(Philokalia, vol. 2, St. Theognostos)
The moment of our death can be frightening, warns Theognostos, if we are still tormented by anger, regret, anxiety, jealousy, fear and all the other passions that make our lives turbulent and painful. He elucidates and makes concrete this moment so that our preparation for it become urgent.
Strive to receive a sure, unequivocal pledge of salvation in your heart,” Theognostos tells us “so that at the time of your death you will not be distraught and unexpectedly terrified.
A vigorous discussion ensued in our group last Friday. In Orthodoxy there is no guarantee of salvation ahead of time. No one can claim to know who will be saved and who will be doomed. What could Theognostos mean by having us seek “a pledge of salvation?
Yet, Theognostos here, makes no argument for predestination. “You have received such a pledge,” he explains, “when your heart no longer reproaches you for your failings and your conscience stops chiding you because of your fits of anger ; when through God’s grace your bestial passions have been tamed ; when you weep tears of solace and your intellect prays undistracted and with purity ; and then you await death, which most people dread and run away from, calmly and with a ready heart.”
Pledge of salvation then is not a doctrine but a state of heart. The higher you ascend on the ladder from the tyranny of passions to inner freedom and union with God, the less your heart will be prey to anguish and fear. When passions no longer drive you and God’s peace dwells in your heart, “then you await death, which most people dread and run away from, calmly and with a ready heart.”
Theognostos makes it clear, however, that you cannot simply fast track the path to dispassion.
Do not try to attain dispassion prematurely,” he tells us, or we will suffer what Adam suffered when he ate too soon from the tree of spiritual knowledge (cf. Gen. 3 : 6).”
“He ate too soon” implies that Adam had the potential to eventually acquire spiritual knowledge at a time that God had appointed. For Theognostos, and the other dessert fathers, God does not simply withhold spiritual knowledge from us humans because such knowledge is a privilege, destined only for God and his saints. On the contrary, God made man in his image, with inherent capabilities for attaining spiritual knowledge and becoming a partaker of the divine through theosis. Yet such knowledge cannot be acquired through our will alone but only through the grace of God. In fact, if we make dispassion and salvation our personal goals, assigning them our own timeline and anxiously pushing ahead to expedite the process, we remain within the tyranny of our own will and passions and cannot achieve inner peace.
Theognostos advises patience and humility. He asks us to “labour on, with constant entreaty and self-control in all things,” rather than be tormented by the anxiety of pushing our own agenda through.
Do the work, humbly and patiently, he tells us, and the results will follow as “you will then in good time receive the grace of dispassion.” Instead of constantly pushing for the next and the next milestone, he wants us to become like the ant of the proverbs:
Like the worker ant, we are asked to patiently do the work and trust Him for both the steps of the journey and the results.
The stages that lead to inner peace are intertwined and based on each other. You start with faith and detachment which, in turn, enable pure prayer and fear of God. From the ability for pure prayer and awe of God, emerge love and dispassion which ready us for a peaceful passage to death.
So much of our anxiety comes from our value of quick results over the value of the journey that leads to them; the rush to skip steps and struggle over patience, our will to impose our own agenda over God’s will. Theognostos asks us to commit to God’s will and the timing of our journey in order to reach a state of dispassion and inner peace.
You cannot achieve a condition of total poverty without dispassion, or dispassion without love, or love without the fear of God and pure prayer, or fear of God and pure prayer without faith and detachment ; for it is when winged by faith and detachment that the intellect discards all base concern and soars upwards in search of its Lord.