Through contemplation, Ilias has told us, we can reach theosis–union with God and unity with ourselves and God’s universe.
Ilias wants us to understand the stages of the intellect along the way, and perceive our progress as a lifelong journey. “The first stage of ascetic practice,” he tells us, “is marked by self-control and truthfulness; the intermediate stage by moderation and humble mindedness; the final stage by freedom from thoughts and the sanctification of the body.”
Asceticism, he writes, is the first step in the ladder of ascension to theosis, where you free yourself from the tyranny of being tossed about by your impulses, rambling thoughts and passions, without firm foundation or inner peace. You will next enter a state of elucidation and moderation and, finally, a state of stillness, freedom from rambling thoughts and union with God.
Ilias sheds light into the psychological and spiritual nuances of our experience during our journey. The danger he alerts us to is that of going through the steps mechanically without absorbing them, “owning” them and, hence, transforming ourselves.
Spiritual advancement is not a matter of checking items off a to-do list. The instructions that Ilias gives cannot be mechanically applied the way that, for example, instructions on how to put together a model airplane can be simply followed. He asks for the full engagement of the heart and intellect and the cultivation of discernment.
Even the first stage of self-control requires more effort than simply saying no to impulses. The way you do things, their timing and quality play an important role.
35. Ascetic practice consists not merely in managing to do what is right, but also in doing it rightly: the doer must concern himself with timeliness and congruity.
Yet ascetic practice, Ilias cautions, “cannot be consolidated without contemplation, and contemplation cannot be genuine without ascetic practice.” He continues, “Ascetic practice combined with contemplation is like the body united to its ruling spirit. Without contemplation, it is like flesh dominated by a spirit of self-will.”
Contemplation requires immersion of heart and soul, without the distraction of obsessive thoughts and personal preoccupations. As we become free from our own self-will, we will become one with God, unable to separate ourselves from Him.
41. The man engaged in ascetic practice drinks the draught of compunction during prayer, but the contemplative gets drunk with the best cup (cf. Ps. 23:5. LXX). The first meditates on things that are according to nature, while the second ignores even himself during prayer.
Without this level of immersion, we are just superficial and temporary guests in God’s house rather than participants in it. We may catch glimpses of the glory as observers without experiencing it.
42. The man engaged in ascetic practice cannot persist in spiritual contemplation for long. He is like a person who is being given hospitality but must shortly leave his host’s house.
How many times do we feel like temporary guests in our own home? We put so much effort in the way we present ourselves to others, defend our ideas and positions, create narratives about who we are that we cannot tell the difference between who we want to be and who we really are. Gaining control of things like our diet, exercise, burst of anger or overspending are steps in the right direction but will not fill the hole as we continue being mere guests in our home. Our vision of God is still veiled and, while we are controlling some bad habits and passions, we are still live our lives by reacting to what emanates from the senses.
Ilias gives us the analogy of “the oarsmen of the spiritual ship.” The ascetic, who has gained self-control but not contemplative thought, needs the oars to get to the desired destination. The contemplative, on the other hand, no longer needs oars.
For during prayer the contemplative bids farewell to everything: himself holding the tiller of discernment he keeps awake throughout the night of contemplation, offering praises to Him who holds all things together. And perhaps he sings some love song to his soul as he watches the swell of the salty sea and the tumult of the waves, and marvels at the righteous judgments of God.
By entering a life of prayer in which we forget ourselves, we gain our true selves. If we are no longer caught up by impulses to impress others or control the conversation, we don’t need to be anxious about others’ opinions of us or feel worthless if we are not the center of attention or if things don’t go our way. We are the true owners of the house that God built within us.
51. The man engaged in ascetic practice finds that during prayer the knowledge of sensible things covers his heart like a veil, which he is unable to remove because of his attachment to these things. Only the contemplative man, owing to his non-attachment, can to some degree see the glory of God ‘with unveiled face’ (2 Cor. 3:18).