Throughout Philokalia the underlying framework for salvation is a lifelong and transformative journey leading us in stages from preoccupation with material things and destructive passions to a true union with God (deification or theosis).
The journey unfolds in three primary stages: renunciation of the world, elucidation or understanding and, finally, theosis. lias focuses on the gradual transformation of the intellect in the course of this journey, with contemplation being the highest form of intellect.
While still attached to the material world, our thoughts are limited to what we can see and touch. As we progress, and we are able to clear our minds of obsessive thoughts and raging passions, we can see the world with renewed and unobstructive vision and see things we were unable to perceive before. We can now distinguish the hidden essence of things beyond appearance and physical reality.
The inner principles of corporeal realities are concealed like bones within objects apprehended by the senses: no one who has not transcended attachment to sensible things can see them.
Beyond undergoing inner transformation, however, Ilias points to our role as agents of transformation, ourselves.
An important objective of the ascetic discipline that is required in order to achieve union with God, is to reach a state of inner peace and silence by cultivating dispassion. As we progress in our spiritual journey, we gain increasing control over our inner turmoil and are no longer tossed about by passions in whatever direction they take us.
By exercising self-control and restraint, we differentiate ourselves from the rest of creation. .
A river, Ilias tells us, cannot change the flow of its water or the turbulence within it by natural means. Yet we, as humans, can change the course of our thinking and put an end to our inner turmoil.
108. It is less hard to check the downward flow of a river than for one who prays to check the turbulence of the intellect when he wishes, preventing it from fragmenting itself among visible things and concentrating it on the higher realities kindred to it. This is so in spite of the fact that to check the flow of a river is contrary to nature, while to check the turbulence of the intellect accords with nature.
This is a message of enormous hope as well as a clear differentiation between man and the rest of the creation. We do not have to become defeated by depression, sorrow, fear, anger or despair. On our journey from attachment to matter to complete union to God, we gradually gain the capacity to remain whole in the face of fragmentation and serene in the face of turmoil.
Yet the unique role of man in God’s universe that separates him from the rest of creation goes beyond self-control.
Man is not simply a created being among other created beings. He is an entire world within the world:
112. Within the visible world, man is as it were a second world; and the same is true of thought within the intelligible world.
Ilias goes further. Human beings are not simply passive objects within God’s creation but, in a small way, co-creators themselves. Man is “the herald of heaven and earth, and of all that is in them.” Most significantly, man, is created with the ability to think and speak and, hence, the inherent capacity to interpret and give voice to God’s creation. What are the implications of this?
Without articulation, Ilias concludes, the universe would be silent.
Without man and thought both the sensible and the intelligible worlds would be inarticulate.
Imagine an unarticulate world. God’s wonder is experienced existentially but cannot be communicated or understood. It cannot be transformed into a wellspring of meaning and inspiration by the intellect, become a guide for our lives and passed on to the next generation.
This is an amazing statement but has many precedents. In Genesis II, for example, Adam is asked by God to name all the animals.
Genesis II: 19. ” And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and. brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever. Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof
Man’s ability to name, articulate, make sense of and perpetuate God’s glory complements God’s creation. With a nous purified by prayer and ascetic practice, we are both the recipients and co-creators of God’s glory and gift or continuous renewal. .
If our roles are to articulate and communicate the meaning of the created world, we can see artistic expression, in its ideal form, as a fulfillment of that role.
Fr. Silouan Justiniano writes on the subject and quotes Ilias:
…We can also depict these from artistic models and Nature, seeing them through the “new eyes” of the heart that the integrated knowledge of the timeless pictorial principles of the canon gives us. In the case of iconography what Ilias the Presbyter calls “the intellects principles,” can be seen as the pictorial principles of the canon. Thereby, sense-perception is uplifted and transfigured from outward appearance by bringing out of it the apprehension of archetypes in symbolic representation.
In iconography, “the creative act of transfiguring Nature, as Ilias points out, the imagination serves as a ladder, through which images ascend and descend, after they have been imprinted by the intellect.”
In this process the painter, without even being fully aware of it, is in a state of contemplation as he is in the process of “apprehending the invisible in the visible, and “pondering things in the heart,” as to determine artistically how to best outwardly manifest or symbolize the image within him.”
(Fr. Silouan Justiniano, May 20, 2013, “Archetype and Symbol III: On Noetic Vision, Continued” https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/archetype-and-symbol-iii-on-noetic-vision-continued/)
So those who follow Christ’s path to the ultimate union with God, become both transformed and transformational. They are constantly renewed so that their new sight penetrates under the surface and uncovers new things never before imagined, and agents of renewal by understanding, articulating and sharing the meaning of creation.