The Philokalia (Ancient Greek: φιλοκαλία “love of the beautiful, the good) is “a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters” of the Eastern Orthodox Church mystical hesychast tradition. They were originally written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practice of the contemplative life.” The publishers of the current English translation state that “the Philokalia has exercised an influence far greater than that of any book other than the Bible in the recent history of the Orthodox Church.”
The Philokalia is the foundational text of hesychasm (“quietness”), the inner spiritual tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church dating back to the Desert Fathers of the 4th century. Hesychastic practices include contemplative prayer; quiet sitting, inner stillness, and repetitive recitation of the Jesus Prayer. While traditionally taught and practiced in monasteries, hesychasm teachings have spread over the years to include laymen.
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), one of the editors of the current English translation, believes that the Philokalia is a:
“Book for all Christians
In the year 1782 a massive folio volume was published in Greek at the city of Venice, bearing the title Φιλοκαλία τῶν Ἱερῶν Νηπτικῶν, Philiokalia of the Holy Neptic Fathers. At the time of its first appearance this book seems to have had only a limited impact upon the Greek Orthodox world, while in the West it remained for a long time totally
unknown. Yet in retrospect it is clear that the Philokalia was one of the most significant Greek books to be published during the whole period of the four centuries of the Turcocratia; indeed, arguably it was the most significant and influential of all. Today, after two centuries, it is still in print, both in the original Patristic Greek and in a modern Greek version; and it is available in translation, not only in most of the languages used in countries that are traditionally Orthodox, but also in virtually all the languages of Western Europe. Alike in the original and in translation, it has been regularly reprinted in the past forty years, and in Britain and the United States, not to mention other countries, the sales are increasing every year. In many circles, non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox, it has become customary to speak of a characteristically ‘Philokalic’ approach to theology and prayer, and many regard this ‘Philokalic’ standpoint as the most creative element in contemporary Orthodoxy.
There are some books which seem to have been composed not so much for their own age as for subsequent generations. Little noticed at the time of their initial publication, they only attain their full influence two or more centuries afterwards. The Philokalia is precisely such a work.
What kind of a book is the Philokalia? In the original edition of 1782, there is a final page in Italian: this is a licenza, a permission to publish, issued by the Roman Catholic censors at the University of Padua. In this they state that the volume contains nothing ‘contrary to the Holy Catholic Faith’ (contro la Santa Fede Cattolica), and nothing ‘contrary to good principles and practices’ (contro principi, e buoni costumi). But, though bearing a Roman Catholic imprimatur, the Philokalia is in fact entirely an Orthodox book. Of the thirty-six different authors whose writings it contains -dating from the fourth to the fifteenth century- all are Greek, apart from one, who wrote in Latin, St John Cassian (d. circa 430) or ‘Cassian the Roman’ as he is styled in the Philokalia; and this exception is more apparent than real, for Cassian grew up in the Christian East and received his teaching from Evagrios of Pontus, the disciple of the Cappadocian Fathers.
Who are the editors of the Philokalia? The 1782 title page bears in large letters the name of the benefactor who financed the publication of the book: … διὰ δαπάνης τοῦ Τιμιωτάτου, καὶ Θεοσεβεστάτου Κυρίου Ἰωάννου Μαυρογορδάτου (this is perhaps the John Mavrogordato who was Prince of Moldavia during 1743 – 47). But neither on the title page nor anywhere in the 1.206 pages of the original edition are the names of the editors mentioned. There is in fact no doubt about their identity: they are St Makarios of Corinth (1731-1805) and St Nikodimos the Hagiorite (1749-1809), who were both associated with the group known collectively as the Kollyvades.
What was the purpose of St Makarios and St Nikodimos in issuing this vast collection of Patristic texts on prayer and the spiritual life? The second half of the eighteenth century constitutes a crucial turning-point in Greek cultural history. Even though the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453, it can justly be claimed that the Byzantine -or, more exactly, the Romaic- period of Orthodox history continued uninterrupted until the late eighteenth century. The Church, that is to say, continued to play a central role in the life of the people; despite Western influences, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, theology continued to be carried out in a spirit that was basically Patristic, and most Greeks, when looking back to the past, took as their ideal the Christian Empire of Byzantium.
During the later decades of the eighteenth century, however, a new spirit began to prevail among educated Greeks, the spirit of modern Hellenism. This was more secular in its outlook than was Romaic culture, although -initially, at any rate- it was not explicitly anti-religious. Its protagonists looked back, beyond the Byzantine period, to ancient Greece, taking as their ideal the Athens of Pericles that was so greatly admired in the West, and their models were not the Greek Fathers but the authors of the classical period. These exponents of modern Hellenism were inspired, however, not simply by the Western reverence for classical studies, but more broadly by the mentality of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung), by the principles of Voltaire and the French Encyclopedists, by the ideologists of the French Revolution (which began only seven years after the publication of the Philokalia), and by the pseudo-mysticism of Freemasonry.
Needless to say, we are not to imagine that at the end of the eighteenth century there was a simple transition, with the Romaic tradition drawing abruptly to an end, and being totally replaced by the outlook of Neohellenism. On the contrary, the Romaic standpoint has continued to coexist, side by side with Neohellenism, in nineteenth and twentieth century Greece. The two approaches overlap, and there has always been – and still exists today – a subtle and complex interaction between the two. Alexander Solzenitsyn remarks in The Gulag Archipelago that the line of demarcation separating good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. By the same token it can be said that the line of demarcation between the Romaios and the Hellene runs through the middle of the heart of each one of us.
If Adamantios Korais is the outstanding representative of modern Hellenism at the end of the eighteenth century, then the outstanding spokesmen of the Romaic or traditional Orthodox spirit during the same epoch are the editors of the Philokalia, St Nikodimos and St Makarios. They and the other Kollyvades were profoundly disturbed by the growing infiltration of the ideas of the Western Aufklärung among their fellow-countrymen. They believed that the regeneration of the Greek Church and nation could come about only through a recovery of the neptic and mystical theology of the Fathers ‘Do not set your hope in the new secularism of the West; that will prove nothing but a deceit and a disappointment’, they said in effect to their fellow-Greeks. ‘Our only true hope of renewal is to rediscover our authentic root in the Patristic and Byzantine past’. Is not their message as timely today as ever it was in the eighteenth century?
The Kollyvades proposed, therefore, a far-reaching and radical programme of ressourcement, a return to the authentic sources of Orthodox Christianity. This programme had three primary features. First, the Kollyvades insisted, in the field of worship, upon a faithful observance of the Orthodox liturgical tradition. Among other things, they urged that memorial services should be celebrated on the correct day,
Saturday (not Sunday); hence the sobriquet ‘Kollyvades’. But this was far from being their main liturgical concern. Much more important was their firm and unwavering advocacy of frequent communion; this proved to be highly controversial, and brought upon them persecution and exile. Secondly, they sought to bring about in theology a Patristic renaissance; and in this connection they undertook an ambitious programme of publications, in which the Philokalia played a central role. Thirdly, within the Patristic heritage, they emphasized above all else the teachings of Hesychasm, as represented in particular by St Symeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century and by St Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth. It is precisely this Hesychast tradition that forms the living heart of the Philokalia, and that gives to its varied contents a single unity.
Such, then, is the cultural context of the Philokalia. It forms part -a fundamental and primary part- of the Patristic ressourcement that the Kollyvades sought to promote. The Kollyvades looked upon the Fathers, not simply as an archeological relic from the distant past, but as a living guide for contemporary Christians. They therefore hoped that the Philokalia would not gather dust on the shelves of scholars, but that it would alter people’s lives. They meant it to have a supremely practical purpose.
In this connection it is significant that St Nicodimos and St Makarios intended the Philokalia to be a book not just for monks but for the laity, not just for specialists but for all Christians. The book is intended, so its title page explicitly states, ‘for the general benefit of the Orthodox’ (εἰς κοινὴν τῶν Ὀρθοδόξων ὠφέλειαν). It is true that virtually all the texts included were written by monks, with a monastic readership in mind. It is also true that, with the exception of seven short pieces at the end of the volume, the material is given in the original Patristic Greek, and is not translated into the Demotic, even though St Nikodimos and St Makarios used the Demotic in most of their other publications. Nevertheless, despite the linguistic difficulties in many Philokalic texts, more especially in the writings of St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the editors leave no doubt concerning their purpose and their hopes. In his preface St Nikodimos affirms unambiguously that the book is addressed ‘to all of you who share the Orthodox calling, laity and monks alike’. In particular, St Nikodimos maintains, the Pauline injunction, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17), is intended not just for hermits in caves and on mountain-tops but for married Christians with responsibilities for a family, for farmers, merchants and lawyers, even for ‘kings and courtiers living in palaces’. It is a universal command. The best belongs to everyone.
St Nikodimos recognized that, in thus making Hesychast texts available to the general reader, he was exposing himself to possible misunderstanding and criticism. Thus he writes in the preface:
Here someone might object that it is not right to publish certain of the texts included in this volume, since they will sound strange to the ears of most people, and may even prove harmful to them.
Indeed, is there not a risk that, if these texts are made readily accessible for all to read in a printed edition, certain people may go astray because they lack personal guidance from an experienced spiritual father? This was an objection to which St Nikodimos’ contemporary, St Paissy Velichkovsky (1722-94), was keenly sensitive. For a long time he would not allow his Slavonic translation of the Philokalia to appear in print, precisely because he feared that the book might fall into the wrong hands; and it was only under pressure from Metropolitan Gabriel of St Petersburg that he eventually agreed to its publication. St Makarios and St Nikodimos were in full agreement with St Paissy about the immense importance of obedience to a spiritual father. But at the same time they were prepared to take the risk of printing the Philokalia. Even if a few people go astray because of their conceit and pride, says St Nikodimos, yet many will derive deep benefit, provided that they read the Philokalic texts ‘with all humility and in a spirit of mourning’. If we lack a geronta, then let us trust to the Holy Spirit; for in the last resort He is the one true spiritual guide.”
~ Met. Kallistos (Ware) from “The Inner Unity of the Philokalia and its Influence in East and West”