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.
- 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.