LIVING IN A STATE OF GRATITUDE: The Fourth Stage of Contemplation, St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia vol. 3

At the end of his chapter on the fourth stage of contemplation, St. Peter considers gratitude. He tells us that gratitude is so essential to a life in God that lack of gratitude is worse than even sin.

I regard myself as unworthy of heaven and earth, and as deserving every punishment, not simply because of the sins I have committed, but much more because of the blessings I have received without showing any gratitude, contemptible as I am.

Gratitude for St. Peter goes beyond awareness of good things in one’s life. Instead, he is referring to a state of gratitude that permeates all experiences and perceptions. Such a state allows us to view God through new eyes.

Instead of simply knowing and reciting God’s gifts to us, we now “get it,” grasping their full meaning and implications. Nothing seems random or insignificant to grateful eyes because they can gaze beyond the surface and uncover God’s presence and purpose in all things, no matter how mundane. A state of gratitude allows us to be constantly astonished by the value of things we had previously missed or discounted.

It is difficult to conjure up what a true state of gratitude feels like. It is far easier to invoke our busy lives, spent on checking off to-do lists, exhausted by ambition and anxiety, driven by complaints for perceived “injustices,” jealousy and resentment.  

I know that my own desire to “change the world” makes me impatient with things as they are, and resentful of people or situations that are resistant to change. I am prone to analysis and judgment. I consider all good things in my daily life as natural and expected as breathing, rather than as sources of wonder and discovery.

St. Peter models for us a state of gratitude in which nothing is taken for granted and, hence, everything is constantly renewed.

For Thou, Lord, who dost transcend all goodness, hast filled my soul with every blessing. I dimly perceive Thy works and my mind is amazed.

To experience gratitude, one must have left behind the ego-centric view of the world and given himself to Christ and love of others. Through this state, the narrator perceives not just the grandeur, but the intimate sweetness of Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Logos of God, the most tender name of our salvation, great is Thy glory, great are Thy works, marvelous are Thy words, ‘sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb’ (Ps.19: 10)

In these pages St. Peter moves away from himself to contemplate Christ’s life.  This meditation uncovers new meaning and results in increased gratitude:

Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee. Who can glorify and hymn Thy coming in the flesh, Thy goodness, power, wisdom, Thy life in this world and Thy teaching?

Contemplation increases gratitude which, in turn, leads to a state of rapture. “Who, having understood Thy commandments and other sayings,” he asks, “will not be astonished when he perceives Thy boundless wisdom?”  

St. Peter quotes St John of Damaskos describing a spiritually advanced man: “He is no longer deceived by the exterior attractiveness of the things of this world.”

This is the state reached through contemplation and gratitude in the narrative. The narrator can now see the true nature of things and the depth of God’s wisdom, and is thus able to perceive, his own place in the universe and relationship to Christ.  

I hymn Thy transfiguration, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, ascension, I grow weak, my Lord, before Thy wonders and, at a loss. Merely to look on what is Thine reduces me to nothing.

His state of gratitude expands beyond Christ as he uncovers fresh meaning in the lives of the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and saints.

He expresses his thirst for intimacy with Christ and his need for her help, to the Theotokos:

Blessed Queen of the universe, you know that we sinners have no intimacy with the God whom you have borne. But, putting our trust in you, through your mediation we your servants prostrate ourselves before the Lord: for you can freely approach Him since He is your son and our God.

As if the impossibility of suffering to conquer the world suddenly strikes him with renewed intensity, he pauses from his praises and descriptions and is reduced to asking questions of the Apostles:

How, few though you were, did you conquer the whole world? How, though simple and unlettered, did you overcome kings and rulers? How, though unarmed, naked and poor, enclosed in weak flesh, did you defeat the invisible demons?

And he is filled with rekindled astonishment and gratitude in contemplating the saints:

Who is not astounded when he sees, O holy martyrs, the good fight that you fought? Being in the body you conquered the bodiless enemy, confessing Christ and armed with the Cross

St. Peter challenges us to consider the implicit contrast between lives lived in gratitude and those lived in turmoil, anger, resentment, or empty busyness. He wants us to experience the state of rapture and amazement that gratitude makes possible and question the value of lives lived without constant discovery and renewal, separated from God. 


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