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Orthodox bestseller

15 March 2013

John Binns on essays that explore the Philokalia


The Philokalia: A classic text of Orthodox spirituality
Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, editors
OUP £22.50 (978-0-19-539027-8)
Church Times Bookshop £20.25 (Use code CT618 )

THE Philokalia is a selection of texts on the spiritual life written by 36 writers dating from the fourth to the 15th centuries, which were collected by a monk of Mount Athos and a Bishop of Corinth and published in Venice in 1782. It is long: their version consisted of more than 1200 double-columned pages; did not attract much attention at the time - with a gap of more than a century until the next printing; and, for many today, is difficult to grasp, much of the material being in collections of unconnected short sentences and aphorisms.

Yet, during the past 50 years, the Philokalia has become widely read throughout Western Europe and North America, as well as in Orthodox countries, with translations into several languages.

This book is a collection of 18 essays which sets out to demonstrate why the Philokalia has had this resurgence of influence. It is divided into three sections. The first describes the work of the editors and translators of the Philokalia. It shows that they did not feel constrained to reproduce the texts exactly, but added further material, selected alternative versions of the patristic texts, and rewrote introductory sections.

The Slavonic and Russian versions, edited by Paissy Velichkovsky, have a slightly different set of writings from the Greek; and the Romanian edition prepared by Dumitru Staniloae contains 11 volumes issued over a period of 46 years, with contemporary as well as ancient material. The Philokalia, which means "love of beauty", is not regarded only as a book, but is a living tradition.

Its teaching of inner prayer is described in the second part. This approach to prayer is based on vigilance, which is that constant attention that leads to a new openness to God; silence, which is that deep inner stillness where God's deifying presence is encountered; and the Jesus Prayer, as a simple but demanding form of prayer. This is defined as deification or participation in the divine energies. The Philokalic tradition was shaped in the monasteries of the Orthodox East, but its simplicity and directness, without too much concern for the institutional Church, have made it accessible to a wide audience.

The relevance to the modern world is discussed in the third part, with essays on psychotherapy, virtue ethics, feminism, and leadership skills, among other topics. Here there are both points of identity and countercultural challenge.

The essays are of a consistently high standard. The range of subjects is comprehensive, introducing some of the individual writers, covering the main theological ideas, and explaining the history. The essays include important contributions by Kallistos Ware and Rowan Williams.

The teaching of the Philokalia might seem to be at variance with the preoccupations of a Church struggling to find an effective witness in a post-modern, multi-cultural, and secular society. Nevertheless, its appeal is a salutary reminder to the Church that its message of the transforming experience of God's love is discovered by practice and passed on by example. The Philokalia is discovered to be a contemporary call to a radical discipleship.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary's, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.

IN The Philokalia and the Inner Life: On passions and prayer, Christopher Cook introduces the Philokalia and, in particular, its implications for study on mental health and well-being (James Clarke, £28.25; 978-0-227-17342-8).

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