Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia, vol.3:  Discerning Degrees in Good and Evil

A Gnomic Anthology, Part 1, #23-39

Ilias returns to, and embellishes, the theme of discernment or “discrimination” he introduced earlier.

“Without discrimination,” Ilias told us, “neither practice nor spiritual knowledge can fulfill its purpose.”

Nothing is black or white, he reminds us in these few pages and introduces the concept of “degrees.”

Although moral judgment is by nature indivisible, there are none the less different degrees of it.

Though we are tempted by the senses the degree of our attachment varies:

For although all men are subject to the senses, not all pay them the same amount of tribute.

We cannot automatically condemn qualities such as ignorance, for example, without understanding its context and intentionality.

37. A haughty person is not aware of his faults, or a humble person of his good Qualities. An evil ignorance blinds the first, an ignorance pleasing to God blinds the second.

Ilias invites us to discern the depths of the soul and its subtle variations beyond appearance. Beyond apparent health, for example, may lie darkness of the soul.

From the outside a soul may appear to be healthy, while within, in the depths of consciousness, it may suffer from some hidden sickness.

Beneath acts of generosity may lie a desire to look good to others; or the goal of finding an easy act of grace that involves giving only what we do not need while zealously guarding what we perceive as necessary.

A truly merciful person is not one that deliberately gives away superfluous things, but one that forgives those who deprive him of what he needs.

In short, Ilias does not give us moral rules that we can follow mechanically. He asks for continuous watchfulness and engagement of the soul and heart as we constantly pierce appearance to uncover underlying truths and are able to see the degrees between opposites.

MISSING THE MAIN POINT

Lack of discernment doesn’t only prevent us from discovering nuanced degrees and the infirmity underneath apparent health. It can also prevent us from perceiving the glory of God’s nature, as our mind is focused on rules-keeping and “superfluous” things.  

Few are circumspect with regard to what is according to nature, but many with regard to what is contrary to nature. For having expended out of fear all their intrinsic quota of circumspection on what is contrary to nature, they have little left to exercise with regard to what is according to nature. Indeed, they expend most of it on superfluous things and what is by nature worthless.

For most of us the texture of daily life consists of things like “to do” lists, gratuitous and obsessive thoughts, anxiety over deadlines and appearances, efforts at controlling outcomes and other people. Our thoughts are racing, and our minds become cluttered. Only inner stillness–“an intelligent silence” — will allow us to fully discern the presence of God and be present ourselves at the “right moment.”

26. A sense of the right moment and a sense of proportion go hand in hand with an intelligent silence. Truth is the banquet of all the three together. Where there is such a banquet, the father of lies, confronting a soul as it departs from this life, will not find in it any of the things he looks for.

MENTAL TOUGHNESS

Discernment requires humility and openness to possibilities. Blame and criticism automatically engender flight or fight reactions in us. With discernment and the inner stillness that enables it, we remain dispassionate and open.

33. Do not shun the person who opportunely berates you; but go to him and he will show you how much evil lies hidden from your consciousness. Once you have swallowed the bitter and nauseous draught, you will taste the sweet nourishment of health.

In fact, we are asked to see pain and reproof the way Olympic athletes view the relentless training they undergo: the more of it, the highest their chances for success.

34. The greater the pain that you feel, the more you should welcome the person whose reproof makes you feel it. For he is bringing about within you that total purification without which your intellect cannot attain the pure state of prayer.

Just as discernment calls for the understanding of degrees and hidden truths, we are called by Ilias to go beyond the surface and mere reactions and discern the possibility of salvation behind pain.

39. Reproof strengthens the soul, whereas praise debilitates it and makes it even more sluggish in its spiritual struggle.

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