Reading “The Philokalia” A Beginner’s Guide

This has consistently been the most visited post on my previous blog so I am re-posting it here.

First posted August 2016.

‘Beginner’s guides’ are generally written by experts in a field. In this case I am the beginner.
The Philokalia has been a part of my faith journey since I read R.M French’s translation of “The Way of A Pilgrim” as a teenager. An interested English teacher (Mr Sharma) pointed me to Salinger and Dostoevsky and then I discovered the Community of the Servants of the Will of God at Crawley Down. The (now deceased) Superior, Father Gregory, provided a living link with the Russian spiritual tradition through his friendship with Father Sophrony founder and monk at Tolleshunt Knights. Like the community there the monks at Crawley Down have a tradition of reciting the Jesus Prayer corporately in place of Compline.

This post was spurred by a recent book:  “The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality” edited by Brock Bingaman and Bradly Nassif. It is the book I have been waiting for to help me to access the Philokalia. In many ways it is a companion to the four (projected five) volume translation of the Greek Philokalia of Saints Nikodimos and Makarios. These volumes translated by G.E.H Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware and published by Faber and Faber between 1979 and 1995 will be familiar to many from their plain grey-blue covers.
Bingaman and Nassif’s book is a collection of 18 essays in three sections: History; Theological Foundations and Spiritual Practices. Contributors include most famously (to this Anglican) Kallistos Ware, Rowan Williams and Andrew Louth.
The history section is immensely helpful in placing the Philokalia in its historical context and distinguishing between the various ‘philokalias’. Including the collection made most famous by the Pilgrim, the Russian version of Saint Pasius Velichkovsky. There is also a fascinating account of the work in Romanian of Father Dumitru Staniloae in producing a ten volume version of the Philokalia.
The history section also contains a helpful seven stage beginner’s guide to reading the Philokalia, like most of the essays giving page and volume references to the four volumes of the English translation.
The theological part of the book is important in beginning with the theological foundations of the Philokalia. Together with the essay on ecclesiology in the text this provides a helpful corrective to either ‘new age-y’ interpretations of the writings outside Christian doctrine and practice or to evangelicals who fail to see Christ in the works. Some of the essays in this section look at specific writers notably Maximus the Confessor (whose writings dominate volume 2 with a massive 256 pages) and Evagrius (for further reading on Evagrius see the eminently readable “Dragon’s Wine And Angel’s Bread” by Gabriel Bunge – formerly a Benedictine monk-hermit and now a member of the Russian Orthodox church).
Rowan Williams’ contribution is a challenging but rewarding view of the theological world of the Philokalia. In many ways it examines the theological anthropology of the text and further reading on this can be found in Olivier Clément’s, “On Human Being”.
Part 3 takes a more canonical view of the text seeing it as a whole in particular in the essay by Mary B. Cunningham on the Jesus Prayer which rightly establishes the practice of the Prayer as the overarching theme, the binding that holds the whole collection together. The essays on Psychotherapy and women in the Philokalia add a helpful contemporary examination of the spiritual practices envisaged. Fittingly, the final essay by John Chryssavagis is a magnificent overview of the spiritual life lived according to the tradition which the Philokalia represents.
I found this collection of essays extremely helpful in reflecting on my work as headmaster. Working with teenagers I was constantly struck by the importance and significance of the search for identity and the truth expressed by Chryssavagis that “Living life to the full comes only when the ultimate concerns have been faced, namely meaninglessness and death.” (page 274). Rowan Williams’ essay once again reminds me that we will only get education right when we have a proper theological anthropology founded on and centred on God not on the human being.
Finally, as we use silence and meditation in our work at school I am encouraged by this reading to return again to the Christian tradition of hesychia, Stillness, and nepsis, Watchfulness; as our fundamental practices. These writing give us the properly Christian vocabulary we need drawing on our rich tradition and theology rather than from a rather shallow experience of Buddhist practices divorced from Buddhist/Asian metaphysics.
The further reading below includes much that I have found helpful. I draw attention especially to Fr Allyne Smith’s collection of extracts from the Philokalia (the Faber translation). These are helpfully divided into seven sections and are provided with notes, comments and further enriching quotations from writers on the spiritual life. As a one volume portable Philokalia – similar to that carried by the Pilgrim – it is extremely helpful. As is the rightly popular “The Art of Prayer”.
Since I first began using the Jesus Prayer I have attended Ignatian, Benedictine, Buddhist, Charismatic retreats, been to numerous monasteries and collected degrees in World Religions and Theology. The one constant in all this time and the ‘eternal flame’ that burns no matter how madly the winds of busy-ness blow has been the Jesus Prayer. Long may it be so.
Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts Selections Annotated and Explained
Allyne Smith
Skylight Paths Publishing, Vermont, 2008
Repentance; (2) The Heart; (3) Prayer; (4) The Jesus Prayer; (5) The Passions; (6) Stillness; and (7) In the End: Theosis.

Further Reading
Orthodox Spirituality, Dumitru Staniloae, Saint Tikon’s Seminary Press, 2003
I Love Therefore I Am: the theological legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony, Nicholas V. Sakharov
The Path to Salvation, Saint Theophan the Recluse, Saint Paisius Monastery, 1996
The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed Timothy Ware, Faber and Faber 1966
On Prayer, Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996
We Shall See Him As He Is, Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood 2006 (1988)


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