The Philokalia (Ancient Greek: “love of the beautiful, the good”, from philia “love” and kallos “beauty”) is a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters of the Eastern Orthodox hesychast tradition. The collection was compiled in the eighteenth-century by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth.
The book is a “principal spiritual text” for all the Eastern Orthodox Churches; 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 various texts were chosen because of their shared teachings on the way to self-perfection, illumination, and purification, with a strong emphasis on inward prayer. They were originally written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practise of the contemplative life”, though the Philokalia has been used widely by lay Christians. The works were individually known in Greek-reading Christian monastic culture before their inclusion in The Philokalia, but the collection resulted in a much wider readership due to its translation into several languages, including a seven-volume translation into Russian (Dobrotolyubie) by St. Theophan the Recluse in the nineteenth-century.
The collection’s title is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers, or more fully The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Father, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect. Niptic is an adjective derived from the Greek Nipsis (or Nepsis) referring to contemplative prayer and meaning “watchfulness”. Watchfulness in this context includes close attention to one’s thoughts, intentions, and emotions, with the aim of resisting temptations and vain and egoistic thoughts, and trying to maintain a constant state of remembrance of God. There are similarities between this ancient practice and the concept of mindfulness as practiced in Buddhism and other spiritual traditions. The Philokalia teachings have also influenced the revival of interior prayer in modern times through the centering prayer practices taught by Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton.
Philokalia is defined as the “love of the beautiful, the exalted, the excellent, understood as the transcendent source of life and the revelation of Truth.” In contemplative prayer the mind becomes absorbed in the awareness of God as a living presence as the source of being of all creatures and sensible forms. According to the authors of the English translation, Kallistos Ware, G. E. H. Palmer, and Philip Sherrard, the writings of The Philokalia have been chosen above others because they:
” …show the way to awaken and develop attention and consciousness, to attain that state of watchfulness which is the hallmark of sanctity. They describe the conditions most effective for learning what their authors call the art of arts and the science of sciences, a learning which is not a matter of information or agility of mind but of a radical change of will and heart leading man towards the highest possibilities open to him, shaping and nourishing the unseen part of his being, and helping him to spiritual fulfilment and union with God.”
The Philokalia is the foundational text on hesychasm (“quietness”), an inner spiritual tradition with a long history dating back to the Desert Fathers. The practices include contemplative prayer, quiet sitting, and recitation of the Jesus Prayer. While traditionally taught and practiced in monasteries, hesychasm teachings have spread over the years to include laymen. Nikodemos, in his introduction, described the collected texts as “a mystical school of inward prayer” which could be used to cultivate the inner life and to “attain the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” While the monastic life makes this easier, Nikodemos himself stressed that “unceasing prayer” should be practiced by all.
The hesychasm teachings in the Philokalia are viewed by Orthodox Christians as inseparable from the sacraments and liturgy of the Orthodox Church, and are given by and for those who are already living within the framework of the Church. A common theme is the need for a spiritual father or guide.
In the anonymous nineteenth-century Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim asks a staretz, or spiritual father, whether the Philokalia is “more exalted and holier than the Bible.” The staretz answers:
“No, it is not more exalted or holier than the Bible, but it contains enlightened explanations of what is mystically contained in the Bible, and it is so lofty that it is not easily comprehended by our shortsighted intellects. Let me give you an illustration. The sun is the greatest, the most resplendent and magnificent source of light, but you cannot contemplate or examine it with the simple naked eye. You would need to use a special viewing lens, which, though a million times smaller and dimmer than the sun, would enable you to study this magnificent source of all light and to endure and delight in its fiery rays. Thus the Holy Scriptures are like a brilliant sun, for which the Philokalia is the lens needed in order to view it.”
“We pray with words until the words are cut off and we are left in a state of wonder.”
“When a man has been granted constant prayer, it will mean that he has reached the summit of all virtues and has become the abode of the Holy Spirit; for a man who has not wholly received this grace of the Comforter cannot keep this prayer in his heart with joy. Therefore it is said that when the Holy Spirit comes to live in a man, he never ceases to pray, for then the Holy Spirit constantly prays in him (Romans 8:26). Then prayer never stops in a man’s soul, whether he is asleep or awake. In eating or drinking, sleeping or doing something, even in deep sleep his heart sends forth without effort the incense and sighs of prayer. Then prayer never leaves him, but at every hour, even if externally quiet, it continues secretly to act within. This is why someone has called the silence of the pure bearers of Christ ~ prayer; for their thoughts are Divine movements, and the movements of mind and heart that are pure are meek voices by which they secretly sing praises to the One who is in secret.”
“God’s Infinity: Standing Outside the Realm of Created Beings
Love is a holy state of the soul, disposing it to value knowledge of God above all created things. We cannot attain lasting possession of such love while we are still attached to anything worldly.
The person who loves God values knowledge of God more man anything created by God, and pursues such knowledge ardently and ceaselessly.
If everything that exists was made by God and for God, and God is superior to the things made by Him, he who abandons what is superior and devotes himself to what is inferior shows that he values things made by God more than God Himself.
Since the soul is more noble than the body and God incomparably more noble than the world created by Him, he who values the body more than the soul and the world created by God more than the Creator Himself is simply a worshipper of idols.
If you distract your intellect from its love for God and concentrate it, not on God, but on some sensible object, you thereby show that you value the body more than the soul and the things made by God more than God Himself.
Since the Light of spiritual knowledge is the intellect’s life, and since this Light is engendered by love for God, it is rightly said that nothing is greater than divine love (1 Cor. 13). When in the intensity of its love for God the intellect goes out of itself: then it has no sense of itself or of any created thing. For when it is illumined by the Infinite Light of God, it becomes insensible to everything made by Him, just as the eye becomes insensible to the stars when the sun rises.
All the virtues co-operate with the intellect to produce this intense longing for God, Pure Prayer above all. For by soaring towards God through this prayer the intellect rises above the realm of created beings.
When the intellect is ravished through love by divine knowledge stands outside the realm of created beings, it becomes aware of God’s infinity.”
“If, then, you wish to behold and commune with Him who is beyond sense-perception and beyond concept, you must free yourself from every impassioned thought.
Persevere with patience in your prayer, and repulse the cares and doubts that arise within you.
Try to make your intellect deaf and dumb during prayer, you will then be able to pray.”
“In diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and non-being, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness.”
“We awaken in Christ’s body as Christ awakens our bodies, and my poor hand is Christ, he enters my foot, and is infinitely me. I move my hand, and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of him (for God is indivisibly whole, seamless in his Godhood). I move my foot, and at once He appears like a flash of lightning. Do my words seem blasphemous? – Then open your heart to him. And let yourself receive the one who is opening to you so deeply. For if we genuinely love Him, we wake up inside Christ’s body where all our body, all over, every most hidden part of it, is realized in joy as him, and he makes us, utterly, real, and everything that is hurt, everything seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in him transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in his light we awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body.”
“The rays of primordial Light that illumine purified souls with spiritual knowledge not only fill them with benediction and luminosity; they also, by means of the contemplation of the inner essences of created things, lead them up to the Noetic Heavens. The effects of the divine energy, however, do not stop here; they continue until through wisdom and through knowledge of indescribable things they unite purified souls with the One, bringing them out of a state of multiplicity into a state of oneness in Him.”
“True wisdom is gazing at God. Gazing at God is silence of the thoughts. Stillness of mind is tranquility which comes from discernment.”
“For God is silence, and in silence is he sung by means of that psalmody which is worthy of Him. I am not speaking of the silence of the tongue, for if someone merely keeps his tongue silent, without knowing how to sing in mind and spirit, then he is simply unoccupied and becomes filled with evil thoughts: … There is a silence of the tongue, there is a silence of the whole body, there is a silence of the soul, there is the silence of the mind, and there is the silence of the spirit.”
“By receiving a new sense of taste and a new form of knowledge in “stillness” and in giving himself over to God totally. Be still and know. Be still: remain in a state of spiritual wakefulness, with your prospects and your senses open, to hear what God’s will is at each moment.”
“Those who have been cleansed through following the path of stillness (hesychis) are counted worthy to see things invisible, undergoing, as it were, the way of negation and not forming ideas about it.”
“When the intellect has been perfected, it unites wholly with God and is illumined by divine light, and the most hidden mysteries are revealed to it. Then it truly learns where wisdom and power lie… While it is still fighting against the passions it cannot as yet enjoy these things… But once the battle is over and it is found worthy of spiritual gifts, then it becomes wholly luminous, powerfully energized by grace and rooted in the contemplation of spiritual realities. A person in whom this happens is not attached to the things of this world but has passed from death to life.”
“The person who listens to Christ fills himself with light; and if he imitates Christ, he reclaims himself.”
“The Lord fills His teachers with grace according to the quality and longing of those who listen.”
“All men are made in God’s image; but to be in His likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God. For only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like Him who through love has reconciled us to Himself. No one achieves this unless he persuades his soul not to be distracted by the false glitter of this life.”
“A brother named John came from the coast to Father Philimon and, clasping his feet, said to him: “What shall I do to be saved? For my intellect vacillates to and fro and strays after all the wrong things.” After a pause, the father replied: “This is one of the outer passions and it stays with you because you still have not acquired a perfect longing for God. The warmth of this longing and of the knowledge of God has not yet come to you.” The brother said to him: “What shall I do, father?” Abba Philimon replied: “Meditate inwardly for a while, deep in your heart; for this can cleanse your intellect of these things.” The brother, not understanding what was said, asked the Elder: “What is inward meditation, father?” The Elder replied: “Keep watch in your heart; and with watchfulness say in your mind with awe and trembling: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. For this is the advice which the blessed Diadochos gave to beginners.”
“Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.”
“There is no gainsaying what the fathers have so well affirmed, that a man does not find rest except by acquiring inwardly the thought that God and he alone exist; and so he does not let his intellect wander at all towards anything whatsoever, but longs only for Him, cleaving to Him alone. Such a man will find true rest and freedom from the tyranny of the passions. My soul, as David says, is bound to Thee; Thy right hand has upheld me.”
“For the good is not good if it is not rightly done. It is really good only if it is not done with the purpose of receiving some reward: as, for instance, the search for popularity or glory may be rewarded by fame, or by excessive gain, or by something else that is wrong. God is not interested in what happens to turn out to be good or in what appears to be good. He is interested in the purpose for which a thing is done.”
“For desire is drawn towards three things: the pleasure of the flesh, vain self-glory, and the acquisition of material wealth. As a result of this senseless appetite it scorns God and His commandments, and forgets His generosity; it turns like a savage beast against its neighbour; it plunges the intelligence into darkness and prevents it from looking towards the truth. He who has acquired a spiritual understanding of this truth will share, even here on earth, in the kingdom of heaven and will live a blessed life in expectation of the blessedness that awaits those who love God.”
“Natural knowledge is that which the soul can acquire through the use of its natural faculties and powers when investigating creation and the cause of creation — in so far, of course, as this is possible for a soul bound to matter… Supranatural knowledge, on the other hand, is that which enters the intellect in a manner transcending its own means and power; that is to say, the intelligible objects that constitute such knowledge surpass the capacity of an intellect joined to a body, so that a knowledge of them pertains naturally only to an intellect which is free from the body. Such knowledge is infused by God alone when He finds an intellect purified of all material attachment and inspired by divine love.”
“If your intellect is freed from all hope in things visible, this is a sign that sin has died in you. If your intellect is freed, the breach between it and God is eliminated.”
“Shut all the gates of your soul, that is the senses, so as to not be lured astay. When the intellect sees that it is not dominated by anything, it prepares itself for immortality, gathering its senses together and forming them into one body.”
“One of perfect prayer is he who, withdrawing from all mankind, is united with all mankind. One of perfect prayer is he who regards himself as existing with all people and sees himself in every person.”
“The wise Solomon says in the Proverbs, “They that have no guidance fall like leaves; but in much counsel there is safety.” So you see what the Holy Scriptures teach us? They enjoin us not to rely on ourselves, not to regard ourselves as knowing all, not to believe that we can control ourselves, for we need help, and are in need of those who would counsel us according to God. No men are more unfortunate or nearer perdition than those who have no teachers on the way of God.
For what does it mean that where no guidance is, the people fall like leaves? A leaf is at first green, flourishing, beautiful., then it gradually withers, falls, and is finally trampled underfoot. So it is with a man who has no guide: at first he is always zealous in fasting, vigil, silence, obedience, and other virtues; then his zeal, little by little, cools down and, having no one to instruct, support, and fire him up with zeal, he insensibly withers, falls, and finally becomes a slave of the enemies, who do with him what they will.”
“A soul pure in God is God.”
“If we were willing to make even small efforts, we would not suffer either much distress or difficulty. For if a man urges himself to make efforts, then, as he continues them, he gradually makes progress and later practices virtues with tranquility; for God, seeing him urge himself, sends him help. So let us urge ourselves, for, although we have not reached perfection, if we make efforts, through efforts we shall receive help, and with this help shall acquire all kinds of virtues. Therefore one of the fathers said, “Give blood and receive spirit,” that is, strive earnestly and you will become perfect.”
“If we had to seek virtue outside of ourselves, that would assuredly be difficult; but as it is within us, it suffices to avoid bad thoughts and to keep our souls turned toward the Lord.”