Renewal through Contemplation: St. Sophrony

(His Life is Mine, chapter #5)

True contemplation,” Sophrony tells us, “begins the moment we become aware of sin.

This awareness, along with the choice to repent, is essential to our understanding of who we truly are and our ability to participate in God’s nature.

It is important to first understand Sophrony’s concept of sin. The conventional way of defining sin is in terms of transgression of a set of rules. Sin, in this broad conceptual framework, seems largely removed from our daily lives. After all, as long as we do not kill, steal or disrespect our parents we should be fine with God.

Yet the true, Christian definition of sin is far from a mere violation of regulations. It refers to our submission to the thoughts, habits or actions that put a distance between us and God.

Sophrony, like Alexander Schmemann, adopts a more psychological approach to delve into the soul of man and casts sin in a context that resonates with our times. This means that we are now shifting from the external to the internal, and from flagrant violations to the state of the “inner man.”

The New Testament transferred the concept of sin to the inner man.

We are alert to the nuances of thought, feeling and action that do not appear, in themselves, to be sinful. This makes it harder to identify. As the seemingly innocent slips — moments of laziness, control, indifference, a sense of entitlement, jealousy, daily small indulgences and justifications—take hold of us, they turn to obsessions and are, eventually, crystallized into habits that take control of our lives. Over time, God is no longer present within us, and we become prey to fear, despair, hatred, anger and isolation.

 While most sins start innocently and imperceptibly, without identifying and stopping them, they become avalanches we can no longer control.

This is why, contemplating sin involves daily examination of any sickness of the soul, no matter how it is manifested. We thus become spiritually aware and live in the presence of God.

…we know where we stand spiritually at the particular moment.

Contemplation, Sophrony tells us is quite different from intellectual or philosophical contemplation. This is because contemplation goes beyond theoretical understanding to an existential experience.  

Sin is not merely a legalistic concept but an experience of pain and loss as we become cut off from the love and light of God.

We become acutely conscious of sin as a sundering of the ontological sense of our being.

The dismayand devastation we experience,” Sophrony tells us, “is so large that it brings repentance.”

Though contemplation of sin and repentance involve pain and fear, they are also our opportunities for renewal. We experience exultation as we “enter into the domain of divine eternity.”

In fact, it is contemplation and repentance, and a personal relationship with God, that enable us to fulfill our potential and find our authentic selves.  

An exquisite flower unfolds within us: the hypostasis—persona. …The persona transcends earthly bounds and moves in other fears.

It is not the lack of perfection that dooms us, then, but the lack of contemplation and repentance.

Only sin can stifle the divine breath within us.

Paradoxically, sin also becomes the springboard to renewal and deification when it brings about repentance. It is through repentance that we rise to our hypostasis and can participate in God’s nature.

Through contemplation we travel from external to internal, from “appearance” to the heart.

Persona “is the hidden man of the heart in that which is not corruptible… (1 Pet. 3.4)

Without contemplation we are a collection of fragments that do not coalesce or connect with God. With contemplation and repentance, we become whole and unite with God.

Man as hypostasis is a principle uniting the plurality of cosmic being; capable of containing the fulness of divine and human life.

This divine revelation is “startingly authentic,” and occurs on a palpable, existential level. We experience a transformation as grace is increased within us and freedom from the tyranny of attachments and obsessions.

With repentance and the consequent increase of grace within us, the reality of the Divine World preponderates over the visible cosmos. We contemplate the First Reality

The Tragedy of Man: St. Sophrony

From his book: His Life is Mine, chapter #4

For Sophrony, the true tragedy of man lies beyond physical suffering, natural disasters, or economic injustice. “The tragedy of our times,” he says, “lies in our almost complete unawareness, or mindfulness, that there are two kingdoms, the temporal, and the eternal.

If our world is limited to only what we can see and feel through our senses, it will close in on us sooner or later. Without an eternal perspective, things like a job promotion, having the last word in an argument, finding the right answer to a perceived insult or the proper house and social status become all-consuming preoccupations. They clutter our lives leaving no space for God and no sense of inner peace.  We become frantic and exhausted as we run through life checking items off our list. Sophrony mourns the loss of the kingdom and our unfulfilled potential.

Adam lost the kingdom for all of us through his disobedience to God. Sophrony sees the dynamics as well beyond disobedience and punishment.

It is not that God and Adam had different plans for mankind. It is that Adam wanted to achieve them on his own, without God. In the end, his longing was not for God but, as Sophrony puts it, for “self-divinization.”

His sin was to doubt God, to seek to determine his own life in independently of God, even apart from him …. Herein lies the essence of Adam’s sin—it was a movement toward self-divinization…he sinned in seeking this divinization not through unity with God, but through rupture.

Sophrony believes that the “seeds of tragedy” are sown when a man is “captivated by some ideal.”  He is not suggesting abandoning all goals or ideals. Instead, he admonishes us not to use them as substitutes for God.

When we become self-divinized, we fill the holes in our heart—emptiness, loneliness, unrequited desire, fear, longing—with substitutes of our own choice.

We may be completely consumed by efforts at career advancement, a political or humanitarian cause, an idea or artistic creation, to such an extent that there is no lomger room left for intimate, personalized relationships with God, family or friends.

“Self-divinization” is a gradual process of substitution and forgetfulness of the things that most matter. The longing for God is replaced with the search for causes and ideals which, often, aim at self-glorification rather than union with God. This is our tragedy, according to Sophrony.

Sophrony makes an important and startling distinction between the tragedy of self-divination and suffering. His definition of tragedy is a state that “can be found solely in the fortunes of the man whose gaze has not gone beyond the confines of this earth. He applies this definition to Christ’s suffering and concludes:

Christ himself by no means is tragedy…. He lived the tragedy of all mankind; but in himself there was no tragedy.

We live in an age in which avoidance of pain and suffering is considered the path to happiness and fulfillment. We guard ourselves from pain and suffering at all costs. Everything around us—products, philosophies, therapies, services, marketing slogans—promise ease, convenience, pleasure and the elimination of all hassles and pains.

We have, thus, lost the capacity of gratitude and humility because we now consider happiness, pleasure and convenience our birthright. We become infuriated when unpredictable events interfere with our “right” to a hassle-free and happy life and blame others for them. This is what Sophrony would call the tragedy of self-divination and of paradise lost.

For Sophrony, the greatest of evils is not suffering but emptiness and despair. He quotes Matthew:

Fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul. (Mt 10.28)

Commitment to self-made ideals, no matter how noble, will not unite us with God and broaden our perspective beyond the realm of the physical and visible.

This is how it is with the Christians: for all his deep compassion, his tears and prayers for the world, there is none of the despair that destroys.

It is when “the prayer of divine love becomes our very being, our body” that  will allows us to rise above physical life and participate in God.

REVEALING “THE MYSTERY OF THE WAY TO SALVATION:” St. Sophrony

From his book: His Life is Mine, chapter 2: The Risk in Creation

Imagine setting a trapped bird free. You nurtured it when it was wounded. You know that it would be safe from predators if he remained under your control and in the safety of the little cage you bought for it. Yet because you have come to love it, you know that his life, confined in your home, would be limited. Even though you know that your bird may never again return to your home or, worse, may be eaten by a predator, you still want to free it from a life of confinement and stifling predictability. This is why you choose to put his life’s choices in his own hands. It is a risk you are willing to take out of love.

Sophrony finds that there was also a risk for God in his creation. It was not that the universe risked instability or harm. It was that the gift of “godlike freedom” of choice which He granted us “shut the door to predestination of any form” and made man’s decisions and behavior unpredictable.  Man was now free to choose evil over good and to even decide not to return God’s love. 

Allowing us this freedom and enabling us to participate in His nature, are among the most compelling indicators of His love for us, which Sophrony is inspired to express in a veritable love poem.

He loves us in spite of our senseless behavior. He calls to us, is always ready to respond to our cries for help and guide our fragile steps through all the obstacles that lie in our path. He respects us as on a par with Him. His ultimate idea for us is to see us in eternity verily his equals, his friends, and brothers, the sons of the Father…

While man can abandon God, God cannot abandon the being He created. “He lives with us our human tragedy,” Sophrony writes.

THE PATH UPWARDS: THE CHOICE WE ARE MEANT TO MAKE

God’s risk is rooted in the true nature He endowed us with. We come into the world as unformed potential, endowed with the capabilities for fulfilling it and, at the same time, with the freedom of choice to reject it.

We are meant to accept our gift of freedom and fulfill our potential through a path of constant growth and ascent toward Him. Our choice to go against our nature and squander God’s magnificent gift is what Sophrony calls our human tragedy.

Actualizing this potential is not as painless as, say, a meditation exercise or artificially induced ecstatic experience. It is a process of inner transformation that, Sophrony notes, involves pain and suffering. In the Christian framework of salvation, pain and suffering also serve to motivate our growth and help us actualize our potential.

If all our needs were automatically met so that we never suffered deprivation, pain or discomfort, we would have no motivation to hone our skills for spiritual welfare, grow, change, seek, feel compassion and experience true love.  If we were already perfect, we would not experience longing for perfection or undertake the hard journey toward it.

…suffering discloses to his contemplative mind both his own imperfection and that of the world around him. This forces him to recognize the necessity for a new form of creative effort to perfect life in all its manifestations.

THE REALM BEYOND HUMAN INTELLIGENCE: SCIENCE AND RELIGION:

In undertaking the journey to perfection through union to God, we cannot rely on science and intelligence alone.

Sophrony does not disparage science. Neither does he imply that science and religion are mutually exclusive. He simply presents and compares the various types and levels of knowledge.

Since science deals with measurable facts, its purview is limited to “only where the laws of nature prevail absolutely,” he says. Yet not everything in the world is measurable and predictable, such as the Primordial Being and the actions and decisions of the “free, non-determined” beings which He created.

We know that Primordial Being lies outside the preserves of science, which can tell us nothing even of the meaning of our existence.

Our relationship with God is personal and cannot be quantified. Additionally, His presence within us cannot be willed, predicted or scientifically proven. It is manifested rather than simply understood theoretically: 

When the Holy Spirit by taking up his abode in us accords us to live the love commanded of us by Christ, we know in our bones that this is the only normal state for our immortal spirit; that in this state we comprehend the divine universality of Christ and his precepts. This is the Truth, the like of which leaves no room for doubt in heart or mind.

THE GIFT OF PARTICIPATION

Our God-given potential is realized by accepting God’s invitation to participate in His nature. The journey toward Him is mystical, personal and subject to His grace. Our understanding increases with each step of the journey– not by absorbing new facts and theories but by experiencing the “rapture” that contact with Him generates.

With him our path lies through a great and intricate spiritual culture: we traverse cosmic chasms more often with much suffering but not seldom in rapture as understanding increases.

We are not meant for stasis, isolation, and alienation. Accepting God’s invitation to be one with Him is not a solitary journey. It involves a personal relationship with Him that will allow us to share his nature and, through it, our salvation.

…in him lies our immortality; in him we shall arrive at everlasting Truth. He will grant us the indescribable joy of sharing in the very act of the divine creation of the world.

Speaking to Him Intimately: St. Sophrony

From his book: Your Life is Mine, chapter 2: The Enigma of I am

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Sophrony builds this chapter around the full revelation and manifestation of the nature of God in the statement I AM THAT I AM (Ex 3.13-14).

Theology is not sufficient to elucidate its meaning, he tells us. Knowledge must be “generated by prayer inspired from above,” and descend to us through love.

Instead of relying on complicated definitions, Sophrony dives into experience. Marveling at the impossibility of describing the state of the spirit of someone to whom God has been manifested in the fullness of I AM, Sophrony attempts to convey the meaning of this manifestation in terms of an intimate connection with Him.

His closeness to one’s heart is so tangible that joy in him is light. He is kind and gentle, and I can speak to him intimately, face to Face, address him — “thou who art.”

This is the state we must achieve as preparation for “the spirit’s entry into living Eternity compact of love.”  

Spiritual knowledge, Sophrony tells us, is not achieved in one fell swoop. Unlike historical facts that can be absorbed in just one reading, the revelation of God’s true nature is gradual and progressive through periods of history and phases in a person’s life.

Even the revelation of God to Moses was not complete. Sophrony argues that Moses and the prophets did not fully appreciate “the full blessing bestowed on them.” That is, they didn’t understand that “I AM is one being and at the same time Three persons.”

The paradox he uncovers is that to understand God as unified One, we must understand the 3 hypostases of the Trinity.

Without the Trinity, God is solitary. No cooperation would be needed for Him to be manifested. The movement from God to man would be one-dimensional. The Trinity, on the other hand, enables man to participate rather than simply receive, by allowing him to strive to acquire God’s image and likeness.

On occasions, he would even speak of Himself as Three: “and God said Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”(Gen. 1.26). “Behold, man is become as one of us (Ex. 3.22)

To experience the “Triune Godhead” is to experience love fully, with every inch of your soul and body.

The man who by the gift of the Holy Spirit has experienced the breath of his love knows with his whole being that such love is peculiar to the Triune Godhead revealed to us as the perfect mode of Absolute Being.

This is because the Trinity is not an exclusive, solipsistic club. On the contrary, the manifestation of the Trinity is a manifestation of connectedness and unity between man and God, among the three hypostases and among men.  

With the Trinity, the world around us is transformed through love into absolute oneness, transcending divisions between human and divine, spiritual and material.

Love leads to singleness of Being.

We see God’s presence in all things, no matter how small and insignificant.

His consciousness penetrates all that exists. We have to find it in all that we know and see.

Yet, “conversely all things are manifest to him… Every moment of our life, our every heartbeat, is in his hands.”

Hence, when God is revealed and manifested in us, we are no longer exiles in a strange land but active participants in God’s world and its meaning.  

The enigma of I AM is solved, not through history or theology, but in our personal, mystical relationship with Him.  

Knowledge of the Personal God bears an intrinsically personal character. Like recognizes like. There is an end to the deadly tedium of the impersonal…

He fills the soul, binding it her ever more intimately to himself.

In the end, the manifestation of I AM is experienced through a transformed soul and heart, rather than through words.  It is the Trinity abiding in us that will give us true knowledge of God and experience of unity.

 Contemplation is a matter not of verbal statements but of living experience. In pure prayer the Father, Son and Spirit are seen in their consubstantial unity.

WHEN “LIGHT ILLUMINES OUR HEART,” ST. SOPHRONY

Elder Sophrony

From his book: Your Life is Mine, chapter 1: Knowledge of God

 _______________________

For Sophrony, God’s presence was ever present in humankind. If worship differed in various parts of the world and communities, it was only because people did not have full knowledge of Him.

Our fathers and forefathers reverenced Him in different ways because they did not know him “as He is…”

Sophrony thus begins to establish the importance of the knowledge of God to which he devotes his very first chapter.

Since Christ is “the focal point of the universe and the ultimate meaning of the entire history of the world,” if we lack knowledge of Him, we are disoriented, lost, disconnected floundering through lives without meaning.

While we are not born with knowledge of God, Sophrony makes it clear that we do not come into the world as blank slates. This because we are given capabilities that can be employed to gain spiritual knowledge and participate in God’s essence.

“There can never be any factors or circumstance,” Sophrony remarks, “that would make it impossible to observe the commandments.

Not only are we gifted with the ability to know God, but we share a hunger for such knowledge.

The human spirit hungers for knowledge- for entire, integral knowledge

Knowledge of God is revealed little by little through history and through an individual’s life. Even the manifestation of God to Moses, considered by Sophrony to be a watershed moment in human history, was not complete.

Moses realized the incompleteness of the revelation as… “he continued to pray for better knowledge of God …for Moses could not contain the whole revelation.”

Sophrony goes on to consider the true essence of the knowledge of God.

To know God is to understand, first of all, that He is a personal God.

God was not some general entity, some cosmic process or supra-personal, all transcending “Non-being.” …. This Being had a personal character and was a living and life-giving God.

Even the Holy Spirit,” he tells us “needs a dwelling place of a tangible nature.” Hence the necessity of a tangible church whose “function is to lead the faithful to the luminous sphere of Divine Being.”  

Sophrony draws a comparison between Moses and Jesus.

Moses needed the authority and stature given by God, to persuade and lead. Christ, on the other hand, has no such need. He came in meekness and humility. He saved Adam, not as a superior being willing down grace from a position of power, but by becoming man. “He saved Adam through Adam,” as Fr. David says.

Because our God is personal, Sophrony implies that true knowledge of God is also personal and experiential rather than only theoretical. Rational understanding cannot by itself advanced to true knowledge of God which can only be achieved through participation in Him.

Even in our day we are continuously made aware that reason per se cannot advance us over to the threshold of the “Unknown.”

Ultimately, spiritual knowledge departs from factual and historical understanding and is manifested in the love of God that now lives within us. Love is the fulfillment of the knowledge of God.

Now the divine sphere was reflected in the searchless grandeur of the love and humility of God, our Father.

We have all read about the differences between the Old and New Testament as if one replaced the other. Sophrony creates a continuum between the two.

So for us Christians is the coming of Jesus Christ who did not repudiate the archetypes of the Old Testament but vindicated then, unfolding to us their real significance and bringing new dimensions to all things—infinite, eternal dimensions

This transition is significant.

Instead of linear replacement, Sophrony talks of transformation as an important dimension of the knowledge of God. True spiritual knowledge allows us to see the world transformed though its appearance may remain the same. This is because we no longer know God through theological concepts but through our experience of love in our hearts as we partake of His essence.  

We sense His divine presence both within us and without…

He opens our eyes that we may behold and delight in the beauty of his creation. He fills our hearts with love toward all mankind. His indescribably gentle touch pierces our heart. And in the hours when his imperishable Light illumines our heart we know that we shall not die. We know this with a knowledge impossible to prove in the ordinary way but which for us requires no proof, since the Spirit itself bears witness within us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Lack of humility and overreaching:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pp.371-372

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pp. 367-369

# 37-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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