The inner unity of the Philokalia
How far does the Philokalia possess an all- embracing unity and coherence? Are there common themes which bind together the thirty-six authors that it contains? Are we entitled to speak of a distinctive and characteristic 'spirituality' of the Philokalia?
At first sight it might appear that there is no underlying unity, no specifically 'Philokalic' spirituality. The different texts are given simply in chronological order, with no attempt at systematic classification, no grouping of topics, and no clear indication which writings are considered suitable for 'beginners' and which for the more 'advanced'. In this connection it is relevant to keep in mind the meaning of the title ' Philokalia'. This can certainly be given a spiritual sense: it may signify love for what is beautiful and good, love for God as the source of all things beautiful, love for whatever leads to union with the divine and uncreated beauty. Yet the term ' Philokalia' can also mean merely an 'anthology', a collection of good and beautiful things. Is that perhaps the true character of the Philokalia of St Makarios and St Nikodimos? Is it no more than a selection of disconnected texts, chosen more or less at random?
If we look deeper, however, we find that the Philokalia is in reality far more than a series of unrelated writings, bound up for convenience between the covers of the same volume. There are certain dominant motifs, certain master-themes, which give to the Philokalia a coherent unity and a definite purpose. Let us consider in particular three basic themes, pervading the whole work, and after that three further features that are more specific in character.
1. The General Scope of the Philokalia: Inner Action
The primary concern of the texts in the Philokalia is with ' inner' rather than Outer' action. It deals, not with that the Desert Fathers term ' bodily toil', but with ' the guarding of the intellect'(10). It does not concentrate upon detailed regulations concerning the observance of fasts, the hours of sleep, or the number of prostrations, but it looks beyond the letter of these outward rules at their inner spirit, at their spiritual purpose and effect. What it reveals to us, says St Nikodimos in his preface, is 'the kingdom of God that is within you' (see Luke 17:21), 'the treasure hidden in the field of the heart' (see Matt. 13:44) (11).
This 'kingdom within us' is characterized according to the Philokalia more particularly by two virtues: by νῆψις, a term denoting sobriety, temperance, lucidity, and above all vigilance and watchfulness; and by ἡσυχία, which signifies not so much exterior silence as inner stillness of heart. Key concepts in Eastern spirituality as a whole, these two connected qualities are key concepts more specifically in the Philokalia. If we are asked to sum up the message of the Philokalia in not more than two words, the best way to do so would be to use the terms nepsis and hesychia. The central!ty of nepsis is indicated at the very outset in the Greek title of the book, Φιλοκαλία τῶν Ἱερῶν Νηπτικῶν, Philokalia of the Holy Neptic [Fathers]. St Nikodimos in his preface describes the Philokalia as a ' treasury of watchfulness' (νήψεως ταμεῖον) (12). Interpreting the word in a wide-ranging sense -he refers to it as 'all-embracing watchfulness' (ἡ καθόλου νῆψις) -he links it with two other basic notions in Orthodox ascetic theology, 'attentiveness' (προσοχή) and 'keeping guard over the intellect' (φυλακή τοῦ νοός) (13). It is nepsis that secures our entry into the inner kingdom; in the words of an author included in the Philokalia, St Philotheos of Sinai, it is 'a path leading to the kingdom - both to that which is within us and to that which is to be' (14). The second key term, hesychia, is understood in the Philokalia chiefly in the Evagrian sense of 'pure prayer', that is to say, prayer in which the intellect is 'naked' and free from all images and discursive thinking. Towards the end of the Philokalia the basic sense of the word is well summed up in an epigrammatic phrase of St Gregory of Sinai: 'Hesychia is a shedding of thoughts' (ἡσυχία γάρ εστιν άπόθεσις νοημάτων) (15).
2. The Basic Aim: Deification
If such is the general scope of the Philokalia, in what way does the work envisage the basic aim and purpose of the spiritual life? St Nikodimos provides a clear answer in the very first sentence of the preface: 'God, the blessed nature, perfection that is more than perfect, the creative principle of all that is good and beautiful, Himself transcending all goodness and all beauty, in His supremely divine plan preordained from all eternity the deification (θέωσις) of humankind’ (16). Such, then, is the purpose for which humans were created, and such is the supreme end of the spiritual life: theosis. It is no coincidence that theosis should be mentioned by Nikodimos not only in the opening sentence of his preface, but on no less than five other occasions on the first page alone. This ideal of theosis, of direct, transforming union with the living God, constitutes a unifying thread throughout the Philokalia as a whole.
3. The Means: Continual Invocation of the Holy Name
Having indicated in the first sentence how humans were created for theosis, Nikodimos goes on to speak in the preface about the Fall, Christ's Incarnation, and the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred at Baptism. This grace of Baptism, bestowed on us in infancy, has been obscured by worldly cares and passions. How can it be reactivated? Nikodimos answers:
The Spirit... revealed to the Fathers a method (τρόπος) that is truly wonderful and altogether scientific (έπιστημονικώτατος), whereby grace can be rediscovered. This was to pray continually to our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, not simply to pray with the intellect and the lips alone (for this is something obvious to all in general who choose the life of devotion, and is easy for anyone); but to turn the whole intellect towards the inner self, which is a marvellous experience; and so inwardly, within the very depths of the heart, to invoke the all-holy Name of the Lord and to implore mercy from Him, concentrating our attention solely on the bare words of the prayer, not allowing anything else whatever to gain entry from within or from without, but keeping the mind totally free from all forms and colours (17).
This 'spiritual and scientific work' (πνευματικὴ καὶ ἐπιστημονική εργασία), if accompanied by the practice of the commandments and the acquisition of the virtues, will burn up the passions and enable us to 'return to the perfect grace of the Spirit that was bestowed upon us in the beginning through Baptism' (18). To help us with the invocation of the Name, St Nikodimos adds, several Fathers have recommended' a practical method through the use of certain physical techniques' (19).
Such, then, are the means proposed in the Philokalia whereby the supreme goal of theosis is to be achieved. The 'scientific method' envisaged by St Makarios and St Nikodimos may be summarized in five points:
i. to pray without ceasing;
ii. tο pray in the depths of the heart;
iii. during prayer to exclude all images and thoughts;
iv. to invoke the Holy Name of Jesus;
v. to use, if so desired, the physical technique (head bowed on chest; control of the breathing; inner exploration). This technique may assist us, but it is not essential.
St Nikodimos makes it abundantly clear in his preface that the invocation of the Name of Jesus is one of the fundamental themes in the Philokalia. We must be careful, however, not to exaggerate its place in the work as a whole. Some of the selections from the Philokalia published in the West give the misleading impression that the book is predominantly a manual on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, with little else besides. But in fact the two authors to whom the greatest amount of space is allotted in the Philokalia, St Maximos the Confessor and St Peter of Damaskos, nowhere mention the Jesus Prayer at all. It is only in the final part of the work that it occupies a central position. When the Philokalia is read in its entirety, it becomes evident that the editors were far from regarding the invocation of the Name as a 'spiritual technique', to be practised in isolation, but they were concerned always to place it in a wider ascetic and 'neptic' context, such as would involve a personal relationship with Christ at every level. Yet, even though 'Philokalic' spirituality cannot be reduced simply to the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the invocation of the Holy Name certainly forms a significant unifying thread within the Philokalia.
The characteristics of a distinctly 'Philokalic' spirituality are now beginning to emerge. There are three other features that call for special mention:
3.1. The Evagrian -Maximian Tradition
Although the works included in the Philokalia reflect a variety of viewpoints, the predominant influence is that of Evagrios and St Maximos. There is nothing from the Apophthegmata, from the Greek version of St Ephrem, from St Gregory of Nyssa, St Dionysios the Areopagite, St Varsanuphios or St Dorotheos. There is, it is true, a relatively long section of Makarian material, in the version of Symeon Metaphrastis. But it is the Evagrian terminology and classification that prevails, and this is apparent particularly in the texts from St Maximos the Confessor, which occupy a central place in the Philokalia.
How far is it legitimate to regard the Philokalia as a work reflecting, not only the Evagrian-Maximian approach to the spiritual life, but more specifically the theology of St Gregory Palamas? Any answer requires to be carefully qualified. The Kollyvades were definitely upholders of Palamism, and St Nikodimos himself prepared an edition, never in fact published, of Palamas' collected works in three volumes (the Greek press in Vienna, to which St Nikodimos had sent the manuscript of this, was closed by the Austrian authorities in 1798, following the arrest of Rhigas Velestinlis; a small part of the manuscript was saved, but most of it was destroyed by the Austrian police, or otherwise dispersed and lost) (20). On the other hand, fourteenth century Hesychast writings occupy no more than a quarter of the Philokalia; moreover, the Hesychast texts included by the editors are for the most part pastoral and non-polemical, and there is relatively little that alludes explicitly to the technical Palamite teaching concerning the divine light and the distinction between the essence and the uncreated energies of God.
In a broader sense, however, the Philokalia is certainly a work conceived and executed in a Palamite spirit. The basic antinomy which the essence-energies distinction seeks to safeguard underlies the Philokalia from one end to the other: that God is at the same time unknown and yet well known, both transcendent and immanent, both beyond all being and yet everywhere present. On the one hand, the apophatic approach to the divine mystery is repeatedly emphasized in the texts selected by St Makarios and St Nikodimos; God, to quote from the writings of St Maximos the Confessor included in the Philokalia, is the 'supremely unknowable', 'infinitely transcending the summit of all spiritual knowledge', apprehended only by faith 'in a manner beyond all unknowing' (21). On the other hand, the Philokalia constantly affirms that it is possible, even during this present life, to attain an unmediated, divinizing union with the infinitely transcendent Deity. To use the daring phrase of St Maximos, through deification the saints are granted 'identity with respect to energy' with the triune God, although not identity of essence(22). If, then, the essence-energies distinction (itself much older than Palamas) is seen not simply as a piece of philosophical speculation but in its true experiential dimensions -as a way, that is to say, of expressing the living experience of the saints during prayer- then the Philokalia should indeed be regarded as fundamentally 'Palamite' in its orientation.
3.3. Absence of Western Influence
The works included in the Philokalia all belong to the tradition of Eastern Christian spirituality. In other publications St Nikodimos was prepared to adapt for an Orthodox audience Roman Catholic works such as the Combattimento Spirituale of Lorenzo Scupoli, the Esercizi Spirituali of Giampetro Pinamonti (based on Ignatius Loyola), and Il confessore istruito and Il penitente istruito of Paolo Segneri (23). St Nikodimos seems to have valued the psychological insight displayed by these Western authors, and the sense of 'feeling', the fervent, affective tone, that distinguishes their works. Doubtless he also felt that the methods of discursive meditation, centred especially on the Passion, which these writers advocate, might be of assistance to Orthodox readers who experience difficulty with the imageless, non-iconic prayer recommended in the Evagrian tradition; yet even so he considered it necessary in Unseen Warfare to add a chapter -not to be found in his source, Scupoli- on the control of the imagination and the memory (24). In the Philokalia, however, St Nikodimos and St Makarios restricted themselves exclusively to the traditional spirituality of the Christian East, without any borrowings from Roman Catholic sources. Although the Philokalia contains a number of texts involving imaginative meditation on the life and Passion of Christ -a notable example occurs in St Mark the Ascetic' s Letter to Nicolas (25)- the manner of praying that is normally proposed is the Evagrian 'shedding of thoughts'.
Such, then, are some of the unifying threads within the Philokalia, which justify us in claiming that there is indeed a distinctively 'Philokalic' spirituality. As a book devoted primarily to inner action -to the 'inner kingdom' of the heart -the Philokalia ascribes particular significance to the two connected qualities of nepsis and hesychia. The basic aim set before the spiritual aspirant is nothing less than theosis, direct participation in the uncreated energies and glory of God. The chief means whereby this aim is to be achieved is through the unceasing invocation of the Holy Name, accompanied when appropriate by the 'physical technique'; but the Philokalia does not emphasize the Jesus Prayer in a one-sided or exclusive manner. It is a work basically Evagrian and Maximian in its orientation; a work which presupposes the Palamite essence-energies distinction; a work which makes no use of Western Counter-Reformation spirituality, but which nowhere attacks Western Christendom; a work intended for all Christians, monks and laity alike. Without being exhaustive or systematic, the Philokalia possesses none the less a genuine unity and coherence of its own. Far more than a group of disparate texts bound together at random in a single volume, it is indeed what its editors St Makarios of Corinth and St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain claim it to be: 'a mystical school of noetic prayer' (26).
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.
10. Compare the analogy of the foliage of a tree and its fruit in the Gerontikon, Alphabetical Collection, Agathon 8 (PG 65:112AB).
11. Philokalia I, xxiv.
12. Philokalia I, xxiii.
13. Philokalia I, xx.
14. Forty Texts on Watchfulness 3 (Philokalia II, 275; ET III, 17).
15. St Gregory of Sinai, On Prayer 5 (Philokalia IV, 82; ET IV, 278). The phrase comes from St John Climacus, Ladder 27 (PG 88:1112A), who is adapting Evagrios, On Prayer 71  (Philokalia I, 182; ET I, 64).
16. Philokalia I, xix.
17. Philokalia I, xx.
18. Philokalia I, xxi. Compare St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesychasts 4 (Philokalia IV, 199; ET E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart [Faber & Faber, London 1951], 166).
19. Philokalia I, xxi.
20. See Citterio, L’orientamento (note 3), 349-52.
21. Maximos, On love 3:98; Various chapters 3:1 (Philokalia II, 40, 91; ET II, 99, 164).
22. Maximos, Various chapters 6:19 (Philokalia II, 150; ET II, 240); cf. To Thalassios 59 (PG 90: 609A; Corpus Christianorum 22, 53, lines 137-8).
23. See Citterio, L'orientamento (note 3), 112-36.
24. See H.A. Hodges, introduction to Unseen Warfare: Being the Spiritual Combat and Path to Paradise of Lorenzo Scupoli as Edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and Revised by Theophan the Recluse, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (Faber & Faber, London 1952), 49-51.
25. Philokalia I, 134-5; ET I, 155-6 (PG 65:1041B-1045A). Mark the Ascetic, also known as 'Mark the Hermit', is more correctly designated 'Mark the Monk'.
26. Philokalia I, xxiii.
27. See Kallistos Ware, A Fourteenth- Century Manual of Hesychast Prayer: the Century of St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos (Canadian Institute of Balkan Studies, Toronto 1995).
28. See Kallistos Ware, 'The Jesus Prayer in St Gregory of Sinai', Eastern Churches Review 4:1 (1972), 3-22; David Balfour, Saint Gregory the Sinaite: Discourse on the Transfiguration, offprint from Θεολογία 52:4- 54:1 (1981-3).
Edit. Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, Athens 2004.