A Pilgrim and a Prayer

Phil Sumpter at Narrative and Ontology has been reading the Russian Orthodox classic Откровенные рассказы странника духовному своему отцу (Candid Stories of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father, usually titled in English The Way of A Pilgrim) in what appears to be a very nice German translation. The selection he translates into English there I have also found in my own copy of the Helen Bacovcin translation (Doubleday/Image Books, 1978), beginning with quoting the staretz or spiritual father of the unnamed pilgrim (pp 18-19):

“To learn about this prayer, we will read from a book called the Philokalia. This book, which was compiled by twenty-five holy Fathers, contains complete and detailed instructions about ceaseless prayer. The content of this book is of such depth and usefulness that it is considered to be the primary teacher of contemplative life, and as the Venerable Nicephorus says, ‘It leads one to salvation without labor and sweat.'”

“Is it then more important than the Holy Bible?” I asked.

“No, it is neither more important nor holier than the Bible, but it contains clear exposition of the ideas that are mysteriously presented in the Bible and are not easy for our finite mind to understand. I will give you an illustration. The sun—a great, shining, and magnificent light—cannot be contemplated and looked at directly with the naked eye. An artificial glass, a million times smaller and dimmer than the sun, is needed to look at the great king of lights to be enraptured by its fiery rays. In a similar way the Holy Bible is a shining light and the Philokalia is the necessary glass.

Phil delightfully titled his post “Tradition as ‘sunglasses'” which I think is going to stick with me from now on because of this happy concatenation of connections between us, as it was one of my own posts of a quotation from the Philokalia which led him to mention his reading this book.

Philokalia (love of beautiful things) is a Greek word which came to be used to describe literary anthologies, and it is perfectly appropriate as a title of this collection of beautiful writings on prayer of the heart (or hesychastic prayer; most literally it is what is referred to as the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) from various Church Fathers dating from between the fourth to fifteenth centuries. The original collection was compiled in the eighteenth century by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (Mt Athos) and St Makarios of Corinth, and published in Venice in 1782. A second edition was published, including additional texts from Patriarch Kallistos of Constantinople (mid-fourteenth century), in Athens in 1893. A third edition in five volumes total was published 1957-1963, also in Athens by Astir. It is this third edition, incorporating all the texts of the earlier editions, which is the source of the English translation which is in process of publication by His Eminence Kallistos, Metropolitan of Diokleia (by 1995, four volumes were released: 1, 2, 3, 4; the fifth may or may not yet be published), who had worked earlier with the now-reposed G. E. H. Palmer and Philip Sherrard on editing the translations initially completed by a larger team. Earlier, however, an abridgement of the original edition of the Philokalia in Slavonic, Dobrotolubiye (which likewise means love of beautiful things), was published by St Paisii Velichkovskii in 1793. This was the edition carried by the Pilgrim in his trek. A translation of this volume into Russian, still using the title Dobrotolubiye, was published by St Ignatii Branchianinov in 1857. A five-volume Russian adaptation (including extra texts and abridgements and alterations to the original Greek collection) was published by St Theophan the Recluse, complete by 1883, also under the title Dobrotolubiye. The notes and introductory essays in the English edition by Metropolitan Kallistos, et al., are contemporary, and the best available texts are used for the selections included, so it is a valuable edition, and will hopefully be completed soon. I have heard of some hesitation regarding the publishing of the fifth volume, as it includes some passages on the discipline of hesychastic prayer which are considered to be potentially susceptible to abuse in the hands of the naive or those without spiritual guidance. Concern for the spiritual welfare of all readers may lead to the fifth volume of the English translation not being published.

Along these lines, the editors (His Eminence Kallistos, Philip Sherrard, and G.E.H. Palmer) provide the following cautions for those who would attempt hesychastic prayer:

It must be stressed, however, that this spiritual path known as hesychasm cannot be followed in a vacuum. Although most of the texts in the Philokalia are not specifically doctrinal, they all presuppose doctrine even when they do not state it. Moreover, this doctrine entails an ecclesiology. It entails a particular understanding of the Church and a view of salvation inextricably bound up with its sacramental and liturgical life. This is to say that hesychasm is not something that has developed independently of or alongside the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. It is part and parcel of it. It too is an ecclesial tradition. To attempt to practise it, therefore, apart from active participation in this sacramental and liturgical life is to cut it off from its living roots. It is also to abuse the intention of its exponents and teachers and so to act with a presumption that may well have consequences of a disastrous kind, mental and physical.

There is a further point connected with this. The texts in the Philokalia were written by and for those actively living not only within the sacramental and liturgical framework of the Orthodox Church, but also within that of the Orthodox monastic tradition. They therefore presuppose conditions of life radically different from those in which most readers of this English translation are likely to find themselves. Is this tantamount to saying that the counsels they contain can be applied only within a monastic environment? Many hesychast writers affirm that this is not the case, and St Nikodimos himself, in his introduction to the original Philokalia, goes out of his way to stress that ‘unceasing prayer’ may or, rather, should be practised by all. Naturally, the monastic life provides conditions, such as quietness, solitude and regularity, indispensable for that concentration without which one cannot advance far along the spiritual path. But, provided that the basic condition of active participation in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church is fulfilled, then this path is open to all to follow, each to the best of his or her ability and whatever the circumstances under which he or she lives. Indeed, in this respect the distinction between the monastic life and life ‘in the world’ is but relative: every human being, by virtue of the fact that he or she is created in the image of God, is summoned to be perfect, is summoned to love God with all his or her heart, soul and mind. In this sense all have the same vocation and all must follow the same spiritual path. Some no doubt will follow it further than others; and again for some the intensity of the desire with which they pursue it may well lead them to embrace a pattern of life more in harmony with its demands, and this pattern may well be provided by the monastic life. But the path with its goal is one and the same whether followed within or outside a monastic environment. What is essential is that one does not follow it in an arbitrary and ignorant manner. Personal guidance from a qualified teacher should always be sought for. If such guidance is not to be found, then active participation in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, always necessary, will have an added importance in the overcoming of obstacles and dangers inherent in any quest of a spiritual nature.
Philokalia, vol 1, pp 15-16

The dangers warned of are real. Every “quest of a spiritual nature” is fraught with peril when attempted without the foundation of discernment necessary to “test the spirits” (1 Jn 4.1). There is no such thing as “Eastern Orthodox mysticism.” There is only Eastern Orthodoxy. With all its dogma, its liturgies, its canons and ecclesiology, its hymnography and iconography, and its life of prayer, it is one organic whole, and indivisible. It is precisely those who would separate an imagined “Eastern Orthodox mysticism” in hesychasm from Eastern Orthodoxy who are in the most danger. Would a novice weightlifter attempt to lift 500 pounds the first day he steps foot in a gym? Never! But there are those in these modern times who would certainly attempt to practice hesychastic prayer without its foundation and its proper context in a life lived in the Orthodox Church and the spiritual nourishment and healing and protection that such entails. I shudder to think what would happen when some of these people who don’t even believe in demons would attempt hesychastic prayer. Those would be the easiest of marks, so easily deceived and destroyed.

I don’t mean at all to imply here that my friend Phil or anyone else should stop reading and enjoying the Strannik and/or Philokalia. Not in the least! They are classics to be enjoyed and loved by all. I only thought it helpful to bring up the warnings regarding the practice of the Jesus Prayer in this context, as these two works, The Way of a Pilgrim and the Philokalia deal precisely with that prayer as their primary subject. If these books interest someone, if they love them greatly, then they should also become more familiar with the Orthodox tradition that has produced them, in which the practice of hesychastic prayer, the Jesus Prayer, is an organically integrated part. Yes, yes, I admit it: I would have the whole world convert to Orthodoxy, if it would. I admit my complete partiality, rooted in joy and love. But who could not be partial to any group that produces such things as the Philokalia and The Way of a Pilgrim?! Orthodoxy is itself the love of beautiful things indeed, the most beautiful being God! And along with that love for God, the love for our fellow man prompted me to share the above warnings. I trust this concern will be appreciated in the spirit in which it is intended.