Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia, vol.3: Becoming Spiritual Sprinters

A Gnomic Anthology, Part 1, #1-22

PRACTICE

The fathers in Philokalia often talk about the necessity of manifesting faith through action. They show that neither faith nor action, neither intellect nor practice, are sufficient unto themselves, without each other.

Ilias delineates 4 types of practice. Practices concerning:

  • The body– fasting and vigil
  • The mouth– prayer and silence’
  • The soul–self-control and simplicity
  • The intellect–prayer and meditation

PRACTICE GONE AMOK

It is not enough, however, to practice virtues without maintaining the delicate spiritual ecology among all elements.

“Without discrimination,” Ilias tells us, “neither practice nor spiritual knowledge can fulfill its purpose. For practice uncontrolled by such knowledge strays here and there aimlessly, like a calf; while knowledge that refuses to clothe itself in the honorable vesture of practice lacks nobility, however much it may pretend to possess it.”

Without discrimination, virtues can become vices as they evolve into ends unto themselves, separated from their goal of uniting with God. In fact, the practice of virtues—fasting, simplicity, health and exercise, adherence to the commandments or working hard — can convert into addictions when, decoupled from restraint and love, become increasingly intense and extreme and serve to impress others rather than unite us with God. 

A courageous soul acts correctly when it is master of both practice and contemplation,

DEEP ORIENTATION OF THE HEART, NOT JUST PRACTICE AND CONTEMPLATION

Beyond discrimination in the practice of virtues, Ilias points to a deeper orientation of our heart toward good or evil. He makes distinctions in the practice of good or evil that depend on this more nuanced and profound orientation. There is a difference, for example,  between those who are “essentially good” even if they occasionally commit evil acts, and those who are essentially evil.

Clearly, those who lapse, while they are essentially good, will sin less than those who intentionally commit evil.

12. The virtuous may appear to be bad, but essentially they are good; superficially the self-important and pleasure loving may appear to be good, but basically they are evil.

13. The person who hates evil commits it but seldom and then not intentionally. But the person attached to the causes of evil commits it frequently and deliberately.

Those aiming for good but unintentionally lapsing are capable of repentance and, thus, renewal and salvation.

14. Those who deliberately refuse to repent sin continually; those who sin without meaning to not only repent with all their heart, but also do not often have cause to repent.

If your heart is not fundamentally oriented toward good, if “you still look on vice with a feeling of pleasure,” it willbe difficult to remain virtuous, no matter how vigorous and extreme your practice. To balance practice with intellect you heart must “hunger for the taste of virtue” and you must be willing to “avert your gaze from every form of evil.”

BECOMING SPRINTERS

Before starting the race, runners are mentally and physically already in the race. They crouch, ready to spring when the signal is given, fully committed and oriented toward the race. Every muscle of their body is taut and ready to pounce, their mind and heart are focused on reaching their destination.  

Christians must be spiritual runners, fully oriented toward God, equipped and ready to join the battle.   

No Christian believing rightly in God should ever be off his guard. He should always be on the look-out for temptation, so that when it comes he will not be surprised or disturbed, but will gladly endure the toil and affliction it causes, and so will understand what he is saying when he chants with the prophet: ‘Prove me, 0 Lord, and try me’(Ps. 26:2. LXX).

Their hearts and souls must be fully oriented toward their destination and practice must be coupled with discrimination.

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