The Stillness of True Virtue: St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia III

pp. 162-164

To heal a person,” St. Peter tells us, “is the greatest thing one can do and excels all other virtue, because among the virtues there is nothing higher or more perfect than love for one’s neighbour.”

He devotes this small chapter to the acquisition of virtues.

What is virtue in Christian thought?  References to virtues extolled in the scriptures, the ten commandments and other spiritual writings readily come to mind: love thy neighbor as thyself, thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, honor your father and mother, do not kill, be humble…

We think the meaning is evident and self-contained. There is no mystery to be uncovered here. Yet, something in the next paragraph transfixed me when I thought of its application. St. Peter asks us to do more than love:

The sign of this love is not just that one does not keep for oneself anything of which another has need, but also that, as the Lord enjoins, one should joyfully endure death for his sake (cf. John 1� : 1 3), looking on it as a debt we have to pay.

How is it possible to endure death for a neighbor? Is this a metaphoric exaggeration just to make a point or a virtue to be applied literally?   

My irritating next-door neighbors come to mind. I must admit that I dislike them for their aloofness, unfriendliness, and constant suspicion of everyone. Okay, so I can see myself working hard to curb my negative feelings and even say good morning to them with a big smile on my face. But give my life for them? Come on!

My thoughts seem completely normal to me. They are the norm! Who would blame you if you didn’t jump into a raging fire to save a stranger? Self-sacrifice and disregard for one’s life are not intrinsic to the framework that is consider “normal,” through which we see the world. “Normalcy” consists of interrelated assumptions that build on each other, for example:

  • My time is important and not to be wasted on things or people who do not deserve it.
  • My feelings and priorities take precedence over those of others.
  • I have a right to my happiness and comfort and will protect them as needed.
  • I react to life—showing love to those who love me and treat me well and “cancelling” out those who are disagreeable or stand in my way. Why waste efforts on those who do not appreciate me?

Yet, the virtues that St. Peter describes are not contained within our ordinary framework.  In fact, they stretch us beyond what is comfortable and expected.  

And this is as it should be: for we should love our neighbour to the point of dying for him, not only because nature requires this of us, but also because of the precious blood poured out for us by Christ who commanded us to love in this way.

According to St. Peter, then, Christ is asking us to go beyond nature; beyond what is habitual or expected; beyond what we can conceive or understand.  

The virtues that save are not just acts or words emanating from us. They require a transformation of self, a state of gratitude, selflessness, stillness, dispassion, and faith. which is achieved by transcending nature. Above all, they require the grace of God, not simply our own will.

The first thought that leaps to mind when I wake up in the morning is a review of my to-do list and agenda. Being preoccupied with ourselves—our plans, agendas, resentments, anxieties, others’ admiration, or acceptance– is a form of “self-love.” A focus on ourselves leaves little room for love for others and God.

Do not love yourself, says St Maximos, and you will love God; do not pander to your ego, and you will love your brother.

Virtue requires dispassion and inner stillness that replace destructive passions such as, anger, resentment and control.  

…nothing so darkens the mind as evil, and nothing so enlightens the intellect as spiritual reading in stillness.

St. Peter returns to the theme of balance between extremes that his chapter on discernment unveiled for us. He urges us to adopt “the royal way,” and resist being tossed from high to low through passions and reactions to others’ actions or words.

There is no shorter way to Christ- that is to say, to dispassion and the wisdom of the Spirit- than the royal way that avoids both excess and deficiency in all things; nor is any virtue more capable of comprehending the divine will than humility and the abandoning of every personal thought and desire.

He asks us to go beyond nature and replace human passions– discontent, jealousy, ambition, and entitlement—with a state of gratitude. Instead of rejecting, forgetting, or discounting what we have we are filled with awe and appreciation for all things.

Nothing so augments the blessings bestowed on us as our recognition of , temptations.

This is not an impersonal process of meditation and inner stillness that can be reached in any context. St. Peter depicts a concrete and personalized discipline rooted in faith of Christ, and hence hope, and made possible by the grace of God. Speaking of our ability to empathize with and sacrifice for others, St. Peter says:

Such love comes through hope; and to hope is to believe unhesitatingly that one will surely attain what one hopes for. This in tum is born of a firm faith, where one has no concern whatsoever for one’s own life or death, but casts all care upon God (cf. 1 Pet. s : 7),

In a state of stillness, gratitude, intellectual restraint, faith, and hope, we transcend common human passions and become transformed ourselves. Virtues are no longer “add-ons” to our ordinary life but logical expressions of our spiritual state. Choices that seem unrealistic, irrational, or unnatural now will appear logical and self-evident when considered from a completely new understanding and perspective.

In a state of virtue and grace, we can experience true Christian love; a love that is unfettered, unconditional, unafraid, unashamed, and complete.

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