The Potential Enigma of Philokalic Spirituality for the Western Mind
To the Western mind, the starkness of philokalic spirituality with its constant emphasis on watchfulness, and the controlling of thoughts through unceasing prayer may be perplexing. There is in the West an almost inherent suspicion of things, especially spiritual, regarding asceticism involving restriction of thoughts unless such practices are stripped of anything approaching moral judgment or recognition of evil influence. One might, for example, be attracted to and engage in certain practices of meditation if the emphasis is on obtaining peace of mind and obtaining a state of inner calmness. Among those who do have religious and moral sensibilities that allow for such asceticism, the lack of emphasis on imaginative meditation on the life of Christ and his passion still presents something of an enigma. While the Western spiritual tradition does not lack such notions and spiritual writers who emphasize the type of spirituality the desert fathers put forward, the prevailing practice centers on imaginative and affective prayer and discursive mediation. This may make the Evagrian spirituality that prevails in the Philokalia seem obscure and foreign. Kallistos Ware writes: “Even though only a few pages are devoted to the works of Evagrios Pontus himself, the book as a whole makes constant use of his threefold classification of the spiritual way into the active life (praktiki), the contemplation of nature (physiki) and the contemplation of God (theologia). It also repeats in many places Evagrios’s description of prayer as a ‘shedding of thoughts’, a laying aside of images and discursive thinking. ‘When you are praying,‘ says Evagrios, ‘do not shape within yourself any image of the Deity, and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form; but approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner, and then you will understand.‘
I mention all of this because it is fundamental to having a clear understanding of prayer and watchfulness as described in the writings of Hesychios that I have been considering in recent posts. With the exception of a few rare instances, the ascetic struggle and the manner of praying that is part of that struggle, notably the practice of the Jesus prayer, the Philokalia presents a Evagrian spirituality that is ‘apophatic‘.
The writers of the Philokalia, Hesychios among them, emphasize the interactions between thoughts, passions and sinful acts. Understanding these interactions and the fathers’ use of such terms is imperative. Before moving on to consider Hesychios’ teaching on controlling thoughts, it may be helpful to briefly consider a few definitions offered by Gregory of Sinai. These few paragraphs give great insight into why the fathers place special emphasize on struggling with distracting thoughts.
“Sinful acts provoke passions, the passions provoke distractive thoughts and distractive thoughts, provoke fantasies. The fragmented memory begets a multiplicity of ideas, forgetfulness, causes the fragmentation of the memory, ignorance leads to forgetfulness, and appetites are aroused by misdirected emotions, and misdirected emotions by committing sinful acts. A sinful act is provoked by a mindless desire for evil and a strong attachment to the senses and to sensory things” (Philokalia IV).
The Fathers of the Philokalia taught that sense factors can evoke the passions. The senses are mainly visual, but can be auditory, taste, touch and smell as well. In anticipation of many modern psychologists, the Fathers understood that cognition, memory and emotions scan also be triggered by such cues.
St. Gregory of Sinai again expresses these factors well:
“Distractive thoughts arise and are activated in the soul's intelligent faculty, violent passions in the incensive faculty, the memory of bestial appetites in the desiring faculty, imaginary forms in the mind and ideas in the conceptualizing faculty ... We are provoked to sin by such thoughts; the irruption of evil thoughts is like the current of a river, and when as a result of this we give our assent to sin, our heart is overwhelmed as though by a turbulent flood” (Philokalia IV).
The Fathers understood that the senses are activated by such distractive thoughts and so the battle must be waged there. Thus, St. Gregory continues:
“By the "deep mire" (Ps. 69:2) understand slimy sensual pleasure or the sludge of lechery, or the burden of material things. Weighed down by all this, the impassioned intellect casts itself into the depths of despair ... sin ... is named according to its external manifestation” (Philokalia IV).
Such thoughts and behavior can become deeply entrenched (habitual) and our only overcome by ascetic struggle, humility, prayer and the grace of God. St. Nilus noted, "A practice leads to a habit, and habit takes root like second nature. It is difficult and painful to stir or transform a nature.” Likewise, St. Gregory of Sinai wrote, "The cause and origin of the passions is the misuse of things ... (and) expresses the bias of the will ... " (Philokalia IV).
With these considerations in mind, perhaps we can begin to understand the firmness of Hesychios as discusses the kinds of watchfulness and why he wants us to be particularly attentive to these measures and practice them with diligence. He writes:
“I shall now tell you in plain, straightforward language what I consider to be the types of watchfulness which gradually cleanse the intellect from impassioned thoughts. In these times of spiritual warfare I have no wish to conceal beneath words whatever in this treatise may be of use, especially to more simple people. As St. Paul puts it: ‘Pay attention, my child Timothy, to what you read.’ (1Tim 4:13).
“One type of watchfulness consists in closely scrutinizing every mental image or provocation; for only by means of a mental image can Satan fabricate an evil thought and insinuate this into the intellect in order to lead it astray.”
“A second type of watchfulness consist in freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still, and in praying.”
“A third type consists in continually and humbling calling upon the Lord Jesus Christ for help.”
“A forth type is always to have the thought of death in one’s mind.”
“These types of watchfulness, my child, act like doorkeepers and bar entry to evil thoughts. Elsewhere, if God gives me words, I shall deal more fully with a further type which, along with others, is also effective: this is to fix one’s gaze on heaven and to pay no attention to anything material.”
“When we have to some extent cut off the causes of the passions, we should devote our time to spiritual contemplation; for if we fail to do this we shall easily revert to the fleshly passions, and so achieve nothing but the complete darkening of our intellect and its reversion to material things” (Philokalia I, pp. 164-165)
The ascetic struggle described here is great and constant, but its goal is not simply self mastery or freedom from thought or sinful passions. There is a radical personal element involved in the discipline, emphasized in the practice of the Jesus prayer which directs our thoughts and our hearts to God. We do not seek to cleanse the heart and the intellect (nous: the eye of the heart) for ourselves but for God. Jesus warns against a failure to keep this in mind as does Hesychios in his final comment.
“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12: 43-45)
If we sweep and clean the house without having Christ coming to dwell in and be Master of that house, more demons will return and we will find ourselves in a worse state than when we began.