St Dimitry of Rostov and St Tikhon of Voronezh practiced divine meditation —that is, holy reflection on the incarnation of God the Word, on His wonderful life on earth, on His terrible and saving sufferings, on His most glorious resurrection and ascension to heaven; as well as on man, his destiny, his fall, his renewal by the redeemer, and on the other deep mysteries of Christianity.
The holy reflections of the above saints are superbly propounded in their writings. St Peter of Damascus, in common with other ascetic writers, ranks such reflections among spiritual visions, and in the category of visions he assigns them to the fourth degree. Every spiritual vision is a sight of mysteries of some kind, which manifest themselves in the ascetic in accordance with his purification by repentance, as can be seen in the book of St Peter of Damascus. Repentance has its degrees, and spiritual visions have their degrees. The mysteries of Christianity are revealed to the ascetic by degrees, according to his spiritual proficiency. The divine meditations or pious reflections of Saints Dimitry and Tikhon serve as an expression of their spiritual proficiency. Let him who desires exercises in divine meditation read the writings of these saints. Such divine meditation will be the most immune to error and the most profitable for the soul. On the other hand, meditation becomes very wrong and harmful if, before purification by penance and without having any exact grasp of Christian doctrine, the ascetic allows himself self-willed reflection, which cannot fail to be erroneous and therefore cannot fail to produce harmful results and self-deception, cannot fail to lead to the precipice of fatal error.
The saints had been trained with all precision and detail in Orthodox theology, and then by their holy life they had risen to the height of Christian perfection. Divine meditation was natural for them. It is not natural for an ascetic who has no fundamental or precise grasp of theology, and has not been purified by penance.
For this reason it was forbidden by the holy Fathers to novices, and in fact to all monks in general who had not been prepared for it by study and had not reached it by their way of life. St John of the Ladder says, “Deep is the depth of the dogmas, and not without risk does the mind of the hesychast caper among them. It is not safe to swim in one’s clothes, nor should a slave of passion touch theology.”2 Such words are a warning to hesychasts, and it is common knowledge that only proficient monks are allowed to practice hesychasm.3
In ancient times very many monks fell into fatal heresy solely because they allowed themselves to investigate dogmas beyond their powers of comprehension. “A humble monk,” St John of the Ladder again teaches, “will not meddle with mysteries, but a proud one will pry into the divine judgments.”4 Very true! In one who is immature and unfit for it, the desire to undertake divine meditation is the suggestion of conceit, is a proud and imprudent desire. Exercise yourself in prayer and in soul-building reading, and this exercise will be an exercise in divine meditation that is right, safe, and pleasing to God.
Just as our eyes of sense when healed of blindness see by their own natural property, so, too, our mind when purified of the disease of sin naturally begins to see the mysteries of Christianity. Rely on God in your efforts. If it is necessary for you and for the general benefit of Christianity that you should be a seer of deep mysteries and a preacher of them to your brethren, God will certainly grant you that gift. But if that is not the will of God, strive for that which is essentially necessary for your salvation and which fully satisfies the demands of that need. Endeavor to acquire pure prayer combined with a sense of penitence and mourning, with the remembrance of death, of God’s judgment, and of the frightful dungeons of hell where eternal fire blazes and eternal darkness reigns. Such prayer combined with such recollections is an unerring, excellent form of divine meditation, and of the greatest profit to the soul.