Peter of Damaskos on Discernment

St Peter of Damaskos. "Book II. Twenty-Four Discourses". XI. Discrimination.

It is excellent to seek advice about everything, but only from those with experience. It is dangerous to ask questions of the inexperienced, because they do not possess discrimination. Discrimination knows when the time is ripe, what means to employ, the inner state of the questioner, what level he has reached, his strength, his degree of spiritual knowledge and his intention, as well as God’s purpose and the meaning of each verse of Holy Scripture, and much else besides. Hence he who lacks discrimination may exert himself enormously, but he cannot achieve anything; while the person who possesses it is a guide to the blind and a light to those in darkness (cf.Rom. 2:19). We should refer everything to such a person and accept whatever he says, even if because of our inexperience we do not see its import as well as we would like. Indeed, he who has discrimination is to be recognized in particular from the fact that he is able to communicate the sense of what he says even to those who do not want to know it. For the Spirit searches things out; and God’s presence has the power to persuade even an unwilling intellect to believe. This is what happened in the case of Jonah (cf. Jonah 1:3), Zacharias(cf. Luke 1:18) and - the monk David, once a brigand, whom the angel prevented from saying anything except the psalms that he recited according to his rule of prayer.

If in this present generation no one possesses discrimination, it is because no one has the humility that engenders it. We should therefore pray fervently about everything we do, as St James counsels (cf. Jas.5:16). For even if we lack holy hands, that is, if we lack purity of soul and body, we should at least strive to be without rancor and evil thoughts. For St Paul tells us to ‘lift up holy hands without anger and without quarrelling’(1Tim. 2:8). If we think that something is in accordance with God’s will, we should do it dispassionately; and even if it is not such a very good thing, what we do will be counted to our credit by God’s grace, because of our perplexity and the fact that we do it with God in mind. Even if we do God’s will when passion is still present, the consequences will be as stated. This is inevitably so, simply because of God’s goodness. But where our own will is involved, and not God’s, there self-inflation is present as well, and God does not approve; nor does He reveal His will to us then, lest we should know what it is and still not do it, and thereby incur greater condemnation. For whether God gives us something or withholds it from us. He acts for our good, even if we, like children, are unaware of this. He does not send down His Holy Spirit to someone who has not purified himself from the passions through the practice of the virtues that pertain both to body and to soul, lest this person should out of habit succumb to his passions and so become guilty of abusing the presence of the Holy Spirit within him. A person must first spend a long time in ascetic practice. He must begin by purifying his body from the actual committing of sin, whether great or small, and then purge his soul of every form of desire or anger. His moral impulses need to be disciplined by good habit, so that he does not do anything whatsoever through his five senses that is contrary to the purpose of his intellect, nor does his inner self consent to any such thing. It is then, when finally he becomes subject to himself, that God makes all things subject to him through dispassion and by the grace of the Holy Spirit. For a man must first submit to the law of God, and then he will rule as an intelligent being over all around him. His intellect will reign as it was originally created to reign, with judgment and self-restraint, with courage and justice. Now he will calm his wrath with the gentleness of his desire, now quieten his desire with the austerity of his wrath; and he will know that he is a king. All the limbs of his body, no longer abducted by ignorance and forgetfulness, will act in accordance with God’s commandment. Then through his devotion to God he will achieve spiritual insight and will begin to anticipate the snares prepared by the devil and his secret and stealthy attacks.

He will not, however, foresee the future as did the prophets. For this ability is a supranatural gift granted for the good of the community. Insight, however, is intrinsic to man’s nature; and, once the intellect is purified, it emerges from the tyranny of the passions under which it has been concealed, as it were, in the dark. Then, through humility, comes grace and opens the soul’s eye, blinded by the devil, and immediately man begins to see things according to their true nature. He is no longer seduced by the outward appearance of things as he was before. He looks dispassionately on gold, silver and precious stones and is not led astray, nor does he assess them falsely because of his passions: he knows that these and other such material things come from the earth, as the holy fathers point out. He looks at a man, and knows that he too is from the earth and is going to return to it (cf. Gen. 3:19). And he does not simply think about this in an abstract way, for we all know from experience that this is the case; yet because we are tyrannized by the passions we still have a craving for material things.

Should someone in his presumption think that even without the prerequisite struggles and virtues he is able to see things according to their true nature, there is nothing strange in this. For presumption can make even the blind think that they can see and foolish men boast when they have nothing to boast about. Yet if it were easy to see things according to their true nature merely by thinking about them in an abstract way, then inward grief and the purification that comes from it would be superfluous; and so would the many forms of ascetic labor, as well as humility, supranatural grace, and dispassion. But this is not the case at all. For often this capacity to see things according to their true nature comes more readily to simple people, to those whose intellects are free from the hustle and wiliness of this world, once they have submitted themselves to an experienced spiritual father. It may also be granted through the special dispensation of God’s grace, as it was to people in ancient times, before they knew either their left hand or right hand (cf. Jonah 4:11).But the fact that we have served the passions from our youth up, and have practiced virtually every form of malice and fraud with complete willingness and zeal, means that it is impossible for us to be freed from such evils and to see things as they truly are without effort, time, and God’s help. It is indeed impossible, unless we devote ourselves to the acquisition of the virtues as once we devoted ourselves to the passions, and unless we cultivate these virtues diligently in thought and action.

If in spite of this our efforts are often of no avail, this is either because we do not endure our trials to the end, or because we do not know the road or the goal, or because of slothfulness or lack of faith, or for one of the numberless other reasons. But if this is the case, and we strike very wide of the mark, how can we dare claim that we have attained the ancient beauty, unless we have been deluded by self-satisfaction and unperceived self-destruction? For just as self-criticism is a form of invisible progress - since it carries us along the right path even though we are unaware of it-so both presumption and self-satisfaction are forms of unseen destruction, since we have turned back without realizing it. This is inevitably so; for the passions expelled by grace return to an arrogant soul, as the Lord told us when He spoke of the unclean spirit that, after being expelled from a man, later returned, bringing with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself (cf. Matt. 12:43-4;).Why does this happen? Because the place from which the unclean spirit departed is not filled with spiritual activity, or with humility; and therefore the unclean spirit comes out of bondage and again takes up its dwelling in this place, along with many other evils.

Let him who understands take note. For the Logos wishes to transmit things to us in a way that is neither too clear nor too obscure, but is in our best interests. St John Chrysostom says that it is a great blessing from God that some parts of the Scriptures are clear while others are not. By means of the first we acquire faith and ardor and do not fall into disbelief and laziness because of our utter inability to grasp what is said. By means of the second we are roused to enquiry and effort, thus both strengthening our understanding and learning humility from the fact that everything is not intelligible to us. Hence, if we take stock of the gifts conferred on us, we will reap humility and longing for God from both what we understand and what we do not. Thus the gauge of the fifth stage of contemplation, about which we are now speaking, is this: that we are enabled to look with discrimination at sensible creation and at our own thoughts, not blinded by any delusion, or doing anything contrary to God’s purpose because of our subjection to the passions, or submitting to any of our evil thoughts. Even if threatened with death, we would not deviate from God’s purpose in thought or action.

What has just been said applies to the final stages of spiritual knowledge. Where the initial stage is concerned, we will unavoidably fall short of our goal because we are learners. Indeed, defeated by our bad habits, we may achieve nothing as a result of our labor. Sometimes, however, God in His providence allows us to go slightly astray, and then at once to return with great humility; at other times He permits us in our presumption to think too much of ourselves. When this happens we should realize that God’s grace is disciplining us, teaching us to be humble and to recognize whence we receive our strength and knowledge, ‘so that we should rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead’(2 Cor. 1:9), something which happens even in this world. For if we endure with patience, and do not grow presumptuous or lapse from virtue, we will be raised from the deathlike state of the body and of material things to the spiritual knowledge of created realities. Indeed, according to St Paul (cf. Rom. 6:4-6), we are crucified with Christ bodily through the practice of bodily discipline, and in soul through the practice of the virtues that pertain to the soul. We are then buried through the mortification of the senses and of natural knowledge. Finally, through attaining the state of dispassion we are resurrected spiritually in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and honor through all the ages. Amen.

Related articles