OPENING THE EYES OF YOUR HEART: Ilias the Presbyter (A Gnomic Anthology Part II, in Philokalia, vol. 3)



I am outraged by my sister’s political views. I can’t stand to even hear her finish her sentence. I break in, shouting out a series of facts that surely prove the folly of her position. I decide that her manner is abusive, and it suddenly dawns on me that there are other “abusive” relationships in my life. I pity myself and remember a disagreement with a colleague yesterday. All my professional relationships flash before my eyes. I replay them in my mind and find all kinds of proof of disrespect toward me.  How could I have allowed it? I get angrier and angrier at friends and colleagues and begin constructing scenarios of revenge. I get lost in imaginary dialogues where I clearly have the upper hand and my wit and irony puts others in their place.

In time, my anger and self-pity will surely engulf me and may push down happy memories of my sister and friends thus robbing me of the sweetness of love and lessons learned in relationships.

Ilias apparently, gets all this, though he lived centuries ago.

He has a name for the state of mind I allowed myself to enter– “sense-perception.” This means that my mind is so shrouded with material things and the passions these engender, that I am incapable of perceiving God’s presence “unveiled.”

When we are in the realm of sense perception, we are trapped on the surface like flies on a fly paper, without perceiving the presence of God behind the surface and experiencing His glory.

Until the intellect has seen God’s glory with ‘unveiled face’ (2 Cor. 3:18), the soul cannot say from experience of that glory: ‘I shall exult in the Lord, I shall delight in His salvation’ (cf. Ps. 35:9. LXX). For its heart is still shrouded in self-love, so that the world’s foundations – the inner essences of things – cannot be revealed to it.


Ilias comes to our rescue by giving us a practical toolkit for becoming “unstuck,” which is highly relevant to us as 22nd century dwellers.

He first reminds us that “given free rein, the intellect is insatiable.” He thus asks us to turn upside down today’s models for thinking by demonstrating that our need for absolute freedom to think and dream can drive us to spiritual slavery. Without restraint and focus, we enter the realm of intellectual self-indulgence that separates us from God. 

One of the most important lessons he teaches us is how to detect the state of our intellect at any given time. Even if we are caught in great spiritual turmoil, recognition of our state of mind and awareness of right and wrong times are the first steps to detachment. They will, in themselves, give us a raft of self-control, on which we can begin building our defense against self-indulgence.

Ilias’ toolkit is especially helpful in going against the grain of a culture of self-indulgence where it is increasingly difficult to say “no” and “deprive” ourselves. We are encouraged to fulfill dreams and passions, respect our impulses, pamper ourselves, avoid inconvenience and restriction at all costs. The only acceptable discipline is perhaps at the gym or healthy nutrition where our own ideal image of self, drives our actions. It is difficult to fully understand ascetic practice in a culture of intellectual self-indulgence, but this is what Ilias asks us to do.

Though Ilias addresses monastics, it is not difficult to translate his arsenal of weapons for the ordinary men and women of today. We start our ascendance to spiritual contemplation simply through the ability to say “no.” No to the first wondering thought, no to the extra helping of food, no to the impulse to overspend on a spontaneous purchase. This is the first step in freeing out intellect “from self-indulgence in the body.”  

To be able to resist, however, we must understand the realms of the intellect and identify the realm we are in at any given time.

The man of spiritual knowledge must recognize when his intellect is in the realm of intellection, when it is in that of thought, and when in that of sense-perception. And in each case, he must recognize whether it is there at the right time or at the wrong time.

There three realms within which our intellect dwells:

  • The realm of sense-perception that “is associated with all manner of visible and material things.” This includes passions and unruly thoughts that emanate from what our senses see, hear and experience.
  • The realm of thought — that of rational thinking and understanding. This is when we begin to perceive God’s essence and purpose behind visible things.
  • The realm of intellection, that goes beyond sense perception and rational thought to, not only “apprehend the inner essences” of tangible things but also “to grasp those of incorporeal beings” and participate in the essence of God.

To navigate the three realms and constantly ascend from the lowest to the highest, we must learn to identify them. We must also possess the self-restraint to say no and go against the grain of our culture and habitual impulses.


It is hard to visualize the joy of union with God if you have not experienced it. Ilias does his best to convey the experience.

When you free yourself from intellectual self-indulgence and distinguish the divine principles beyond visible things “the eyes of your heart will be opened, and you will be able clearly to meditate on the divine principles inscribed within it; and their sweetness to your spiritual taste will be greater than that of honey.”  

In essence, Ilias gives us the tools for spiritual contemplation, describes the losses of a world limited to tangible realities and describes the process we must undertake to achieve theosis, and the rewards of each state we achieve.

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