WHAT IS FAITH? St. Peter of Damaskos (Philokalia, III)

pp. 164-167

“Faith,” St. Peter tells us, is “the foundation of all blessings, the door to God’s mysteries, unflagging defeat of our enemies.”  He calls it “the most necessary of all the virtues,” and the prerequisite for God to dwell “within our soul.”  

What exactly does faith mean? We commonly think of it as the absolute certainty that there is God. This certainty involves mind and matter. You believe because it has been proven to you, by means you understand and beyond reasonable doubt.

St. Peter does not try to convince us through logical arguments. Instead, he talks about a different, experiential dimension of faith and its role as the requirement for inner stillness and union with God.  

“The man of faith,” he tells us, “acts, not as one endowed with free will, but as a beast that is led by the will of God.”

Is he, then, denying the existence of free will?

St. Peter further explains:   

If it is that I should experience temptation so as to learn humility, again I am with Thee. Of myself, there is absolutely nothing I can do.

Faith here is the belief in a universe inhabited by God in which everything is designed with meaning and purpose, even when these are not immediately apparent to us.

Do what Thou wilt to Thy creature; for I believe that, being good, Thou bestowest blessings on me, even if I do not recognize that they are for my benefit.

This assumption of God’s absolute goodness and higher purpose is a choice rather than a loss of free will. We can always choose to rebel against affliction or to express our pain through vengeance, anger and rejection of God. Yet we choose to believe because we discern His goodness and purpose even if we cannot rationally understand them.

Faith, then, represents a radical acceptance of God’s will.

I do not dare to ask for relief in any of my battles, even if I am weak and utterly exhausted: for I do not know what is good for me.

We cannot despair or become enraged in the face of pain, because we believe deeply that, even if we are not able to detect it, there is a reason and a benefit to be derived even from the greatest sorrow.

Acquiring faith is not akin to becoming unquestioning, zombie-like beings. It involves a continuous process in which, even doubt and struggle are part of the journey.

But in whatever way Thou desirest have mercy on me. I have sinned: have mercy on me as Thou knowest. I believe, Lord, that Thou hearest this my pitiable cry, ‘Help Thou my unbelief’ (Mark 9 : 24),

For St. Peter, there are two types of faith: that of hearsay and that of contemplation.

Faith from “hearsay is derived from our reading and understanding of the scriptures and leads to virtues. From this level of devotion stems a superior faith of contemplation and unity with God.

There is no longer a “we” and “He” because we have return to our true nature and become God-like. We have become who God has always wanted us to be.  

For the Divine is infinite and uncircumscribed, and the intellect that returns to itself must be in a similar state, so that through grace it may experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. ‘For we walk by faith, not by sight,’ says St Paul (2 Cor. S : 7).

Through faith we are “united with God spiritually” and can experience “perfect love.” Our faith now requires no effort or physical proof because we inhabit an ecstatic state that does not require the help of visual images, words, senses and motion.

The intellect itself has the sense that it is seen, even though at that time it is utterly impossible for it to see anything, for it is imageless, formless, colourless, undisturbed, undistracted, motionless, matterless, entirely transcending all the things that can be apprehended and perceived in the created world. It communes with God in deep peace and with perfect calm, having only God in mind, until it is seized with rapture and found worthy tb say the Lord’s Prayer as it should be said…

Instead of abandoning free will, we have freely aligned our will with that of God.

The Stillness of True Virtue: St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia III

pp. 162-164

To heal a person,” St. Peter tells us, “is the greatest thing one can do and excels all other virtue, because among the virtues there is nothing higher or more perfect than love for one’s neighbour.”

He devotes this small chapter to the acquisition of virtues.

What is virtue in Christian thought?  References to virtues extolled in the scriptures, the ten commandments and other spiritual writings readily come to mind: love thy neighbor as thyself, thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, honor your father and mother, do not kill, be humble…

We think the meaning is evident and self-contained. There is no mystery to be uncovered here. Yet, something in the next paragraph transfixed me when I thought of its application. St. Peter asks us to do more than love:

The sign of this love is not just that one does not keep for oneself anything of which another has need, but also that, as the Lord enjoins, one should joyfully endure death for his sake (cf. John 1� : 1 3), looking on it as a debt we have to pay.

How is it possible to endure death for a neighbor? Is this a metaphoric exaggeration just to make a point or a virtue to be applied literally?   

My irritating next-door neighbors come to mind. I must admit that I dislike them for their aloofness, unfriendliness, and constant suspicion of everyone. Okay, so I can see myself working hard to curb my negative feelings and even say good morning to them with a big smile on my face. But give my life for them? Come on!

My thoughts seem completely normal to me. They are the norm! Who would blame you if you didn’t jump into a raging fire to save a stranger? Self-sacrifice and disregard for one’s life are not intrinsic to the framework that is consider “normal,” through which we see the world. “Normalcy” consists of interrelated assumptions that build on each other, for example:

  • My time is important and not to be wasted on things or people who do not deserve it.
  • My feelings and priorities take precedence over those of others.
  • I have a right to my happiness and comfort and will protect them as needed.
  • I react to life—showing love to those who love me and treat me well and “cancelling” out those who are disagreeable or stand in my way. Why waste efforts on those who do not appreciate me?

Yet, the virtues that St. Peter describes are not contained within our ordinary framework.  In fact, they stretch us beyond what is comfortable and expected.  

And this is as it should be: for we should love our neighbour to the point of dying for him, not only because nature requires this of us, but also because of the precious blood poured out for us by Christ who commanded us to love in this way.

According to St. Peter, then, Christ is asking us to go beyond nature; beyond what is habitual or expected; beyond what we can conceive or understand.  

The virtues that save are not just acts or words emanating from us. They require a transformation of self, a state of gratitude, selflessness, stillness, dispassion, and faith. which is achieved by transcending nature. Above all, they require the grace of God, not simply our own will.

The first thought that leaps to mind when I wake up in the morning is a review of my to-do list and agenda. Being preoccupied with ourselves—our plans, agendas, resentments, anxieties, others’ admiration, or acceptance– is a form of “self-love.” A focus on ourselves leaves little room for love for others and God.

Do not love yourself, says St Maximos, and you will love God; do not pander to your ego, and you will love your brother.

Virtue requires dispassion and inner stillness that replace destructive passions such as, anger, resentment and control.  

…nothing so darkens the mind as evil, and nothing so enlightens the intellect as spiritual reading in stillness.

St. Peter returns to the theme of balance between extremes that his chapter on discernment unveiled for us. He urges us to adopt “the royal way,” and resist being tossed from high to low through passions and reactions to others’ actions or words.

There is no shorter way to Christ- that is to say, to dispassion and the wisdom of the Spirit- than the royal way that avoids both excess and deficiency in all things; nor is any virtue more capable of comprehending the divine will than humility and the abandoning of every personal thought and desire.

He asks us to go beyond nature and replace human passions– discontent, jealousy, ambition, and entitlement—with a state of gratitude. Instead of rejecting, forgetting, or discounting what we have we are filled with awe and appreciation for all things.

Nothing so augments the blessings bestowed on us as our recognition of , temptations.

This is not an impersonal process of meditation and inner stillness that can be reached in any context. St. Peter depicts a concrete and personalized discipline rooted in faith of Christ, and hence hope, and made possible by the grace of God. Speaking of our ability to empathize with and sacrifice for others, St. Peter says:

Such love comes through hope; and to hope is to believe unhesitatingly that one will surely attain what one hopes for. This in tum is born of a firm faith, where one has no concern whatsoever for one’s own life or death, but casts all care upon God (cf. 1 Pet. s : 7),

In a state of stillness, gratitude, intellectual restraint, faith, and hope, we transcend common human passions and become transformed ourselves. Virtues are no longer “add-ons” to our ordinary life but logical expressions of our spiritual state. Choices that seem unrealistic, irrational, or unnatural now will appear logical and self-evident when considered from a completely new understanding and perspective.

In a state of virtue and grace, we can experience true Christian love; a love that is unfettered, unconditional, unafraid, unashamed, and complete.


St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia III

pp. 158-161

“If by the grace of God you have received the gift of discrimination,” St. Peter writes,” you should in great humility do everything you can to guard it, so that you do nothing without it.

Interestingly, the warning applies to both virtuous and sinful persons.

Why is discrimination, or discernment, so important and what does it mean in the patristic context?

We are told by many patristic writers that knowledge, contemplation and even prayer are not enough for one’s salvation. We are shown countless examples of virtuous men for whom prayer, fasting, deprivation and other virtues become so obsessive that the spirit of the action is forgotten, and love and inner peace have no room to take root.  

It seems that discerning and embodying the right balance is the most difficult of tasks for us humans. Extremes of exercise, job performance, healthy diets, radical ideologies, lifestyles, advocacy positions, among other forces, are dominating our lives today, dividing people into antagonistic camps.  

Discernment goes beyond virtue and sin. It encompasses the universal balance that exists in a world inhabited by God.” “For him who possesses it,” writes St Peter, “discrimination is a light illuminating the right moment, the proposed action, the form it takes….”

Without the light, we live in confused labyrinths of contradictory forces and invisible threats. Perhaps, we engage in good intentions and actions but cannot curb our impatience, and thus fail because our timing is wrong.  Perhaps, we delude ourselves, believing that we aspire to modest and reasonable professional goals, missing signs such as anxiety, irritability and depression that may indicate a transformation of aspirations into obsessions that leave no room for family, inner stillness and even joy.

Without discrimination it is easy to lose sight of the difference between good and evil, right, or wrong. Some of us keep vacillating between conflicting values and opinions, for example. Others may justify something that feels good at the time even though our conscience signals that it is destructive. Perhaps we sometimes persuade ourselves that adultery, injustice to others or overeating is justifiable because it fits with a new, modern set of morals, or is the result of an abusive spouse or parents, or it represents the pleasure we deserve at this point in our lives, etc.

Then discrimination reveals the nature of things, their use, quantity and variety, as well as the divine purpose and meaning in each passage of the Holy Scriptures.

St. Peter puts specific actions and decisions in a holistic and dynamic context, centuries before psychology unveiled the social, historical, subconscious, and behavioral forces behind our actions.

A destructive choice is not born suddenly and without context. Before adultery, St. Peter tells us, there are licentious thoughts. The devil makes us negligent of small, trivial things that in time lead to sin. Discrimination helps us discern the small steps and actions that, though imperceptible, lead to sin and despair over time.

Without discrimination, small, seemingly harmless transgressions take root and become entrenched habits. “As St Basil the Great says, a persistent habit acquires all the strength of nature.”

With discrimination we can discern the roots of good and evil in small, nuanced details that escape others’ sight.

On its possessor it confers spiritual insight, as both Moses and St John Klimakos say: such a man foresees the hidden designs of the enemy and foils them before they are put into operation.”

Another quality of discrimination, St. Peter tells us, is that it “is born of humility.   Unless you have relinquished control and acknowledged your own shortcomings, you will not have the peace of mind and selfless clarity to discern the true nature of things.

“When a person is full of such anxiety, he cannot even see himself.”

For Christians, discerning the truth and accepting our own limitations and the will of God should never lead to despair. No matter how great our pain we can restore our spirit through repentance. No matter how grave the crisis facing us, we can maintain inner peace through acceptance and hope, and recognize nuggets of opportunity amidst disaster. Despair, giving up on any effort at repentance and any hope of salvation, is the ultimate of sins.

Despair is a twisted form of pride in which we have set up ourself and ego above God. St. Peter angrily confronts the despairing man, asking him how he could possibly think that God is so powerless that he is unable to save him.

Is He, who for your sake created the great universe that you behold, incapable of saving your soul?

In a world in which we are tossed about by myriads of forces and choices, we are saved by the ability to clearly discern right from wrong and uncover the true nature of everything around us. Yet, discernment cannot take root in the midst of anxiety, turmoil, anger or preoccupation with self.

If those attacked by many passions of soul and body endure patiently, do not out of negligence surrender their free will, and do not despair, they are saved. Similarly, he who has attained the state of dispassion, freedom from fear and lightness of heart, quickly falls if he does not confess God’s grace continually by not judging anyone.

Beyond Intellection and Thought: The Eighth Stage of Contemplation, St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia III

When we prepare for prayer, we usually think of what to say: what to ask forgiveness for, what petitions to make, what to be thankful for.

In the apophatic theology of hesychasm, we think of shedding: relinquishing oneself, the world, delusions, even the effort of forming words and thinking of how to use them to persuade and communicate. This is what St. Peter calls “pure prayer” which is “the highest form of prayer.” It is a prayer that leaves behind words, images, or sounds to enter a complete and mystical union with of God.

Through the eighth stage of contemplation, we are led upwards to the vision of what pertains to God by means of the second kind of prayer, the pure prayer proper to the contemplative. In it the intellect is seized during the transport of prayer by a divine longing, and it no longer knows anything at all of this world, as both St Maximos4 and St John of Damaskos confirm. Not only does the intellect forget all things, but it forgets itself as well.

As long as we direct and edit our prayer, we maintain control. Evagrios, quotes by St. Peter, makes the point “that so long as the intellect is still conscious of itself, it abides, not in God alone, but also in itself.”   

How do we free ourselves from ourselves so that we can dwell in God rather than only speak to him? Through humility, St Peter declares. Humility in thought requires the acknowledgment of the limitations of our intellect: “recognition of the inadequacy of human language to describe God.”

How could we, humans, understand the essence of God through our intellect alone, when he cannot be contained within, and be limited by, human experiences and capabilities?  God lies beyond the content of words; beyond the analogies or images we conjure up to describe him.

In our ignorance, however, we should not identify God in Himself with His divine attributes, such as His goodness, bountifulness, justice, holiness, light, fire, being, nature, power, wisdom and the others of which St Dionysios the Areopagite speaks. 2 God in Himself is not among any of the things that the intellect is capable of defining, for He is undetermined and undeterminable… For He is beyond intellection and thought, and is known only to Himself, one God in three hypostases, unoriginate, unending, beyond goodness, above all praise.

Instead of trying to fit God into what we know and understand, we enter pure prayer–quieting the thoughts that crowd our mind, relinquishing the control of how to best communicate and persuade, forgetting about ourselves and the world.

St. Peter warns us of the danger of delusion and falsehood when knowledge is not accompanied by humility.

When we read the scriptures, for example, we may see the text rife with the conflicts and contradictions we have always experienced in our world. This is because our understanding of what we read is limited by our own values, motivations, opinions, and experiences.  If we remove our personal opinions and impressions, however, we will be able to perceive that, as St. Peter tells us, there are no contradictions in the scriptures. The spiritually advanced sees no contradictions because he/she detects the hidden connections among segments that appear contradictory and sees in the larger scheme of things, how everything is mutually supported and linked toward the same purpose.

But he whose intellect is still unenlightened thinks that the Holy Scriptures are contradictory. Yet there is no contradiction in the Holy Scriptures: God forbid that there should be.

The appearance of contradiction is due to our ignorance. We ought not to find fault with the Scriptures, but to the limit of our capacity we should attend to them as they are…

St. Peter gives the Greeks and Jews as examples of intellect divorced from humility:

For the Greeks and Jews refused to admit that they did not understand, but out of conceit and self- satisfaction they found fault with the Scriptures and with the natural order of things and interpreted them as they saw fit and not according to the will of God. As a result, they were led into delusion and gave themselves over to every kind of evil.

The result of the 8th stage of contemplation is not a body of knowledge but a state of theosis—complete union with God.

The person who searches for the meaning of the Scriptures will not put forward his own opinion, bad or good,” St. Peter tells us.

Do you ever wonder how much of our understanding of the world around us is delusional– reading our opinions and desires into others? 

When we write an analytical text or present an argument, we typically formulate a hypothesis, based on our understanding of things we observe and know from experience, and look for quotes that back it up. Don’t we all look for support of our opinions, tastes and ideas when picking friends, choosing a channel or publication? Don’t we sometimes become impatient, wishing that the other party could hurry up and finish a sentence so we can express our views that, surely, will put theirs to shame?

St. Peter asks:

What kind of knowledge can result from adapting the meaning of the Scriptures to suit one’s own likes and from daring to alter their words? The true sage is he who regards the text as authoritative and discovers, through the wisdom of the Spirit, the hidden mysteries to which the divine Scriptures bear witness.

Without humility and the shedding of self, we cannot advance beyond our own assumptions and experiences, to understand and connect with others and dwell in God.

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.

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


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


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.