The Ocean of Stillness – Hesychius on Mind Training

Ocean Sunset
“Ocean Sunset”

Much water makes up the sea. But extreme watchfulness and the Prayer of Jesus Christ, undistracted by thoughts, are the necessary basis for inner vigilance and unfathomable stillness of soul, for the deeps of secret and singular contemplation, for the humility that knows and assesses, for rectitude and love. This watchfulness and this Prayer must be intense, concentrated and unremitting.

Hesychius, On Watchfulness, § 10

The Philokalia as most English speaking Orthodox Christians know it (usually in the Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware translation) is not the first book by that name. The Cappadocian Fathers compiled excerpts of Origen’s work into a book called the Philokalia (now usually called the Philokalia of Origen), and for many centuries if one used the name “Philokalia” it was that to which one was referring. Things have changed, and with the advent of the modern period and the printing press, St. Nicodemus of Mt. Athos and St. Macarius of Corinth compiled and edited the Philokalia that is now famous among Orthodox which was first published at Venice in 1782. That’s important. Since the venerable antiquity of Orthodoxy is one of the major marketing ploys of many Orthodox in the contemporary Anglo-sphere, it is easy to forget that actually, the Philokalia is a relatively modern product.

That’s not to say that the texts in the Philokalia are not ancient. Indeed the texts themselves range from the 4th to 15th century in composition. But the idea of a single book in which are anthologized works that are considered to be the most important in a given domain, an encyclopedia of sorts, is actually a very modern, very Renaissance, very humanist, and characteristically Western idea. I thought this was very important to point out because perhaps no book has shaped the spiritual lives, ethos, and ideals of contemporary Orthodox from the 19th century to the present than the Philokalia. And yet this means that most of the spiritual life and writings of many Orthodox (and an increasing number of Oriental Orthodox are being influenced by the Philokalia as well) is actually being influenced by something not uncontrovertially ancient and patristic, but something relatively modern: something less than 300 years old. Actually the Philokalia is about as old as the United States.

That puts a damper on the slogan “Ancient Faith” which so many Orthodox uncritically have recourse to. And while it’s true that the texts of the Philokalia are ancient in themselves and fairly diverse in origin and original context, it’s also true that we are not seeing these texts in their original context but in the very specific anthologized, 18th century, Athonite, context that St. Nicodemus and St. Macarius want us to see them in. We are presented the single volume Philokalia (the first two editions were in a single volume rather than the 5 volume set most English-speakers know and of which the 5th volume has unfortunately never been translated) as if there was perfect spiritual homogeneity among its writers, which of course there isn’t. Some of the authors would have been scandalized to know they were grouped with some of the others. We also have been bequeathed the biographical and introductory notes by the editors which are not always accurate but serve their hesychast agenda.

What’s my point? My point is not actually to berate the Philokalia. Rather than do what many Orthodox seekers do today and get seduced by the many chic books by (often amateur) modern Orthodox  writers or the hip podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, when I was just 17 years old (a long time ago), one of the first books I bought on Orthodoxy (before I even read Ware’s Orthodox Church or Orthodox Way) was the Philokalia. The Philokalia led me, albeit indirectly, to the deep waters of Christian Orthodoxy, and all without pandering to or seeking to rebound current trends in Protestant marketing. This means that it is possible for a book that is on some level fundamentally modern in its conception and presentation, to genuinely lead someone to the truly ancient Christian faith without even overusing the word “orthodox.”

The texts of the Philokalia arguably assume an “orthodox” readership and so do not belabour polemic points. And that is why I think that all Christians can (though not all necessarily will or should), strive to benefit from reading the Philokalia. To that end, I want to talk today about something very deep: The Ocean of the Jesus Prayer. The first treatise in the Philokalia to speak directly to the matter of praying the “Jesus Prayer” is Hesychius the Priest’s text On Watchfulness and Holiness which he wrote for his disciple Theodoulos. Outside of the Philokalia, the text can be found in J.P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca vol 93, cols 1479-1544. In fact the real name of this treatise is On Sobriety and Virtue.

ocean edges
“Ocean Edges”

Hesychius writes:

Much water makes up the sea. But extreme watchfulness and the Prayer of Jesus Christ, undistracted by thoughts, are the necessary basis for inner vigilance and unfathomable stillness of soul, for the deeps of secret and singular contemplation, for the humility that knows and assesses, for rectitude and love. This watchfulness and this Prayer must be intense, concentrated and unremitting. (§ 10)

If water is what makes up the sea, then watchfulness (nēpsis: whatever that is) and the Prayer of Jesus (the Jesus Prayer) are what make up inner vigilance, stillness of soul (Hesychia), contemplation (theoria), humility, rectitude and love (agapē). So there we have it. The Philokalia we’ve now got is the Philokalia of the “Neptic” Fathers, as opposed to another kind of Philokalia, like that of Origen. The 24 or so writers whom St. Nicodemus and St. Macarius excerpted and anthologized were selected for their teaching on nēpsis or “watchfulness.”  The literal meaning of nēpsis (νηψις) is soberness or sobriety. In the Bible, the word nēpsis makes an appearance in 1 Peter 5:8, a rather famous verse.

νήψατε, γρηγορήσατε. ὁ ἀντίδικος ὑμῶν διάβολος ὡς λέων ὠρυόμενος περιπατεῖ ζητῶν τινα καταπιεῖν·

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

Like many things in Orthodoxy, and theology in general, nēpsis has taken on a much more specialized meaning in ascetic literature, like the Philokalia. What is soberness or watchfulness? Hesychius has quite a bit to say about it (seeing as his whole treatise is name for it). A few excerpts should be sufficient.

Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It enables us to fulfill every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart, a state blessed by Christ when He says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8); and one which, because of its spiritual nobility and beauty – or, rather, because of our negligence – is now extremely rare among monks. Because this is its nature, watchfulness is to be bought only at a great price. But once established in us, it guides us to a true and holy way of life. It teaches us how to activate the three aspects of our soul correctly, and how to keep a firm guard over the senses. It promotes the daily growth of the four principal virtues, and is the basis of our contemplation. (§1)

So nēpsis is a spiritual method for liberating us from impassioned words, thoughts, and actions. To the degree that it is possible, nēpsis leads us to a knowledge of God and other spiritual realities. It enables us to somehow do God’s will in fulfilling the commandments, and perhaps above all, for Hesychius, it is synonymous with purity of heart and therefore is what is required to see God. But something went wrong. It is very rare among monks, and of course if it is rare among monks, who technically have their whole life and all their time to cultivate it, what does that likely say about lay people living in “the world?” Because of its nobility (μεγεθος lit: greatness/magnitude) and beauty (καλλονη) nēpsis can only be bought, so to speak, at the high price of personal practice and perseverance. But if we can manage to achieve it, supposedly it will lead us to a holy life, enable us to activate the three components of our souls (a Platonic distinction we’ll talk about later) correctly, and enable us to grow in virtue (which is what the other part of this treatise is about).

As if summarizing all these things, Hesychius later writes simply:

Watchfulness is a way embracing every virtue, every commandment. It is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect. (§ 3)

Sounds like a pretty good deal to me! How is watchfulness or nēpsis actually practised? Two early passages in Hesychius’ text begin to outline what is reiterated frequently throughout the rest of the sermon.

Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought. In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and Himself God. It confesses Him who alone has power to forgive our sins, and with His aid it courageously faces its enemies. Through this invocation enfolded continually in Christ, who secretly divines all hearts, the soul does everything it can to keep its sweetness and its inner struggle hidden from men, so that the devil, coming upon it surreptitiously, does not lead it into evil and destroy its precious work.

Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach and what they say and do is noted… (§5-6)

In section 10, Hesychius said that just like water in the ocean, watchfulness and the Jesus Prayer make up stillness, contemplation, and love. Now it is clear that the Jesus Prayer is even more important because aside from contributing to stillness, contemplation, and love, it also contributes to attaining watchfulness. Being attentive has something to do with cultivating unbroken concentration. In this concentration, one invokes the Name of Jesus who alone can forgive sin, and with Jesus’ help faces its enemies. If this invocation is continually unfolding, in other words if it is constantly ongoing, the one who invokes the name of Jesus will be able to keep some kind of sweetness inside of itself rather than being robbed of it by the Devil.

Why all this talk about the Devil? There was more to the passages above which I omitted for stylistic reasons, but it’s no secret that a great deal of Hesychius’ treatise treats saying the Jesus Prayer and “spiritual warfare” (a thought dreadfully familiar to many Charismatic Protestants) as two sides of the same coin. And naturally when I first read about this, it bothered me: “Oh great, another crackpot obsessed with the devil.”

But I think what is so annoying about much modern polemic on spiritual warfare is that, as many Protestants who’ve been raised with that on their mind will understand, often this “warfare” is anything but spiritual. Too often, excitable and puritanical preachers are using the language of “spiritual warfare” as a cover for their own “culture wars.” Somehow being open-minded, or an LGBT ally, or just ecumenical, become seditious acts of spiritual treason in the somewhat dark imaginations of all the pastors and preachers who gobble up the matter of spiritual warfare like so much Halloween candy. Meanwhile, these sorts of writers and speakers don’t usually know a great deal about Church history (especially if they’re Protestant), devotion, or even demonology (except for what they’ve seen in The Exorcist). And the biggest insult by those who tend to be obsessed with spiritual warfare is that they usually have no actual way of overcoming what they perceive as the dark forces in the world. They might think that all it takes is arrogantly shouting a few verses of the King James Bible into the darkness or throwing Jesus’ name around willy nilly.

Not to disappoint any of you who were hoping to use Orthodoxy as an escape route from an obsessive Protestant past, but the spiritual fathers of the Orthodox Churches do firmly believe in the reality of spiritual warfare. But luckily, they are much more specific about what it means, and more importantly, they have a way out!

“Magia” (Magic)

Just as a child, young and guileless, delights in seeing a conjuror and in his innocence follows him about, so our soul, simple and good because created thus by its Master, delights in the delusive provocations of the devil. Once deceived it pursues something sinister as though it were good, just as a dove is lured away by the enemy of her children… (§43)

Orthodox do not believe in the Western dogma of “original sin.” We are not born enemies of God. God is not angry with us. Our fate is not to burn in hell. This is why Hesychius is able to say that our soul is just like a child: young and guileless. And just like a child at the circus or carnival delights in seeing magic tricks done by the magician on stage, our soul loves to see exciting things. But the problem is, just like in the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, our senses love to be led astray by excitement just like the children who followed the Pied Piper to their doom. We hardly ever intend all the terrible things we do and have happen to us. Yet somehow, we wind up chasing a fantasy for long distances until we’ve lost our way home.

“The Pied Piper of Hamelin” leading the children astray. (Kate Greenaway, 1910)

Spiritual warfare is about wrestling your innocence back from those who have stolen it from you by getting you too excited. And in order to do this, we need nēpsis or soberness. Because we tend to do very stupid things when we’re drunk, even when the thing we’re drunk on is life itself. To this end, Hesychius uses yet another ingenious metaphor concerning stillness.

Spider Web

If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare, let that little animal, the spider, always be your example for stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be as still in your intellect as you should be. The spider hunts small flies; but you will continually slay ‘the children of Babylon’ (cf. Ps. 137:9) if during your struggle you are as still in your soul as is the spider; and, in the course of this slaughter, you will be blessed by the Holy Spirit. (§27)

Just as a spider hunts flies, your spirit should always be ready to hunt thoughts that were placed there by someone other than you. It’s kind of eerie to think of the mind as a spider’s web, but it really is, so in that case you want to be the spider and not the fly. Hesychius is even weird enough to put it all out there that if your mind is as still as a spider in its web getting ready to attack, the Holy Spirit will bless your slaughter (of bad thoughts!). And again, since the purpose of this mental attack, so to speak, is to be watchful, we need the Jesus Prayer to achieve this very subversive form of real spiritual warfare which is first and foremost war against our own spirit, and not yet other spirits around us.

The intellect cannot conquer a demonic fantasy by its own unaided powers, and should never attempt to do so. The demons are a sly lot: they pretend to be overcome and then trip us up by filling us with self-esteem. But when we call upon Jesus Christ, they do not dare to play their tricks with us even for a second. (§24)

What many modern advocates of “spiritual warfare” get wrong (presumably) is that they want to take on the Devil and all the forces of hell as if they were Van Helsing or some badass like that (even if they’re actually only 15 year old boys). Hesychius teaches us that, especially if we’re beginners, we can’t afford to go up against even the fantasies of our own imagination on our own. We should first and foremost cultivate the Jesus Prayer and then all the mind games will stop. Concerning spiritual warfare, Hesychius writes at various points in the text:

Those who lack experience should know that it is only through the unceasing watchfulness of our intellect and the constant invocation of Jesus Christ, our Creator and God, that we, coarse and cloddish in mind and body as we are, can overcome our bodiless and invisible enemies; for not only are they subtle, swift, malevolent and skilled in malice, but they have an experience in warfare gained over all the years since Adam. The inexperienced have as weapons the Jesus Prayer and the impulse to test and discern what is from God. The experienced have the best method and teacher of all: the activity, discernment and peace of God Himself. (§42)

Just as it is impossible to fight battles without weapons, or to swim a great sea with clothes on, or to live without breathing, so without humility and the constant prayer to Christ it is impossible to master the art of inward spiritual warfare or to set about it and pursue it skillfully. (§99)

Let your soul, then, trust in Christ, let it call on Him and never fear; for it fights, not alone, but with the aid of a mighty King, Jesus Christ, Creator of all that is, both bodiless and embodied, visible and invisible. (§40)

It is true, ostensibly, that those dark spirits and thoughts we collectively designate as “the Enemy” have a leg up on us. We live in a modern world. If you are reading this blog post from a computer or smart phone (and it’s hard to imagine how you’re reading it if not through one of those mediums) you already have a lot of temptation to deal with.

You get excited. You drift from page to page and site to site. You buy things. So just as it is impossible to do battle without some kind of strategy, and just as you can’t live without breathing, a practitioner of Christian spiritual life cannot survive without calling on Jesus constantly. And one, albeit not the only, form of calling on Jesus is through the Jesus Prayer. So we can trust in Jesus who created both the created world we see and the unseen world of the spirit and the domain of this unseen warfare. This is why nēpsis is important. Because since our minds are just like children, we need a good holiday at the beach every now and then, and a good dip in the ocean.

Watchfulness is a graceful and radiant virtue when guided by Thee, Christ our God, and accompanied by the alertness and deep humility of the human intellect. Its branches reach to the seas and to deep abysses of contemplation, its shoots to the rivers of the beauteous and divine mysteries. Again, it cleanses the intellect consumed in ungodliness by the brine of demonic thoughts and the hostile will of the flesh, which is death. (§50)

Dipping into the vast ocean of grace in the Jesus Prayer washes all the barnacles that have accrued to our soul while simmering in the devil’s sauna. Rinsing off in the depths of contemplation may be just the splash of cold water the modern world needs to wake up to its true face and beauty.



Text Cited: St. Hesychios the Priest, “On Watchfulness and Holiness: Written for Theodoulos,” in The Philokalia The Complete Text Vol 1, eds. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 162-179.

Image Credits: “Ocean Sunset” by Stanley Zimny, created Dec 15, 2013. Accessed through Flickr Nov 7, 2015. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. Used by permission.

“Les bords de l’océan / Ocean edges” by Olivier Bacquet. Created April 17, 2011. Accessed through Flickr November 7, 2015. Licenced under CC BY 2.0. Used by permission.

“Magia” by Dani Vázquez. Created December 9, 2012. Accessed through Flickr November 7, 2015. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0. Used by permission.

“015 – spider web” by Alan Reeves. Created January 6, 2012. Accessed through Flickr November 7, 2015. Licensed under CC BY 2.0. Used by permission.

NB: This blog post re-posts material from another blog of mine, originally posted on November 7, 2015. The original can be found here:


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