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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”
Andrew Louth (1944 – ) – is a Christian theologian, Eastern Orthodox priest, and Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at the University of Durham, England. He has taught at Durham since 1996, and previously taught at Oxford and the University of London. Louth is an expert in the history and theology of Eastern Christianity.
“This formative period [1st through 5th centuries] for mystical theology was, of course, the formative period for dogmatic theology, and that the same period was determinative for both mystical and dogmatic theology is no accident since these two aspects of theology are fundamentally bound up with one another. The basic doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, worked out in these centuries, are mystical doctrines formulated dogmatically. That is to say, mystical theology provides the context for direct apprehensions of the God who has revealed himself in Christ and dwells within us through the Holy Spirit; while dogmatic theology attempts to incarnate those apprehensions in objectively precise terms which then, in their turn, inspire a mystical understanding of the God who has thus revealed himself which is specifically Christian.
Put like that it is difficult to see how dogmatic and mystical theology could ever have become separated; and yet there is little doubt that, in the West at least, they have so become and that ‘dogmatic and mystical theology, or theology and ‘‘spirituality’’ [have] been set apart in mutually exclusive categories, as if mysticism were for saintly women and theological study were for practical but, alas, unsaintly men’.” From: The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, p. x
“Thus, St. Thomas will say, ‘Concerning God, one cannot say what God is, but only what God is not.’ In this manner the apophatic way recalls the transcendence of God, that divine otherness which neither the mind, nor the senses of anything can grasp. […] Apophasis is the direct apprehension of the Real just as it is, without the projections of the discursive mind that distort the Real. It is to see without eyes, to comprehend without the mind.”
“Proceeding directly from this apophatic tradition, hesychasm will be profoundly Christocentric. Without Christ, in fact, divinization is not possible. Christ’s incarnation establishes the full communion between God and humanity. God became human so that humans might become God. ‘God became the bearer of flesh so that humanity might become the bearer of the Spirit’, said Athanasius of Alexandria. […] This paradoxical union, which is realized in the Spirit, recreates us in the image and likeness of the Son of God. Humanity rediscovers the beauty for which it was created.”
“This union also leads the hesychasts to affirm with Gregory of Palamas the reality of the experience of God, while continuing to affirm His transcendence. […] Two affirmations characterize hesychastic experience: the affirmation of divine transcendence, of God’s inaccessible essence, and the nearness of God, God’s immanence and presence in each of us, the divinization of humanity through the energies of the Word and the Spirit.” From, Being Still, pp. 56, 59, 61, 62, 64
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia – (b. 1934) is a titular metropolitan of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain. From 1966-2001, he was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University, and has authored numerous books and articles pertaining to the Orthodox faith.
“The true aim of theology is not rational certainty through abstract arguments, but personal communion with God through prayer.”
– Met. Kallistos Ware
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) – (1945- ) is a Greek Orthodox metropolitan and theologian. He graduated from the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki and is one of the finest Patristic scholars living.
“Man has two cognitive centers. One is the nous, the organ suited for receiving God’s revelation which is then formulated by our reason, while the other is reason, which knows the tangible world around us. With our nous we acquire knowledge of God, while with our reason we acquire knowledge of the world and the learning offered by the science of sensory things.” From The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, trans by Esther Williams, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998. p. 28
John Romanides (1927 – 2001) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian theologian, priest, and writer. He was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, MA and later Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
“The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.
So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.
We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit,” he means what the Fathers mean when they say, “I will pray with the nous.” And when he says, “I will pray with the nous,” he means “I will pray with the intellect (dianoia).” When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit.” When he says “I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit” or when he says “I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit,” and when he says “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” he uses the word “spirit” to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.
In his phrase, “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous, and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to man”s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man’s spirit.
Thus, for the Apostle Paul reasonable or logical worship takes place by means of the nous (i.e., the reason or the intellect) while noetic prayer occurs through the spirit and is spiritual prayer or prayer of the heart. So when the Apostle Paul says, “I prefer to say five words with my nous in order to instruct others rather than a thousand with my tongue,” he means that he prefers to say five words, in other words to speak a bit, for the instruction of others rather than pray noetically. Some monks interpret what St. Paul says here as a reference to the Prayer of Jesus, which consists of five words, but at this point the Apostle is speaking here about the words he used in instructing others. For how can catechism take place with noetic prayer, since noetic prayer is a person”s inward prayer, and others around him do not hear anything? Catechism, however, takes place with teaching and worship that are cogent and reasonable. We teach and speak by using the reason, which is the usual way that people communicate with each other.
Those who have noetic prayer in their hearts do, however, communicate with one another. In other words, they have the ability to sit together, and communicate with each other noetically, without speaking. That is, they are able to communicate spiritually. Of course, this also occurs even when such people are far apart. They also have the gifts of clairvoyance and foreknowledge. Through clairvoyance, they can sense both other people’s sins and thoughts (logismoi), while foreknowledge enables them to see and talk about subjects, deeds, and events in the future. Such charismatic people really do exist. If you go to them for confession, they know everything that you have done in your life before you open your mouth to tell them.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:5.
- Romans 8:16.
- This means that the Spirit of God speaks to our spirit. In other words, God speaks within our heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory Palamas in his second discourse from “In Behalf of the Sacred Hesychasts” notes that “the heart rules over the whole human organism”. For the nous and all the thoughts (logismoi) of the soul are located there.” From the context of grace-filled prayer, it is clear that the term “heart” does not refer to the physical heart, but to the deep heart, while the term nous does not refer to the intellect (dianoia), but to the energy/activity of the heart, the noetic activity which wells forth from the essence of the nous (i.e., the heart). For this reason, St. Gregory adds that it is necessary for the hesychasts “to bring their nous back and enclose it within their body and particularly within that innermost body, within the body that we call the heart.” The term “spirit” is also identical with the terms nous and “heart.” Philokalia, vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p, 334.
- Cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, who notes: “Man has two centers of knowing: the nous which is the appropriate organ for receiving the revelation of God that is later put into words through the reason and the reason which knows the sensible world around us.” The Person in Orthodox Tradition, trans. Effie Mavromichali (Levadia: Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 1994), p. 24.
- 1 Corinthians 14:19.
- In Greek, the Prayer of Jesus consists of exactly five words in its simplest form, which in English is translated as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” “TRANS.
- “Thus as Saint John of Damascus puts it, we are led as though up a ladder to the thinking of good thoughts”. Saint Paul also indicates this when he says: “I had rather speak five words with my nous”.” St. Peter of Damascus, “The Third Stage of Contemplation,” in Philokalia, 3, page 42 [my translation: cf. also English Philokalia, vol. XXX, p. 120] and St. Nikitas Stithatos, as cited below.
- With respect to this, Venerable Nikitas Stithatos writes, “If when you pray and psalmodize you speak in a tongue to God in private you edify yourself, as Saint Paul says. ” If it is not in order to edify his flock that the shepherd seeks to be richly endowed with the grace of teaching and the knowledge of the Spirit, he lacks fervor in his quest for God”s gifts. By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue, that is, by praying in the soul ” you edify yourself, but your nous is unproductive [cf. I Corinthians 14:14], for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God”s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile nous five words in the church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private with a tongue [cf., I Corinthians 14:19], surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd”s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.” St. Nikitas Stithatos, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 169-170.
From “Patristic Theology – The University Lectures of Father John Romanides”, (Thessaloniki, Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), pp. 19-23.
From “The Writings of Maximus the Confessor” by Saint Maximus –
“Perfect silence alone proclaims Him, and total and transcendent unknowing brings us into His presence.”
The following is an excerpt from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (b. 1934) in his Introduction to On the Prayer of Jesus , by Ignatius Brianchaninov, Kallistos Ware, Father Lazarus.
“Ignatius [Brianchaninov] distinguishes three main stages or levels on this journey inwards, which he describes as “oral”, “mental”, and “cordial”; that is to say, prayer of the lips, prayer of the mind, and prayer of the heart”.
“The third degree of prayer is attained when not only does the mind or intellect [nous] recite the Jesus Prayer with full attentiveness, but it also descends into the heart and is united with it. In this way our invocation [of Lord, Jesus, Christ, Son of God] becomes prayer of the heart, or more exactly prayer of the mind in the heart. When the hesychast tradition speaks of the “heart” in this context, the word is to be understood in its full Hebraic sense, as found in Scripture: it signifies, not merely the emotions and affections, but the moral and spiritual center of the total person, the ground and focal point of our created being, the deep self. Prayer of the heart, then, is no longer prayer of the faculty alone, but prayer of the entire person, spirit, soul, and body together. It is precisely at this stage that prayer becomes not just something that we do but something that we are – something, moreover, that we are not just from time to time but continually. In this way St. Paul’s injunction becomes a realized fact: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Nor is this all. Since the heart is not only the center of our created personhood but also the place where Christ and the Holy Spirit dwell within us, prayer of the heart is not so much something that we do as something that God does; not so much my prayer as the prayer of Christ in me (Gal. 2:20).”
– Fr. Richard Rohr from his “Eight Core Principles”
“There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments— and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence.”
~ Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM