TIMIDITY AND BOLDNESS: ST. PETER OF DAMASKOS, The Third Stage of Contemplation, Philokalia, vol. 3


When I returned to Christianity in my 40’s, I found myself hiding or downplaying my faith and serious spiritual exploration from my colleagues and “Bohemian” friends. I didn’t want to be perceived as “uncool.”  I was still “timid” in my faith in that I forced it into a small corner of my life, unwilling to fully integrate and live it. I had one foot in the sea and another on land, benefitting from neither one.

There are many ways in which we display timidity and hold back from giving all of ourselves to God and others in our lives. Some of us lack the confidence that God will forgive us or deign to hear our prayers. Others may be too overwhelmed with doubts, guilt, shame, or fear to lose themselves in prayer and trust God. Still others are so ty

This wonderful, little chapter takes us from dipping our toes in the water to immersing ourselves in it; from being tied in knots and stuck in no man’s land to being fully present in God and love of others.  

St. Peter begins with awareness of our sins and mourning for what we could have been.

The rhythm, metaphors, and formulaic expressions of the first lines are straight out of the funeral service and, later, from Holy Week and the Triodion.

 Alas, what agony the soul experiences when it is separated from the body. How many tears it sheds then, and there is no one to take pity on it. Turning its eyes to the angels, it entreats in vain. Stretching its hands towards men, it finds no one to help it. I weep and grieve when I think of death and see man’s beauty, created by God in His own image, lying in the grave, ugly, abject, its physical form destroyed.

These lines are meant as a meditation on death and the experience of it so that it becomes real and tangible.

Through it, we become aware of our own spiritual death. We see clearly who we have become and lament our own self-destructiveness

Woe is me, a sinner. What has happened to me? Why should I destroy myself so wrongly?… Where is the contrition of soul and the deep inward grief? Where is the gentleness, the generosity, the heart’s freedom from evil thoughts…?

Yet mourning alone is not sufficient for repentance and salvation. Even if our intellect begins to become illuminated, we are still in a state of fear and confusion.

Thy grace I have begun to perceive, and so am filled with confusion.

The intellect alone cannot overcome timidity and we continue to dwell in the in-between place of confusion and inaction.

Shall I read and sing psalms with my mouth only? For my passions have darkened my intellect and I cannot understand the meaning of what is said. Shall I fall prostrate before Thee, the giver of all blessings? But I have no confidence. My life is without hope; I have destroyed my soul

To move past awareness, one must have hope:

For we have placed our hope in Thee, our Saviour, even though in our negligence we fail to keep Thy commandments

To repent, we must cast “our soul’s despair into this sea” and leap into it, replacing reticence with boldness.

Hope opens the door to spiritual action through supplications.

Protect our lives and our departure out of this world from impure spirits, from every temptation, from all sin and malice, from presumption and despair, from lack of faith, from folly, from self-inflation and cowardice, from delusion and unruliness, from the wiles and snares of the devil. In Thy compassion grant us what is good for our souls in this age and in the age to be.

Through the language, symbolism and the form of petitions, the narrative becomes liturgical prayer.  

Hope allows space for gratitude and compassion. We are becoming free of ourselves, and our petitions to God include others:

Have mercy on my brethren and fathers, on all monks and priests everywhere, on my parents, my brothers and sisters, my relatives…

Finally, we move even beyond awareness, mourning, hope, gratitude, and prayer, beyond words themselves. We become bold and free of debilitating doubts and confusion and offer our entire self to God—body and soul– by falling down before him.

Yet, finding courage in Thy inexpressible compassion, in Thy goodness and tender mercy that excel our understanding, I fall before Thee and entreat Thee, Lord: ‘Have mercy upon me, 0 Lord, for I am weak’ (Ps. 6 : 2), and forgive me my many crimes.

The petitions become more fervent and reflect a state of theosis—union with God

…and, rising up, in fear and trembling I make this one request: that unworthy though I am I may be found worthy to be Thy servant; that by grace I may have an intellect that is free from all form, shape, colour or materiality; that, as Daniel once bowed down before Thy angel (cf. Dan. 10 : 9), I may fall on hands and knees before Thee, the only God, Creator of all, and offer Thee first thanksgiving and then confession.

By the end of the chapter, there is neither logical thought nor lamentation but a bold surrender of self and a complete union to God. We are no longer stuck between and betwixt, but have reached a state of inner stillness through union with God and love of others:

I confess Thy gifts; I do not hide Thy blessings; I proclaim Thy mercies; I acknowledge Thee, 0 Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify Thy name for ever


The second stage of contemplation according to St. Peter is knowledge of our own faults along with awareness of God’s bounty. How does he get from one to another and how are the two linked?

First, those who have progressed to that stage, identify their flaws and mourn for all that they have lost because of them.

Woe is me, unhappy that I am! What shall I do? I have sinned greatly… Many are the temptations: sloth overwhelms me, forgetfulness benights me and will not let me see myself and my many crimes.

The greatest spiritual struggle, however, is not mere awareness of flaws.

Think of our daily lives. How many times have you regained the weight you worked so hard to lose? Though you know in detail the consequences of being overweight and the rewards of a healthy weight, you just cannot resist that second helping or two scoops of luscious ice-cream daily. Or perhaps you know someone who, even after a bout of cancer, and fully knowing the likely consequences, simply cannot stop smoking; or others who cannot stop destructive behavior, even if their marriages, careers or lives are in shreds.

“I begin to see that my soul is being destroyed,” St. Peter writes, “and yet I make no effort to embark on a godly life.” 

Sin, then, can be seen as addiction over which we have lost control. Other interpreters of Philokalia, such as Fr. Dr. David Subu, have made that case. Awareness, others’ pleadings or even consequences cannot impede an addiction’s powerful drive that increasingly dominates our lives.

Though we may engage in passions we recognize as destructive, we usually derive little joy in them. We may be haunted by guilt, a sense of failure and powerlessness. We may feel hollow with the lies we tell ourselves to justify our addictions and, eventually, sink into hopefulness and depression.

Addiction to sin causes us fragmentation. We have a divided sense of who we are as our intellect and action are disconnected.

Alas, for I know the punishment and yet am unwilling to repent. I love the heavenly kingdom, and yet do not acquire virtue. I believe in God and constantly disobey His commandments. I hate the devil, and yet do not stop doing what he wants. If I pray, I lose interest and become unfeeling. If I fast, I become proud, and damn myself all the more…

Yet the narrative shifts from the pain of living inauthentic lives to a cry for help. It utilizes the structures and cadences of a prayer.

I would like, Lord, to erase the record of my sins by tears, and through repentance to live the rest of my life according to Thy will.

I have sinned against Thee, Saviour, like the prodigal son; receive me, Father, in my repentance and have mercy on me, O God.I cry to Thee, 0 Christ my Saviour, with the voice of the publican: be gracious to me, as to him, and have mercy upon me, O God.

This is a transformational change with profound implications. Supplication to God Implies awareness of his mercy and gratitude for his bounty. It implies hope and faith.

Mere awareness and admission of our sins cannot, in themselves, raise us to the next stage of contemplation without gratitude, faith and hope. Without these elements, mere awareness can lead to despair.

Because sin is an addiction, we are in danger of losing control. Even if we are aware of, and sorry for, our sins we can still live inauthentic, anxious lives as we fail to translate intellect into action.

Yet there is hope if we recognize our powerlessness and turn to God for help in humility; if, in spite of our flaws and bad decisions, we maintain hope and a sense of gratitude toward God.   

Be still, and know that I am God: St. Peter of Damaskos

  • The Four Virtues of the Soul
  • Active Spiritual Knowledge
  • The Bodily Virtues as Tools for the Acquisition of the Virtues of the Soul



St Peter identifies the four virtues of the soul as moral judgment, self-restraint, courage and justice.

Yet, almost immediately after listing the four virtues, lest we begin congratulating ourselves for possessing them, Peter shows us that they lie on a thin edge between unnatural passions.

Each virtue lies between two unnatural passions. Moral judgment lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between obduracy and licentiousness; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice between over-frugality and greed.

Unlike bodily virtues, spiritual virtues require a much more than simple adoption and consistency.

Without discernment, our courage could turn into overbearingness or, at the other end of the spectrum, cowardice. Moral judgment could shift into pride, control, and contempt for others. Self restraint can shift into rigidity. The practice of virtues, then, requires spiritual knowledge and discernment.

St. Peter poses an even harder question: what good are the virtues if they do not lead to salvation? He compares such sterile virtues to plants that bear no fruit.

How do we attain spiritual knowledge? St. Peter reminds us that only God possesses perfect knowledge and, therefore, it is only through his grace that we can recognize and cultivate virtue. He asks for humility in accepting that our understanding is limited to what we have, personally, experienced.

But if someone claims that, simply by hearing about these things, he knows them as he should, he is a liar. Man’s intellect can never rise to heaven without God as a guide; and it cannot speak of what it has not seen, but must first ascend and see it

Without the humility of relying on God’s help and understanding our limitations, our intellect is clouded and deluded, unable to distinguish the difference between truth and falsehood, word and action.

What, then, shall we say of those who are enslaved to the passions, and yet think they have a clear conscience?

What prevents us from acquiring true spiritual knowledge and attain salvation through virtues?  Quoting St. Mark, the Ascetic, St. Peter quotes 3 obstacles —  “‘the three giants of the demonic Philistines’: ignorance, forgetfulness, and laziness.”

These three giants are. the vices already mentioned: ignorance, the source of all evils; forgetfulness, its close relation and helper; and laziness, which weaves the dark shroud enveloping the soul in murk. This third vice supports and strengthens the other two, consolidating them so that evil becomes deep-rooted and persistent in the negligent soul. Laziness, forgetfulness and ignorance in their turn support and strengthen the other passions. St. Mark

With our souls enveloped “in murk,” we descend into delusion, refusing to acknowledge what we do not know. St. Peter quotes St. Maximos and John Chrysostom here.

As St Maximos has said, ‘To think that one knows prevents one from advancing in knowledge.‘1 St John Chrysostom points out that there is an ignorance which is praiseworthy: it consists in knowing consciously that one know nothing.”

We eventually fall into a state of profound disconnect, believing the stories we weave about ourselves and yet realizing deep inside that our actions contradict them. Our virtues will never bear fruit or help us advance spiritually. Even worse, we will live inauthentic lives, pressured to maintain a façade of lies.

 Because of our great insensitivity most of us think that we are something while in fact we are nothing (cf. Gal. 6 : 3): as St Paul says, ‘When they are talking about peace . . . calamity falls on them'( 1 Thess. 5 : 3). For they did not in fact possess peace but, as St John Chrysostom explains, only talked about it, thinking in their great insensitivity that they did possess it.

To combat such spiritual death, St. Mark advises continuous remembrance of God and gratitude. St. Peter adds inner stillness. We cannot preserve our intellect in turmoil, destructive thoughts, excessive physical effort, anger, or any other passions. St. Peter calls for simplicity and dispassion:

Blessed above all are those who seek to attain dispassion and spiritual knowledge unlaboriously through their total devotion to God: as God. Himself has said through His prophet, ‘Devote yourselves to stillness and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46 : Io).



In his chapter on the Seven Commandments, St. Peter begins with fear as the cornerstone and starting point of salvation. He continues with 6 more levels of spiritual ascent until we reach the level of wisdom.

Our journey begins with fear because we “are taught that if we do not begin with fear, we can never ascend to the rest.”  If fear is so critical, then, why is it that it is transformed into wisdom at the end of the chapter?  

Fear, St. Peter tells us, is transformed into “religious devotion, from which springs spiritual knowledge; from this knowledge comes judgment, that is, discrimination; from discrimination comes the strength that leads to understanding; from thence you come to wisdom.”

The journey to wisdom and salvation is not a matter of simple substitution of evil with good but one of continuous transformation. St. Peter presents us with 7 levels of gradual conversion, undertaken in gentleness, that result in reconciliation rather than elimination.

We are not simply avenging warriors against passions. We are to “reflect with wonder on the self-abasement of our Lord Jesus Christ” and imitate it. The emphasis is not on what we are to reject but on what we become, as it is given to us in the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit:

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn:

for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek:

for they shall inherit the earth.

Through this series of transformations, we acquire a precious gift—divine knowledge. The logic is clear. By applying the commandments (fear, inward grief, gentleness, the desire for virtues, mercy, detachment and the grace of the Holy Spirit), our intellect is freed from passions and delusions and, hence, able to see the true nature of things.  It is divine knowledge that enables us to acquire wisdom.

With divine knowledge, our perception of the world and our place in it, are no longer the same. There are no contradictions or divisions between visible and invisible reality because we possess “the knowledge of the mysteries of God inherent in the visible world.”

This means that material things are no longer worthless of attention or objects of passion because in them we can now discern the divine and, hence, their purpose.  We “have ascended with Christ into the transcendent world through the knowledge of intelligible realities and of the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures.”

We do not reject our human side but gain “the knowledge of things both human and divine” and see the connection between, and inseparability of, the two. This is when the union with Him is perfected:

By passing through all these levels of practice and contemplation you are granted pure and perfect prayer, established within you through the peace and love of God and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by saying, ‘Gain possession of God within yourself’

By seeing “things as they truly are,” we no longer need to demonize matter but see it in its proper perspective as embodiment of the divine.

Understanding the true nature of material things, as temporary and perishable rather than life’s goals, we are freed from passions and delusion and become masters of ourselves.

Then, coming to itself, the intellect recognizes its proper dignity-to be Master of Itself-and is able; for its eye, made blind by the devil through the tyranny of the passions, is opened.

As masters of ourselves, endowed with true knowledge, we are no longer torn between matter and spirit. We can enjoy the physical beauty around us, the comforts of food and home and the benefits of our labor in a different way as we discern “in these visible things God’s power and providence, His goodness and wisdom…”

By seeing the true nature of things, we can enjoy the world “without passion,’ and perceive it as a pointer to God’s grandeur.

Thus, by virtue of his soul’s purity, he is found worthy to be resurrected with Christ spiritually, and receives the strength to look without passion on the exterior beauty of visible things and to praise through them the Creator of all. Contemplating in these visible things God’s power and providence, His goodness and wisdom, as St Paul says (cf. Rom 1 : 2o-2 I),

FEAR AND GENTLENESS: THE SEVEN COMMANDMENTS, St. Peter of Damascus – Philokalia vol. 3

In the previous chapter, St. Peter outlines for us 7 forms of bodily disciple that will keep us on a firm foundation and not allow us to tumble from the “precipice into chaos.”

To achieve salvation, however, we must ascend to a higher spiritual realm, that of the seven commandments, which he discusses in this chapter. It is the realm in which God’s will is manifested through actions and participation.

We cannot keep the commandments, however, without an important prerequisite: experiencing fear of God.

In the case both of the seven gifts of the Spirit and of the Lord’s Beatitudes, we are taught that if we do not begin with fear, we can never ascend to the rest.

For St. Peter, and the other hesychastic fathers, fear of God goes far beyond fear of punishment. St. Peter describes it in terms of the awe we experience if we truly contemplate God—His nature, His grandeur and the nature of our relationship with Him.

Fear of God helps us experience our authentic selves at the start of the journey, To experience fear of God, we must let go of our pride and desire to control.  We must become poor in spirit through the humility of seeing ourselves as part of God’s creation, rather than the directors of it.

“…for He says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt.s: 3), that is, those who quail with fear of God and are inexpressibly contrite in soul. For the Lord has established this as the basic commandment, knowing that without this even living in heaven would be profitless, for one would still possess the same madness through which the devil, Adam and many others have fallen.

Fear of God is the opposite of self-satisfaction and complacence. While taking stock of, and feeling gratitude for, the achievements and goodness God has enabled us to experience, fear of God reminds us of our own fragility. We are constantly aware that we are frail and in danger of a fall at any moment. This is why the path to salvation entails daily spiritual warfare.

To be motivated to keep the commandments and not stray from our journey of ascent, we must be driven by both gratitude and fear. We give thanks to God for His gifts while, at the same time, we are cognizant of the emptiness and worthlessness of our lives without God.

Our joy for the grandeur of God is not purely triumphant but tinged with sorrow. We are content with what we have but grieve over our lapses. To a discriminating mind, the understanding of who are meant to be and could become is clear. While we are grateful for our gifts, a part of us grieves that our obsessive thoughts and preoccupations diminish our ability to experience the presence of God and achieve inner peace. We are grieved over the realization that our hearts are not completely open to others, that anger and resentments often obscure love.

Fear of God allows us to look at our selves authentically and experience the harmony of our union with God and his universe. It frees us from the anguish of puffed-up egos, the delusion of control of others, the impulse to constantly achieve and surpass others and the subsequent loneliness, emptiness and anxiety.

St. Peter’s 3d commandment is “gentleness.” We associate gentleness with politeness, care not to hurt someone’s feelings, sweetness of character. At times gentleness has the negative connotation of passivity, inability to stand up for yourself or lack of ambition. Ironically, these qualities are virtues in Christianity.

By gentleness St. Peter refers to a state of inner peace that presupposes humility and acceptance. Within this perspective, railing against things that cannot be changed, allowing worldly ambition to be the main driver of your life are not signs of strength but of enslavement that result in a state of inner tumult..

Gentleness bestows strength through stability as “we become like a firmly-rooted rock, unshaken by the storms and tempests of life, always the same, whether rich or poor, in ease or hardship, in honour or dishonour.”

Gentleness allows us discernment through humility since we are no longer prey to passions that pull us in all directions and have freed ourselves from the tyranny of our own will.

Thus the person who has been granted the grace of keeping the third commandment, and so has acquired full discrimination, will no longer be deceived either wittingly or unwittingly. Instead, having received the grace of humility, he will regard himself as nothing. For gentleness is the substance of humility, and humility is the door leading to dispassion. Through dispassion a man enters into perfect unfaltering love

Humans as Co-Creators (Philokalia III, Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology Part lll)

Throughout Philokalia the underlying framework for salvation is a lifelong and transformative journey leading us in stages from preoccupation with material things and destructive passions to a true union with God (deification or theosis).

The journey unfolds in three primary stages: renunciation of the world, elucidation or understanding and, finally, theosis. lias focuses on the gradual transformation of the intellect in the course of this journey, with contemplation being the highest form of intellect.    

While still attached to the material world,  our thoughts are limited to what we can see and touch. As we progress, and we are able to clear our minds of obsessive thoughts and raging passions, we can see the world with renewed and unobstructive vision and see things we were unable to perceive before. We can now distinguish the hidden essence of things beyond appearance and physical reality.

The inner principles of corporeal realities are concealed like bones within objects apprehended by the senses: no one who has not transcended attachment to sensible things can see them.

Beyond undergoing inner transformation, however, Ilias points to our role as agents of transformation, ourselves.

An important objective of the ascetic discipline that is required in order to achieve union with God, is to reach a state of inner peace and silence by cultivating dispassion. As we progress in our spiritual journey, we gain increasing control over our inner turmoil and are no longer tossed about by passions in whatever direction they take us.

By exercising self-control and restraint, we differentiate ourselves from the rest of creation. .

A river, Ilias tells us, cannot change the flow of its water or the turbulence within it by natural means. Yet we, as humans, can change the course of our thinking and put an end to our inner  turmoil.

108. It is less hard to check the downward flow of a river than for one who prays to check the turbulence of the intellect when he wishes, preventing it from fragmenting itself among visible things and concentrating it on the higher realities kindred to it. This is so in spite of the fact that to check the flow of a river is contrary to nature, while to check the turbulence of the intellect accords with nature.

This is a message of enormous hope as well as a clear differentiation between man and the rest of the creation. We do not have to become defeated by depression, sorrow, fear, anger or despair. On our journey from attachment to matter to complete union to God, we gradually gain the capacity to remain whole in the face of fragmentation and serene in the face of turmoil.  

Yet the unique role of man in God’s universe that separates him from the rest of creation goes beyond self-control.

Man is not simply a created being among other created beings. He is an entire world within the world:

112. Within the visible world, man is as it were a second world; and the same is true of thought within the intelligible world.

Ilias goes further. Human beings are not simply passive objects within God’s creation  but, in a small way, co-creators themselves. Man is “the herald of heaven and earth, and of all that is in them.”  Most significantly, man, is created with the ability to think and speak and, hence, the inherent capacity to interpret and give voice to God’s creation. What are the implications of this?

Without articulation, Ilias concludes, the universe would be silent.

Without man and thought both the sensible and the intelligible worlds would be inarticulate.

Imagine an unarticulate world. God’s wonder is experienced  existentially but cannot be communicated or understood. It cannot be   transformed into a wellspring of meaning and inspiration by the intellect, become  a guide for our lives and passed on to the next generation.

This is an amazing statement but has many precedents. In Genesis II, for example, Adam is asked by God to name all the animals.  

Genesis II: 19. ” And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and. brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever. Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof

Man’s ability to name, articulate, make sense of and perpetuate God’s glory complements God’s creation. With a nous purified by prayer and ascetic practice, we are both the recipients and co-creators of God’s glory and gift or continuous renewal. .

If our roles are to articulate and communicate the meaning of the created world, we can see artistic expression, in its ideal form, as a fulfillment of that role.   

Fr. Silouan Justiniano writes on the subject and quotes Ilias:

…We can also depict these from artistic models and Nature, seeing them through the “new eyes” of the heart that the integrated knowledge of the timeless pictorial principles of the canon gives us.   In the case of iconography what Ilias the Presbyter calls “the intellects principles,” can be seen as the pictorial principles of the canon. Thereby, sense-perception is uplifted and transfigured from outward appearance by bringing out of it the apprehension of archetypes in symbolic representation.

In iconography, “the creative act of transfiguring Nature, as Ilias points out, the imagination serves as a ladder, through which images ascend and descend, after they have been imprinted by the intellect.”

In this process the painter, without even being fully aware of it, is in a state of contemplation as he is in the process of “apprehending the invisible in the visible, and “pondering things in the heart,” as to determine artistically how to best outwardly manifest or symbolize the image within him.”

(Fr. Silouan Justiniano,  May 20, 2013, “Archetype and Symbol III: On Noetic Vision, Continued”   https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/archetype-and-symbol-iii-on-noetic-vision-continued/)

So those who follow Christ’s path to the ultimate union with God, become both transformed and transformational. They are constantly renewed so that their new sight penetrates under the surface and uncovers new things never before imagined, and agents of renewal by understanding, articulating and sharing the meaning of creation.

Mere Guests in our Father’s Home: Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology Part IV in Philokalia, vol. 3

# 33-53

Through contemplation, Ilias has told us, we can reach theosis–union with God and unity with ourselves and God’s universe.

Ilias wants us to understand the stages of the intellect along the way, and perceive our progress as a lifelong journey. “The first stage of ascetic practice,” he tells us, “is marked by self-control and truthfulness; the intermediate stage by moderation and humble mindedness; the final stage by freedom from thoughts and the sanctification of the body.”

Asceticism, he writes, is the first step in the ladder of ascension to theosis, where you free yourself from the tyranny of being tossed about by your impulses, rambling thoughts and passions, without firm foundation or inner peace. You will next enter a state of elucidation and moderation and, finally, a state of stillness, freedom from rambling thoughts and union with God.  

Ilias sheds light into the psychological and spiritual nuances of our experience during our journey. The danger he alerts us to is that of going through the steps mechanically without absorbing them, “owning” them and, hence, transforming ourselves.

Spiritual advancement is not a matter of checking items off a to-do list. The instructions that Ilias gives cannot be mechanically applied the way that, for example, instructions on how to put together a model airplane can be simply followed. He asks for the full engagement of the heart and intellect and the cultivation of discernment.

Even the first stage of self-control requires more effort than simply saying no to impulses. The way you do things, their timing and quality play an important role.

35. Ascetic practice consists not merely in managing to do what is right, but also in doing it rightly: the doer must concern himself with timeliness and congruity.

Yet ascetic practice, Ilias cautions, “cannot be consolidated without contemplation, and contemplation cannot be genuine without ascetic practice.” He continues, “Ascetic practice combined with contemplation is like the body united to its ruling spirit. Without contemplation, it is like flesh dominated by a spirit of self-will.”

Contemplation requires immersion of heart and soul, without the distraction of obsessive thoughts and personal preoccupations. As we become free from our own self-will, we will become one with God, unable to separate ourselves from Him.

41. The man engaged in ascetic practice drinks the draught of compunction during prayer, but the contemplative gets drunk with the best cup (cf. Ps. 23:5. LXX). The first meditates on things that are according to nature, while the second ignores even himself during prayer.

Without this level of immersion, we are just superficial and temporary guests in God’s house rather than participants in it. We may catch glimpses of the glory as observers without experiencing it.

42. The man engaged in ascetic practice cannot persist in spiritual contemplation for long. He is like a person who is being given hospitality but must shortly leave his host’s house.

How many times do we feel like temporary guests in our own home? We put so much effort in the way we present ourselves to others, defend our ideas and positions, create narratives about who we are that we cannot tell the difference between who we want to be and who we really are. Gaining control of things like our diet, exercise, burst of anger or overspending are steps in the right direction but will not fill the hole as we continue being mere guests in our home. Our vision of God is still veiled and, while we are controlling some bad habits and passions, we are still live our lives by reacting to what emanates from the senses.

Ilias gives us the analogy of “the oarsmen of the spiritual ship.”  The ascetic, who has gained self-control but not contemplative thought, needs the oars to get to the desired destination. The contemplative, on the other hand, no longer needs oars.

For during prayer the contemplative bids farewell to everything: himself holding the tiller of discernment he keeps awake throughout the night of contemplation, offering praises to Him who holds all things together. And perhaps he sings some love song to his soul as he watches the swell of the salty sea and the tumult of the waves, and marvels at the righteous judgments of God.

By entering a life of prayer in which we forget ourselves, we gain our true selves. If we are no longer caught up by impulses to impress others or control the conversation, we don’t need to be anxious about others’ opinions of us or feel worthless if we are not the center of attention or if things don’t go our way. We are the true owners of the house that God built within us.

51. The man engaged in ascetic practice finds that during prayer the knowledge of sensible things covers his heart like a veil, which he is unable to remove because of his attachment to these things. Only the contemplative man, owing to his non-attachment, can to some degree see the glory of God ‘with unveiled face’ (2 Cor. 3:18).

THE ABODE OF THE BLESSED, Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology Part lll

Philokalia, vol. 3

Ilias starts this section with a reassurance. Dispassion, we are told, is not a state that can only be achieved by monks and saints. It is not beyond ordinary human capacity. It is, in fact, a fundamental aspect of our humanity and a gift from God, which we overlook.

19. The paradise of dispassion hidden within us is an image of that in which the righteous will dwell.

In the preceding section, Ilias establishes 3 clear modes of the intellect –intellection, thought and sense-perception. He asks us to be able to recognize the category our own intellect falls in, at any given time.

In the remaining section, however, Ilias takes us beyond these categories, employing a dramatic interplay between stability and fluidity, recognizing and crossing classifications. 

This is because, for those on the highest level of spiritual contemplation, these categories of mind are no longer impermeable or separate. Because they are in a state of self-unity, they perceive God’s unity in all things beneath their surface. They see all things, no matter how disparate, as compatible pieces of a larger whole and perceive their unity with God.

This means that the persons who have achieved intellection—nous—do not inhabit only aethereal heights, disconnected from the land below. They can, in fact, descend to the material universe without being trapped in it because they still maintain the level of intellection that they achieved. They can sustain their “sublime” level of intellect even in the material world. Instead of being sullied by the world, they sanctify it.

21. The man of spiritual knowledge is one who descends from the realm of intellection to that of sense-perception in a sublime manner and who raises his soul heavenwards with humility.

It is, in fact, the ability to move among the categories “in a sublime matter” that makes us whole.

Being products of the reason, they use the imagination as a ladder, and so ascend from the world of the senses to the intellect, conveying to the latter the observations which they have derived from sense-perception; then they redescend from the intellect down to the world of the senses, communicating to it the intellect’s principles.

Imagine the freedom of participating in all dimensions of God’s universe while maintaining the peace of dispassion and union with God.

Ilias shows us the possibility of journeying beyond reason and virtue. Sense-perception and reason cannot reveal to us the inner essence of things beyond their appearance. Because we perceive the world through what is visible and what can be rationally categorized, we continue to experience divisions, preferences, conflicts and, thus, self-division.

We cannot fully give ourselves to love for people and God, for example, because our minds are divided between this love and judgment. Disappointment in our children’s life choices, remembrance of past insults, contempt for other’s opinions or preoccupation with our careers prevent us from fully experiencing the fullness and joy of complete love for them.

On the contrary when living in a state of self-unity, we are able to look beyond form (including gender), social status, our own thoughts and preferences to grasp the inner essence of things and perceive the unity with God.

25. One living in a state of self-division cannot avoid the distinction between male and female; but this may be done by one living in a state of self-unity, when the distinction between male and female is suppressed through attaining the divine likeness in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal. 5:28).

Yet, even if our foot slips and we experience the turmoil of self-division, there is hope in Lord’s salvation.

Ilias utilizes imagery of water as the antidote to sinfulness. Tears of repentance drown out sinfulness:

27. When the ship of sinfulness is overwhelmed by the flood of tears, evil thoughts will react like people drowning in the waves and trying to grasp hold of something so as to keep afloat.

A deer that has eaten a snake can still expel the poison by drinking water.

23. A deer that has eaten a snake, rushes to water in order to neutralize the poison.

What snake have we, ourselves, unwittingly eaten and allowed its poison to seep through our veins and limbs?  This is the implicit question that Ilias wants us to ask ourselves. What is it that divides us internally preventing us from unity with God and others? And where is the redeeming water of salvation we can drink?

Ilias shows us the possibility of going beyond virtue and reason, beyond the torture of self-division, to achieve unity with ourselves and God.

32. Through the practice of the virtues the outward aspects of the soul become like the silver-coated wings of a dove. Through contemplation its inward and intelligible aspects become golden. But the soul that has not in this way regained its beauty cannot soar aloft and come to rest in the abode of the blessed.

OPENING THE EYES OF YOUR HEART: Ilias the Presbyter (A Gnomic Anthology Part II, in Philokalia, vol. 3)



I am outraged by my sister’s political views. I can’t stand to even hear her finish her sentence. I break in, shouting out a series of facts that surely prove the folly of her position. I decide that her manner is abusive, and it suddenly dawns on me that there are other “abusive” relationships in my life. I pity myself and remember a disagreement with a colleague yesterday. All my professional relationships flash before my eyes. I replay them in my mind and find all kinds of proof of disrespect toward me.  How could I have allowed it? I get angrier and angrier at friends and colleagues and begin constructing scenarios of revenge. I get lost in imaginary dialogues where I clearly have the upper hand and my wit and irony puts others in their place.

In time, my anger and self-pity will surely engulf me and may push down happy memories of my sister and friends thus robbing me of the sweetness of love and lessons learned in relationships.

Ilias apparently, gets all this, though he lived centuries ago.

He has a name for the state of mind I allowed myself to enter– “sense-perception.” This means that my mind is so shrouded with material things and the passions these engender, that I am incapable of perceiving God’s presence “unveiled.”

When we are in the realm of sense perception, we are trapped on the surface like flies on a fly paper, without perceiving the presence of God behind the surface and experiencing His glory.

Until the intellect has seen God’s glory with ‘unveiled face’ (2 Cor. 3:18), the soul cannot say from experience of that glory: ‘I shall exult in the Lord, I shall delight in His salvation’ (cf. Ps. 35:9. LXX). For its heart is still shrouded in self-love, so that the world’s foundations – the inner essences of things – cannot be revealed to it.


Ilias comes to our rescue by giving us a practical toolkit for becoming “unstuck,” which is highly relevant to us as 22nd century dwellers.

He first reminds us that “given free rein, the intellect is insatiable.” He thus asks us to turn upside down today’s models for thinking by demonstrating that our need for absolute freedom to think and dream can drive us to spiritual slavery. Without restraint and focus, we enter the realm of intellectual self-indulgence that separates us from God. 

One of the most important lessons he teaches us is how to detect the state of our intellect at any given time. Even if we are caught in great spiritual turmoil, recognition of our state of mind and awareness of right and wrong times are the first steps to detachment. They will, in themselves, give us a raft of self-control, on which we can begin building our defense against self-indulgence.

Ilias’ toolkit is especially helpful in going against the grain of a culture of self-indulgence where it is increasingly difficult to say “no” and “deprive” ourselves. We are encouraged to fulfill dreams and passions, respect our impulses, pamper ourselves, avoid inconvenience and restriction at all costs. The only acceptable discipline is perhaps at the gym or healthy nutrition where our own ideal image of self, drives our actions. It is difficult to fully understand ascetic practice in a culture of intellectual self-indulgence, but this is what Ilias asks us to do.

Though Ilias addresses monastics, it is not difficult to translate his arsenal of weapons for the ordinary men and women of today. We start our ascendance to spiritual contemplation simply through the ability to say “no.” No to the first wondering thought, no to the extra helping of food, no to the impulse to overspend on a spontaneous purchase. This is the first step in freeing out intellect “from self-indulgence in the body.”  

To be able to resist, however, we must understand the realms of the intellect and identify the realm we are in at any given time.

The man of spiritual knowledge must recognize when his intellect is in the realm of intellection, when it is in that of thought, and when in that of sense-perception. And in each case, he must recognize whether it is there at the right time or at the wrong time.

There three realms within which our intellect dwells:

  • The realm of sense-perception that “is associated with all manner of visible and material things.” This includes passions and unruly thoughts that emanate from what our senses see, hear and experience.
  • The realm of thought — that of rational thinking and understanding. This is when we begin to perceive God’s essence and purpose behind visible things.
  • The realm of intellection, that goes beyond sense perception and rational thought to, not only “apprehend the inner essences” of tangible things but also “to grasp those of incorporeal beings” and participate in the essence of God.

To navigate the three realms and constantly ascend from the lowest to the highest, we must learn to identify them. We must also possess the self-restraint to say no and go against the grain of our culture and habitual impulses.


It is hard to visualize the joy of union with God if you have not experienced it. Ilias does his best to convey the experience.

When you free yourself from intellectual self-indulgence and distinguish the divine principles beyond visible things “the eyes of your heart will be opened, and you will be able clearly to meditate on the divine principles inscribed within it; and their sweetness to your spiritual taste will be greater than that of honey.”  

In essence, Ilias gives us the tools for spiritual contemplation, describes the losses of a world limited to tangible realities and describes the process we must undertake to achieve theosis, and the rewards of each state we achieve.

THE DIMMING OF THE LIGHT: Ilias The Presbyter (A Gnomic Anthology Part II,in Philokalia, vol. 3)


Picture our soul the way Ilias describes it, as perched precariously between the senses and the spirit–“between sensible and spiritual light.” Nothing is guaranteed. Finding the proper balance between the two is our responsibility. If we are weighed down by the senses—whether they be greed, the single- minded pursuit of ambition, thoughts of revenge or obsession with material things– we cannot enter the world of spirit and revel in its light.

I used to think that sin entered our lives with a thunder—loud, clearly perceptible and easily distinguishable from the norm of quietness in our homes.

The early Fathers of the church, however, show the devious and beguiling way in which sin enters our intellect as a tiny, barely perceptible thought or image that appears insignificant and harmless. By engaging with it, we allow it to dominate our thoughts until it has become obsessive. We descend into spiritual death once we become so accustomed to it that it becomes part of our “normality,” the way we routinely think and behave.

Becoming a habit and way of life is the most insidious and devious aspect of sin. 

We are surprised that those in dysfunctional families and relationships do not immediately leave at the first sign of abuse or dysfunction. Now we know that after a while, people are not able to discern clearly between health and dysfunction, normalcy and unacceptable living conditions. They become so accustomed to addiction, abuse, hoarding and other unhealthy ways of life that dysfunction begins to appear as the norm rather than the exception.

Ilias reminds us to watch out, not just for obvious transgressions, but for habitual patterns in the way we think that have become second nature to us.

But as a result of man’s inveterate habit of mind, the light of the Spirit has grown dim within the soul, whereas the light of the sensible world shines more brightly within it. Consequently, it cannot fix its attention totally on things divine unless it is wholly united with intelligible light during prayer. In this way, it is compelled to stand midway between darkness and light, linked to spiritual light through participation, and to sensible light by means of the fantasy.

Our gateway to spiritual light is prayer. Yet, “an intellect subject to passion cannot penetrate the narrow gate of prayer until it abandons the cares to which it has attached itself. So long as it remains continually occupied with bodily matters, it will inflict suffering on itself.”

If the intellect lacks prayer,” Ilias continues, “then worldly cares, like ‘clouds driven about by the wind and bringing no rain’ (Jude, verse 12), deprive it of its native luminosity.”

To allow the light to grow within us, requires us to root out habits of thought that drive our lives and submerge us in a world of anxiety and preoccupation with material things. Detachment will enable us to live lives of prayer, and our souls to “rise upwards and realize its true dignity.”

Our goal, Ilias reminds us, should be “the city from which ‘pain, sorrow and sighing have fled away’ (Isa. 35:10. LXX).”