St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia III

pp. 158-161

“If by the grace of God you have received the gift of discrimination,” St. Peter writes,” you should in great humility do everything you can to guard it, so that you do nothing without it.

Interestingly, the warning applies to both virtuous and sinful persons.

Why is discrimination, or discernment, so important and what does it mean in the patristic context?

We are told by many patristic writers that knowledge, contemplation and even prayer are not enough for one’s salvation. We are shown countless examples of virtuous men for whom prayer, fasting, deprivation and other virtues become so obsessive that the spirit of the action is forgotten, and love and inner peace have no room to take root.  

It seems that discerning and embodying the right balance is the most difficult of tasks for us humans. Extremes of exercise, job performance, healthy diets, radical ideologies, lifestyles, advocacy positions, among other forces, are dominating our lives today, dividing people into antagonistic camps.  

Discernment goes beyond virtue and sin. It encompasses the universal balance that exists in a world inhabited by God.” “For him who possesses it,” writes St Peter, “discrimination is a light illuminating the right moment, the proposed action, the form it takes….”

Without the light, we live in confused labyrinths of contradictory forces and invisible threats. Perhaps, we engage in good intentions and actions but cannot curb our impatience, and thus fail because our timing is wrong.  Perhaps, we delude ourselves, believing that we aspire to modest and reasonable professional goals, missing signs such as anxiety, irritability and depression that may indicate a transformation of aspirations into obsessions that leave no room for family, inner stillness and even joy.

Without discrimination it is easy to lose sight of the difference between good and evil, right, or wrong. Some of us keep vacillating between conflicting values and opinions, for example. Others may justify something that feels good at the time even though our conscience signals that it is destructive. Perhaps we sometimes persuade ourselves that adultery, injustice to others or overeating is justifiable because it fits with a new, modern set of morals, or is the result of an abusive spouse or parents, or it represents the pleasure we deserve at this point in our lives, etc.

Then discrimination reveals the nature of things, their use, quantity and variety, as well as the divine purpose and meaning in each passage of the Holy Scriptures.

St. Peter puts specific actions and decisions in a holistic and dynamic context, centuries before psychology unveiled the social, historical, subconscious, and behavioral forces behind our actions.

A destructive choice is not born suddenly and without context. Before adultery, St. Peter tells us, there are licentious thoughts. The devil makes us negligent of small, trivial things that in time lead to sin. Discrimination helps us discern the small steps and actions that, though imperceptible, lead to sin and despair over time.

Without discrimination, small, seemingly harmless transgressions take root and become entrenched habits. “As St Basil the Great says, a persistent habit acquires all the strength of nature.”

With discrimination we can discern the roots of good and evil in small, nuanced details that escape others’ sight.

On its possessor it confers spiritual insight, as both Moses and St John Klimakos say: such a man foresees the hidden designs of the enemy and foils them before they are put into operation.”

Another quality of discrimination, St. Peter tells us, is that it “is born of humility.   Unless you have relinquished control and acknowledged your own shortcomings, you will not have the peace of mind and selfless clarity to discern the true nature of things.

“When a person is full of such anxiety, he cannot even see himself.”

For Christians, discerning the truth and accepting our own limitations and the will of God should never lead to despair. No matter how great our pain we can restore our spirit through repentance. No matter how grave the crisis facing us, we can maintain inner peace through acceptance and hope, and recognize nuggets of opportunity amidst disaster. Despair, giving up on any effort at repentance and any hope of salvation, is the ultimate of sins.

Despair is a twisted form of pride in which we have set up ourself and ego above God. St. Peter angrily confronts the despairing man, asking him how he could possibly think that God is so powerless that he is unable to save him.

Is He, who for your sake created the great universe that you behold, incapable of saving your soul?

In a world in which we are tossed about by myriads of forces and choices, we are saved by the ability to clearly discern right from wrong and uncover the true nature of everything around us. Yet, discernment cannot take root in the midst of anxiety, turmoil, anger or preoccupation with self.

If those attacked by many passions of soul and body endure patiently, do not out of negligence surrender their free will, and do not despair, they are saved. Similarly, he who has attained the state of dispassion, freedom from fear and lightness of heart, quickly falls if he does not confess God’s grace continually by not judging anyone.


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