The Philokalia is a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters of the Eastern Orthodox hesychast tradition.
The Philokalia is a principal spiritual text for all the Eastern Orthodox Churches. It was compiled by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, two monks of the Greek Orthodox Church, and first published in 1782.
The word “Philokalia” is a combination of two Greek words:
- φιλία (“philia”) which means love, and
- κάλλος (“kallos”) which means beauty.
Together, they form the word φιλοκαλία (“Philokalia”), which means “love of the beautiful.”
Hesychasm (“stillness”) is a mystical tradition of prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It involves acquiring an inner focus and blocking the physical senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.
The teachings in the Philokalia are viewed by Orthodox Christians as inseparable from the sacraments and liturgy of the Orthodox Church.
The Philokalia figures prominently in a book called “The Way of a Pilgrim” which is a celebrated masterpiece on continual prayer.
Like The Way of a Pilgrim, the Philokalia is one of the truly great Christian books of all time. We will be reading it in the summer of 2016. Join us in our exploration of this great work!
The Philokalia is one of the truly great Christian books of all time. Yet many of us Christians in the west know very little about it.
According to Professor Allyne Smith, there are seven recurring themes in the Philokalia:
- The heart
- The Jesus Prayer
- The passions
- Theosis, or deification
That seventh theme is “theosis.” It is at the core of how Eastern Christians understand salvation. Theosis is a transformative process whose goal is likeness to (or union with) God.
For Eastern Christians, salvation is primarily a sharing in God’s life, a participation in the Divine. It is a deliverance to God.
However, almost all Western Christians misunderstand theosis. That is because we westerners view eternal salvation in the opposite way. We see it as deliverance from sin rather than deliverance to God.
Western Christian thinking is, in large part, rooted in Greek philosophy and rational argumentation. However, Eastern Christian thinking is rooted in the direct spiritual insights of the saints and mystics. That gives them a more spiritual anchoring of their teachings.
|WESTERN CHRISTIANS||EASTERN CHRISTIANS|
|Deliverance||From sin||To God|
|Basis||Greek philosophy and rational argumentation||Direct spiritual insights of the saints and mystics|
This notion of theosis is seen in 2 Peter chapter 1:
2 Peter 1:4. by which he has granted to us his precious and exceedingly great promises; that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust.
Theosis is also seen in the writings of church fathers such as Polycarp, Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Basil of Caesarea.
The amount of text in the Philokalia is gargantuan. It spans five huge volumes. We estimate the total number of words to be 600,000. Compare that to a novel. They start at about 40,000 words.
For that reason, we will be reading a shorter book called “Philokalia: The Eastern Spiritual Texts.” The cover art is pictured at the top of this page.
It is an anthology of exact quotes that Professor Allyne Smith, Th.D. collected under seven themes and annotated.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware was a Professor at Oxford University for 35 years.
He is a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
He is the most well known Orthodox Christian in the English-speaking world.
And he translated the definitive five-volume edition of the Philokalia. In this video, he shares a great overview:
Many Christians imagine that to repent means to feel sorry about some particular sin. And the Philokalia addresses that. However, in the larger picture, repentance is an event that changes your whole life.
St. John Chrysostum sees repentance as the eradication of evil.
We should be aware of our inner being. We are vigilant so nothing will separate us from the love of God.
The sin that leads to death is the sin we do not repent of, according to St. Mark the Ascetic.
St. Peter of Damaskos III says “without repentance no one can be saved.” However, that is reductionist. It is Jesus Christ, and not our own human efforts, that is necessary for salvation.
God is “angry” at our sins, and not angry at us.
God is better understood as a physician than as a judge, just as sin is better understood as an illness rather than as a transgression.
The “heart” is our spiritual center. It is where we wage spiritual warfare. We are to focus our attention on our heart. We are to send our intellect to patrol our heart.
We purify it of all that distances us from God. That requires self-restraint and hope.
If you find that nothing at all accuses you in your heart, then you are free. By God’s will, you have entered into his peace.
The heart is a mirror. It is the inner sanctuary. It is the kingdom of heaven within. It is where Jesus Christ dwells by faith. In it we see Jesus Christ luminously reflected.
A powerful way to do battle within the heart is to repeatedly invoke the name of the Lord Jesus. Or to purge our thoughts of our predetermined concepts of God.
St. Maximos the Confessor shares his insight into the notion of circumcision of the heart. He says it signifies our being lifted out of our natural senses and intellect. It is accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit.
That is very much like what Teresa of Ávila wrote in “The Interior Castle” concerning the transition from the third mansion to the fourth. You sense a gentle drawing inward, and God gives you the greatest peace and quietness and sweetness in the very interior part of ourselves.
The Christian tradition is, in large part, an intellectual tradition. We have a book that we read called the Bible. We look to specific people in history. We synthesize ideas.
Along those lines, in the western tradition, we have intellectualized prayer. We equate prayer with words. We teach children to “recite their prayers.” And classically, beginners in the monastery were taught to use words.
Also in the western tradition we glamorize the intellect. We say prayer is the ascent of the intellect to God.
However, there comes a time when spoken prayer (and the intellect) must be set aside. They are our gateway into contemplative prayer.
To enter into contemplative prayer is to leave words and the intellect behind, like how a rocket ship needs to leave behind the gravity well of the earth in order to make it into outer space.
Contemplative prayer is what these heroes of mystical prayer are describing in this chapter. They describe it in lots of ways:
- Free from forms
- Free from thoughts
- The communion of the intellect with God
- Pure prayer
- Unceasing and uninterrupted
- No conceptual images
- Active in your heart
- Interior presence of God
- Seized in rapture
- Drinking in the Lord Jesus
# # #
The authors say that if you are a theologian, you will pray truly. That is, you will practice contemplative prayer.
And if you pray truly, that is, if you practice contemplative prayer, you are a theologian.
The irony is that in the western tradition, to become a theologian has nothing to do with prayer. Instead, it is 100% intellect. Many western theologians scoff at the notion of prayer.
The writers of the Philokalia are of the “Hesychastic” school of prayer. Their goal is that our heart be still.
The Philokalia’s route to that goal is the continuous repetition of the name of Jesus.
The name of Jesus is a lighted lamp. It is a single-phrased prayer.
To embark on a session of repeatedly saying the name of Jesus is to embark into spiritual warfare.
Here are the words:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
Some say it aloud; others silently.
Saying the prayer is a great remedy for distractions and demons.
St. Symeon the New Theologian recommends sitting in a quiet place, making your breathing smooth, and pointing your intellect to your heart. At first your heart will be darkness. Later, after much practice, you will find light and joy.
In our day, the notion of the “Jesus Prayer” has been revived by the Centering Prayer movement, led by Fr. Thomas Keating.
The Philokalia presents a path of spiritual training. The goal is mystical union with God. This state is beyond sense-perception and beyond intellectual concept.
Experience demonstrates that this is a very demanding path. In order to say “yes” to this path, you must say “no” to a lot of other possibilities.
In a similar fashion, an Olympic athlete cannot party all night. Or get blackout drunk.
What much we say “no” to? The passions. They are the drives that, if we let them, would ensnare us. They would subvert us from the goal. We cannot let ourselves be diverted from contemplative prayer.
The Philokalia lists lots of passions. Among them are gluttony, avarice, and seeking esteem.
The Philokalia names demons. In Philokalis-speak, demons are passions we struggle with. They include
- Ignorance of the mystical path
- Forgetfulness about the mystical path
- Laziness about the mystical path
Beyond those, we must also set aside our own intellectual concepts. God is nothing like our own ideas. He is nothing like our favorite images.
The Philokalia describes the above as sin. Read that as “diverting you from your goal” and not as “moral failure.”
The passions are not necessarily evil. We can redirect them, and let them drive us more strongly toward our goal.
The Jesus Prayer is a marvelous treasure. It is great, in and of itself. However, the Philokalia sees it as being of instrumental worth. It is a path, and not the destination.
The ultimate goal is NOT that we endlessly repeat the Jesus Prayer. What the Jesus Prayer and breathing techniques do is quiet us down and prepare us for what comes next. What comes next is the ultimate goal. It is stillness.
We should make stillness our highest goal.
However, we do not automatically fall into a state of stillness. Rather, we must practice it. Like any new discipline, at first we must force ourselves to practice it. It needs to be a top priority.
We are to do everything possible to attain stillness and freedom from distraction.
This is the core of Hesychan spirituality. It is the practice of perfect stillness. Stillness is seen as the highest gift of all.
There are many synonyms for this practice of stillness: custody of the heart, guarding of the heart, guarding of the intellect, noetic stillness, stillness of the heart, watchfulness.
In time, stillness becomes for us an angelic way.
When we arrive at the citadel of stillness, our awareness is unbroken by thoughts or images. We are free.
Western Christians go to church to learn about God, whereas Eastern Christians go to church to kiss God.
In the Incarnation, God took on human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. He died on the cross. What was the purpose of the cross?
In western Christianity, the purpose is the forgiveness of sins. This is called “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus Christ suffered and died on our behalf. We Christians are not changed. Rather, God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to us.
In eastern Christianity, the purpose is seen as theosis. What is theosis?
In Eastern Orthodoxy, theosis (“deification”) is a transformative process whose goal is likeness to or union with God. It is very much the purpose of human life.
Theosis means the deification of human beings. We become partakers of the divine nature. We receive an influx of the divine and, as it were, experience the grace of deification. Theosis means we become assimilated into the divine.
Theosis means we are given union with God. He fill us with his own resplendent energy. It deifies those of us who participate in it.
It is a gift from God. We are adopted through grace. Through grace, God fills us.
When we pray, our goal should be this mystery of theosis.
However, the LORD is one. He is God alone. He is the one God and Father of all. Beside him there is no other God. There is none like him. Read more »
That sets two absolute limits on the meaning of theosis:
Limit #1. It is not possible for us to become God ontologically, or even a necessary part of God. So we cannot become Jesus Christ, nor the Holy Spirit nor God the Father.
Limit #2. We cannot become God in his transcendent essence. Such a concept would be the henosis, or absorption and fusion into God of Greek pagan philosophy.
St. Maximus the Confessor wrote that Jesus Christ …
divinizes our human nature without actually changing it into the divine nature. That distinction maintains the difference between God and creation while nonetheless providing for a real participation in God. (our paraphrase)
There are three stages in the process of deification:
|1. Purgative||The practice of the virtues||Spiritual knowledge of created things|
|2. Illuminative||Contemplative Prayer||Perceive the hidden mysteries of God|
|3. Unitive (“theosis”)||United and interfused with the primordial light||The goal of all ascetic and contemplative activity|
Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.