Saturday, April 28, 2018

Some Advice for Reading the Philokalia


When I was first introduced to the Philokalia I didn’t get it. I just thought it was a book of spiritual fathers and their wisdom. However, I eventually discovered it was much more. Imagine if you would a medical journal on a specific disease.  In this journal there are various doctors who explain the origin of the disease and how to cure it. This is basically how the Philokalia is set up. The editors and compilers of the Philokalia, Sts. Nicodemus and Macarius, created a detailed spiritual journal about the illness and cure of the soul. This journal is made up of various church fathers who speak about what makes us spiritual sick and they tell us how to cure the sickness.

If I was offered the chance to rename the Philokalia I would call it “How to Have More of God”. The reason for this is that each “spiritual doctor” of this many volume “journal” offers in some way how to deal with our fallen condition so that we can have more of God in this life. Being that it is written in this way, you will find a lot of diversity on the common subjects that are discussed. Its important to keep in mind that there is a context for how these “spiritual doctors” present their teachings. Some will obviously not work for everyone and some will not be valid for the way we might live in our time. For instance, you might hear something strange like we shouldn’t take baths. There is a principle of course behind this thinking but it has a specific context that it is given in. Just like in a modern medical journal you might find some ideas that seem more reasonable over others or that might have worked better in the past as opposed to today.

The Philokalia should not be read like a book with a succession of ideas. In fact, some fathers might offer a completely different opinion as opposed to others. Rather, I would suggest reading through and asking, “what teachings work best for me”, with the goal of having more of God in your life. As your looking through, look at what the fathers are saying as forms of therapy.  We all struggle with our weaknesses and the fathers in the Philokalia offer their wisdom on how to understand our conditions therapeutically. As I said, I would suggest using the therapy that works best for you. Also, keep the goal of having more of God in mind as you seek your healing. The fathers of the Philokalia are not offering dead wisdom in order to make us feel spiritual. They are offering the living tradition of the Church to us, so that we can fulfill our destiny as sons and daughters of God.

There are some common themes that I thought would be helpful to mention when reading the Philokalia. A word you will commonly find is the “passions”. An easy way to understand a passion is that it is an emotion that controls us, which can never be satisfied, like sexual desire, anger, hunger, or fear. In speaking about the passions, the fathers seek to heal their source in order to redirect the energy we give them back to God. Another theme is the Heart, the center of what we are. The Heart has been described as the source of the passions and it is also the place where we encounter God. In regard to the Heart, I want to mention another theme, that of watchfulness. Watchfulness is commonly understood in the Philokalia as a means to guard the Heart. Mixed with prayer it offers a way to keep us from entering an impassioned state and allows our hearts to be centered on God.

What I am offering here is by no means expert wisdom. I just thought I could offer some brief advice for a neglected gift in the Church. I believe this to be a gift that’s especially vital for those of the Byzantine tradition. We have our prayer ropes and we say the Jesus Prayer but often out the full context in which we have received these gifts. I also believe the Philokalia should be in some respects, for the modern Byzantine Christian, treated like a second bible. The spirituality in the Philokalia is in some ways the basis for the origin of the modern Byzantine typicon. Just as it was when it was compiled and edited it represents in many ways the fullness of the spiritual fruit found in Byzantine Liturgical life.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. It inspires me to want to go back and read the Philokalia again.

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  2. Replies
    1. I usually recommended the abridge version called: Writings from the Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart

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