousness increases. The simple thought of the possibility that we may be wrong never occurs to us. In the middle of a heated exchange, we lose all curiosity about what exactly others think and why. We are driven by the desire to dominate and win at all costs. As a path to dispassion, St. Peter advises us to mistrust our own passionate opinions. We must avoid the pride in our ability to rely solely on own intellectual power to make decisions. We must exercise our intellect in humility.

St. Peter gives us a hopeful view of the universe that affirms the beauty God endows us with:

Whoever is aware of all this recognizes that there is nothing incidental or evil in creation, and that even what takes place against God’s will is miraculously changed by God into something good.

By thus contemplating dispassionately the beauty and use of each thing, he who is illumined is filled with love for the Creator.

LIVING IN A STATE OF GRATITUDE: The Fourth Stage of Contemplation, St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia vol. 3

At the end of his chapter on the fourth stage of contemplation, St. Peter considers gratitude. He tells us that gratitude is so essential to a life in God that lack of gratitude is worse than even sin.

I regard myself as unworthy of heaven and earth, and as deserving every punishment, not simply because of the sins I have committed, but much more because of the blessings I have received without showing any gratitude, contemptible as I am.

Gratitude for St. Peter goes beyond awareness of good things in one’s life. Instead, he is referring to a state of gratitude that permeates all experiences and perceptions. Such a state allows us to view God through new eyes.

Instead of simply knowing and reciting God’s gifts to us, we now “get it,” grasping their full meaning and implications. Nothing seems random or insignificant to grateful eyes because they can gaze beyond the surface and uncover God’s presence and purpose in all things, no matter how mundane. A state of gratitude allows us to be constantly astonished by the value of things we had previously missed or discounted.

It is difficult to conjure up what a true state of gratitude feels like. It is far easier to invoke our busy lives, spent on checking off to-do lists, exhausted by ambition and anxiety, driven by complaints for perceived “injustices,” jealousy and resentment.  

I know that my own desire to “change the world” makes me impatient with things as they are, and resentful of people or situations that are resistant to change. I am prone to analysis and judgment. I consider all good things in my daily life as natural and expected as breathing, rather than as sources of wonder and discovery.

St. Peter models for us a state of gratitude in which nothing is taken for granted and, hence, everything is constantly renewed.

For Thou, Lord, who dost transcend all goodness, hast filled my soul with every blessing. I dimly perceive Thy works and my mind is amazed.

To experience gratitude, one must have left behind the ego-centric view of the world and given himself to Christ and love of others. Through this state, the narrator perceives not just the grandeur, but the intimate sweetness of Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Logos of God, the most tender name of our salvation, great is Thy glory, great are Thy works, marvelous are Thy words, ‘sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb’ (Ps.19: 10)

In these pages St. Peter moves away from himself to contemplate Christ’s life.  This meditation uncovers new meaning and results in increased gratitude:

Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee. Who can glorify and hymn Thy coming in the flesh, Thy goodness, power, wisdom, Thy life in this world and Thy teaching?

Contemplation increases gratitude which, in turn, leads to a state of rapture. “Who, having understood Thy commandments and other sayings,” he asks, “will not be astonished when he perceives Thy boundless wisdom?”  

St. Peter quotes St John of Damaskos describing a spiritually advanced man: “He is no longer deceived by the exterior attractiveness of the things of this world.”

This is the state reached through contemplation and gratitude in the narrative. The narrator can now see the true nature of things and the depth of God’s wisdom, and is thus able to perceive, his own place in the universe and relationship to Christ.  

I hymn Thy transfiguration, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, ascension, I grow weak, my Lord, before Thy wonders and, at a loss. Merely to look on what is Thine reduces me to nothing.

His state of gratitude expands beyond Christ as he uncovers fresh meaning in the lives of the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and saints.

He expresses his thirst for intimacy with Christ and his need for her help, to the Theotokos:

Blessed Queen of the universe, you know that we sinners have no intimacy with the God whom you have borne. But, putting our trust in you, through your mediation we your servants prostrate ourselves before the Lord: for you can freely approach Him since He is your son and our God.

As if the impossibility of suffering to conquer the world suddenly strikes him with renewed intensity, he pauses from his praises and descriptions and is reduced to asking questions of the Apostles:

How, few though you were, did you conquer the whole world? How, though simple and unlettered, did you overcome kings and rulers? How, though unarmed, naked and poor, enclosed in weak flesh, did you defeat the invisible demons?

And he is filled with rekindled astonishment and gratitude in contemplating the saints:

Who is not astounded when he sees, O holy martyrs, the good fight that you fought? Being in the body you conquered the bodiless enemy, confessing Christ and armed with the Cross

St. Peter challenges us to consider the implicit contrast between lives lived in gratitude and those lived in turmoil, anger, resentment, or empty busyness. He wants us to experience the state of rapture and amazement that gratitude makes possible and question the value of lives lived without constant discovery and renewal, separated from God. 

HOW DOES ONE KNOW CHRIST? The 4th Stage of Contemplation,  Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia vol. 3

pp. 122-126

The fourth stage of contemplation is all about understanding Christ—his incarnation, life and death.

What does it mean to understand Christ? Surely, we affirm our faith each Sunday through the creed, we sing about Christ’s life and gifts in all services, and we enrich our understanding through the priests’ homilies and additional readings. What else could we need to know?

St. Peter, however, is not talking about additional historical and theological knowledge. He asks us, instead, to participate in Christ with mind and body.  Contemplation is not a logical analysis or the acquisition of facts. It goes beyond words and thoughts, beyond awareness of self and material sensations to reach an ecstatic experience of God in His fulness.

The fourth stage of contemplation consists in the understanding of our Lord’s incarnation and His manner of life in this world, to the point that we practically forget even to eat, as St Basil the Great writes

The goal in the mystical tradition of Hesychasm, is to reach theosis—a complete union with God. To reach this stage, one must shift from ego-centered to ego-transcendent consciousness,” thus making a true “metanoia.”

The shift from “ego-centered to ego-transcendent consciousness,” is called metanoia in Greek. The literal translation of this term is “transformation of the nous,” but the English language contains no exact synonym for the word nous. Misleading translations are “intellect,” “mind,” or “reason.” The nous bears no resemblance to the rational intellect (dianoia in Greek). Whereas the rational intellect uses deductive reasoning, the nous relies upon “immediate experience” or intuition. Therefore, the term metanoia is correctly understood as a shift from ego-centered to nous-centered, ego-transcendent, or, in hesychastic terminology, God-centered consciousness.

Mitchell B., Liester. “Hesychasm: A Christian Path of Transcendence.” Quest  89.2  MARCH-APRIL 2000): 54-59, 65.
https://www.theosophical.org/publications/quest-magazine/1432-hesychasm-a-christian-path-of-transcendence

The narrative echoes this transformative process, shifting from prose to raptured prayer, illustrating a state of contemplation:

Thou hast enraptured me with longing for Thee, 0 Christ, and hast transformed me with the intensity of Thy divine love; with immaterial fire consume my sins and fill me with delight in Thee, so that in my joy, 0 Lord, I may praise Thy first and second coming.

St. Peter reveals to us the hidden treasures we are unable to see, the mysteries beneath words or rituals that we miss.  When we remain trapped in a world of passions and an “ego-centered consciousness,” we cannot grasp the mystery of Christ that lies beyond what we see, touch, or hear. We are unable to grasp the mysteries hidden in the writings of the Holy Fathers and the mystery of Christ, himself. Christ, St. Peter tells us, is actually “hidden in the Bible.”

If anyone through the virtues of body and soul has received knowledge of these things, and of the mysteries hidden in the words of the holy fathers, of the divine Scriptures, and especially of the Holy Gospels, he will never lose his longing or cease from shedding the tears that come to him unbidden.

St. Peter illustrates the different levels of understanding and the gap between a slight, temporary sensation and a deep, transformative immersion in Christ.

Such a man is not like us: for though we may for a while be slightly stirred by the Scriptures, we are again plunged into darkness by laziness, forgetfulness and ignorance, and become obdurate because of our passions. But he who has been purified of the passions through inward grief perceives the hidden mysteries in all the Scriptures and is astonished by them all, especially by the words and actions recorded in the Holy Gospels.

It is this deep immersion in Christ St. Peter asks us to acquire in the 4th stage of contemplation. Shifting from the ego-centered mind to a Christ-centered consciousness is not an intellectual exercise but a choice of the life we want to live.

The ego-centered life, that misses the essence of Christ and is blind to the mysteries beyond material things, sounds like the lives most of us live in the 21st century. It is a life “on the go,” driven by exhausting schedules that result in mental and physical exhaustion. “Busyness” is accepted as the norm and, in fact, a badge of honor. Who would openly admit that their lives are NOT busy, lest they be viewed as unsuccessful or lazy. The busier you are the more status you achieve and the more important you feel. A state of constant hustle, leads to “burn-out,” emptiness, exhaustion and, eventually, despair,

St. Peter asks us to compare such a state of constant busyness and anxiety to one in which nothing disturbs our state of inner peace. Because we apply a Christ-centered perspective, we are able to discern the true value of things and the worthlessness of  passions or material things.   

Who has greater repose and honour, the person who devotes himself to God and acts accordingly, or the person involved in hustle, law courts and worldly cares? The person who always converses with God through meditation on the Holy Scriptures and undistracted prayer and tears, or the person who is always on the go, who devotes himself to fraud and lawless actions which, when they come to nothing, leave him only with his exhaustion and perhaps twofold death?

Which of the two lives would we choose? This is the question St. Peter leaves us with.

TIMIDITY AND BOLDNESS: ST. PETER OF DAMASKOS, The Third Stage of Contemplation, Philokalia, vol. 3

pp.114-118

When I returned to Christianity in my 40’s, I found myself hiding or downplaying my faith and serious spiritual exploration from my colleagues and “Bohemian” friends. I didn’t want to be perceived as “uncool.”  I was still “timid” in my faith in that I forced it into a small corner of my life, unwilling to fully integrate and live it. I had one foot in the sea and another on land, benefitting from neither one.

There are many ways in which we display timidity and hold back from giving all of ourselves to God and others in our lives. Some of us lack the confidence that God will forgive us or deign to hear our prayers. Others may be too overwhelmed with doubts, guilt, shame, or fear to lose themselves in prayer and trust God. Still others are so ty

This wonderful, little chapter takes us from dipping our toes in the water to immersing ourselves in it; from being tied in knots and stuck in no man’s land to being fully present in God and love of others.  

St. Peter begins with awareness of our sins and mourning for what we could have been.

The rhythm, metaphors, and formulaic expressions of the first lines are straight out of the funeral service and, later, from Holy Week and the Triodion.

 Alas, what agony the soul experiences when it is separated from the body. How many tears it sheds then, and there is no one to take pity on it. Turning its eyes to the angels, it entreats in vain. Stretching its hands towards men, it finds no one to help it. I weep and grieve when I think of death and see man’s beauty, created by God in His own image, lying in the grave, ugly, abject, its physical form destroyed.

These lines are meant as a meditation on death and the experience of it so that it becomes real and tangible.

Through it, we become aware of our own spiritual death. We see clearly who we have become and lament our own self-destructiveness

Woe is me, a sinner. What has happened to me? Why should I destroy myself so wrongly?… Where is the contrition of soul and the deep inward grief? Where is the gentleness, the generosity, the heart’s freedom from evil thoughts…?

Yet mourning alone is not sufficient for repentance and salvation. Even if our intellect begins to become illuminated, we are still in a state of fear and confusion.

Thy grace I have begun to perceive, and so am filled with confusion.

The intellect alone cannot overcome timidity and we continue to dwell in the in-between place of confusion and inaction.

Shall I read and sing psalms with my mouth only? For my passions have darkened my intellect and I cannot understand the meaning of what is said. Shall I fall prostrate before Thee, the giver of all blessings? But I have no confidence. My life is without hope; I have destroyed my soul

To move past awareness, one must have hope:

For we have placed our hope in Thee, our Saviour, even though in our negligence we fail to keep Thy commandments

To repent, we must cast “our soul’s despair into this sea” and leap into it, replacing reticence with boldness.

Hope opens the door to spiritual action through supplications.

Protect our lives and our departure out of this world from impure spirits, from every temptation, from all sin and malice, from presumption and despair, from lack of faith, from folly, from self-inflation and cowardice, from delusion and unruliness, from the wiles and snares of the devil. In Thy compassion grant us what is good for our souls in this age and in the age to be.

Through the language, symbolism and the form of petitions, the narrative becomes liturgical prayer.  

Hope allows space for gratitude and compassion. We are becoming free of ourselves, and our petitions to God include others:

Have mercy on my brethren and fathers, on all monks and priests everywhere, on my parents, my brothers and sisters, my relatives…

Finally, we move even beyond awareness, mourning, hope, gratitude, and prayer, beyond words themselves. We become bold and free of debilitating doubts and confusion and offer our entire self to God—body and soul– by falling down before him.

Yet, finding courage in Thy inexpressible compassion, in Thy goodness and tender mercy that excel our understanding, I fall before Thee and entreat Thee, Lord: ‘Have mercy upon me, 0 Lord, for I am weak’ (Ps. 6 : 2), and forgive me my many crimes.

The petitions become more fervent and reflect a state of theosis—union with God

…and, rising up, in fear and trembling I make this one request: that unworthy though I am I may be found worthy to be Thy servant; that by grace I may have an intellect that is free from all form, shape, colour or materiality; that, as Daniel once bowed down before Thy angel (cf. Dan. 10 : 9), I may fall on hands and knees before Thee, the only God, Creator of all, and offer Thee first thanksgiving and then confession.

By the end of the chapter, there is neither logical thought nor lamentation but a bold surrender of self and a complete union to God. We are no longer stuck between and betwixt, but have reached a state of inner stillness through union with God and love of others:

I confess Thy gifts; I do not hide Thy blessings; I proclaim Thy mercies; I acknowledge Thee, 0 Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify Thy name for ever

FROM DIVISION TO WHOLENESS: ST PETER OF DAMASCUS, SECOND STAGE OF CONTEMPLATION

The second stage of contemplation according to St. Peter is knowledge of our own faults along with awareness of God’s bounty. How does he get from one to another and how are the two linked?

First, those who have progressed to that stage, identify their flaws and mourn for all that they have lost because of them.

Woe is me, unhappy that I am! What shall I do? I have sinned greatly… Many are the temptations: sloth overwhelms me, forgetfulness benights me and will not let me see myself and my many crimes.

The greatest spiritual struggle, however, is not mere awareness of flaws.

Think of our daily lives. How many times have you regained the weight you worked so hard to lose? Though you know in detail the consequences of being overweight and the rewards of a healthy weight, you just cannot resist that second helping or two scoops of luscious ice-cream daily. Or perhaps you know someone who, even after a bout of cancer, and fully knowing the likely consequences, simply cannot stop smoking; or others who cannot stop destructive behavior, even if their marriages, careers or lives are in shreds.

“I begin to see that my soul is being destroyed,” St. Peter writes, “and yet I make no effort to embark on a godly life.” 

Sin, then, can be seen as addiction over which we have lost control. Other interpreters of Philokalia, such as Fr. Dr. David Subu, have made that case. Awareness, others’ pleadings or even consequences cannot impede an addiction’s powerful drive that increasingly dominates our lives.

Though we may engage in passions we recognize as destructive, we usually derive little joy in them. We may be haunted by guilt, a sense of failure and powerlessness. We may feel hollow with the lies we tell ourselves to justify our addictions and, eventually, sink into hopefulness and depression.

Addiction to sin causes us fragmentation. We have a divided sense of who we are as our intellect and action are disconnected.

Alas, for I know the punishment and yet am unwilling to repent. I love the heavenly kingdom, and yet do not acquire virtue. I believe in God and constantly disobey His commandments. I hate the devil, and yet do not stop doing what he wants. If I pray, I lose interest and become unfeeling. If I fast, I become proud, and damn myself all the more…

Yet the narrative shifts from the pain of living inauthentic lives to a cry for help. It utilizes the structures and cadences of a prayer.

I would like, Lord, to erase the record of my sins by tears, and through repentance to live the rest of my life according to Thy will.

I have sinned against Thee, Saviour, like the prodigal son; receive me, Father, in my repentance and have mercy on me, O God.I cry to Thee, 0 Christ my Saviour, with the voice of the publican: be gracious to me, as to him, and have mercy upon me, O God.

This is a transformational change with profound implications. Supplication to God Implies awareness of his mercy and gratitude for his bounty. It implies hope and faith.

Mere awareness and admission of our sins cannot, in themselves, raise us to the next stage of contemplation without gratitude, faith and hope. Without these elements, mere awareness can lead to despair.

Because sin is an addiction, we are in danger of losing control. Even if we are aware of, and sorry for, our sins we can still live inauthentic, anxious lives as we fail to translate intellect into action.

Yet there is hope if we recognize our powerlessness and turn to God for help in humility; if, in spite of our flaws and bad decisions, we maintain hope and a sense of gratitude toward God.   

Be still, and know that I am God: St. Peter of Damaskos

  • The Four Virtues of the Soul
  • Active Spiritual Knowledge
  • The Bodily Virtues as Tools for the Acquisition of the Virtues of the Soul

(pp.100-104)

___________________________________________________________________

St Peter identifies the four virtues of the soul as moral judgment, self-restraint, courage and justice.

Yet, almost immediately after listing the four virtues, lest we begin congratulating ourselves for possessing them, Peter shows us that they lie on a thin edge between unnatural passions.

Each virtue lies between two unnatural passions. Moral judgment lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between obduracy and licentiousness; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice between over-frugality and greed.

Unlike bodily virtues, spiritual virtues require a much more than simple adoption and consistency.

Without discernment, our courage could turn into overbearingness or, at the other end of the spectrum, cowardice. Moral judgment could shift into pride, control, and contempt for others. Self restraint can shift into rigidity. The practice of virtues, then, requires spiritual knowledge and discernment.

St. Peter poses an even harder question: what good are the virtues if they do not lead to salvation? He compares such sterile virtues to plants that bear no fruit.

How do we attain spiritual knowledge? St. Peter reminds us that only God possesses perfect knowledge and, therefore, it is only through his grace that we can recognize and cultivate virtue. He asks for humility in accepting that our understanding is limited to what we have, personally, experienced.

But if someone claims that, simply by hearing about these things, he knows them as he should, he is a liar. Man’s intellect can never rise to heaven without God as a guide; and it cannot speak of what it has not seen, but must first ascend and see it

Without the humility of relying on God’s help and understanding our limitations, our intellect is clouded and deluded, unable to distinguish the difference between truth and falsehood, word and action.

What, then, shall we say of those who are enslaved to the passions, and yet think they have a clear conscience?

What prevents us from acquiring true spiritual knowledge and attain salvation through virtues?  Quoting St. Mark, the Ascetic, St. Peter quotes 3 obstacles —  “‘the three giants of the demonic Philistines’: ignorance, forgetfulness, and laziness.”

These three giants are. the vices already mentioned: ignorance, the source of all evils; forgetfulness, its close relation and helper; and laziness, which weaves the dark shroud enveloping the soul in murk. This third vice supports and strengthens the other two, consolidating them so that evil becomes deep-rooted and persistent in the negligent soul. Laziness, forgetfulness and ignorance in their turn support and strengthen the other passions. St. Mark

With our souls enveloped “in murk,” we descend into delusion, refusing to acknowledge what we do not know. St. Peter quotes St. Maximos and John Chrysostom here.

As St Maximos has said, ‘To think that one knows prevents one from advancing in knowledge.‘1 St John Chrysostom points out that there is an ignorance which is praiseworthy: it consists in knowing consciously that one know nothing.”

We eventually fall into a state of profound disconnect, believing the stories we weave about ourselves and yet realizing deep inside that our actions contradict them. Our virtues will never bear fruit or help us advance spiritually. Even worse, we will live inauthentic lives, pressured to maintain a façade of lies.

 Because of our great insensitivity most of us think that we are something while in fact we are nothing (cf. Gal. 6 : 3): as St Paul says, ‘When they are talking about peace . . . calamity falls on them'( 1 Thess. 5 : 3). For they did not in fact possess peace but, as St John Chrysostom explains, only talked about it, thinking in their great insensitivity that they did possess it.

To combat such spiritual death, St. Mark advises continuous remembrance of God and gratitude. St. Peter adds inner stillness. We cannot preserve our intellect in turmoil, destructive thoughts, excessive physical effort, anger, or any other passions. St. Peter calls for simplicity and dispassion:

Blessed above all are those who seek to attain dispassion and spiritual knowledge unlaboriously through their total devotion to God: as God. Himself has said through His prophet, ‘Devote yourselves to stillness and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46 : Io).

BEYOND CONTRADICTIONS: St. PETER OF DAMASCUS, THE SEVEN COMMANDMENTS, Philokalia vol. 3

pp.96-100

In his chapter on the Seven Commandments, St. Peter begins with fear as the cornerstone and starting point of salvation. He continues with 6 more levels of spiritual ascent until we reach the level of wisdom.

Our journey begins with fear because we “are taught that if we do not begin with fear, we can never ascend to the rest.”  If fear is so critical, then, why is it that it is transformed into wisdom at the end of the chapter?  

Fear, St. Peter tells us, is transformed into “religious devotion, from which springs spiritual knowledge; from this knowledge comes judgment, that is, discrimination; from discrimination comes the strength that leads to understanding; from thence you come to wisdom.”

The journey to wisdom and salvation is not a matter of simple substitution of evil with good but one of continuous transformation. St. Peter presents us with 7 levels of gradual conversion, undertaken in gentleness, that result in reconciliation rather than elimination.

We are not simply avenging warriors against passions. We are to “reflect with wonder on the self-abasement of our Lord Jesus Christ” and imitate it. The emphasis is not on what we are to reject but on what we become, as it is given to us in the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit:

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn:

for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek:

for they shall inherit the earth.

Through this series of transformations, we acquire a precious gift—divine knowledge. The logic is clear. By applying the commandments (fear, inward grief, gentleness, the desire for virtues, mercy, detachment and the grace of the Holy Spirit), our intellect is freed from passions and delusions and, hence, able to see the true nature of things.  It is divine knowledge that enables us to acquire wisdom.

With divine knowledge, our perception of the world and our place in it, are no longer the same. There are no contradictions or divisions between visible and invisible reality because we possess “the knowledge of the mysteries of God inherent in the visible world.”

This means that material things are no longer worthless of attention or objects of passion because in them we can now discern the divine and, hence, their purpose.  We “have ascended with Christ into the transcendent world through the knowledge of intelligible realities and of the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures.”

We do not reject our human side but gain “the knowledge of things both human and divine” and see the connection between, and inseparability of, the two. This is when the union with Him is perfected:

By passing through all these levels of practice and contemplation you are granted pure and perfect prayer, established within you through the peace and love of God and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by saying, ‘Gain possession of God within yourself’

By seeing “things as they truly are,” we no longer need to demonize matter but see it in its proper perspective as embodiment of the divine.

Understanding the true nature of material things, as temporary and perishable rather than life’s goals, we are freed from passions and delusion and become masters of ourselves.

Then, coming to itself, the intellect recognizes its proper dignity-to be Master of Itself-and is able; for its eye, made blind by the devil through the tyranny of the passions, is opened.

As masters of ourselves, endowed with true knowledge, we are no longer torn between matter and spirit. We can enjoy the physical beauty around us, the comforts of food and home and the benefits of our labor in a different way as we discern “in these visible things God’s power and providence, His goodness and wisdom…”

By seeing the true nature of things, we can enjoy the world “without passion,’ and perceive it as a pointer to God’s grandeur.

Thus, by virtue of his soul’s purity, he is found worthy to be resurrected with Christ spiritually, and receives the strength to look without passion on the exterior beauty of visible things and to praise through them the Creator of all. Contemplating in these visible things God’s power and providence, His goodness and wisdom, as St Paul says (cf. Rom 1 : 2o-2 I),

FEAR AND GENTLENESS: THE SEVEN COMMANDMENTS, St. Peter of Damascus – Philokalia vol. 3

In the previous chapter, St. Peter outlines for us 7 forms of bodily disciple that will keep us on a firm foundation and not allow us to tumble from the “precipice into chaos.”

To achieve salvation, however, we must ascend to a higher spiritual realm, that of the seven commandments, which he discusses in this chapter. It is the realm in which God’s will is manifested through actions and participation.

We cannot keep the commandments, however, without an important prerequisite: experiencing fear of God.

In the case both of the seven gifts of the Spirit and of the Lord’s Beatitudes, we are taught that if we do not begin with fear, we can never ascend to the rest.

For St. Peter, and the other hesychastic fathers, fear of God goes far beyond fear of punishment. St. Peter describes it in terms of the awe we experience if we truly contemplate God—His nature, His grandeur and the nature of our relationship with Him.

Fear of God helps us experience our authentic selves at the start of the journey, To experience fear of God, we must let go of our pride and desire to control.  We must become poor in spirit through the humility of seeing ourselves as part of God’s creation, rather than the directors of it.

“…for He says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt.s: 3), that is, those who quail with fear of God and are inexpressibly contrite in soul. For the Lord has established this as the basic commandment, knowing that without this even living in heaven would be profitless, for one would still possess the same madness through which the devil, Adam and many others have fallen.

Fear of God is the opposite of self-satisfaction and complacence. While taking stock of, and feeling gratitude for, the achievements and goodness God has enabled us to experience, fear of God reminds us of our own fragility. We are constantly aware that we are frail and in danger of a fall at any moment. This is why the path to salvation entails daily spiritual warfare.

To be motivated to keep the commandments and not stray from our journey of ascent, we must be driven by both gratitude and fear. We give thanks to God for His gifts while, at the same time, we are cognizant of the emptiness and worthlessness of our lives without God.

Our joy for the grandeur of God is not purely triumphant but tinged with sorrow. We are content with what we have but grieve over our lapses. To a discriminating mind, the understanding of who are meant to be and could become is clear. While we are grateful for our gifts, a part of us grieves that our obsessive thoughts and preoccupations diminish our ability to experience the presence of God and achieve inner peace. We are grieved over the realization that our hearts are not completely open to others, that anger and resentments often obscure love.

Fear of God allows us to look at our selves authentically and experience the harmony of our union with God and his universe. It frees us from the anguish of puffed-up egos, the delusion of control of others, the impulse to constantly achieve and surpass others and the subsequent loneliness, emptiness and anxiety.

St. Peter’s 3d commandment is “gentleness.” We associate gentleness with politeness, care not to hurt someone’s feelings, sweetness of character. At times gentleness has the negative connotation of passivity, inability to stand up for yourself or lack of ambition. Ironically, these qualities are virtues in Christianity.

By gentleness St. Peter refers to a state of inner peace that presupposes humility and acceptance. Within this perspective, railing against things that cannot be changed, allowing worldly ambition to be the main driver of your life are not signs of strength but of enslavement that result in a state of inner tumult..

Gentleness bestows strength through stability as “we become like a firmly-rooted rock, unshaken by the storms and tempests of life, always the same, whether rich or poor, in ease or hardship, in honour or dishonour.”

Gentleness allows us discernment through humility since we are no longer prey to passions that pull us in all directions and have freed ourselves from the tyranny of our own will.

Thus the person who has been granted the grace of keeping the third commandment, and so has acquired full discrimination, will no longer be deceived either wittingly or unwittingly. Instead, having received the grace of humility, he will regard himself as nothing. For gentleness is the substance of humility, and humility is the door leading to dispassion. Through dispassion a man enters into perfect unfaltering love

Humans as Co-Creators (Philokalia III, Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology Part lll)

Throughout Philokalia the underlying framework for salvation is a lifelong and transformative journey leading us in stages from preoccupation with material things and destructive passions to a true union with God (deification or theosis).

The journey unfolds in three primary stages: renunciation of the world, elucidation or understanding and, finally, theosis. lias focuses on the gradual transformation of the intellect in the course of this journey, with contemplation being the highest form of intellect.    

While still attached to the material world,  our thoughts are limited to what we can see and touch. As we progress, and we are able to clear our minds of obsessive thoughts and raging passions, we can see the world with renewed and unobstructive vision and see things we were unable to perceive before. We can now distinguish the hidden essence of things beyond appearance and physical reality.

The inner principles of corporeal realities are concealed like bones within objects apprehended by the senses: no one who has not transcended attachment to sensible things can see them.

Beyond undergoing inner transformation, however, Ilias points to our role as agents of transformation, ourselves.

An important objective of the ascetic discipline that is required in order to achieve union with God, is to reach a state of inner peace and silence by cultivating dispassion. As we progress in our spiritual journey, we gain increasing control over our inner turmoil and are no longer tossed about by passions in whatever direction they take us.

By exercising self-control and restraint, we differentiate ourselves from the rest of creation. .

A river, Ilias tells us, cannot change the flow of its water or the turbulence within it by natural means. Yet we, as humans, can change the course of our thinking and put an end to our inner  turmoil.

108. It is less hard to check the downward flow of a river than for one who prays to check the turbulence of the intellect when he wishes, preventing it from fragmenting itself among visible things and concentrating it on the higher realities kindred to it. This is so in spite of the fact that to check the flow of a river is contrary to nature, while to check the turbulence of the intellect accords with nature.

This is a message of enormous hope as well as a clear differentiation between man and the rest of the creation. We do not have to become defeated by depression, sorrow, fear, anger or despair. On our journey from attachment to matter to complete union to God, we gradually gain the capacity to remain whole in the face of fragmentation and serene in the face of turmoil.  

Yet the unique role of man in God’s universe that separates him from the rest of creation goes beyond self-control.

Man is not simply a created being among other created beings. He is an entire world within the world:

112. Within the visible world, man is as it were a second world; and the same is true of thought within the intelligible world.

Ilias goes further. Human beings are not simply passive objects within God’s creation  but, in a small way, co-creators themselves. Man is “the herald of heaven and earth, and of all that is in them.”  Most significantly, man, is created with the ability to think and speak and, hence, the inherent capacity to interpret and give voice to God’s creation. What are the implications of this?

Without articulation, Ilias concludes, the universe would be silent.

Without man and thought both the sensible and the intelligible worlds would be inarticulate.

Imagine an unarticulate world. God’s wonder is experienced  existentially but cannot be communicated or understood. It cannot be   transformed into a wellspring of meaning and inspiration by the intellect, become  a guide for our lives and passed on to the next generation.

This is an amazing statement but has many precedents. In Genesis II, for example, Adam is asked by God to name all the animals.  

Genesis II: 19. ” And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and. brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever. Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof

Man’s ability to name, articulate, make sense of and perpetuate God’s glory complements God’s creation. With a nous purified by prayer and ascetic practice, we are both the recipients and co-creators of God’s glory and gift or continuous renewal. .

If our roles are to articulate and communicate the meaning of the created world, we can see artistic expression, in its ideal form, as a fulfillment of that role.   

Fr. Silouan Justiniano writes on the subject and quotes Ilias:

…We can also depict these from artistic models and Nature, seeing them through the “new eyes” of the heart that the integrated knowledge of the timeless pictorial principles of the canon gives us.   In the case of iconography what Ilias the Presbyter calls “the intellects principles,” can be seen as the pictorial principles of the canon. Thereby, sense-perception is uplifted and transfigured from outward appearance by bringing out of it the apprehension of archetypes in symbolic representation.

In iconography, “the creative act of transfiguring Nature, as Ilias points out, the imagination serves as a ladder, through which images ascend and descend, after they have been imprinted by the intellect.”

In this process the painter, without even being fully aware of it, is in a state of contemplation as he is in the process of “apprehending the invisible in the visible, and “pondering things in the heart,” as to determine artistically how to best outwardly manifest or symbolize the image within him.”

(Fr. Silouan Justiniano,  May 20, 2013, “Archetype and Symbol III: On Noetic Vision, Continued”   https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/archetype-and-symbol-iii-on-noetic-vision-continued/)

So those who follow Christ’s path to the ultimate union with God, become both transformed and transformational. They are constantly renewed so that their new sight penetrates under the surface and uncovers new things never before imagined, and agents of renewal by understanding, articulating and sharing the meaning of creation.