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, February 13, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - True Piety and Self-Control

Although we concluded our earlier study of St. Peter of Damascus, we are bringing another one outside that series to your attention for its importance.  St. Peter, as you may remember, has more space in the Philokalia than any other writer except St. Maximos the Confessor. A great man of prayer, steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers, he apparently lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, although little is known about his life.

In today's text, St. Peter of Damaskos talks about piety and self-control and the relationship between these two spiritual traits.


It is clear that true piety embraces a great variety of things, as does secular philosophy. For philosophy presupposes the completion of ten different branches of learning, embracing not just one or two of these branches but all ten together. Similarly, true piety consists not in the possession of a single virtue alone, but in the keeping of all the commandments. In its Greek form, the term "true piety" comes from a word meaning "to serve well." If some people say that "to serve well" is the same thing as faith, let them explain how it is possible to fear the Lord before believing in Him. Does one not first believe in the Lord and then fear Him? Hence faith gives rise to fear, and from fear comes true piety. The prophet Isaiah indicates that this is the correct sequence: starting with wisdom, he proceeds in a descending order, referring to "the spirit of knowledge and true piety," and last of all to "the spirit of the fear of God" (Isaiah 11:2-3). The Lord Himself starts with fear and then guides the man who possesses this fear to a state of inward grief.

This is not the moment to speak systematically about every form of true piety or spiritual activity. Leaving to one side the ascetic practices pertaining to the body that precede the acquisition both of the higher kind of faith and of pure fear – for everyone knows what these practices are – I will speak of the trees of the spiritual paradise, that is, with the help of God's grace I will speak briefly about the virtues of the soul. Of these, the most all-embracing is self-control, by which I mean abstinence from all the passions. There is also another, more partial form of self-control, that applies to bodily actions and teaches us the proper use of food and drink. Here, however, I am referring to the self-control that applies, as I said, to the passions and that restrains every thought and every movement of the limbs that is not in harmony with God's will. The person who possesses this virtue does not tolerate any thought or word, any movement of hand or foot or of any other member of the body, unless it is essential to the life of the body or to the soul's salvation.

It is after the acquisition of this virtue that the trials and temptations incited by the demons multiply, for they see before them an embodied angel, wholeheartedly committed to doing what is right and good. This is what is meant by the command given to man in paradise, "to cultivate and to keep it" (Genesis 2:15); for self-control needs to be cultivated and guarded ceaselessly, so as to prevent any of the passions that are outside the garden from stealthily creeping in. As I have said, the two forms of self-control or self-restraint are not identical, for while the first curbs unchastity and the other shameful passions, the second controls even the slightest thought, bringing it under surveillance before it can lead to sin, and then conducting it to God.

No one can speak or learn about this with precision merely through hearsay; it is only through experience that one can come to understand and counteract all these things that so disturb the intellect. How, indeed, is it possible merely by giving things a name to resurrect the dust and to make the material immaterial? Names are one thing, and secular learning, on the basis of etymology, can provide one with knowledge about them. But the experience and acquisition of the virtues require God's help; and they are achieved only through much effort and over a long period of time. This is especially true of the virtues of the soul, for these are the more inward and essential virtues. The virtues that pertain to the body – which are better described as the tools of the virtues – are easier to acquire, even though they do demand bodily effort. But the virtues of the soul, although they demand the control of thought alone, are much more difficult to achieve. Because of this the Law says first: "Watch yourself attentively" (Exodus 23:21). St. Basil the Great has written an excellent treatise on this phrase.

But what shall we say, we who are not attentive at all? We are like the Pharisees. Some of us may fast and keep vigil and perform other such things, and we may often do this with partial understanding. But we lack discrimination because we do not pay attention to ourselves and do not know what it is that is being asked of us. Nor are we willing to give persistent and patient attention to our thoughts, so as to gain experience from our many trials and battles, and thus become for others at least an experienced sailor, if not a captain. Although we are all of us blind, we claim that we ourselves see, as the Pharisees claimed. That is why it is said that they will be judged more severely (John 9:41). For if we acknowledge our blindness, we should not be condemned; it would be enough for us to be grateful and to admit our failure and ignorance. But, alas, we shall receive the greater condemnation, as did the pagan Greeks; for, according to Solomon, they aspired after so many things and yet failed to attain what they sought. Should we therefore keep silence, as though there was nothing for us to do? That would be even worse. Let us rather rebuke ourselves, for it is shameful even to mention the things that we do in secret (Ephesians 5:12). Hence I will say nothing about such things, but will speak about the virtues that so deserve our esteem. For the recollection of their sweetness fills my darkened heart with pleasure, and I forget my limitations and am no longer troubled about the condemnation that awaits me if I speak and do not act.

Self-control, then, and self-restraint have the same power and are twofold, as has been said. But now I want to say something further about their more perfect form. He who by God's grace enjoys the great faith of contemplation together with pure and divine fear, and who wishes on the basis of these to keep possession of self-control and self-restraint, should first master himself both outwardly and inwardly, acting as if he were already dead in soul and body as regards this world and all other men. In every circumstance he should say to himself: "Who am I? What is my existence? Nothing but abomination. For I start as earth and I end as putrefaction, and in between I am filled with al manner of insolence and worse. What is my life? And how long? A single hour and then death comes. Why do I bother about this and that? Already I am dying. For Christ controls both life and death. Why do I worry and strive in vain? All one needs is a bit of bread: why seek more? I have this, there is nothing to worry about. If I don't, it may be that in my ignorance I do worry about it; yet it is God who provides."

For these reasons every man should make it his whole concern to guard his senses and his thoughts, so as not to devise or do anything that does not seem to be in accordance with God's will. Let him prepare himself to accept patiently the things that befall him at the hands of men and demons, whether these things are pleasant or unpleasant. Neither the one nor the other should excite him or make him give way either to senseless joy and presumption, or to dejection and despair. He should entertain no over-confident thought until the Lord comes. To Him be glory throughout the ages. Amen. END

From G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia – Vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 218 - 221