There is a remarkable passage in the breviary from Diadochus of Photice (pronounced Di-áh-do-cuss of Fóe-tah-chee). Little is known of his life. He lived from around 400 to 485 A.D. He was a mystic and theologian who particularly refuted Christological heresies and upheld the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon. He became bishop of Photice, a region in northwestern Greece. His writings emphasized the stillness, rest, or quiet that is necessary for spiritual insight and growth. The excerpt we shall examine here is surely part of that tradition. It is all the more necessary in today’s loud and hectic times, in which most people struggle to find the time and/or place to reflect and thus fail to live reflective lives.
In Catholic and biblical tradition there is a balanced insight concerning the human person that acknowledges the great and crowning gift of our intellect and the capacity to reason, to know truth, and to have insight. It is, along with our freedom to choose and to love, our most God-like quality. As such, it is esteemed and serves as a basis for our capax Dei (our capacity to know and be addressed by God and to make a personal response to Him).
On the other hand our intellect is wounded by the effects of Original Sin and the accumulated effects of our personal sins, which tend to darken our mind. Thus, while it is possible for the mind unaided by grace to come to knowledge of God’s existence and of His attributes and laws, grace is useful—even necessary—to overcome the difficulties due to sin. The Catechism puts it this way:
In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:
Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.
This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also “about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error (CCC 37-38).
Yes, so much grace is needed to assist our minds in grasping the deeper things of God and of what He has revealed and done. Our minds do have the capacity to grasp the basics, but even the basics sometimes escape us due to the weight our sin, our disordered desires, and the darkness caused by these things. Our minds are like a battleground and though they are wired for truth, the world, the flesh, and the devil sow discordant thoughts in us that compete for our attention and distract us from the higher and better things. It is something like a computer that is capable of processing the finest and most sophisticated mathematical algorithms, but is instead used to play silly, violent, and/or lurid video games.
Along with grace, much effort is needed to purify our intellects and direct them to things that enrich us, and to the One whom we really seek.
That leads us to this teaching of Diadochus of Photice who, out of respect for the glory of our minds, directs us to the healing remedies of God’s grace and revelation. His words are presented below in bold, black italics, with my poor comments following in plain red text.
The light of true knowledge makes it possible to discern without error the difference between good and evil. Then the path of justice, which leads to the Sun of Justice, brings the mind into the limitless light of knowledge, since it never fails to seek the love of God with all confidence.
Note that he speaks of the remedy of true knowledge. True knowledge is what God has revealed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. These are a sure guide that opens the path of the intellect to God Himself and to all He has revealed to us, in an ever-deepening and more confident understanding.
Therefore, we must maintain great stillness of mind, even in the midst of our struggles. We shall then be able to distinguish between the different types of thoughts that come to us: those that are good, those sent by God, we will treasure in our memory; those that are evil and inspired by the devil we will reject.
A comparison with the sea may help us. A tranquil sea allows the fisherman to gaze right to its depths. No fish can hide there and escape his sight. The stormy sea, however, becomes murky when it is agitated by the winds. The very depths that it revealed in its placidness, the sea now hides. The skills of the fisherman are useless.
These are powerful words for us in this age of almost constant noise. So overstimulated are we that many cannot even fall asleep unless the radio or TV is on in the background. Silence and the slower pace of normal human life comes close to terrifying many today. Silence is deafening, even terrifying, to a world used to such a chaotic pace and loud volume. If I leave a little room for silence after the homily or after communion I can almost feel the tension. I can imagine the thoughts of the congregation: “When will this end? When is he finally going to get up and say, ‘Let us pray’?”
But our author summons us to reacquaint ourselves with holy silence, with being still. And in this stillness reflection can happen.
He uses the image of still waters, which permit us to see into the depths, to carefully discern and slowly ponder what is true, good, and beautiful, and to distinguish it from the things that merely masquerade as such. When the waters are stirred and stormy, nothing can be seen—nothing. Only in silence, in disciplined quiet and reflection, can many things be seen, experienced, and discerned.
Some axioms from Scripture come to mind: Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10) and Silence! God stirs from his holy throne! (Zech 2:17).
These Scriptures and our author point to a discipline that is possible to us, but we must cultivate it. Holy silence and peace of mind do not just happen. Even though these gifts can be assisted by the Holy Spirit, there is also a discipline we must learn and acquire by habit.
Have you ever driven to work in silence? Have you ever unplugged from your cell phone? Perhaps this is something to try for Lent, even if only for 15 minutes. Become accustomed to more silence. Is it really necessary to turn on the TV or radio the first thing in the morning?
Everything is hard at first. Try just five minutes of quiet. Ask for the gift from God. See if you can grow it. Silence is essential if we hope to hear the quiet whispers of God, and to reach that place where insight and recollection are possible.
Only the Holy Spirit can purify the mind: unless the strong man enters and robs the thief, the booty will not be recovered. So by every means, but especially by peace of soul, we must try to provide the Holy Spirit with a resting place. Then we shall have the light of knowledge shining within us at all times, and it will show up for what they are all the dark and hateful temptations that come from demons, and not only will it show them up: exposure to this holy and glorious light will also greatly diminish their power.
Only the Holy Spirit alone can really purify the mind. But we have to open the door. The Holy Spirit can do His work, but He will not turn off the radio, TV, video games, or cell phone for you; that’s your job. The Holy Spirit will not barge in. He respectfully waits for you to give Him a place in your life. Diadochus emphasizes that cultivating peace of soul, by God’s grace, gives permission to the Holy Spirit to enter and do His work. And once having a place, He will crowd out that which is dark and demonic.
This is why the Apostle says: Do not stifle the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of goodness: do not grieve him by your evil actions and thoughts, and so deprive yourself of the defense his light affords you. In his own being, which is eternal and life-giving, he is not stifled, but when he is grieved he turns away and leaves the mind in darkness, deprived of the light of knowledge.
Wow, it would be bad news if we turned the Spirit away with a stifling no. And thus the darkness and anxiety remain in our minds. And if the light in you is darkness, how deep will the darkness be! (Mat 6:23) And yet this explains exactly the state of many today: in an ever-deepening darkness. The noise of this world is all they know; the quiet light of truth seems both dull and obnoxious.
The mind is capable of tasting and distinguishing accurately whatever is presented to it. Just as when our health is good we can tell the difference between good and bad food by our bodily sense of taste and reach for what is wholesome, so when our mind is strong and free from all anxiety, it is able to taste the riches of divine consolation and to preserve, through love, the memory of this taste. This teaches us what is best with absolute certainty. As Saint Paul says: My prayer is that your love may increase more and more in knowledge and insight, and so enable you to choose what is best (from the treatise On Spiritual Perfection, by Diadochus of Photice, bishop (Cap. 6, 26. 27. 30: PG 65, 1169. 1175-1176)).
Amen, Lord. May it be that when in quiet and trust our minds find peace, we become strong and lightsome and savor the beauty of your truth and the delights of your kingdom! May this Lent find us more quiet and watchful, giving a place to your Holy Spirit.