Discerning Beauty Amidst Imperfection: Peter of Damaskos, 6th Stage of Contemplation, Philokalia, vol.3

In the first pages of this chapter, St. Peter of Damaskos defines the 6th stage of contemplation as that in which “one begins to look without passion on the beauty of created things.” Beyond this advanced state of thought, however, he conveys a message of extraordinary hope in which we can contemplate the universe dispassionately yet without demonizing the forces and objects that would prevent us from doing so.

To put things in context, he presents to us “three categories of thought: human, demonic, and angelic.”

When we think on the human level, we simply identify what we see, without being able to put things in perspective or decipher the deeper meaning of things beyond the surface.

Demonic thought, on the other hand, envelops all things we see, in passion and confusion. Objects may evoke greed or envy, for example. People become objects of our desire or hatred, opportunities for social advancement or obstacles to our ambitions. We are trapped inside our passions. We can only see the world through a very narrow lens and miss the beauty and cohesion of a universe inhabited by God.

Angelic thought, however, “consists in the dispassionate contemplation of things, which is spiritual knowledge proper.

Imagine a world experienced in a state of inner stillness in which we pause the frantic pace of ceaseless hustle and see objects and living beings for themselves rather than as tools for our convenience and objects of our passions. Imagine if, even when gazing at man’s depravity, we can also perceive the miracle and beauty of his creation. Imagine the luxury of a dispassionate mind when, freed of the burden of our own will and agendas, we can take the time to uncover beauty in ordinary things and seemingly uninteresting people.

By thus contemplating dispassionately the beauty and use of each thing, he who is illumined is filled with love for the Creator.

Next, St. Peter, introduces nuance in our choices and the need for balance and discernment. Love distorted by passion, he tells us, is not proper love.

For if we do not love things as they should be loved, but love them more than we love God, then we are no different from idolators, as St Maximos says.

Yet, having distinguished between proper and improper love, Peter establishes even a more powerful theme, one of hope, reconciliation, and personal responsibility. While aiming at achieving angelic thought, he says, we must ensure that we are not pulled to the extremes in either direction:

But if, on the other hand, we hate and despise things, failing to perceive that they were created ‘wholly good and beautiful’ (Gen. 1 : 31), we provoke the anger of God.

Demonizing the things that tempt us and the choices that differ from ours will prevent us from inner stillness and, hence, the discovery of beauty. High principles and political positions, however lofty they may be, pose a risk of filling us with anger, hatred or anxiety when we see them as indicators of our superiority over others.

Instead of judging and demonizing, “we should look on man with wonder,” St. Peter advises, “conscious that his intellect, being infinite, is the image of the invisible God.”

He brings up the example of gold. Gold, he explains, is not evil in itself, but only in the way it is used.

…so far as gold is a perishable and earthly thing, it is not to be preferred to the commandments of God; yet as something created by God and useful for bodily life and for salvation, it deserves, not our hatred, but our love and self-control.

It is the same thing with the intellect. Our intellect is a gift from God that allows us to gain spiritual knowledge and live in God’s image. However, when it goes astray through pride and pseudo-confidence, it is an obstacle that keeps us from unity with God and humans. St. Peter here asks for discernment, balance and reconciliation:

In this way, the intellect does not go above its true goal out of pride or self-esteem, thinking it understands things merely through its own power of thought; nor does it fall below its true goal, prevented by ignorance from attaining perfection. It does not veer to the right through rejecting and hating created things, or to the left through mindless affection for them and attachment to them.

How often do we get caught in passionate discussions in which our conflict with others’ opinions grows exponentially as one party reacts to the other and their sense of self-righteousness increases. The simple thought of the possibility that we may be wrong never occurs to us. In the middle of a heated exchange, we lose all curiosity about what exactly others think and why. We are driven by the desire to dominate and win at all costs. As a path to dispassion, St. Peter advises us to mistrust our own passionate opinions. We must avoid the pride in our ability to rely solely on own intellectual power to make decisions. We must exercise our intellect in humility.

St. Peter gives us a hopeful view of the universe that affirms the beauty God endows us with:

Whoever is aware of all this recognizes that there is nothing incidental or evil in creation, and that even what takes place against God’s will is miraculously changed by God into something good.

By thus contemplating dispassionately the beauty and use of each thing, he who is illumined is filled with love for the Creator.


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