First, St Peter of Damaskos wants you to know that salvation is possible for everyone—lay persons or monastics, rich or poor, young, or old—in any circumstances.
I have said something about the righteous men of old who were saved in the midst of great wealth and among sinners and unbelievers, although they were by nature the same as us… I have also mentioned details from the lives of us monks, so that we may know that we can be saved in any situation.
Our human tragedy is not sin alone but the lack of will “to attain perfection.”
Think of a day in our lives. Most of us are motivated by the desire to succeed, control, accumulate, achieve, secure others’ admiration, or check off items on our to-do list, rather than by a longing for salvation.
St. Peter also wants you to know that help for the salvation of our souls is all around us if we have the inner stillness and humility to discern it. These two are, in fact, prerequisites for “the understanding of the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures and in all creation.”
We must remember, too, that stillness is the highest gift of all, and that without it we cannot be purified and come to know our weakness and the trickery of the demons; neither will we be able to understand the power of God and His providence from the divine words that we read and sing.
Without humility, we cannot open our hearts and eyes to “draw upon the greater experience and knowledge of good and evil” that the saints wrote about. Our minds are clouded by a labyrinth of revolving thoughts and rigid preconceptions.
We are incapable of perceiving, let alone utilizing, the help God richly provides for our salvation. Certainty in our own knowledge and our scripts for what life should be like, we are left alone and exhausted as we struggle to impose our own will and draw only on ourselves for help.
Abandoning our own will means that we are no longer exiled by a “dividing wall;” no longer tossed about by passions in contradictory directions.
I have also mentioned details from the lives of us monks, so that we may know that we can be saved in any situation, provided we renounce our own will. Indeed, unless we do this, we cannot find rest, nor can we gain either knowledge of God’s will or practice in fulfilling it. For our own will is a dividing wall, separating us from God.
St. Peter urges us to abandon lives of isolation and anxiety, and become united with a harmonious confluence of people, sources of learning and divine grace that God makes available.
He reassures us that we are not left unaided but are surrounded by saints and supported by an enormous trove of accumulated knowledge: “it has been granted to us to learn about the meaning of these things from the saints.”
While in patristic texts there is an emphasis on practice vs. abstract theology, Peter emphasizes both. In fact, he stresses the value of books, specifically, as pathways to salvation.
Moreover, it increases our wonder at and comprehension of God’s ineffable love: how by means of pen and ink He has provided for the salvation of our souls and has given us so many writings and teachers of the Orthodox faith.
Abandoning our will also means that we leave behind our temporal, sequential notions of time to enter a different dimension:
For Sunday is called ‘day one’ and not the first day of the week, says St John Chrysostom; such is the way in which it is singled out and described prophetically in the Old Testament. It is not simply enumerated with the other days of the week, such as the second day and the rest.
This is not simply a call for rote memorization but one for entering sacred time. In liturgy, for example, past events are re-experienced over and over again in the present. The texts for the Matins of Holy Friday, sung on Holy Thursday, for example, mourn Christ’s crucifixion today and not two thousand years ago.
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
St. Peter invites us to abandon our will and become integrated with the shared universe God has created for our salvation in the eternal sacred Today. This is a universe populated by clues for God’s presence, spiritual guides, symbols and tools for uniting with God.
In the world drawn by St. Peter, everything points to something else so that all is integrated and connected to enable us to achieve salvation. Greg Peters refers to the textual integration as “intertextuality.”
When reading texts like those penned by Peter of Damascus, it is good to work with the assumption that Peter employed a literary technique now known as. This technique, as defined by Julia Kristeva, is the theory that “Every text builds itself as a mosaic of quotations, every text is absorption and transformation of another text” https://acst-unity-production-realm-eng-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/file_attachment/attachment/9af8a01d-d6b5-4b30-861e-56009bde3ccd/Peter_of_Damascus_and_Early_Christian_Sp.pdf
True knowledge of God and salvation consist of interrelated pieces whose presence and connections can only be deciphered when our souls are still and free of the tyranny of our own will.
2 thoughts on “IN THE COMPANY OF SAINTS: STILLNESS AND HUMILITY IN TRUE KNOWLEDGE ( St. Peter of Damaskos, Philokalia, III)”
Thank you, Anna, this is thought-provoking.
Thank you. You are very kind.