10 books, no. 3: The Philokalia

My third of ten books (sorry I fell behind on this) was The Philokalia, vol. 1:

The Philokalia is a five-volume anthology of Greek-language (plus a Greek translation of bits of John Cassian) ascetic/mystical texts focussed on the art of prayer, the prayer of the heart, pure prayer — viz., the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It was compiled in 1782 by Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (that is, Athos) and Makarios of Corinth, drawn from a selection of Athonite manuscripts of Greek-language spiritual masters that were themselves what the compilers thought of as “paterika” — anthologies of the “fathers”. In the Orthodox world, the “fathers” do not end in 749 with the death of John of Damascus (as in western assessments of “patristics”) but potentially extend until today. The “fathers” selected here run from the fourth through fourteenth century.

I call these “Greek-language” texts because simply saying “Greek” will give the wrong idea to a modern reader — the monks herein are from Egypt, Mt Sinai, Judaea-Palestine, and Syria as well as from the “Greek” Mount Athos. They do not provide a vision of the entire Christian life or all of Orthodox spirituality, but simply an approach to pure prayer and the union of the mind with the heart, focussing largely on the Jesus Prayer, as noted above.

A shorter anthology emerged around the same time, and it may not be a shortened Philokalia, according to recent research, but actually an independent text based on the same or similar manuscripts. It is often called the shorter or little Russian Philokalia, and it is the book in the popular anonymous novel The Way of a Pilgrim. Along with the Russian translation of Isaac the Syrian, it was influential on the Optina Fathers and nineteenth-century Russian spiritual masters such as Theophan the Recluse.

Volume 1 is all that I’ve read of The Philokalia. It is entirely ancient, mostly fourth- and fifth-century authors, going possibly up to the later seventh. Not all of the authors are securely dated. It includes: Isaiah the Solitary; Evagrius Ponticus; John Cassian; Mark the Ascetic (or the Monk); Hesychios the Priest; Nilos of Ancyra; Diadochos of Photiki; John of Karpathos, and a pseudonymous text of Antony the Great.

In the first volume, the prayer of the heart and the conditions for it are charted to the emergence of the name of Jesus and the Jesus Prayer in the fifth century. It is a powerful, challenging book of a more than historical interest.

Finally, this translation is a version of The Philokalia in the spirit of Nikodimos and Makarios rather than a translation of The Philokalia as printed in Venice in 1782. The translators translate the same selections from the authors, but they reattribute them where we know better who wrote a text, and they translate them from modern critical editions. Moreover, they also produce their own general introduction to the volume besides introductions to each author and an invaluable glossary at the back.

If you are interested in Eastern Orthodox spirituality or a certain tradition of the ancient Desert, this book is a difficult but worthy place to begin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.