Reading the Philokalia: "Where do we begin?"
In reading about the Philokalia, I have come across a number of wonderful resources. Among these have been a few articles by Kallistos Ware about the history of the development of the Philokalia. The most recent article that I have read is entitled “St. Nikodimos and the Philokalia”, one of a series of papers presented at a conference at Cambridge in 2003 and compiled in a book called “Mount Athos, the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain.” The aim of the conference was to draw attention to the historic importance, the spirituality, and the religious legacy of the Holy Mountain. Much of the article is a very thoughtful exploration of the eighteenth century hesychast renaissance that produced the Philokalia and the key figures responsible for this compilation of the writings of the Fathers and those who influenced them. Ware’s analysis of the overlap between Velichokovsky’s translation program and the contents of the Greek Philokalia is fascinating and alone makes the article worth reading. Although I have already touched upon some of this history in previous posts, it would definitely be worthwhile to return to the subject in the future. Beyond this, in the article Ware addresses issues of readership, the scope and content of the Philokalia and the ultimate goal in reading it.
However, what I found most interesting for the moment was Ware’s response to the question: “In what order should the different treatises in the Philokalia be read? Where should we begin?” It is to this question I would like to turn before going back to a discussion of various themes found in the writings as a whole. Ware states that it is probably not the best plan, so far as the Philokalia is concerned, to read the writings in chronological order from beginning to end. Rather, he suggests the following sequence “which corresponds in part, although not entirely, to the reading list supplied in a dream to the Russian Pilgrim by his dead starets, and to a similar list given by Fr. Nikon to the English translators of the Philokalia.” This list includes: (1) Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, ‘Century’ (Philokalia 4, 197-295; ET Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, 164-270), (2) Hesychios, ‘On Watchfulness and Holiness’ (Philokalia 1, 141-73; ET 1, 162-98); (3) Evagrios, ‘On Prayer’ (Philokalia 1, 176-89; ET 1, 55-71); (4) ‘A Discourse on Abba Philimon’ (Philokalia 2, 241-52; ET 2, 344-57); (5) St. Symeon the New Theologian, ‘On Faith’ (Philokalia 5, 73-80; ET 4, 16-24); (6) Gregory of Sinai, ‘On the Signs of Grace and Delusion’; ‘On Stillness’; ‘On Prayer’ (Philokalia 4, 66-88; ET 4, 257-86). Ware notes that Kadloubovsky and Palmer in their translation “Writings of the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, open with the same four authors as on the Pilgrim’s list in the same order and add texts from Gregory of Sinai and Symeon the New Theologian.
Ware does not get into specifics about why this particular grouping may be significant but simply holds it forward as a starting point given the unique nature of the work and its central themes. He does, however, offer us the following insights: “‘Not a book but a library’: so Kaisarios Daponte described the Philokalia. It is, however, a library with a specific character and an all-embracing unity. Although it has much to say about love for our fellow humans and practical compassion, its theme is not social and political action. Equally its primary subject is not outward asceticism or liturgical prayer. Its concern is rather with the ‘inner Kingdom’ of the heart, and it shows how this ‘inner Kingdom’ is to be explored through the acquisition of ‘nepsis’ and ‘hesychia’, and through the ceaseless invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus. It sets before us, as our ultimate raison d’etre, the attainment of self-transcending ‘theosis’, through a union of love whereby we participate in God’s uncreated energies, although not in his essence. In this way it proclaims both the otherness and the nearness of the eternal; God is beyond and above the entire creation, the greatest mystery of all mysteries, yet he is at the same time everywhere present and fills all things. Although the Philokalia is neither exhaustive nor systematic, none the less these unifying master themes justify us in speaking of a distinctively ‘philokalic’ spirituality. The work is indeed exactly what St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain claimed it to be: ‘a mystical school of noetic prayer’ (119).
In the past, I have read the four volumes of the Philokalia and the “Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart” as they became available to me and from beginning to end. Before moving ahead in my own study, I plan to reread the texts in the order suggested above - - keeping Ware’s insights and the historical realities he unpacks in mind and trusting the guidance given to the Russian Pilgrim. Perhaps in doing so and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, a clearer understanding of the viewpoint of the late eighteenth century will emerge and the desire of St. Nikodimos, St. Makarios and others to revive the neptic-hesychastic spiritual tradition will be enlivened in my own heart.