Philokalic Friday: My Goodreads review of The Philokalia, Vol. 1

The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete TextThe Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text by G.E.H. Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first of a massive, five-volume anthology of texts running from the fourth through fifteenth centuries, compiled on Mount Athos in the eighteenth century by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth. Of the five, only the first four have been translated into English; Kallistos Ware says he needs to start refusing speaking engagements so they can finish the fifth. This volume begins in the fourth century and includes texts into the seventh; therefore, this volume (and the next, at least) is part of the common heritage of both western and eastern Christians.

Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware have done an inestimable service to the English-speaking world in providing us with this rich collection of documents, that represent a core of the Eastern Orthodox tradition that has exerted a powerful influence since its publication in 1782 (on which see Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present Day). The translation is clear and lucid, and the editorial material provides many aids to the reader. These aids are, in my opinion, essential to understanding texts so far removed from us in time, space, and situation. We are not desert hermits or monks. Many of the readers of this volume are, rather, urban laity with little or no monastic context. Many of us, moreover, are not even Orthodox.

In fact, the Introduction and the Glossary are themselves an education in hesychastic spirituality (on which, more below). The main themes of the text and its function are introduced in the former, and the ancient Greek Christian understanding of a variety of important, specific terms is provided in the latter. Moreover, we are reminded that these texts alone are not the entirety of the path to holiness these authors themselves were on: many of them lived in communities, they celebrated the liturgy, they practised acts of mercy, they read Scripture, and so on. And many of them wrote texts on other topics not included because they are not the focus of The Philokalia.

The specific focus of The Philokalia is the prayer of the heart, or inner prayer, which is cultivated and practised as essential on the road to hesychia — peace, calmness, stillness, silence. Practical considerations are here, such as Evagrios the Solitary counselling against the eight wicked thoughts (later, seven deadly sins in the western tradition) in his treatise ‘On Prayer’. Elsewhere, Hesychios the Priest gives an extended series of chapters on ‘watchfulness’.

Watchfulness, in fact, may be the watchword for attaining hesychia in Philokalic spirituality. We are called to watch our thoughts, guards our hearts, be on the lookout for temptation. We are counselled to bring to mind the stories of Scripture, both the examples of the saints therein and the life and deeds of Christ. We are reminded to meditate on the grace of God as we have experienced it in our own lives. We are called to focus on and pray the Name of Jesus.

All of these, arguably, are forms of watchfulness. Either they are the mind itself watching for danger and fleeing from danger, or they are the mind occupying itself with things above, and thus being prepared for temptation or a wicked thought when it comes.

Many of these texts are difficult. Well, maybe all of them are. This is not an easy book. It took my two years to read it, after a first failed attempt 12 years ago. Much of the content is either not applicable to us or hard to apply. Discernment of what is wisdom for the urban layman is required. Watchful, attentive reading and prayer must come here alongside humility. I suspect that many will give up, either judging the authors of these writings for not being their own breed of Christian or just finding it too hard. I understand. I also counsel you: Keep going.

One difficulty you will face is simply a matter of genre. Many of these are collections of short sayings, from a sentence to a paragraph. They are not always arranged in a visibly logical way. It can be hard to read many of them at once. I recommend reading only as many as you can take at once and meditating on them. I also, on my third reading of Evagrios ‘On Prayer’, took notes and tried to find structure and meaning within the texts. These are, for the most part, not extended discussions or discursive essays properly united with a theme and an argument. Simply be ready for that.

This volume includes selections from: St Isaiah the Solitary, Evagrios the Solitary (aka Pontikos), St John Cassian (the only Latin in the whole five volumes), St Mark the Ascetic (aka Mark the Monk), St Hesychios the Priest, St Neilos the Ascetic (of Ancyra), St Diadochos of Photiki, and St John of Karpathos, as well a barely Christianised Neoplatonic text attributed to St Antony the Great.

The only thing I wish were here is the original introduction by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain.

View all my reviews

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