Wednesday, 13 December 2017


This is Bata Bardak’s paper on the Philokalia given last year to the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library. His selection of readings from the Philokalia is found at (2) on this blog, following the paper here.

Be still and know that I am God
                                                           (Psalm 46:10)

The Philokalia (“love of the beautiful’) is a collection of Byzantine ascetical and mystical texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries (1) It is the foundation text for the spiritual tradition known as hesychasm (or “inner stillness”). The collection was compiled in the 18th century by St Nikodemus of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth, and published in Venice in 1782.

Originally the texts were written for the guidance of monks in the practice of the contemplative life, and were primarily confined to Mount Athos, although individual works were known in other Orthodox monastic communities. It was only after its publication in 1782 that the Philokalia became known in the wider Orthodox Christian community.

Mount Athos
Mount Athos, commonly referred to as The Holy Mountain, is regarded in the Eastern Orthodox world as the second holiest site after Jerusalem, and has been the principal centre of spirituality and monasticism for all Orthodox Churches for over a thousand years. Dedicated to the Blessed Theotokos, the Athonite peninsula is an international monastic republic located off northern Greece. All the Eastern Orthodox Churches are represented by monasteries or sketes. Twenty monasteries are designated by charter as “Ruling Monasteries” and have elected representatives in the “parliament” at Karyes, the capital of the peninsula. The other houses are dependencies of these ruling monasteries. Currently, seventeen of the ruling monasteries are Greek, one Bulgarian, one Russian and one Serbian. Other Churches such as the Romanian and Georgian, have dependent sketes. The “parliament” is responsible for administrative decisions of pan-Athonite concern. Otherwise each monastery is a self-governing, independent community within the monastic federation. Mount Athos is reputedly the oldest modern democracy in the world.

All forms of Orthodox monasticism are practised at Athos. Unlike the Western monastic Orders, Eastern monasticism is not as formally structured and falls into three broad “types”.
The most ancient form is the ascetic life lived in seclusion in hermitages and caves. The next level consists of smaller settlements or sketes where monks live and worship independently on weekdays and only meet in the church for the Sunday Liturgy. The third level consists of the monasteries proper. Monasteries may adhere to either of two systems, the cenobitic, by which monks live a common life in spiritual obedience to an abbot, worshipping and eating together, or the idiorrhythmic, by which monks have flexibility to set their own pattern and the community is administered by a council of elders. The ruling monasteries at Athos are large by Orthodox standards and can house thousands. Interestingly, a Benedictine monastery operated at Mount Athos from the 10th to the 14th centuries.

Hesychasm, widely practised at Mount Athos, is a spiritual tradition with a history that dates back to the Desert Fathers of the 4th century.

The Greek word hesychia means “quietness” or “inner stillness”, and in early sources from the 4th to the 6th centuries was sometimes used to indicate a solitary life. However, especially in later sources
            hesychia is given an interiorized and spiritual sense, and denotes silence of the heart.       It usually signifies the quest for union with God through “apophatic” or “non-iconic” prayer, that is to say, prayer that is free from images and discursive thinking.”(2)

From the 5th century onwards the main way of attaining this state of “hesychast prayer” was through the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer has two forms, the most common being; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”. The Slavonic tradition adds the words “on me, a sinner”.
The Jesus prayer has its origins in Luke’s Gospel (Lk.18:38), where the blind man cries “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”. Simple variations of this prayer were employed by the monks of 4th century Egypt, but it was in Northern Greece, in the mid-5th century that the Jesus Prayer emerged as a distinctive spiritual way.

By the 14th century recitation of the Jesus Prayer was accompanied by a technique involving quiet sitting, controlled breathing and concentration upon the place of the heart. However, the prayer can also be recited while performing manual labour. The practitioner of hesychasm seeks to implant the prayer onto the subconscious mind, thus fulfilling Paul’s injunction to: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes.5:1).

In the 14th century the Athonite tradition of hesychast prayer was attacked by Barlaam the Calabrian (c.1290-1348) who criticized the physical technique as superstitious navel gazing and accused the monks of conjuring up illusions that distracted from the sacramental life. A period of controversy followed, with the defenders of hesychasm arguing that it was taken for granted that those who pursued the spiritual way would be active members of the ecclesial community.

The Philokalia
The publication of the Philokalia in the 18th century reaffirmed the hesychast tradition of prayer. In his introduction to the original edition St Nikodemus described the work as “a mystical school of inward prayer”, whereby “the intellect is purified, illumined and made perfect”. The movement underwent a renaissance, spreading beyond the confines of the Athonite monasteries to the wider Orthodox world and the laity. A translation in Church Slavonic was published in 1793 for use in the Optina Monastery which became an important centre of hesychasm in Russia. Translations in Russian, Romanian, Italian and French followed. The Russian and Romanian translations included additional texts that were not in the original Greek edition.

In the 20th century interest in the Philokalia spread to the western world. The first partial English translation appeared in 1951 when T.S. Eliot persuaded Faber and Faber to publish translations from the Russian version. The publication met with surprising success. A complete translation from the Greek was commenced in 1979 but the fifth volume remains unpublished, partly due to the death of two of the translators.

Some contemporary writers argue that the Philokalia teachings on interior prayer influenced the centering prayer practices taught by Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton. In Thomas Merton’s words; “This tradition (hesychasm) forms and affects the whole person: intellect, memory, will, emotion, body, skills, all must be under the sway of the Holy Spirit”. Merton’s writing on hesychasm were instrumental in spreading the popularity of the Philokalia in the west. (3) However, some scholars point out essential differences between hesychast and centering prayer – hesychast prayer is practiced in solitude, never in the company of others, its focus is essentially Christian, and while it is not discursive it does involve the intellect.

For this session texts have been selected from five writers from different centuries to illustrate the development of hesychast spirituality over a thousand years. Some modern historians mistakenly describe hesychasm as a phenomenon of the later Byzantine period when in fact referring to the spiritual revival of the 13th and 14th centuries. The spiritual tradition of hesychasm actually goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. The texts of the Philokalia reflect the development of this tradition while, at the same time, serving as an active force to spiritual fulfilment and union with God.

The earliest texts selected here are from Diadochos, Bishop of Photiki (c.400-c.486) and belong to the late Classical period. They provide an important understanding of mystical theology and the importance of prayer. Diadochos’ writing is subtle and his meaning is not always easy to grasp.

Maximos the Confessor (580-662) is regarded as an extremely important spiritual writer. A member of the aristocracy, he was highly educated and possibly served as secretary to the Emperor Heraklios, later becoming a monk. He was a prolific writer on all aspects of Christian doctrine and practice, including the interpretation of Scripture. His Four Hundred Texts on Love is a beautiful and easily accessible work that links dogma and prayer.

The 10th century writer, Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), is regarded as one of the most brilliant Byzantine theologians and poets, yet there are only two minor works included in the Philokalia. This is probably because he was so well known and widely read that the compilers did not see a need to include him in their anthology. Nonetheless, the short texts included in the Philokalia shine with their profound insights and deep spirituality.

Almost nothing is known of Peter of Damaskos. He appears to have lived in the 12th century. According to his own account, his work began as a collection of passages from other writers that caught his attention and were noted down for his personal use. He then added connecting comments of his own. This resulted in a loosely structured work with digressions and repetitions. However, despite his lack of order, his readers found that he provided much practical advice. Peter’s spiritual teaching is balanced and moderate, insisting that spiritual knowledge, continual prayer and salvation can be achieved by everyone.

The final writer included in this session is Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Educated in Constantinople, he came from a distinguished family with close contacts to the imperial court. He spent a large part of his life as a hermit at Mount Athos but was later consecrated Metropolitan of Thessaloniki, the second city in the Byzantine Empire. The 14th century was a time of political unrest which saw the expansion of the Ottoman Turks westwards into Christian territories. Gregory was captured by Turks and imprisoned for a year in Asia Minor where he engaged in theological debates with the local Moslems. Gregory’s texts in the Philokalia present hesychast practice in its fully developed form involving prayer, breathing exercises, postures and inner stillness. One of his texts is a direct response to the criticism of Barlaam the Calabrian.

Throughout the thousand year tradition of mystical writing contained in the Philokalia two themes have remained constant – the importance of inner stillness, and interior prayer. But it is also emphasised that the practice of hesychasm and spiritual enlightenment is not an end in itself but must be accompanied by a fully active and committed Christian life.

Today hesychasm is practiced by many Christians in both the West and the East, and increasingly by lay people. Nikodemus himself said in his introduction that the Jesus Prayer could be used to good effect by anyone and that “unceasing prayer” should be practised by all. His desire to bring the little known but deeply spiritual texts of the Philokalia to the wider Christian lay community has been achieved far more successfully than he could have possibly imagined when the anthology was first published in 1782.

1. There is also another work known as Philokalia composed of extracts from Origen compiled in 358-9 AD.
2. Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia (Timothy Ware) – “Hesychasm” in The Encyclopedia of Orthodox Christianity,  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
3. Gray Henry & Jonathan Montaldo (eds.) – Merton and Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart and the Eastern Church,  Fons Vitae, 1999.

The Philokalia (Translated by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard & Kallistos Ware),  Faber and
            Faber,  1979 (Vol.1), 1981 (Vol.2), 1984 (Vol.3), 1995 (Vol.4)
John Anthony McGuckin (ed) – The Encyclopedia of Orthodox Christianity,  Wiley-
            Blackwell, 2011.
John W. Larson – The Jesus Prayer,  North Charleston, CreateSpace Independent Publishing,

Gray Henry & Jonathan Montaldo (eds.) – Merton and Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart and the
            Eastern Church,  Fons Vitae, 1999.
Graham Speake – Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise,  Limni (Greece), Denise Harvey,
            2nd ed. 2014.

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