The Philokalia is “a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters” of the Eastern Orthodox hesychast tradition. They were originally written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practice of the contemplative life”. The collection was compiled in the eighteenth-century by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth.
Philokalia is defined as the “love of the beautiful, the exalted, the excellent, understood as the transcendent source of life and the revelation of Truth.”In contemplative prayer the mind becomes absorbed in the awareness of God as a living presence as the source of being of all creatures and sensible forms. According to the authors of the English translation, Kallistos Ware, G. E. H. Palmer, and Philip Sherrard, the writings of The Philokalia have been chosen above others because they:
…show the way to awaken and develop attention and consciousness, to attain that state of watchfulness which is the hallmark of sanctity. They describe the conditions most effective for learning what their authors call the art of arts and the science of sciences, a learning which is not a matter of information or agility of mind but of a radical change of will and heart leading man towards the highest possibilities open to him, shaping and nourishing the unseen part of his being, and helping him to spiritual fulfillment and union with God.”
It makes a certain kind of sense that anyone who can produce over 800 posts on the notion of Paying Attention would be inevitably drawn to a ninth century monk who posted 40 times on the topic of Watchfulness.
‘It is not clear’, states St Nikodimos, ‘at what date our holy father Philotheos flourished and died.’ He is known to us solely as the author of the present work Forty Texts on Watchfulness. From his name it is evident that he was a monk of Mount Sinai, while the content of his Forty Texts shows that he followed in the tradition of St John Klimakos, abbot of Sinai (sixth-seventh century), whom he quotes (§20; cf §34). His spiritual teaching is also close to that of another Sinaite author, St Hesychios the Priest (? eighth-ninth century); the three of them may be regarded as forming together a distinctively Sinaite ‘school’ of ascetic theology. Certainly later in date, then, than Klimakos, and probably likewise later than Hesychios, Philotheos may have lived in the ninth or tenth century. Clear and concise, the Forty Texts are especially valuable for the simple definitions that they give of key concepts.
As the title indicates, St Philotheos assigns central significance to the quality of watchfulness or spiritual sobriety (nipsis). In common with St Hesychios, he sees this as closely connected with inner attentiveness and the guarding of the intellect: the three notions are virtually synonymous. But he underlines, more explicitly than does Hesychios, the importance of bodily asceticism and the keeping of the commandments; the inner and the outer warfare go together.
Like the other two members of the Sinaite ‘school’, he commends the invocation of the Holy Name, ‘the unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ’ (§2), which has power to ‘concentrate the scattered intellect’ (§27), thereby enabling it to maintain continual mindfulness of God. Particularly striking is Philotheos’ insistence upon the remembrance of death, which is to be viewed not as something morbid and ‘world- denying’, but rather as enhancing the unique value of each moment of time.
1 . There is within us, on the noetic [vocab: no•et•ic: From the Greek noēsis / noētikos, meaning inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding.] plane, a warfare tougher than that on the plane of the senses. The Spiritual worker has to press on with his intellect towards the goal (cf. Philemon 3:14), in order to enshrine perfectly the remembrance of God in his heart like some pearl or precious stone (cf. Matthew 13:44-46). He has to give up everything, including the body, and to disdain this present life, if he wishes to possess God alone in his heart. For the noetic vision of God, the divine Chrysostom has said, can by itself destroy the demonic spirits.
2. When engaged in noetic warfare we should therefore do all we can to choose some spiritual practice from divine Scripture and apply it to our intellect like a healing ointment. From dawn we should stand bravely and unflinchingly at the gate of the heart, with true remembrance of God and unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ in the soul; and, keeping watch with the intellect, we should slaughter all the sinners of the land (Psalms 101:8 LXX).
Given over in the intensity of our ecstasy to the constant remembrance of God, we should for the Lord’s sake cut off the heads of the tyrants (cf. Habakkuk. 3:14. LXX), that is to say, should destroy hostile thoughts at their first appearance. For in noetic warfare, too, there is a certain divine practice and order.
Thus we should force ourselves to act in this way until it is time for eating. After this, having thanked the Lord who solely by virtue of His compassion provides us with both spiritual and bodily food, we should devote ourselves to the remembrance of death and to meditation on it. The following morning we should courageously resume the same sequence of tasks. Even if we act daily in this manner we will only just manage, with the Lord’s help, to escape from the meshes of the noetic enemy. When this pattern of spiritual practice is firmly established in us, it gives birth to the triad faith, hope and love.
Faith disposes us truly to fear God. Hope, transcending servile fear, binds us to the love of God, since ‘hope does not disappoint’ (Romans 5:5), containing as it does the seed of that twofold love on which hang ‘the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:40). And ‘love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8), once it has become to him who shares in it the motive for fulfilling the divine law both in the present life and in the life to be.
3. It is very rare to find people whose intelligence is in a state of stillness. Indeed, such a state is only to be found in those who through their whole manner of life strive to attract divine grace and blessing to themselves. If, then, we seek – by guarding our intellect and by inner watchfulness – to engage in the noetic work that is the true philosophy in Christ, we must begin by exercising self-control with regard to our food, eating and drinking as little as possible. Watchfulness may fittingly be called a path leading both to the kingdom within us and to that which is to be; while noetic work, which trains and purifies the intellect and changes it from an impassioned state to a state of dispassion, is like a window full of light through which God looks, revealing Himself to the intellect.
4. Where humility is combined with the remembrance of God that is established through watchfulness and attention, and also with recurrent prayer inflexible in its resistance to the enemy, there is the place of God, the heaven of the heart in which because of God’s presence no demonic army dares to make a stand.
5. Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (James 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?
6. The first gate of entry to the noetic Jerusalem – that is, to attentiveness of the intellect – is the deliberate silencing of your tongue, even though the intellect itself may not yet be still. The second gate is balanced self- control in food and drink. The third, is ceaseless mindfulness of death, for this purifies intellect and body.
Having once experienced the beauty of this mindfulness of death, I was so wounded and delighted by it – in Spirit, not through the eye – that I wanted to make it my life’s companion, for I was enraptured by its loveliness and majesty, its humility and contrite joy, by how full of reflection it is, how apprehensive of the judgment to come, and how aware of life’s anxieties. It makes life-giving, healing tears flow from our bodily eyes, while from our noetic eyes rises a fount of wisdom that delights the mind.
This daughter of Adam – this mindfulness of death – I always longed, as I said, to have as my, companion, to sleep with, to talk with, and to enquire from her what will happen after the body has been discarded. But unclean forgetfulness, the devil’s murky daughter, has frequently prevented this.
7. It is by means of thoughts that the spirits of evil wage a secret war against the soul. For since the soul is invisible, these malicious powers naturally attack it invisibly. Both sides prepare their weapons, muster their forces, devise stratagems, clash in fearful battle, gain victories and suffer defeats. But this noetic warfare lacks one feature possessed by visible warfare: declaration of hostilities. Suddenly, with no warning, the enemy attacks the inmost heart, sets an ambush there, and kills the soul through sin.
And for what purpose is this battle waged against us? To prevent us from doing God’s will as we ask to do it when we pray ‘Thy will be done’. This will is the commandments of God. If with the Lord’s help through careful watchfulness you guard your intellect from error and observe the attacks of the demons and their snares woven of fantasy, you will see from experience that this is the case. For this reason the Lord, foreseeing the demons’ intentions by His divine power, set Himself to defeat their purpose by laying down His commandments and by threatening those who break them.
8. Once we have in some measure acquired the habit of self-control, and have learnt how to shun visible sins brought about through ‘the five senses, we will then be able to guard the heart with Jesus, to receive His illumination within it, and by means of the intellect to taste His goodness with a certain ardent longing. For we have been commanded to purify the heart precisely so that, through dispelling the clouds of evil from it by continual attentiveness, we may perceive the sun of righteousness, Jesus, as though in clear sky; and so that the principles of His majesty may shine to some extent in the intellect. For these principles are revealed only to those who purify their minds.