What is The Philokalia?

In conversation over Skype recently, I held up my copy of The Philokalia, vol. 1, as a way to signify who Kallistos Ware is. ‘Ah yes, that book you’ve been blogging about,’ is an approximation of the response. Which is fair enough. I realised that I’ve not actually told the reading public what The Philokalia is. Since it is what my brother and I are slowly wading our way through (and hopefully becoming better pray-ers as a result), here we go.

The Philokalia is a multi-volume anthology of Greek spiritual texts on the subject of prayer. The authors range from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. So far, the English translation includes four out of a proposed five. The inescapable, inimitable Met Kallistos Ware (for many of us, our first introduction to Orthodoxy, through The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way) is one of the translators. The collection was assembled on Mt Athos, the monastic/spiritual heart of Orthodoxy, in the 17th century by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios.

You may recognise some of the authors they included: Ps.-Antony the Great, Evagrios ‘the Solitary’ (aka ‘Ponticus’, in the original attributed to St Neilus of Ancyra), St Maximus the Confessor, St Makarios the Great, St Gregory of Sinai.

This multi-volume anthology is not a comprehensive guide to the entire ascetic life. As I said, it is about prayer. Thus, the external aspects of Christian spirituality, such as fasts and vigils, are lacking. In fact, it is not even about the entire life of prayer. It is about ‘inner prayer’, about the inner kingdom, about the prayer of the heart. I believe that in its later volumes (they arranged roughly chronologically) it is more specifically about The Jesus Prayer (I’ll discuss that prayer soon, I think).

The goal of this inner prayer is the encounter with God through purity of heart, through seeking hesychia — peacefulness, stillness. The Greek spiritual movement associated with the word hesychia is called hesychasm, and its monastic practicioners are hesychasts. The Francisco-Benedictine musician John Michael Talbot described hesychia as being like sitting on the edge of a pool, and letting the detritus subside. When it still and clear, you can see to the bottom and see both the good and the bad. (See The Music of Creation.)

The bad can thus be removed.

It is an approach towards intimacy with God.

Of course, all the texts were selected by hesychast monks for monks and written by monks to begin with. Not everything here will suit all readers, but much wisdom is to be found for the prayerful, attentive reader. A guide, a companion, will help. We are reading vol. 1 straight through, but I’ve discovered a piece by Met Kallistos that has a series of recommended texts to start with. I close with his words, then:

Sometimes I am asked: in what order should the writings of the Philokalia be read? Should we start at the beginning, on page one, and read straight through to the end? Probably that is not the best method. To one who is unfamiliar with Hesychasm but who has a serious and deep longing to discover its true meaning, I sometimes suggest the following sequence of texts:

i. St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesy-chasts (Philokalia IV, 197-295, English translation Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia, 164-270) (27).

ii. St Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness (Philokalia I, 141-73, English translation I, 162-98).

iii. Evagrios the Solitary (alias Neilos the Ascetic: i.e. Evagrios of Pontus), On Prayer (Philokalia I, 176-89, English translation I, 55-71).

iv. A Discourse on Abba Philimon (Philokalia II, 241-52, English translation II, 344-57).

v. St Gregory of Sinai, On the Signs of Grace and Delusion; On Stillness; On Prayer (Philokalia IV, 66-88, English translation IV, 257-86) (28).

But here I strongly recommend readers not to attempt the physical technique mentioned by St Gregory, unless they are under the direct instruction of an experienced spiritual teacher.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus

John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality)John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in Eastertide 2015. I’ve been meaning to write about it for about a year, now! Sorry about that. I felt today would be a good day since yesterday was his commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anyway, The Ladder of Divine Ascent is one of the most popular works of spiritual writing in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its popularity in the Christian East is similar to St Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ — this latter being the most copied, printed, and translated book of western Christendom next to the Bible. It is read in every Eastern Orthodox monastery in Lent as well as by many of the laity.

St John ‘of the Ladder’ (translating klimakos) was the late sixth-century abbot of the monastery at Sinai, now known as St Catherine’s. In this book, he distills the wisdom he has acquired through his own long years as a monk, a solitary, and a spiritual guide.

It is hard when reviewing such a classic as this to find the right words (I used this same cop-out in my review of City of God, I know). I found much of value in it, but it was hard-going. It is not an easy book. Books by monks for monks rarely are. Nonetheless, there is much here even for the lay Anglican. That may not be the strongest recommendation. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for the determined inquirer in the spiritual reality of the Triune God.

A friend on Facebook asked me if this was a good guide to the via negativa. The answer is that this book is not a work of mystical theology. It is mainly a guide to praktike, the external practices that one must couple to theoria (or contemplation) in order to ascent the ladder to God. A great number of the steps are about how to do battle against the passions, using a slightly different schema of their division from the more famous Evagrian one that made its way into the 7 deadly sins via St Gregory the Great.

This is not to say that theoria is completely ignored by any means. Theoria is the point of the ascent. This text lies historically near the beginning of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as we see in this quotation:

“Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.”

St John’s Ladder is about the heart of monastic spirituality. It is about the quest for apatheia — dispassion, that elusive state of being where the unclean logismoi of our flesh or of the demons, stirred up in our fallen hearts, break against our armour, as we storm the gates of Hell armed with prayer and the Holy Name of Jesus on our lips. In this, St John stands with Evagrian apatheia and St John Cassian’s purity of heart.

As the topics of discussion listed below show us, the ascetic practices of the Ladder are not restricted to those of prayer or those of daily life. They embrace the whole of our situation. This is in accord with Archimandrite Sophrony’s warnings in His Life Is Mine against engaging in spiritual practices without the rest of the virtuous life and the doctrine of the Church to uphold us. It resonates also with the introductory remarks to The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text, where the translators remind us of so many people who get caught up in the externals of Christian life, forgetting the better part of Mary of Bethany.

The 30 steps of the Ladder are:

1. On renunciation of the world
2. On detachment
3. On exile or pilgrimage
4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitute the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison (this is about a monastery he visited in Alexandria where monks guilty of certain offences were sent to a “prison”)
6. On remembrance of death
7. On mourning which causes joy
8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
9. On remembrance of wrongs
10. On slander or calumny
11. On talkativeness and silence
12. On lying
13. On despondency (akkedia
14. On the clamorous, yet wicked master—the stomach
15. On incorruptible purity and chastity to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
16. On love of money or avarice
17. On poverty (that hastens heavenwards)
18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
19. On sleep, prayer, and psalm-singing in chapel
20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil and how to practise it
21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
22. On the many forms of vainglory
23. On mad pride, and, in the same Step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts
24. On meekness, simplicity, guilelessness which come not from nature but from habit, and about malice
25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual feeling
26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
27. On holy solitude of body and soul
28. On holy and blessed prayer, mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
29. Concerning heaven on earth, or godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues

View all my reviews

The Mystic St Augustine

St Augustine by Antonio Rodríguez

I recently began reading St Augustine of Hippo’s On the Trinity (henceforth De Trin, because why not). St Augustine, especially in Eastern Orthodox circles but amongst some Protestants as well, tends to be degraded and criticised for not being mystical enough. The good Doctor is too logical, too much the hidebound Platonic rationalist. This sort of pitting ‘mystical’ against ‘rational’ has always irked me; everything theological tradition uses reason, and Western theology is no stranger to the mystical — this includes St Augustine.1

Anyway, arguments for St Augustine’s contemplative/mystical side usually turn to his Confessions. And justly so. Nevertheless, it strikes me that St Augustine is firmly within the mystical tradition of the church even when engaging in the task of rationally describing and arguing Christian dogma.

Using the translation of De Trin by Arthur West Haddan, here are some examples:

… the highest good is that which is discerned by the most purified minds, and … for this reason it cannot be discerned or understood by themselves, because the eye of the human mind, being weak, is dazzled in that so transcendent light, unless it be invigorated by the nourishment of the righteousness of faith. (1.4)

In reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face’ (NKJV), he writes:

For this contemplation is held forth to us as the end of all actions, and the everlasting fulness of joy. For “we are the sons of God; and it doth not ye tappear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 Jn 3:2) For that which He said to His servant Moses, “I am that I am; thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me to you;” (Ex. 3:14) this it is which we shall contemplate when we shall live in eternity. … Of this contemplation I understand it to be said, “When He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father;” that is, when He shall have brought the just, over whom now, living by faith, the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, reigns, to the contemplation of God, even the Father. If herein I am foolish, let him who knows better correct me; to me at least the case seems as I have said. For we shall not seek anything else, when we shall have come to the contemplation of Him. But that contemplation is not yet. (1.17)

Later, we read:

In that contemplation, therefore, God will be all in all; because nothing else but Himself will be required, but it will be sufficient to be enlightened by and to enjoy Him alone. And so he in whom “the Spirit maketh intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered,” (Rom. 8:26) says, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to contemplate the beauty of the Lord.” (Ps. 27:4) For we shall then contemplate God, the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, when the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father … (1.20)

Now, it is difficult to call someone a ‘mystic’, especially in the post-Carmelite world. How do we define the term? As I wrote a few years ago, ‘What is a mystic, exactly?‘ I won’t bog us down, but I think the working definition of a Christian mystic in this case needs to be someone who engages in the Christian spiritual disciplines, and especially ‘contemplation’ and meditation — each of them a way to set aside time within the rhythm of day to purposefully clear the mind and have a fresh encounter with the Most Holy Trinity. Christians who empty their minds and hearts to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

The famous ones, the known ones, will have had experiences, like the people mentioned in footnote one.

Augustine fits this model; first, he leads a disciplined life, such as that in the rule he wrote. Furthermore, he had at least the mystical aspiration. He knew that God, as a person, was beyond mere doctrines and dogmas, and was Someone with whom the Christian can interact. With many of his age, St Augustine, as seen above, believed that the Beatific vision of the age to come was the ultimate goal (telos) of the Christian life.

As Christ says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Mt. 5:8)

All of this leads me to one of the wellsprings of western Christian monasticism and spirituality, St John Cassian. In his First Conference, Cassian discusses the goal and the end of the monastic life. Everything in life has a goal towards which one strives, and this goal often has a particular end. The goal of monasticism is purity of heart, the end of which is to see God. Most will not see God until the next life; some blessed few will experience such grace now, such as the Prophets Moses and Isaiah or St Bernard.

It strikes me that Cassian’s conceptualisation of the monastic life would fit precisely with Augustine’s views on the subject (whatever the differences between these two on the subject of grace!). We will one day see God face to face; we must purify ourselves so that we can see more clearly. Certain things can be said according to reason — such things Augustine has written in his books. But the true experience of the realities behind the writings, the Triune God signified by the signs of reasoned, biblical, prayerful thought — this is beyond reason. This is the domain of mysticism.

There is no dichotomy here. Merely two ways of approaching the Throne of Grace, one of which (the logic) is a preparation of the intellect for the other (the mysticism).


1. Other mystics firmly embedded in the Western Christian tradition: St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi, St Hildegard von Bingen, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, Lady of Julian of Norwich, St Catherine of Siena, et al. Others who seem to have had some sort of mystical experience include St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas, both of whom are famously rational(ist?) theologians.

Love/eros for God: Contemplation beyond reason

ELEHSON ME KYRIEYesterday and the day before, I blogged about an encounter I had with some Mormon Missionaries and the reasons I gave for rejecting the Mormon position as well as some reasoned reflection on some Mormon beliefs. The main proclamation the young missionary had was, ‘I read The Book of Mormon and I felt the Holy Ghost telling me this is true.’

While not much of an argument, it is not a thought to be entirely ignored when we start discussing belief at any level — why one believes (or not), or how one believes (or not), or what one believes (or not), or how one acts in light of belief (or not).  Many of us, if we were to be honest, will admit that, whatever reasons we may marshal on behalf of our chosen worldview, there is always an element of the irrational in how/what/why we believe.

There are even atheists who admit this.

Besides these posts about reason and Mormonism, I have also discussed the reasoned study of Scripture and philosophy recently, specifically in the questions of providence and predestination. I think reason is a gift from God that enables us to interpret our world and the events in our lives and the Holy Scriptures and all sorts of things. There are even applications of reason to the philosophical question of God’s existence.

At the end of the day, though, all belief reaches beyond reason.

Love/eros for God, the deep-seated desire in the human soul, one of the basic facts of human life, is one area where Christian belief and human experience step beyond reason. This has also been a recent topic.*

When we start trying to reach for the invisible God, however, the non-rational aspects of how we live are to become entwined with our reason. We should seek a union of the mind in the heart (cf. Theophan the Recluse). We can reason that He exists, we can maybe ascertain some of his attributes from nature, we can reason truths about him from the Scriptures, we can formulate systematic theology about him, we can apply reason to the writings of the theologians and the history of the church.

And then we should step beyond that, into contemplation.

Here, I think, we will meet God’s love and start to love him.

Contemplation in the Christian tradition isn’t just thinking about stuff, like how sometimes I contemplate the terrible horror Captain Picard must have gone through as Locutus of Borg at the Battle of Wolf 359. It is seeking to apply the affective aspect of our spiritual self to the encounter with God. Sometimes it includes meditating on passages from and truths of Scripture — like thinking about Capt Picard only setting our minds on higher things. At the meditative stage, all those truths and aspects we have reasoned about can be avenues to God.

But contemplation also calls us beyond the rational. It involves a clearing of the clutter of the mind, an ignoring of the many dissonant, flapping thoughts (logismoi) that constantly plague the human mind. In this respect, it looks like Buddhism,** but it goes where Buddhism tends not to go. Thomas Merton considered the practices of Zen Buddhism as essentially psychological, as a way of calming the psyche; Merton, of course, is a slippery fish, and his ideas changed as his life went on, as discussed here.

But the Christian does not seek to empty the mind to stay empty (I understand that at least some Buddhists do, based upon conversations with a Buddhist).

The Christian wishes to fill him/herself with love of the Holy Trinity, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, with the love of Christ himself, experienced by clearing away the clutter, by entering into peace, into what Greeks call hesychia.

When we practise contemplation, all those things we have reasoned about go beyond mere thoughts we hold. God become more than an object of study — he becomes a subject to encounter. He becomes the Subject to encounter.

This is what those mediaeval mystics I’ve blogged about were seeking; what Carmelites like St John of Cross, St Teresa of Ávila, and Brother Lawrence found; what Theophan the Recluse and Elder Porphyrios are discussing in relation to the Jesus Prayer. Contemplation is a path to love of God.

Thus, through the mystics and their ways, we can enter into a life suffused with the greatest commandment — love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.

*Love/eros for God 1: Preliminary Thoughts; Love/eros for God 2: Beyond commandments; Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross; Love/eros for God: Elder St Porphyrios, ‘Christ is Our Love, Our Desire’.

**I am thinking here of the Jesuit Anthony de Mello in particular and his book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello argues that Greek philosophy gave ancient Christianity the intellectual apparatus to speak accurately of God, and that Buddhism can give modern Christianity the techniques to come nearer to him. I think the Christian tradition is self-sufficient in this regard, but the simple parallel with Buddhism may be helpful to some readers.

A brief quotation on contemplation from Sarah Coakley

In God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, the first volume of her systematic theology, Sarah Coakley argues that the practice of contemplation is essential to systematic theology. One of her references to contemplation makes this important statement we should all heed:

The idea of contemplation as an exercise of merely individual insight or self-cultivation must … be rudely and firmly rejected. For it is a distortion of the intrinsically incarnational and social impulse of the practice: here, over time, is the mysterious interpenetration of all created life glimpsed and intuited, the ‘groaning of all creation’ straining towards its final goal. -p. 84

Since Coakley promises to have the Carmelites as her interlocutors in the second volume, it is not out of place to mention that St John of the Cross believed that contemplation was necessary to action in the world — something to the effect that one small action after much contemplation is better than 100 with none. Indeed, many of the great contemplatives found themselves driven to social action whether of their own will or not.

Coakley argues that action in the world is an essential outflowing of contemplation, and that ascetical contemplation is the necessary underpinning of action, interpenetrating the entire theological enterprise and cutting through and across the boundaries and issues present in modern and postmodern theology in often painful ways.

I guess it is time for the ascetic revival …

Franciscan devotional art — Where is YOUR focus in life?

Whilst in Rome I took the opportunity to visit Santa Maria della Concezione. This church is famous for its artfully-arranged crypt full of bones — but I’ll get to that later. What was really worth the money and which I greatly appreciated was the Capuchin Museum connected to the church, since Santa Maria della Concezione is, in fact, the Mother House of the entire order of the Cappuccini.

In the Capuchin museum, you learn about the origins of the order and its habit and its mission as well as some famous Capuchin saints. They are called Cappuccini because of their distinctive, pointed hoods, which they believe was precisely how St Francis of Assisi wanted the friars to wear their hoods, capucci. This sort of extreme Franciscanism is precisely where the origins of the Capuchins lie in the 16th century; they wanted to get back to the centre of Francis’ Rule and the dual, beating heart of Franciscan life — the living dichotomy of the hermit who ministers to the poor and sick. Thus, in 1520, this order within the wider Franciscan family was founded.

Amongst the various artefacts within the museum as well as in the church itself were paintings of different Capuchin saints as well St Francis himself — one of them possibly by Caravaggio, certainly influenced by Caravaggio if not his own. What struck me that day as I sat praying in the church (this church — especially the sanctuary — is not on the main tourist trail so it’s actually a quiet place to retreat for a moment or two) was the focus of the saints in the artwork.

Certainly, the focus of the art is the saint. But the saints upon whom these artists focussed were not focussing on themselves. They were not focussing on other saints. Franciscans in artwork are usually focussing upon Christ. Here is the Caravaggio of Saint Francis in prayer:

The saint is placing a skull at the foot of the Cross. This is not a memento mori (on which later) but, rather, a meditation upon the cross of our Lord where our salvation was wrought, where Christ trampled down death by death. I am given to understand that it also somehow signifies the stigmata, although I do not recall how.

I couldn’t find any that I saw at the church, but below is a painting depicting the story of how once, St Felix of Cantalice was at prayer and the BVM handed him Baby Jesus to play with. A bit odd. Possibly silly even — appropriate for successors to the jongleur de Dieu, then. And the focus is still Jesus, who played with St Felix’s beard.

St Felix also spent a lot of time in the traditional Franciscan vocation of preaching, railing against corrupt politicians and calling young men to repentance and to turn away from dissolute lives. But that sort of thing doesn’t make for cute devotional art.

Very often, as in this painting of St Bernard of Corleone below, Capuchins are depicted praying before a crucifix, meditating upon the salvation wrought for us by Christ the God-Man when he died upon the Tree.

Or they are depicted with a rosary. Here, St Seraphin of Montegranaro has a crucifix, a rosary and a skull, so he’s well equipped:

I’m not goint to get into the details of what the Roman Church actually teaches on the rosary, but I will make a few observations. First, it has a crucifix on it. Crucifix = Jesus = Christocentric piety, as we’ve been discussing. Second, as one recites the Hail Mary’s, one is meant to meditate on the Mysteries of Christ’s life. Mysteries = Jesus = Christocentric piety. Third, every ten Hail Marys get a Lord’s Prayer. Lord’s Prayer comes from Jesus, is directed from the Father is Christocentric if not Trinitarian piety. Fourth, and this is why I’ve never used my rosary ‘properly’, since Mary is only esteemed because of her Son, the Hail Mary is itself an act of devotion to Christ. My brain can’t make that transition, but there you have it.

In sum: rosaries = Christocentric piety.

I finish with one final painting from the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione itself. I took this with my phone, so no guarantees of awesomeness here:

2014-05-22 16.03.24

Here we have St Francis being held up by an angel whilst in ecstasy. The emphasis is on meditation, perhaps on mortality, perhaps Christ’s death (hence the skull) — the saint has been transported beyond this world in the spirit, so his body is kept safe by one of the Almighty’s angels. The focus of all Christian meditation is ultimately the Holy Trinity, usually by focussing upon the words, acts, and salvation of Jesus.

What do you focus on? I admit that I am challenged by these paintings. I focus on Anglican controversy. I focus on being clever and solving riddles. I focus on me and what makes me happy or comfortable. The Franciscans challenge us to a better way. Focus instead on the Crucified.

Some other Franciscan stuff on this blog:

Saint of the Week: St Francis of Assisi

St. Francis and Why You Like Him

St Francis of Assisi – with links to various Francis-things I’ve written

St Francis and the monastic impulse

Saint of the Week: St Clare of Assisi

Saint of the Week: St Bonaventure

Saint of the Week: Ramon Llull

The San Damiano Crucifix

The Riches of Christian Spirituality

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

I have talked with some other ‘young people’ who were raised in the Church who have found that the sort of Christianity we put on offer at our local congregations and in many popular books is merely intellectual(ist) or emotional(ist) or sometimes both. But what about a religion or faith or spirituality that touches the deep chasms of the human soul, the vast interior world of the human heart, itself an image of the infinite simplicity of the Triune God? What about that kind of living, believing, thinking?

When this sort of disillusionment hits, different people take different approaches. One friend struck out into the land of the chemical — MDMA and marijuana led the way to cocaine (and who knows what else). Another friend went the much safer (at least physically) route of exploring Hinduism. Another friend I know has taken an interest in Islamic Sufism.

The drug-free path or a version thereof, from what the Interwebs shows me, seems to be a popular journey for a lot of young people raised in the Church. At some point, what’s being fed to our young congregants ceases to satisfy, so people start hunting for nourishment wherever it is to be found.

I get that.

And I am too immersed in the thought of Justin Martyr and too sympathetic to Augustine’s appreciation of Platonism to think that my friends won’t find Christ’s eyes looking out at them from between the lines of an ‘eastern’ religious text or the power of the Triune God battering their hearts as they enter the path of contemplation under the tutelage of Hindus, Buddhists, or Sufis. (Don’t forget this post on Christianity and eastern religions.)

Jesus Christ is the logos who orders the entire cosmos, who undergirds everything. He is the Reason of God, and each of us, made in God’s image, shares in that Reason. He can draw us all up to himself. The exitus from God has happened in every human heart, and not every guide on the reditus need be a Christian. I have profited from the Stoics.

But we need not look beyond the community of the faithful to find reliable guides on the spiritual journey. My general concern about Christians who become more interested in any philosophy beyond the Faith is whether they will still cling to Jesus and the Trinitarian Faith in the long run. And if we are dissatisfied with what we’re being served, we can explore the depths and riches of the interior world — enter the rooms of the Interior Castle — from within the Christian tradition.

This blog is mostly about those who have already made the reditus and have entered the everlasting rest — of every age, the contemplatives, mystics, ascetics, prayer-warriors, meditators, theologoi. I am prone to pulling in John Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers as well as St Francis of Assisi, but other guides for this journey to make an appearance have included St Anselm, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Lady Julian of Norwich, St Gregory Palamas, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, William Law, and John Wesley amongst many others.

But often, the problem with these spiritual masters of the past for one wishing to sail out into the sea of the interior world is the fact that simply reading them is itself a discipline — and very often it is difficult to apply their lessons to our lives. Or no visible, practical lessons seem to be forthcoming. So where do we go for guides to the spiritual world?

The church does not have a shortage of spiritual guides today, we just don’t always know where to look. I encourage you, if you are disillusioned with the shallowness, intellectualism, and/or emotionalism of your church today, before giving into accedia and going elsewhere, try to deepen your own walk first — perhaps a deeper connexion with Christ will deepen your appreciation of your own church.

Here are some recommended spiritual guides:

  • Richard Foster. Start with his most famous book Celebration of Discipline. Foster ranges far and wide across the Christian tradition, bringing in ancient, mediaeval, and modern, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, his fellow Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, and so on. Here you will get descriptions and practical tips on how to enter into the love of God and actually live for Him, being transformed, through twelve disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. This is one of the most-purchased and least-read books out there — and, I think, even less applied than read! His book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home helped sustain me while I was a missionary in Cyprus.
  • Kallistos Ware (Timothy). Foster is probably the most practical guide to the spiritual life I’ve encountered. But Ware’s works, especially The Orthodox Way but also, to some extent, The Orthodox Church, are excellent avenues into the world of Eastern Orthodox spiritual paths and spiritual thinking. He lacks the aggressive anti-western aspects of certain other writers on similar topics (e.g. Lossky, Romanides), but presents so appealing an image of Orthodoxy that you want a taste of that inner world, even if you are hesitant of joining him for doctrinal reasons.
  • Anthologies of the Masters. Although the lessons are not always easy to apply, reading shorter excerpts from the deep spiritual writers of the Christian tradition can be a good way in — so long as we are willing to go deeper. I have appreciated Richard J Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics, which has a range of authors from St Gregory of Nyssa to John Woolman. I started but did not finish the anthology Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism by Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, recommended by Edith M. Humphrey in:
  • Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit. In this book, Humphrey investigates what she calls ‘spiritual theology’, looking at Scripture as well as those who have gone before (tradition as it is lived, I suppose) and at her own lived experiences as a Christian. She wrote while still an Anglican, but the influences of the Eastern church are visible.

If you read any of these, hopefully a few things will happen: You will be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity. You will pray and meditate more. You will read Scripture with fresh eyes. And you will start to read more of the masters in full, starting with such classics as St. Augustine’s Confessions (in Chadwick’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics, not Pine-Coffin’s for Penguin Classics!) and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and maybe popping in on more recent spiritual guides such as Merton’s The Inner Experience.

And, having started to read the masters in full, may you be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity, pray and meditate more, and read Scripture with fresh eyes.