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.


  1. An important post, and one that generates many reactions. I very much appreciate your statement that there is no “Eastern Orthodox mysticism” — just Eastern Orthodoxy. Compared to the hostility towards mysticism in many Protestant circles, and even in some Roman Catholic circles, this is very refreshing.

    It will be a great pity if the Philokalia is not translated. While I appreciate your concerns for spiritual abuse. I agree, is a real problem, although in our generation — or I should say our degenerate-ion we have developed great insensitivity to the spiritual, and thus the risks are lessened compared to previous generations. With the panoply of spiritual traditions thrust before us, often in commercialized and insipid forms, we have developed a great ability to ignore the still, silent voice.

    The truth is that there is enough already out there about hesychastic prayer — and in doubtlessly inaccurate forms — to enable those who wish to engage in it (or, even worse, in some facsimile of it) without spiritual maturity. Certainly, engaging in hesychastic prayer improperly can be as dangerous — or even more dangerous — as engaging in it incautiously. So it will be a pity if the fifth volume is left untranslated — I do not know if it will protect anyone. (Indeed, the lure of the forbidden may even make matters worse.)

    On a more trivial note: you have a formatting problem (an unclosed tag perhaps), and the rest of your blog is now in italics.

  2. Well, the formatting problem seems to have been solved — so either you fixed it or it was just a browser bug on my computer.

  3. What do you have against Italians and their fonts?! Thanks, Iyov, it was an open tag near the end there that I hadn’t noticed at first, but must’ve caught just after you saw it.

    Have you read (now Fr) Andrew Louth’s book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (2d Edition; Oxford, 2007)? His Afterword is the only real change to the book, but he focuses in it precisely on the Orthodox lack of a discrete “mysticism” — our mysticism is the liturgical life itself. Essentially, he’d like to rewrite the book today to reflect that understanding, rather than “mysticism” in the way it is typically thought of today: “As my original book made clear, for the Fathers this transformation certainly involved a reconstitution of individual human beings, but it is no individual quest, but rather the rediscovery of our humanity in Christ — the ecclesial and sacramental dimensions are part of the mystical, not to be contrasted with it.” If you get it, read the afterword first.

    I think the issue in the fifth volume of the Philokalia is that it’s in that volume that a particular practice of the hesychasts is described that actually involved a physical posture, sitting with the chin down on the chest, and a particular kind of rhythmic breathing that is synchronized with the Jesus prayer. Apparently, some young, eager novices in the past were driven somewhat insane by having linked their breathing to the prayer rather than vice versa. This is a definite danger these days when anything approaching a physical/mental/spiritual combination of practices with a tag “Eastern” will gain attention and followers. While the prayer itself can be a dangerous thing, the posture/breathing practices are nowadays, outside of a very few monasteries, universally warned against. But as the Philokalia is something of an instruction manual on this kind of prayer, and so the physical practices are included, without explicit warnings right there on the same page, it’ll be easy to those who wish to implement it to do so, unfortunately. I would think that sufficiently dire warnings, more stringent than the above, could be made in the introduction to the fifth volume in order to belay any attempts to abuse the practice. His Eminence Kallistos is impressively eloquent, after all.

    I’m of mixed emotions on that front. Of course, I don’t want anyone to suffer any ill effects. But like you say, the information is out there, and those who really want it are going to get it. Also, I’m just something of a completist. The four volumes are done, and we should have the fifth for consistency’s sake, at the very least. So I hope Metropolitan Kallistos will go ahead and publish it. I had meant to ask him about that when he was visiting here earlier this year, but didn’t get (or rather make) the chance. I’ve contacted Faber & Faber about the publication date (they had a page for volume five projecting publication in summer 2007), but they haven’t heard from anyone in years, they said (Sherrard and Palmer have both died, and Metr. Kallistos is the only editor surviving now).

  4. Thanks for this, Kevin. I’ve tended to get rather confused about the different versions of the Philokalia so this is helpful.
    For anyone looking for a short introduction to the Jesus Prayer, Metropolitan Kallistos has published a booklet entitled The Power of the Name, published by the (Anglican) Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, which I’ve found helpful.
    And Father Louth’s afterword is magnificent: it should be compulsory reading for all westerners who get excited about mysticism!

  5. Sr Macrina, you’re very welcome! The history of the Philokalia is definitely very complicated. I’ll keep an eye out for a more detailed description of the differences between the editions. My impression is that the English edition under Metropolitan Kallistos’ care is the fullest to date, but that may be mistaken. It certainly makes use of modern information in the introductory essays for each Father’s excerpts, which already makes it of great and necessary benefit for readers.

    Fr Louth’s afterword truly is magnificent, as you say. His change of direction is really quite striking. It is certainly necessary reading for anyone interested in “mysticism”!

    And thanks very much for the tip about His Eminence Kallistos’ little booklet. I’ll look for a copy. Everything he writes is as delightful as hearing him in person!

  6. Thanks for the translation!

    I spend half an hour a day reading through The Way of the Pilgrim. I love it, despite its odd foreigness! After each session I feel elevated somehow by the sincerity of the pilgrim and perhaps even a sense of identification – desptie the chasm of time, tradition and spirituality between us.

    I’m an evangelical and despite all my posting on the importance of tradition, I still see my ideas as implementable within an evangelical framework … somehow. What is the Orthodox Church’s attitude to evangelical churches? Apostate? Unsaved? Lost brothers? I’m still trying to find my feet.

  7. Ah! I’m glad you’re enjoying it. It’s certainly an amazing book. I think everyone experiences something like that in reading it, if they read it with an open, sympathetic eye.

    You ask, “What is the Orthodox Church’s attitude to evangelical churches?” Such a simple question, yet such a complicated answer! Our ecclesiology recognizes only one Church proper, the Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ, both a spiritual and a physical entity, not one or the other (no branches, lungs, spiritual church, etc — just the one Church). But, we also know that God has worked and works in various ways with various peoples outside the Church. We believe wholeheartedly that the fullness of the truth of the Mystery of Christ is found in His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church. But that “fullness” also connotes that some elements of the truth are scattered throughout all other religions. As to the rest, we’re taught to better focus on our own sins as individuals, and our personal spiritual healing, rather than to point out the failures and deficiencies (or the successes and wonders, for that matter!) of others, whether within or without the Church. God is more merciful than any of us, and though we’d rejoice to have the whole world willingly come to the Church, it is unlikely, so we pray for God’s mercy on all people everywhere, as well as for ourselves. I hope that helps.

  8. A blessed little book on THE JESUS PRAYER!
    The Orthodox world – and beyond – is acquainted
    with the justly famous and righteous Elder Joseph the Hesychast,
    who reposed on the Holy Mountain in 1959. Less known outside Russia is
    Archbishop Golinsky-Michaelovsky, who was another
    committed practioner and teacher of The Jesus Prayer.

    The English Language Editor was Fr. Ambrose (Young) and the
    Publisher was The Skete of the Entrance of the
    Theotokos into the Temple
    in Haysville, Ohio.
    click HERE for a preview!

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