Monday, February 3, 2014

Rediscovering the Philokalia

     In speaking many years ago about the future of our Eastern churches Abbot Nicholas (Zachariadis) of the Holy Resurrection Monastery said the following: One of the most wonderful aspects of Eastern Catholic life over the past twenty years or so has been the rediscovery of this ascetic tradition in the hearts and homes of many individuals and families. The Philokalia is read. Fasts are kept, if not perfectly, at least more strictly. Icon corners are set up, the Jesus Prayer is said and people search out a good spiritual father or mother. All these are signs of an active embrace of the "practical" life of the Byzantine spiritual tradition”. In my experience I would have to agree with many of his observations. On the other hand, on many occasions some Byzantines have shared with me their struggles in trying to read the Philokalia. To some degree I understand their frustration and why some have chosen not to read it. However, I believe that not having the devotional experience of the Philokalia could give some a disadvantage in experiencing the Byzantine tradition.
     When I first discovered my tradition my priest told me that I should find some books on Byzantine spirituality. This all happened way back in 2001 and I can remember going wild at book dealers trying to get my hands on all I could. Well to make a long story short, amongst my purchases I got all 4 volumes of the Philokalia and also the compilation text. Being somewhat fresh to spirituality, I was a fairly new Christian at the time, I did not know how to read the Philokalia. I quickly zoomed through it and in the end dismissed it as a collection of mere spiritual wisdom. Later, as I began to mature and understand my tradition I would find references to the Philokalia by many noted authors. One in particular was a Fr. David Abernethy. Fr. David is a Roman Catholic priest and his devotion to our Byzantine spiritual traditions brought convection upon me. He eventually inspired me to begin a daily devotion of reading the Philokalia, which I can say has enriched my experience of the Byzantine tradition.
     One of the greatest struggles that I believe people have in reading the Philokalia is in their approach. When we read books we often seek a specific knowledge or some type of message. The Philokalia has these things but the way we discover them must be done in a spiritual manner. The Philokalia must be received in the same way the Holy Scriptures are, always in a devotional sense. The difference with the Philokalia is that unlike scripture it is not the Word of God. Instead, it’s the living experience of the Word of God or as some would say “living tradition”. Each spiritual father in the Philokalia shares their experience of salvation and in turn offers us to add to it. I would say that even though the Philokalia has a definitive form it continues to inspire and some spiritual fathers have even added their own written traditions to it, the “Little Russian Philokalia” comes to mind.
     Another struggle that people have is that the Philokalia is written primarily for monks. So some might wonder what value it might have to those outside of the monastery. This struggle I think can be easily resolved by understanding the Byzantine tradition in general. As it says in OrientaleLumen, Monasticism has always been the very soul of the Eastern Churches”. Since monasticism is the very soul of the Byzantine tradition each Byzantine is called to integrate it into their everyday life. Based on this, you could say that the monk in the Byzantine tradition is the fullest  response to Christ in this life. From this perspective, you could also say that those outside of actual monasteries are all in some sense each members of domestic monasteries, each in their own way cultivating the monastic life. Being that it was intended for monastic living, the Philokalia  can provide the very source for these domestic monasteries to thrive.
     In sharing all this I wish to encourage my fellow  Byzantines to start reading the Philokalia. My advice in doing this would be to start a little each day. In my own devotion I read a few pages alongside of prayer and reading the scriptures. I guarantee you that if you make a commitment to reading it your spiritual life will be enhanced. I can’t begin to share how much it has helped me and sometimes it feels that God is speaking to me personally through it. I would also suggest that you start with the compilation, its called "Writings from the Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart". It takes some of basic themes and puts them all in one book. The Philokalia is the living experience of the Byzantine tradition. It is a precious gift from our spiritual fathers and it would be a mistake to neglect it.

1 comment:

  1. Love this! We just received a second set as a Christmas husband has lovingly given them to me! So now I have a set, too! I love reading the Church Fathers and have grown so very much through their illuminating writings. So much becomes clearer when you delve into it. Great article!