TIMIDITY AND BOLDNESS: ST. PETER OF DAMASKOS, The Third Stage of Contemplation, Philokalia, vol. 3


When I returned to Christianity in my 40’s, I found myself hiding or downplaying my faith and serious spiritual exploration from my colleagues and “Bohemian” friends. I didn’t want to be perceived as “uncool.”  I was still “timid” in my faith in that I forced it into a small corner of my life, unwilling to fully integrate and live it. I had one foot in the sea and another on land, benefitting from neither one.

There are many ways in which we display timidity and hold back from giving all of ourselves to God and others in our lives. Some of us lack the confidence that God will forgive us or deign to hear our prayers. Others may be too overwhelmed with doubts, guilt, shame, or fear to lose themselves in prayer and trust God. Still others are so ty

This wonderful, little chapter takes us from dipping our toes in the water to immersing ourselves in it; from being tied in knots and stuck in no man’s land to being fully present in God and love of others.  

St. Peter begins with awareness of our sins and mourning for what we could have been.

The rhythm, metaphors, and formulaic expressions of the first lines are straight out of the funeral service and, later, from Holy Week and the Triodion.

 Alas, what agony the soul experiences when it is separated from the body. How many tears it sheds then, and there is no one to take pity on it. Turning its eyes to the angels, it entreats in vain. Stretching its hands towards men, it finds no one to help it. I weep and grieve when I think of death and see man’s beauty, created by God in His own image, lying in the grave, ugly, abject, its physical form destroyed.

These lines are meant as a meditation on death and the experience of it so that it becomes real and tangible.

Through it, we become aware of our own spiritual death. We see clearly who we have become and lament our own self-destructiveness

Woe is me, a sinner. What has happened to me? Why should I destroy myself so wrongly?… Where is the contrition of soul and the deep inward grief? Where is the gentleness, the generosity, the heart’s freedom from evil thoughts…?

Yet mourning alone is not sufficient for repentance and salvation. Even if our intellect begins to become illuminated, we are still in a state of fear and confusion.

Thy grace I have begun to perceive, and so am filled with confusion.

The intellect alone cannot overcome timidity and we continue to dwell in the in-between place of confusion and inaction.

Shall I read and sing psalms with my mouth only? For my passions have darkened my intellect and I cannot understand the meaning of what is said. Shall I fall prostrate before Thee, the giver of all blessings? But I have no confidence. My life is without hope; I have destroyed my soul

To move past awareness, one must have hope:

For we have placed our hope in Thee, our Saviour, even though in our negligence we fail to keep Thy commandments

To repent, we must cast “our soul’s despair into this sea” and leap into it, replacing reticence with boldness.

Hope opens the door to spiritual action through supplications.

Protect our lives and our departure out of this world from impure spirits, from every temptation, from all sin and malice, from presumption and despair, from lack of faith, from folly, from self-inflation and cowardice, from delusion and unruliness, from the wiles and snares of the devil. In Thy compassion grant us what is good for our souls in this age and in the age to be.

Through the language, symbolism and the form of petitions, the narrative becomes liturgical prayer.  

Hope allows space for gratitude and compassion. We are becoming free of ourselves, and our petitions to God include others:

Have mercy on my brethren and fathers, on all monks and priests everywhere, on my parents, my brothers and sisters, my relatives…

Finally, we move even beyond awareness, mourning, hope, gratitude, and prayer, beyond words themselves. We become bold and free of debilitating doubts and confusion and offer our entire self to God—body and soul– by falling down before him.

Yet, finding courage in Thy inexpressible compassion, in Thy goodness and tender mercy that excel our understanding, I fall before Thee and entreat Thee, Lord: ‘Have mercy upon me, 0 Lord, for I am weak’ (Ps. 6 : 2), and forgive me my many crimes.

The petitions become more fervent and reflect a state of theosis—union with God

…and, rising up, in fear and trembling I make this one request: that unworthy though I am I may be found worthy to be Thy servant; that by grace I may have an intellect that is free from all form, shape, colour or materiality; that, as Daniel once bowed down before Thy angel (cf. Dan. 10 : 9), I may fall on hands and knees before Thee, the only God, Creator of all, and offer Thee first thanksgiving and then confession.

By the end of the chapter, there is neither logical thought nor lamentation but a bold surrender of self and a complete union to God. We are no longer stuck between and betwixt, but have reached a state of inner stillness through union with God and love of others:

I confess Thy gifts; I do not hide Thy blessings; I proclaim Thy mercies; I acknowledge Thee, 0 Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify Thy name for ever

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