Be still, and know that I am God: St. Peter of Damaskos

  • The Four Virtues of the Soul
  • Active Spiritual Knowledge
  • The Bodily Virtues as Tools for the Acquisition of the Virtues of the Soul

(pp.100-104)

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St Peter identifies the four virtues of the soul as moral judgment, self-restraint, courage and justice.

Yet, almost immediately after listing the four virtues, lest we begin congratulating ourselves for possessing them, Peter shows us that they lie on a thin edge between unnatural passions.

Each virtue lies between two unnatural passions. Moral judgment lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between obduracy and licentiousness; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice between over-frugality and greed.

Unlike bodily virtues, spiritual virtues require a much more than simple adoption and consistency.

Without discernment, our courage could turn into overbearingness or, at the other end of the spectrum, cowardice. Moral judgment could shift into pride, control, and contempt for others. Self restraint can shift into rigidity. The practice of virtues, then, requires spiritual knowledge and discernment.

St. Peter poses an even harder question: what good are the virtues if they do not lead to salvation? He compares such sterile virtues to plants that bear no fruit.

How do we attain spiritual knowledge? St. Peter reminds us that only God possesses perfect knowledge and, therefore, it is only through his grace that we can recognize and cultivate virtue. He asks for humility in accepting that our understanding is limited to what we have, personally, experienced.

But if someone claims that, simply by hearing about these things, he knows them as he should, he is a liar. Man’s intellect can never rise to heaven without God as a guide; and it cannot speak of what it has not seen, but must first ascend and see it

Without the humility of relying on God’s help and understanding our limitations, our intellect is clouded and deluded, unable to distinguish the difference between truth and falsehood, word and action.

What, then, shall we say of those who are enslaved to the passions, and yet think they have a clear conscience?

What prevents us from acquiring true spiritual knowledge and attain salvation through virtues?  Quoting St. Mark, the Ascetic, St. Peter quotes 3 obstacles —  “‘the three giants of the demonic Philistines’: ignorance, forgetfulness, and laziness.”

These three giants are. the vices already mentioned: ignorance, the source of all evils; forgetfulness, its close relation and helper; and laziness, which weaves the dark shroud enveloping the soul in murk. This third vice supports and strengthens the other two, consolidating them so that evil becomes deep-rooted and persistent in the negligent soul. Laziness, forgetfulness and ignorance in their turn support and strengthen the other passions. St. Mark

With our souls enveloped “in murk,” we descend into delusion, refusing to acknowledge what we do not know. St. Peter quotes St. Maximos and John Chrysostom here.

As St Maximos has said, ‘To think that one knows prevents one from advancing in knowledge.‘1 St John Chrysostom points out that there is an ignorance which is praiseworthy: it consists in knowing consciously that one know nothing.”

We eventually fall into a state of profound disconnect, believing the stories we weave about ourselves and yet realizing deep inside that our actions contradict them. Our virtues will never bear fruit or help us advance spiritually. Even worse, we will live inauthentic lives, pressured to maintain a façade of lies.

 Because of our great insensitivity most of us think that we are something while in fact we are nothing (cf. Gal. 6 : 3): as St Paul says, ‘When they are talking about peace . . . calamity falls on them'( 1 Thess. 5 : 3). For they did not in fact possess peace but, as St John Chrysostom explains, only talked about it, thinking in their great insensitivity that they did possess it.

To combat such spiritual death, St. Mark advises continuous remembrance of God and gratitude. St. Peter adds inner stillness. We cannot preserve our intellect in turmoil, destructive thoughts, excessive physical effort, anger, or any other passions. St. Peter calls for simplicity and dispassion:

Blessed above all are those who seek to attain dispassion and spiritual knowledge unlaboriously through their total devotion to God: as God. Himself has said through His prophet, ‘Devote yourselves to stillness and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46 : Io).

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