The Freedom of Imperceptible Steps: ILIAS THE PRESBYTER (A Gnomic Anthology Part 1,in Philokalia, vol. 3)


In patristic writings there is an emphasis on the relationship between soul and body as manifested in the minute, daily spiritual warfare on our journey to theosis. Theological concepts come to life through the profound psychology of how they are experienced and manifested at every moment of our lives. Nothing—not a gesture, sensation, passing thought or daily habit—is insignificant. Ilias, like other patristic writers, shows the interrelationship and delicate balance among them and their connection to the salvation or demise of our soul.  

Ilias takes a hopeful view in these pages. It is true that we must maintain constant watchfulness and discernment over everything—no matter how deceptively innocent or small it may be. However, this is not an overwhelming burden. If we break down big concepts into tiny pieces in thought and action, it means that we are enabled to have control of our lives. Don’t overwhelm yourself with seemingly unattainable goals such as reaching immediate union to God, Ilias implies. Begin, instead, with the low bearing fruit:

Among the things that lie within our power are the virtues of prayer and silence; among the things that depend for the most part not on us, but on the constitution of the body, are fasting and vigil. Hence the spiritual aspirant must try to attain whatever is more accessible to him.

It is difficult for most of us to break down the big picture into doable, component steps and to see small steps as pieces of a larger whole. People are divided into “thinkers” and “doers” with the former lost in ideas without an eye to execution, and the latter lost in tactical details without the ability to see how they fit into a larger vision and goals.

For the organizations I consulted with, change seemed fascinating to discuss but overwhelming to execute. They envisioned the implementation of a customer-centric approach in global terms–having to turn around their entire organization in one fell swoop, immediately changing employee roles, the basis for compensation and rewards, the architecture of the building, their websites, messages, conferences, personalities and lives. They became resentful, overwhelmed and paralyzed.

Change, however, is not an abstract concept. It takes root when it is lodged in small everyday things and habits. Start talking about clients at meetings rather than only talk about the organization’s achievements, for example. Take a few extra minutes to ask a question of, or chat with, a customer rather than rushing them through transactions which you view as nuisance.

Ilias shows how passions and virtues are not abstractions but are embedded in small steps that eventually add up:

You will not be able to attain the greater virtues until you have fully achieved those which lie within your power.

The death of your soul, likewise, is brought about gradually through small, barely perceptible things.

64. Do not fetter yourself to a small thing and you will not be enslaved to a greater one. For the greater evil is built up only on the basis of the smaller.

63. By being mindful of greater evils, you will also be fearful of smaller ones; but if you give way to the greater evils, you will shamefully indulge in the lesser as well.

Ilias has shown before the necessity for delicate balance between dualities and the goal of reconciliation between the two.  Mercy and truth must coexist for true virtue to take place, Ilias writes. Along the same vein, he has already told us that truth without humility and practice without discernment can, in fact, be destructive and detrimental to salvation.

67. In those in whom mercy and truth prevail, everything is godlike; for truth judges no one without mercy, while mercy never manifests compassion apart from truth.

In God there are no divisions or contradictions. This is why, when when we practice virtue in isolation, without coupling it with humility and discernment, we will not be able to experience the joy of God’s full presence through this practice. When we find the balance between elements, we become whole. Our lives become simple since we are no longer tormented by contradictions and incomplete truths, and we are able to fully give ourselves to God. The task is not overwhelming because we grow spiritually small step by small step.

Who is capable of deriving joy from virtuous action, Ilias asks? He startles us with the erotic description of the union between man and woman from the Song of Songs, in which sensual immersion in the body of a woman is used as metaphor for spiritual immersion in God through theosis. The erotic ecstasy of sexual fulfillment is a perfect metaphor for the rapturous joy,  derived when we have achieved full union with God.

75. Words of eternal life drop from the lips of dispassion like honey from the honeycomb (cf. Song of Songs 4:11). Who then is worthy of touching her lip with his own, of lying between her breasts (cf. Song of Songs 1:13), and smelling the fragrance of her clothes (cf. Song of Songs 4:10, 11) – that is to say, of rejoicing in the laws of the virtues which are, it is said, superior to all the perfumes perceived by the senses?

One thought on “The Freedom of Imperceptible Steps: ILIAS THE PRESBYTER (A Gnomic Anthology Part 1,in Philokalia, vol. 3)”

  1. Thank you. So true. Each day seems to be a small parcel of lessons. Maybe the daily review advocated by Pythagoras could ground us – what could I have done better today? The journey can only be taken one step/lesson at a time, surely. Coming into clarity with the resolution of conflicting polarities. Yes to that too. Very pleased to receive this in my inbox and find a sense of communion on this very lonely journey. I am not Christian, but this is as one with my secularly spiritual way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s