HOW DOES ONE KNOW CHRIST? The 4th Stage of Contemplation,  Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia vol. 3

pp. 122-126

The fourth stage of contemplation is all about understanding Christ—his incarnation, life and death.

What does it mean to understand Christ? Surely, we affirm our faith each Sunday through the creed, we sing about Christ’s life and gifts in all services, and we enrich our understanding through the priests’ homilies and additional readings. What else could we need to know?

St. Peter, however, is not talking about additional historical and theological knowledge. He asks us, instead, to participate in Christ with mind and body.  Contemplation is not a logical analysis or the acquisition of facts. It goes beyond words and thoughts, beyond awareness of self and material sensations to reach an ecstatic experience of God in His fulness.

The fourth stage of contemplation consists in the understanding of our Lord’s incarnation and His manner of life in this world, to the point that we practically forget even to eat, as St Basil the Great writes

The goal in the mystical tradition of Hesychasm, is to reach theosis—a complete union with God. To reach this stage, one must shift from ego-centered to ego-transcendent consciousness,” thus making a true “metanoia.”

The shift from “ego-centered to ego-transcendent consciousness,” is called metanoia in Greek. The literal translation of this term is “transformation of the nous,” but the English language contains no exact synonym for the word nous. Misleading translations are “intellect,” “mind,” or “reason.” The nous bears no resemblance to the rational intellect (dianoia in Greek). Whereas the rational intellect uses deductive reasoning, the nous relies upon “immediate experience” or intuition. Therefore, the term metanoia is correctly understood as a shift from ego-centered to nous-centered, ego-transcendent, or, in hesychastic terminology, God-centered consciousness.

Mitchell B., Liester. “Hesychasm: A Christian Path of Transcendence.” Quest  89.2  MARCH-APRIL 2000): 54-59, 65.

The narrative echoes this transformative process, shifting from prose to raptured prayer, illustrating a state of contemplation:

Thou hast enraptured me with longing for Thee, 0 Christ, and hast transformed me with the intensity of Thy divine love; with immaterial fire consume my sins and fill me with delight in Thee, so that in my joy, 0 Lord, I may praise Thy first and second coming.

St. Peter reveals to us the hidden treasures we are unable to see, the mysteries beneath words or rituals that we miss.  When we remain trapped in a world of passions and an “ego-centered consciousness,” we cannot grasp the mystery of Christ that lies beyond what we see, touch, or hear. We are unable to grasp the mysteries hidden in the writings of the Holy Fathers and the mystery of Christ, himself. Christ, St. Peter tells us, is actually “hidden in the Bible.”

If anyone through the virtues of body and soul has received knowledge of these things, and of the mysteries hidden in the words of the holy fathers, of the divine Scriptures, and especially of the Holy Gospels, he will never lose his longing or cease from shedding the tears that come to him unbidden.

St. Peter illustrates the different levels of understanding and the gap between a slight, temporary sensation and a deep, transformative immersion in Christ.

Such a man is not like us: for though we may for a while be slightly stirred by the Scriptures, we are again plunged into darkness by laziness, forgetfulness and ignorance, and become obdurate because of our passions. But he who has been purified of the passions through inward grief perceives the hidden mysteries in all the Scriptures and is astonished by them all, especially by the words and actions recorded in the Holy Gospels.

It is this deep immersion in Christ St. Peter asks us to acquire in the 4th stage of contemplation. Shifting from the ego-centered mind to a Christ-centered consciousness is not an intellectual exercise but a choice of the life we want to live.

The ego-centered life, that misses the essence of Christ and is blind to the mysteries beyond material things, sounds like the lives most of us live in the 21st century. It is a life “on the go,” driven by exhausting schedules that result in mental and physical exhaustion. “Busyness” is accepted as the norm and, in fact, a badge of honor. Who would openly admit that their lives are NOT busy, lest they be viewed as unsuccessful or lazy. The busier you are the more status you achieve and the more important you feel. A state of constant hustle, leads to “burn-out,” emptiness, exhaustion and, eventually, despair,

St. Peter asks us to compare such a state of constant busyness and anxiety to one in which nothing disturbs our state of inner peace. Because we apply a Christ-centered perspective, we are able to discern the true value of things and the worthlessness of  passions or material things.   

Who has greater repose and honour, the person who devotes himself to God and acts accordingly, or the person involved in hustle, law courts and worldly cares? The person who always converses with God through meditation on the Holy Scriptures and undistracted prayer and tears, or the person who is always on the go, who devotes himself to fraud and lawless actions which, when they come to nothing, leave him only with his exhaustion and perhaps twofold death?

Which of the two lives would we choose? This is the question St. Peter leaves us with.

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