Philokalic Friday: Some wisdom from St Neilos of Ancyra

This week, my Lenten journey through the latter half of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, brought me to the end of St Neilos of Ancyra’s Ascetic Discourse (discussed in the last Philokalic Friday). The final pages of the text are a discussion of the monastic life more closely, as well as some remarks about the passions.

Neilos, like Evagrius before him (and Cassian after Evagrius; fun fact: a lot of Evagrius’ works were transmitted under Neilos’ name after his condemnation in the 500s), sees the passions as being closely linked together — gluttony can lead to avarice and fornication, that sort of thing. While his causes and effects don’t always strike me as particularly convincing, the interconnectedness of our vices as well as of our virtues is worth meditating on. Root out one vice, or strengthen one virtue, and everything else may start to fall into place.

He maintains that the process of asceticism begins with renouncing material possessions, then renouncing friends and relatives, and only then can one practise stillness (hesychia). As a married, lay Protestant, what can this mean for me?

I think that it means we need to start taking seriously Jesus’ difficult words about possessions, property, relationships. In the consumerist, post-industrial West, we are lulled into spiritual torpor by the materialism that surrounds us, aren’t we? I know I am. Even when one begins to control acquisitiveness, there is still a lot of attachment to what I already possess left behind.

And then friends and relatives. This is harder, for it is in the home and the family where we find ourselves living out the commandments to love and serve others. Nevertheless, evangelicals, in particular, have at times idolised the family and raised it to a position higher than it deserves. Neither my wife nor my son is my god. I don’t know how these things work out in practice, but presumably devoting time to prayer, Scripture, and charity to those beyond the home is a start.

The difficulty that faces us, however, if we are to accept St Neilos’ teaching, is that for a monk, these renunciations begin with an external act and are followed by the renovation of the heart, thus creating space for hesychia. As a married lay Protestant, I cannot perform these external acts of renunciation that monks do. And I do not think I can perform the internal renovation of the heart without hesychia.

Of course, St Neilos is not Scripture, so I need not apply all of his teaching to my own heart and hearth. Still, these thoughts are worth pondering and praying over.

Philokalic Friday: St Neilos of Ancyra

I am publishing posts each Friday this Lent as I work my way through the latter half of volume 1 of The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware. If you wish an introduction by me, read here; by Kallistos Ware, here.

At present, I am reading St Neilos (or Nilus or Nilos) of Ancyra’s (modern Ankara, Turkey; he died around 430, we think) ‘Ascetic Discourse’, on pages 199-250 of the English translation of The Philokalia, vol. 1. The text begins with some insights into wisdom and the philosophic life, as I blogged last Saturday. From here, Neilos moves into a discussion of how the monastic profession and ascetic life has fallen from its original ideals. Monks attach themselves to wealthy people and live in cities. They own property and are as undisciplined as anyone else.

It sounds rather high mediaeval, if you ask me! St Neilos is in the era of what I think of as the ‘second generation’ Desert Fathers (he’s not in the desert, of course), after the Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century, when Antony, Pachomius, et al., are now ideals to pursue rather than the living embodiment of the monastic call. He is a contemporary of Shenoute of the White Monastery in Egypt and St Simeon the Stylite in Syria, as well as Sts Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian in Marseille.

Monasticism in St Anthony’s day sort of began partly as a protest movement against a perceived ‘worldiness’ taking over the church after her alleged ‘triumph’ in the conversion of Constantine. Those who entered the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Judaea with high ideals did so because they felt that the pure, high calling of the Christian life, the pursuit of Godmanhood, had been compromised by life in the city. So they went to the Desert and did battle with demons.

But 100 years later, it seems that rot has set in. The renewal and reform movement must be renewed and reformed.

Ecclesia semper reformanda — it’s not just a motto for Protestants.

St Neilos’ initial complaint is the amount of property monks and monasteries own. From St Anthony to Evagrius and Jerome, property was to be renounced by monks, family was to be forsaken, status to be shunned. St Neilos has some wise words about status we should consider wisely today, I think.

St Neilos’ concern with status is not worldly status but ‘spiritual’ status. Too many people are becoming spiritual directors too soon. These are men who have learned with their minds the teachings of the Fathers but have not lived the ascetic life, they have not experienced and enjoyed and endured the contest and the training in the battle for the human soul, the fight for purification. When I read this, I think about this blog and realise my own inexperience. I am certainly not qualified to be a spiritual director!

After warning people from seeking out spiritual headship, Neilos discusses what to do if it falls to someone anyway:

First, let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach them through his actions rather than his words, setting his own life before them as a model of holiness. He must take care that, through copying him they do not obscure the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of sin. He should also realize that he ought to work as hard for his disciples’ salvation as he does for his own; for, having once accepted responsibility for them, he will be accountable to God for them as well as for himself. (p. 223 English)

Later, Neilos writes:

Since warfare against the passions requires such knowledge and experience, anyone who assumes the task of spiritual direction should realize how much he needs to know in order to lead those under his charge to ‘the prize of the high calling’ (Phil. 3:14), and to teach them clearly all that this warfare entails. He should not pretend to gain the victory by shadow-boxing, but must engage in a real battle with the enemy and inflict deadly wounds upon him. This struggle is far harder than any gymnastic contest. When an athlete’s body is thrown to the ground, he can easily get up; but in the spiritual warfare it is men’s souls that fall, and then it is very difficult for them to rise once more. (p. 227 English)

Now, I do not want to sound critical of contemporary spiritual directorship. But it is a different creature from what St Neilos describes. Having people take the enneagram or lead them on guided meditations inspired by St Ignatius Loyola or helping them find what spiritual gifts they have or using modern psychological analysis to help them find the wounds in their hearts that Jesus needs to cure or whatever — this is not the desert tradition of spiritual directorship by any means.

The tradition of the desert, that lives today among the Orthodox with the Russian word staretz for the spiritual elder, is about wrestling for the salvation of the disciple. It is sitting and talking to learn the disciple’s thoughts and heart and mind. It is praying. It is about obedience. It is about life lived together, life shown as example, not a half-hour sessions every fortnight to help us ‘grow’ spiritually. It is about the transformation of the human heart into the likeness of the Godman, Jesus Christ.

It is about theiosis, deification.

It is about grace, for no one is qualified for this job.

Philokalic Fridays

Since I’m going to try and make a dent in the second half of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, this Lent, I’ve decided to share with you some of the wisdom I’ve found each Friday because I enjoy the alliterative title ‘Philokalic Fridays’. That is, I’ll be sharing on Fridays specifically because of alliteration. I missed yesterday because my social calendar was full of visiting some truly awesome people. I’ll be sharing at all because, although not wise myself, wisdom is worth sharing.

And what is wisdom?

Well, I’ve already come across some prodding on that question in The Philokalia this week, as it turns out! I am reading St Neilos of Ancyra’s ‘Ascetic Discourse’. He is discussing how both Jewish and Greek quests for wisdom fail in different ways, and he gives a definition of philosophy (philo-sophia, love of wisdom, literally), writing:

For philosophy is a state of moral integrity combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality. Both Jews and Greeks fell short of this, for they rejected the Wisdom (sophia) that is from heaven and tried to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both His life and His teaching. For by the purity of His life He was the first to establish the way of true philosophy. … (201)

Wisdom!

Let us attend!