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 16, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - Spiritual Virtues Require Bodily Virtues

 Today we will conclude our readings from the writings of St. Peter of Damaskos. After St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Peter has more writings in the five-volume "Philokalia" than any other writer. However, very little is known about his biography other than textual indications that he lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He was apparently a monk, living in a "skete," and wrote his texts mainly for the edification of other monks. In this short text, St. Peter explains why one must acquire bodily virtues in order to obtain spiritual virtues.


BEGIN: It is good to be reminded of certain things frequently, and so I will begin by quoting for the most part from the writings of others. For what I say is not my own invention but comes from the words and discernment of the divine Scriptures and the Holy Fathers.

St. John of Damaskos affirms that the bodily virtues -- or, rather, tools of virtue -- are essential, for without them the virtues of the soul cannot be acquired. But one must pursue them in humility and with spiritual knowledge. If they are not pursued in this way, but only for themselves, then they serve no purpose, just as plants are useless if they do not bear any fruit. Moreover, no one can fully master any art without long application and the excision of his own desires.


Hence, after ascetic practice we need spiritual knowledge, total devotion to God in all things, and careful study of the divine Scriptures; for without these things no one can ever acquire virtue. The person enabled by grace to devote himself utterly and always to God has achieved the highest good; he who has not reached this point should take care not to grow negligent in any way. Blessed are they who are completely devoted to God, either through obedience to someone experienced in the practice of the virtues and living an ordered life in stillness, or else through themselves living in stillness and total detachment, scrupulously obedient to God's will, and seeking the advice of experienced men in everything they say or think. 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" (Psalms 46:10).

Those who live in the world -- or rather who live after the fashion of the world, for this includes many so-called monks -- should try to attain a measure of devotion, as did the righteous men of old, so as to examine their unhappy souls before their death and to amend or humble them, and not to bring them to utter destruction through their total ignorance and their conscious or unconscious sins. David, indeed, was a king; but every night he watered his bed with tears because of his sense of the divine presence (Psalms 6:6). And Job says: "The hair of my flesh stood up" (Job 4:15). Let us then, like those living in the world, devote at least a small part of the day and night to God; and let us consider what we are going to say in our defence before out righteous Judge on the terrible day of judgment. Let us take trouble over this, for it is essential in view of the threat of age long punishment; and let us not be troubled about how we shall live if we are poor or how we can grow rich so as to give alms, thus stupidly devoting all our attention to worldly matters. We have to work, St. John Chrysostom says, but we need not concern or trouble ourselves about many things, as our Lord told Martha (Luke 10:41). For concern with this life prevents that concern with one's own soul and its state which is the purpose of the man who devotes himself to God and is attentive to himself. It is said in the Law, "Be attentive to yourself" (Deuteronomy 15:9). St. Basil the Great has written about this text with marvelous wisdom. END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 103 - 104