The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth
Translated and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware
Publisher: MacMillan, New York, 1979.
ISBN: Volume 1: 0-571-13013-5
In the eighteenth century, Greek monks Saint Nikodimos and Saint Makarios compiled a vast collection of spiritual writings from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries to form The Philokalia. They called the voluminous book they had created “a mystical school of inward prayers.” Since that time The Philokalia has taken a central place in the canon of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The writings included in The Philokalia come from over thirty different spiritual teachers – some monks, some hermits, some priests and bishops – all known by the respectful title of Church Fathers.
In this English translation by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, The Philokalia is broken into four volumes. This review covers the first volume, which includes the writings of nine spiritual teachers from the fourth through the seventh centuries. Subsequent reviews will cover the later volumes.
The Church Fathers lived a life of ascetism that seems extreme by modern standards, and they often refer to it in their writings. As one of the translators warns the reader, this is a book written by ascetics and, at one level, for ascetics. But the writers’ main concern is how to attain union with God in this life. Their unwavering attitude of dedication and intense yearning for spiritual growth can be a source of inspiration to any spiritual seeker.
For them the way toward union with God is remembrance of God. They advise the seeker to become less concerned about the self and more concerned about God. Saint Mark the Ascetic (fifth century) enjoins self-control as a support to remembrance, because “self-indulgence leads to negligence and negligence leads to forgetfulness”.
The writers advise that if we neglect to fight the “demons” we easily forget our goal. They believe that “demons” are actual creatures that can manifest and throw temptations before us, including manipulating our thoughts. Evagrios the Solitary (fourth century) writes that “All thoughts inspired by the demons produce within us conceptions of sensory objects.”
Watchfulness is the method to control thoughts and, thus, to fight the “demons”. Saint Hesychios the Priest (sixth century) points out four kinds of watchfulness that one can apply to this effort:
One type of watchfulness consists of closely scrutinizing every mental image or provocation … A second type of watchfulness consists of freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still … A third type consists in continually and humbly calling upon the Lord Jesus Christ for help. A fourth type is to always have the thought of death in one’s mind.
Forgetfulness is a powerful hindrance on the spiritual path. According to Saint Hesychios, “This accursed forgetfulness is as opposed to attentiveness as water to fire, and forcibly fights against it all the time.” Saint Mark calls on the spiritual warrior to show his strength in the battle with forgetfulness. “Forgetfulness as such has no power, but acquires it in proportion to our negligence. Do not say, ‘What can I do? I don’t want to be forgetful but it happens.’ For when you did remember, you cheated over what you owed.”
The force of habit is powerful. Saint Neilos the Ascetic (fifth century) quite clearly explains the danger of bad habits:
It is a terrible thing when the force of habit holds us fast, not allowing us to rise to the state of virtue … For habit leads to a set disposition, and this in turn becomes what may be called ‘second nature’, and it is hard to shift and alter nature. For, though it may yield a little to pressure, it quickly reasserts itself. It may be shaken and forced to give way, but it is not permanently changed, unless through prolonged effort we retrace our steps, abandoning our bad habits.
To illustrate the danger of habits, Saint Neilos cites the example of Lot’s wife from the Bible (Gen. 19:26). Warned that the city of Sodom will be destroyed because of its wickedness, she flees. But while fleeing, she looks back at the city and so is turned into a pillar of salt. He writes, “She symbolizes the force of habit which draws us back again after we have tried to make a definitive act of renunciation.”
Because of the power of habit, Saint Diadochos of Photiki (fifth century) says, “At the beginning of the struggle, therefore, the holy commandments of God must be fulfilled with a certain forcefulness of will (cf. Matt. 11:12).” Saint John of Karpathos (seventh century) states unequivocally, “We must use force. A man labours and struggles, and so by the use of force he escapes from destruction, always striving to raise his thoughts to holiness.” And again he writes, “a great effort and much time are needed.”
Remembrance of God lights the seeker’s way. When one remembers God, then God also lends His aid by reminding the seeker to continue in remembrance. Saint Mark advises: “At the times when you remember God, increase your prayers, so that when you forget Him, the Lord may remind you.”
Saint Diadochos explains the importance of constant remembrance:
When someone is trying to purify gold, and allows the fire of the furnace to die down even for a moment, the material which he is purifying will harden again. So, too, a man who merely practises the remembrance of God from time to time loses through lack of continuity what he hopes to gain through his prayer.
He recommends constant repetition of the prayer “Lord Jesus”.
When we have blocked all its outlets by means of the remembrance of God, the intellect requires of us imperatively some task which will satisfy its need for activity. For the complete fulfillment of its purpose we should give it nothing but the prayer “Lord Jesus”. “No one,” it is written, “can say ‘Lord Jesus’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3) Let the intellect continually concentrate on these words in its inner shrine with such intensity that it is not turned aside to any mental images.
Saint John of Karpathos quotes the prophet Isaiah (Isa 26:20): “Come, my people, enter into your inner room … shut your door … and hide yourself for a brief moment.” He explains that this inner room is “the shrine of your heart, which is closed to every conception derived from the sensible world, that image-free dwelling place.” Here you must shut your door “to all things visible”. As for hiding yourself for a brief moment, he comments that “the whole of man’s life is but a moment”.
The Fathers recognize that the seeker is apt to fall, and fall again. Saint John stresses perseverance. “The Lord says to you what He said to Matthew: ‘Follow Me’ (Matt. 9:9) But when you follow the Lord with burning love, it may happen that on the road of life you strike your foot against the stone of some passion and fall unexpectedly into sin.” However, he writes, “each time you fall, you should get up again with the same eagerness as before.”
In the end, Saint Hesychios reminds us that “the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for His faithful servants. A slave does not demand his freedom as a reward: but he gives thanks as one who is in debt, and he receives freedom as a gift.”
The Philokalia is not an easy book to read. It is dense and filled with references internal to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Still, the seeker will find it a wonderful guide to the practice of the contemplative life, and a treasure trove of spiritual wisdom.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.