The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - How to Acquire True Faith


BEGIN: If we desire to acquire faith -- the foundation of all blessings, the door to God's mysteries, unflagging defeat of our enemies, the most necessary of all the virtues, the wings of prayer and the dwelling of God within our soul -- we must endure every trial imposed by our enemies and by our many and various thoughts. Only the inventor of evil, the devil, can perceive these thoughts or uncover and describe them. But we should take courage; because if we forcibly triumph over the trials and temptations that befall us, and keep control over our intellect so that it does not give in to the thoughts that spring up in our heart, we will once and for all overcome all the passions; for it will not be we who are victorious, but Christ, who is present in us through faith. It was with regard to this that Christ said, "If you have faith no bigger than a mustard-seed . . . " (Luke 17:6). Yet even if our thought, in a moment of weakness, should succumb, we should not be afraid or despair, or ascribe to our own soul what is said to us by the devil. On the contrary, we should patiently and diligently, to the limit of our strength, practice the virtues and keep the commandments, in stillness and devotion to God, freeing ourselves from all thoughts subject to our volition.


In this way the enemy, who day and night promotes every kind of fantasy and deceit, will not find us worried about his tricks and illusions and all the thoughts within which he lurks, presenting to us as truth what are really deceits and falsehoods; and so he will lose heart and go away. Through such experience of the devil's weakness, the man who practices Christ's commandments will no longer be alarmed by any of his tricks. On the contrary, he will do whatever accords with God's will joyfully and without hindrance, strengthened by faith and assisted by God in whom he has believed. As the Lord Himself has said, "All things are possible for the person who believes" (Mark 9:23). For it is not he who fights the enemy, but God, who watches over him on account of his faith. As the Prophet said, "You have made the Most High your refuge" (Psalms 91:9). Such a person no longer feels anxiety about anything, for he knows that "though the horse is made ready for battle, salvation comes from the Lord" (Proverbs 21:31). Because of his faith he faces everything boldly. As St. Isaac says, "Acquire faith within you and you will trample on your enemies."

The man of faith acts, not as one endowed with free will, but as a beast that is led by the will of God. He says to God: "I became as a beast before Thee; yet I am continually with Thee" (Psalms 73:22 - 23). If Thy desire is that I should be at rest in Thy knowledge, I shall not refuse. If it is that I should experience temptation so as to learn humility, again I am with Thee. Of myself, there is absolutely nothing I can do. For without Thee I would not have come into existence from non- existence; without Thee I cannot live or be saved. Do what Thou wilt to Thy creature; for I believe that, being good, Thou bestowest blessings on me, even if I do not recognize that they are for my benefit. Nor am I worthy to know, nor do I claim to understand, so as to be at rest: this might not be to my profit.


I do not dare to ask for relief in any of my battles, even if I am weak and utterly exhausted: for I do not know what is good for me. "Thou knowest all things" (John 21:17); act according to Thy knowledge. Only do not let me go astray, whatever happens; whether I want it or not, save me, though, again, only if it accords with Thy will. I, then, have nothing: before Thee I am as one that is dead; I commit my soul into Thy pure hands, in this age and in the age to be. Thou art able to do all things; Thou knowest all things; Thou desirest every kind of goodness for all men and ever longest for my salvation. This is clear from the many blessings that in Thy grace Thou hast bestowed and always bestowest on us, visible and invisible, known to us and unknown; and from that gift of Thyself to us, O Son and Logos of God, which is beyond our understanding. Yet who am I that I should dare to speak to Thee of these things, Thou searcher of hearts? I speak of them in order to make known to myself and to my enemies that I take refuge in Thee, the harbor of my salvation. For I know by Thy grace that "Thou art my God" (Psalms 31:14).


I do not dare to say many things, but only wish to set before Thee an intellect that is inactive, deaf and dumb. It is not myself but Thy grace that accomplishes all things. For, knowing that I am always full of evil, I do not attribute such things to my own goodness; and because of this I fall down as a servant before Thee, for Thou hast found me worthy of repentance, and "I am Thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid" (Psalms 116:16). But do not allow me, my Lord Jesus Christ, my God, to do, say or think anything contrary to Thy will: the sins I have already committed are enough. But in whatever way Thou desirest have mercy on me. I have sinned: have mercy on me as Thou knowest. I believe, Lord, that Thou hearest this my pitiable cry, "Help Thou my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Thou who has granted me, not only to be, but also to be a Christian. "It is a great thing," St. John of Karpathos has said, "for me to be called a monk and a Christian." As Thou has said, Lord, to one of Thy servants, "It is no light thing for you to be called by My name" (Isaiah 49:6). This is more to me than all the kingdoms of heaven or of earth. Let me always be called by Thy most sweet name. O Master, full of compassion, I give thanks to Thee.


Just as certain readings and certain words, tears and prayers are appropriate for one engaged in ascetic practice, so his is a different kind of faith from that superior faith which gives birth to stillness. The former is the faith of hearsay, the latter is the faith of contemplation, as St. Isaac says. Contemplation is more sure than hearsay. For the ordinary initial faith of the Orthodox is born of natural knowledge, and from this faith are born devotion to God, fasting and vigil, reading and psalmody, prayer and the questioning of those with experience. It is such practices that give birth to the soul's virtues, that is, to the constant observance of the commandments and of moral conduct. Through this observance come great faith, hope, and the perfect love that ravishes the intellect to God in prayer, when one is united with God spiritually, as St. Neilos puts it.


The words of prayer are written once and for all, so that he who wishes to present his intellect motionless before the Holy and Life-giving Trinity may always pray one and the same prayer. The intellect itself has the sense that it is seen, even though at that time it is utterly impossible for it to see anything, for it is imageless, formless, colorless, undisturbed, undistracted, motionless, matterless, entirely transcending all the things that can be apprehended and perceived in the created world. It communes with God in deep peace and with perfect calm, having only God in mind, until it is seized with rapture and found worthy to say the Lord's Prayer as it should be said. This is what we are told by St. Philimon and St. Irene, as well as by the Holy Apostles, the martyrs and other holy men. Anything other than this is illusion born of self-conceit. For the Divine is infinite and uncircumscribed, and the intellect that returns to itself must be in a similar state, so that through grace it may experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. "For we walk by faith, not by sight," says St. Paul (II Corinthians 5:7).


For this reason, we should persist in our ascetic practice, so that through this enduring persistence our intellect is drawn in longing towards the Divine. For if the intellect does not find something that is superior to sensible realities it cannot direct its desire towards it, abandoning the things to which it has been so long accustomed. Just as the compassionate and the dispassionate are not greatly harmed by the affairs of this life, since they manage them well, so those who have received great gifts of grace are not harmed, since they ascribe their achievements to God. END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 164 - 167