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. Continue reading The Ocean of Stillness – Hesychius on Mind Training