FEAR AND GENTLENESS: THE SEVEN COMMANDMENTS, St. Peter of Damascus – Philokalia vol. 3

In the previous chapter, St. Peter outlines for us 7 forms of bodily disciple that will keep us on a firm foundation and not allow us to tumble from the “precipice into chaos.”

To achieve salvation, however, we must ascend to a higher spiritual realm, that of the seven commandments, which he discusses in this chapter. It is the realm in which God’s will is manifested through actions and participation.

We cannot keep the commandments, however, without an important prerequisite: experiencing fear of God.

In the case both of the seven gifts of the Spirit and of the Lord’s Beatitudes, we are taught that if we do not begin with fear, we can never ascend to the rest.

For St. Peter, and the other hesychastic fathers, fear of God goes far beyond fear of punishment. St. Peter describes it in terms of the awe we experience if we truly contemplate God—His nature, His grandeur and the nature of our relationship with Him.

Fear of God helps us experience our authentic selves at the start of the journey, To experience fear of God, we must let go of our pride and desire to control.  We must become poor in spirit through the humility of seeing ourselves as part of God’s creation, rather than the directors of it.

“…for He says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt.s: 3), that is, those who quail with fear of God and are inexpressibly contrite in soul. For the Lord has established this as the basic commandment, knowing that without this even living in heaven would be profitless, for one would still possess the same madness through which the devil, Adam and many others have fallen.

Fear of God is the opposite of self-satisfaction and complacence. While taking stock of, and feeling gratitude for, the achievements and goodness God has enabled us to experience, fear of God reminds us of our own fragility. We are constantly aware that we are frail and in danger of a fall at any moment. This is why the path to salvation entails daily spiritual warfare.

To be motivated to keep the commandments and not stray from our journey of ascent, we must be driven by both gratitude and fear. We give thanks to God for His gifts while, at the same time, we are cognizant of the emptiness and worthlessness of our lives without God.

Our joy for the grandeur of God is not purely triumphant but tinged with sorrow. We are content with what we have but grieve over our lapses. To a discriminating mind, the understanding of who are meant to be and could become is clear. While we are grateful for our gifts, a part of us grieves that our obsessive thoughts and preoccupations diminish our ability to experience the presence of God and achieve inner peace. We are grieved over the realization that our hearts are not completely open to others, that anger and resentments often obscure love.

Fear of God allows us to look at our selves authentically and experience the harmony of our union with God and his universe. It frees us from the anguish of puffed-up egos, the delusion of control of others, the impulse to constantly achieve and surpass others and the subsequent loneliness, emptiness and anxiety.

St. Peter’s 3d commandment is “gentleness.” We associate gentleness with politeness, care not to hurt someone’s feelings, sweetness of character. At times gentleness has the negative connotation of passivity, inability to stand up for yourself or lack of ambition. Ironically, these qualities are virtues in Christianity.

By gentleness St. Peter refers to a state of inner peace that presupposes humility and acceptance. Within this perspective, railing against things that cannot be changed, allowing worldly ambition to be the main driver of your life are not signs of strength but of enslavement that result in a state of inner tumult..

Gentleness bestows strength through stability as “we become like a firmly-rooted rock, unshaken by the storms and tempests of life, always the same, whether rich or poor, in ease or hardship, in honour or dishonour.”

Gentleness allows us discernment through humility since we are no longer prey to passions that pull us in all directions and have freed ourselves from the tyranny of our own will.

Thus the person who has been granted the grace of keeping the third commandment, and so has acquired full discrimination, will no longer be deceived either wittingly or unwittingly. Instead, having received the grace of humility, he will regard himself as nothing. For gentleness is the substance of humility, and humility is the door leading to dispassion. Through dispassion a man enters into perfect unfaltering love

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