The Philokalia: Hidden Fountain of Inner Prayer & Spiritual Time-Bomb

Feast of St Alexandros, the New Martyr of Thessaloniki

THIS EVENING'S Table Talk is a brief historical introduction to the Philokalia, an anthology of ascetic texts organized chronologically from the 4th – 15th centuries. The talk is a slightly adapted and expanded version of a small section in my dissertation that sets the background for Fr. Georges Florovsky’s tireless call for a return to the Fathers. We’ll cover three things: a brief examination of the word philokalia and then the history of its publication as a way to characterize it as ‘a hidden fountain of inner prayer’ and as a ‘spiritual time-bomb’. (Most of what follows is gleaned from several essays in Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds., The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. And of course it's available for purchase at Eighth Day Books).

The Word “Philokalia”
As a gateway into understanding the Philokalia, we must first begin with meaning of this strange word – stange to our English ears because it is a Greek word(s). The word “philokalia” first appears in Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and simply meant a love for what is beautiful. In the fourth century, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Basil the Great compiled their own Philokalia with passages from Origen. According to John McGuckin, these excerpts were “concerned mainly with principles of exegesis and was issued by the great Cappadocians as an attempt to rescue Origen’s biblical reputation at a time when controversies about his name, his doctrine, and the value of his memory were already threatening to sideline his writings in the Church.” But the word can also mean:

  • What one is enthusiastic about – St. Gregory the Theologian, Epistle25
  • Scholarly research – Epiphanios of Salamas, Against all Heresies, 8.8
  • Careful attentiveness – Cyril of Scythopolis, Life of St. Saba, 82
  • Scholarly book – Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, 6.20

McGuckin thus argues that the term Philokalia “carried associations of a scholar’s love for beautiful things, but it first and foremost meant, in the patristic literature, a carefully crafted scholarly work – in other words, a compendium.” He concludes that we can simply say that philokalia means a “Library of the Fathers” composed by one who loves the beautiful, loves patristic texts, and loves the ascetical life.

A Hidden Fountain of Inner Prayer
The Philokalia is not a new or recent phenomenon. We’ve already seen that Basil and Gregory compiled their own version back in the fourth century. As McGuckin argues, it is part of a tradition that “reaches back to the very foundations of the Christian monastic movement.” It is part of a large body of literature that collected the writings of Church Fathers, to be used both by monastics and non-monastics: Paterika (Sayings of the Fathers). Early examples include:

  • Apophthegmata Patrum: Sayings and Deeds of the Desert Fathers (4th cent)
  • Lausiac History by Palladius (4th cent)
  • The Lives of the Monks of Palestine by Cyril of Scythopolis (5th cent)
  • The Conferences of the Desert Fathers by John Cassian (5th cent)
  • The Spiritual Meadow by John Moschos (6th cent)
  • The Evergetinon by Paul at the monastery of Theotokos Evergetes in Constantinople (12th cent)
  • There was also Paterika associated with the Russian Kiev Caves by St. Mark of Pechersky Lavra (13th cent)
  • with the Valaam Monastery on the Russian island in Lake Ladoga, withVolokolamsk (16th cent)
  • and others in both Romania and Serbia.

So there is a long tradition of compiling collections of biblical texts, sayings and deeds from the Desert Fathers, and other patristic passages. And we have the fruit of that tradition readily available to us today.

In addition to the nine different collections just referenced, there are various versions of a very specific Philokalia, which this Table Talk is focused on. The three most common include:

  • An English translation based on the Greek version assembled by St. Makarios of Corinth and St. Nikodimos the Hagiorite, published in Venice in 1782 as a 1,207 page folio volume in two columns.
  • A Russian edition that was published in 1877 by St. Theophane the Recluse. It’s important to note that this is an enlarged five-volume translation of the original Slavonic version (Dobrotolubiye) that was compiled by St. Paisy Velichovsky, which was published in Moscow in 1793.
  • In the twentieth century, the great Romanian theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae published his own modified version in Romanian, adding patristic writings not contained in either the Greek or Russian editions, plus extensive commentary of his own, thereby enlarging it to eleven volumes over the course of the years 1946-1990.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware makes an interesting and compelling argument that these 18th – 20th century editions of the Philokalia are based on “various ‘proto-philokalic’ collections of ascetic texts.” To make his case, Ware turns to St. Macarius, the editor of the Greek edition, and to St. Paisy Velichkovsky, the editor of the Slavonic version. In his correspondence, St. Paisy provides important information about the Greek edition:

The Most Reverend Makarios, former Metropolitan of Corinth […] came to the Holy Mountain of Athos and found in all the libraries of the holy monasteries, through his unfathomable fervor and great striving, many such patristic books which until then he had not possessed. Above all, in the library of the most glorious and great monastery of Vatopedi [founded 972 A.D.!] he acquired a priceless treasure, a book on the union of the mind with God, gathered from all the Saints by great zealots in ancient times, and other books on prayer of which until then we had not heard. Having copied these out in several years by means of many skilled cartographers and at no little expense, and having read them himself, comparing them with the originals, and having corrected them most surely and added the lives of all the holy writers of these books at the beginning of their books, he departed from the Holy Mountain of Athos with unutterable joy, having obtained a heavenly treasure upon earth. Then, coming to the most glorious city of Smyrna in Asia Minor, he sent to Venice at no little expense, paid for by the alms of Christ-lovers, thirty six patristic books […] and soon, as a certain person recently informed me concerning all this, with God’s help the above-mentioned books will come out from the printer into the light of day [1782].

Based on this correspondence Ware suggests that St. Macarios “found on Athos, at least in an embryonic form, various ‘proto’philokalic’ collections of ascetic texts on which he drew.” Ware takes one further step, speculating that St Macarios may have consulted with Athonite elders to find out what texts they recommended to their disciples. If so, Ware continues, “the selection of works in the Philokalia may reflect both a pre-existing written tradition and also a continuing oral tradition.” Furthermore, it may “reflect an established programme of spiritual formation, pursued more or less widely by Athonite monks in the later Byzantine and post-Byzantine era.” The main point to be made, then, is this means St. Macarios was not just independently deciding for himself which works to include. He was retrieving a tradition. He was not a pioneer, but an heir of a proto-philokalic tradition.

Ware’s theory for this proto-philokalic tradition is further confirmed by comparing St. Macarios’ work with that of St. Paisy. St Paisy spent seventeen years on the Holy Mountain (1746-63), well before the publication of the Greek Philokalia. His goal, like Macarios, was to search for and discover copies of Greek spiritual texts so he could translate them into his native tongue. In a letter to Archimandrite Theodosy, St. Paisy lists twelve authors he translated while on Athos; all twelve of them are in the Greek edition of the Philokalia. In 1763 he returned to his monastery in Moldavia and continued his translation work. Between the years of 1763 and 1775, he added seven more authors, all of whom are also in the Greek Philokalia. This means that out of the 36 authors in the Greek version, St. Paisy had already translated 19 of them two years before St. Macarios ever set foot on Mt. Athos. As a side note, St Paisy’s Slavonic version was not published until 1793 and it is fairly certain that he did make use of the Greek version to revise his translations. Ware concludes that both St. Paisy and St. Macarios shared a joint dependence upon a common source, a pre-existing Philokalic tradition.

Why all this history about the publication of the Philokalia? Part of the title of this talk identifies the Philokalia as a Hidden Fountain of inner prayer. Both St. Macarios and St. Paisy experienced great difficulties in finding their sources. Remember how St Paisy described St Macarios’ efforts: “through his unfathomable fervor and great striving.” The same was true for St. Paisy, just like Gregory of Sinai four hundred years earlier who arrived on Mt Athos and had to make a long and strenuous search for an elder to teach him about prayer of the heart. As St. Paisy made inquiries in many monasteries and sketes on Mt Athos, he received the same answer over and over: “Not only have we not known such books up to now, but we have not even heard of the names of such saints.” Finally, however, at the skete of St. Basil (southern tip of Athos), a Greek monk gave him copies of the works he was looking for and explained why they were so little known: “these works are written in the purest Greek language, which few among the Greeks understand much of now, except for learned people, and many do not understand it at all; therefore such books have now fallen into all but complete oblivion.” The Greek Philokalia says exactly the same thing in St Nikodimos’ introduction, asserting that the collected texts “have virtually disappeared.” Ware thus concludes: “Again and again, in the history of both the Holy Mountain and elsewhere, the tradition of inner prayer has survived only as a hidden fountain.” And now we have full access to that hidden fountain, all of it readily available in English translation. And that’s the story that I want to conclude with.

Spiritual Time-Bomb         
Fr. Andrew Louth argues that the twentieth-century patristic revival was “not life from death” because “it built on a deep engagement with the Fathers” that began in the 18th century: a “ressourcement associated with a traditionalist movement among the Athonite monks, known as the ‘kollyvades’, and manifest in the publication of the Philokalia in 1782 and other labors associated with the names of the compilers, St. Makarios of Corinth and St. Nikodimos.” Historical context must be considered here. For it was in 1781 that Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason and thus “declared to the world the principles of his critical philosophy, which was to transform the history of philosophy in the Western world.” The latter half of the eighteenth century is also when the Enlightenment was taking its toll on Greece where, according to Kallistos Ware,

A different Zeitgeist began to prevail among educated Greeks: the spirit of modern Hellenism. The new outlook was not explicitly anti-religious, at any rate initially, but in the Neohellenic world-view the Church no longer occupied the central position that it had possessed hitherto. A more secular mind-set emerged. Church teachings and practices, hitherto accepted largely without question, began to be subjected to critical scrutiny. The protagonists of Neohellenism looked back beyond the Byzantine period to ancient Greece, drawing their inspiration from the Parthenon rather than Hagia Sophia, from Plato and Aristotle rather than St. Gregory the Theologian or St. Maximos the Confessor. They shared the European admiration for the Athens of Pericles, and they shared equally the Western disdain for Byzantine civilization. They looked for guidance to the Enlightenment, to Voltaire, the French Encyclopaedists, and other such representatives of the siècle des lumières. An appreciable number embraced Freemasonry. Many of them welcomed the French Revolution as the dawn of a fresh era of freedom and took this as their model in preparing for the liberation of the Greek nation from Ottoman autocracy.

It is in this context that the Kollyvades controversy broke out on Mt. Athos.

The Kollyvades are named after Kollyva, which is boiled wheat used at memorial services for the departed. In opposition to Athonite monks at St. Anne’s who began commemorating the departed on Sunday (since many of them were working on Saturdays to raise money for a new skete), the Kollyvades insisted on following Tradition strictly and only commemorating the departed on Saturday (the day Christ was in the tomb, as opposed to Sunday, the day of the Resurrection). But the controversy was larger than this issue, for the Kollyvades sought to restore the ancient traditions of Byzantine monasticism, such as frequent communion, the Jesus Prayer, the Palamite doctrine of the vision of the Light of Tabor, spiritual fatherhood, and the editing and publishing of the Fathers, liturgical texts, and lives of the saints. St. Nikodimos played a key role in this movement, especially in terms of publishing, including texts such as the Philokalia (St. Macarios collected the texts and St. Nikodemos did the editing), Synagoge (anthology of ascetic texts from Paul Evergetinos), Concerning Frequent Communion, Heortodromion (commentaries on liturgical canons for the major Church Feasts), Pedalion (collection of and commentary on Church canons), and the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas. This truly was the beginning of a ressourcement almost 150 years before the French Catholic Ressourcement. According to Louth, we can see from these publications that, “for St. Nikodimos, renewal of the life of the Church involved all its aspects”: liturgical, spiritual, sacramental, ascetical, and canonical. Louth concludes:

For Nikodimos, theological renewal was part of the renewal of the whole life of the Church, which had implications for how he understood theology: it was no merely academic accumulation of philosophical and historical learning, nor simply a moral enterprise, but an engagement with God himself, who has communicated himself to humankind through the Incarnation and in the sacraments, a participation in the life of the Trinity through prayer and ascetic struggle, leading to theosis or deification, as the very title page of the Philokalia makes clear, when it speaks of the ways ‘by which the nous is purified, illuminated and perfected.’

Precisely for these reasons, Louth has described the publication of the Philokalia as a watershed. The body of work produced by St. Nikodimos, and especially his publication of the Philokalia with St. Makarios of Corinth, was indeed a monumental, watershed accomplishment that has had huge repercussions.           

The fate of the Philokalia since its publication in the eighteenth century has traveled a number of paths. The Greek version published by St. Nikodimos and St. Makarios has not been widely received in Greece, until the last thirty years with its translation into modern Greek (probably due to the difficulty of the patristic Greek it was originally printed in). But St. Paisy certainly used it as a guiding reference before publishing his Slavonic version in 1793, which was widely read by St. Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833) and by the startsy of the Optina hermitage. And it was even more widely read with St. Theophane the Recluse’s Russian edition in 1877. Staniloae’s Romanian version has been extremely influential in Romania. But most surprising is the influence it has had in the English-speaking world since the latter half of the twentieth century. Partly due to the 1925 translation of the Russian book The Way of a Pilgrim, which tells the story of an anonymous pilgrim who wanders around carrying a knapsack with St. Paisy’s Slavonic translation of the Philokalia (from which the pilgrim loved to quote), partly also due to J. D. Sallinger’s popularization of that book and the Jesus Prayer in Franny and Zooey, and then also partly due to the English translation of the Greek version that began in the 1950s (due to the insistence of T. S. Eliot), the influence of the Philokalia has extended into various Western languages, beyond the confines of the Orthodox Church. Kallistos Ware describes the paradox of this turn of events:

It is surely astonishing, and also immediately encouraging, that a collection of spiritual texts, originally intended for Greeks living under Ottoman rule, should have achieved its main impact two centuries later in the secularized and post-Christian West, among the children of that very ‘Enlightenment’ which St. Makarios and St. Nikodimos viewed with such misgiving. There are certain books which seem to have been composed not so much for their own age as for subsequent generations. Little noticed at the time of their original publication, they attain their full influence only two or more centuries afterward, acting in this manner as a spiritual ‘time bomb.’ The Philokalia is precisely such a book.

Like a spiritual time-bomb that has exploded in our age, this hidden fountain of inner prayer has not only been re-discovered, but is ready and waiting for us to drink deeply (preferably with a spiritual director or in a reading group), thanks to the strenuous efforts of St. Macarios, St. Nikodemos, and the English translators G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Metr. Kallistos Ware. They have gone before us to retrieve this beautiful inheritance. They offer us their labor of love to make these early Christian texts readily available, to teach us how to obey St. Paul’s command to pray without ceasing and to be united with God. These two key themes in the Philokalia are articulated in St. Nikodemos’ original introduction, which is not included in the English translation. Let me close with a small excerpt from that introduction, an invitation offered to us by St. Nikodemos:

Draw near, all of you who share the Orthodox calling, laity and monks alike, who are eager to discover the kingdom of God that is within you, the treasure hidden in the field of the heart, which is the sweet Lord Jesus. Released from enslavement to things below and from the wanderings of your intellect, your heart cleansed from the passions through the awesome and unceasing invocation of our Lord Jesus and through all the other interconnected virtues that are taught in this present book, you can in this way be united within yourselves and also with God, as the Lord said in His prayer to the Father: “May they be one as we are one.”


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.


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