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Introduction to the Philokalic Writings of the Blessed Hesychios

From Elder Basil of Poiana Marului: Spiritual Father of St. Paisy Velichkovsky


In a certain sense, the life and teachings of the holy fathers is like the way men provide for all their bodily needs and necessities. A person who has mastered some craft or skill uses it to support himself. Another person puts his efforts into the various chores of farming and procures all the necessities for his household this way. Still others, who are more enterprising, instead of such crafts and occupations as these, acquire, say, a ship or a vineyard and thus satisfy their needs free from all the anxiety and instability and vicissitudes of working for a living.

This pattern can also be observed in the spiritual life. Some of the holy fathers, in view of the weakness of those who have just entered into monasticism, assign them, along with fulfilling the commandments of Christ, prolonged reading of the psalms, canons and troparia which have been instituted by the Holy Spirit for the glorification of God and as a rule for monastics. But there are others who have learned the refined skill of spiritual understanding and who do not want beginners to be occupied only with physical training. Together with the commandments of Christ, they give them a moderate rule of psalmody, that is nocturns, matins, the hours, vespers and compline, and in place of lengthy psalmody they lay down the rule of practicing noetic prayer, with this additional condition: should the Holy Spirit visit a person through the activity of prayer of the heart, then he should by all means leave off the above said external rule, because internal prayer fulfills it. Such instructors impart noetic work in part, but not to a very great extent, says St. Gregory of Sinai. There is a third group who from great skill and examination of the lives and writings of all the saints, and especially through the action and wisdom of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit, lay down the learning and practice of noetic prayer as a general rule, especially for beginners; for this, they say, is the mortification of the passions by fulfilling the commandments of Christ. They divide it into two principalities, like a second Paradise which gushes forth an ocean divided into two streams, that is active and spiritual prayer.

Consequently they direct that all of one’s effort be devoted to noetic work and permit only a little chanting in times of despondency. For they say the appointed hours and hymns of the Church are a tradition for all Christians in general, but not for those who wish to live in stillness. Furthermore, through the instructions of the first mentioned holy fathers, a person may come to fruition, but very slowly and with much pain. For the second it is easier and lighter. For the third it is quickest of all, with the joy and frequent visitation of the Holy Spirit strengthening and enlightening the heart. This is especially true when there is very fervent zeal and good intention rather than the fear of the law. For then a person actively strives only for sweetness of heart and spiritual consolation in prayer and for no other reason, and internal prayer by itself replaces all external activities or what is called a rule, be it psalmody or intercession or study, because it encompasses all of these. For the remembrance of death, or better to say the sense of judgement and eternal torment and rejection by God are interwoven with it as if they were of the same plant. Subsequently, by this means alone as if from a ship or vineyard, as we mentioned above, a person can spend his entire life in stillness.

How does this sacred prayer blend with the commandments of the Lord and drive out the demons and passions? And again, how is it that, just like the person who is careless about the commandments, the one who takes no care for noetic work, who is diligent only in psalmody, is dragged about by the passions and falls into eternal exhaustion?

Violating the Lord’s commandments appears the same, no matter who does it; however, it actually works in different ways, as I will explain. Someone makes a beginning of not violating the commandments and not arousing the passions but, because of some circumstances or disturbance or warfare, he happens to offend someone or he himself takes offense or he judges someone or gets angry or is overcome by vainglory or argues and justifies himself or speaks idly or lies or overeats or drinks to excess, has impure thoughts, arouses the passions, and so on, clearly in violation of the commandments and a fall for the soul. After he has offended God by such things he immediately begins to rebuke himself and with repentance to fall before God with heartfelt noetic prayer that He forgive him and help him not to fall into the same sins again. And thus he makes a beginning of keeping the commandments and guarding his heart from evil suggestions through prayer, in fear and trembling that he not fall away from the kingdom of heaven because of such things. Another person has no resolve to keep the commandments and so simply is not concerned whether he falls or stands, thinking that in our times no one keeps the commandments or is concerned about violating them, that everyone, willingly or not, is an offender before God and is guilty of subtle sins and passions. Thus, because it seems impossible, he does not want to be attentive to such things and only concerns himself with avoiding adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, murder, poisoning and such mortal and major sins as these. As long as he keeps himself from these things, he thinks he is standing.

To such a person the fathers said: Better one who falls and gets up than one who stands and does not repent. Here we must marvel at how both these persons, who are falling into the same sins every hour, are not the same before God, I think, nor before spiritual men. For one of these is extremely ignorant of his falls and of picking himself back up, even though the passions are at work, as will be explained below. But the other falls and gets up, is conquered and conquers. Another struggles and labors and afterwards is overcome by the pressure of the passions. Another does not want to speak a word in anger, but is caught up by habit. Another struggles not to speak any evil but grieves that he has been insulted, yet he rebukes himself for grieving and repents of this. Another does not grieve that he was insulted but neither does he rejoice. Now all of these are opposing the passions, for by their intention they have stopped the passion, and do not want it to act. So they grieve and struggle. As the fathers say: Everything that the soul does not want is short-lived.

I want to speak about those who are uprooting a passion. There are some who rejoice when they are insulted because they expect a reward. Such persons are uprooting the passion but not intelligently. Another person rejoices when he is insulted and thinks that he should have been insulted, because he gave the occasion for it. Such a person is uprooting the passion intelligently. There is another who not only rejoices when he is insulted and considers himself guilty, but who even grieves for the distress he caused for the person who insulted him. May God bring us to such a state!

Let me tell you a parable describing a person who accepts a passion and acts accordingly. He is like a man under enemy fire who takes the arrows into his own hands and plunges them into his heart. The person who opposes the passions, however, is like one who is under enemy fire but who is armored in a breastplate and receives no wound. But he that uproots the passions is like a man under fire who grabs the arrows and either breaks them or fires them back at the enemy. May God grant us strength if not to uproot the passions, then at least not to act according to them and to oppose them!

We should understand that St. Dorotheos, explaining this kind of opposition to and strangling of the passions, demonstrates how this comes about only through the commandments. Now we just said that anyone opposing the passions is like a person under enemy fire armored in a breastplate who suffers no wound. Therefore, since he is not wounded, what reason could there be to shun noetic work? Moreover, if this sacred activity be yoked with the commandments, his progress will be twice that of just keeping the commandments alone.

In order to understand more clearly these two ways of life, we will speak of each one, calling each by its own name. Now the first, who submits himself to the law, performs only his psalmody. The other, forcing himself to noetic work, always has the name of Jesus Christ with him to destroy the enemy and the passions with their evil thoughts. The one rejoices if he just completes his psalmody. But the other gives thanks to God if he practices the prayer in quiet free from evil thoughts. The one is concerned with quantity, but the other with quality. The one rushes to complete his set amount of psalmody. He soon also develops a sense of self-satisfaction, since he relies on psalmody and does not know how to call on the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, if he is not attentive to himself, he nourishes and cultivates the internal pharisee. But the other, who is diligent for the quality of prayer, comes to an awareness of his weakness and God’s help. For when he prays, or better to say, when he calls on the Lord Jesus against the suggestions of the enemy, against the passions and evil thoughts, he sees how they perish before the terrible name of Christ, and he understands God’s strength and help. And again, when he is attacked and depressed by evil thoughts he realizes his own weakness, that he cannot stand against them on his own. And this is his entire rule and discipline. Even if the enemy is able to lure him with self-satisfaction and pharisaism, still the same enemy finds him prepared to call on Christ against such a suggestion, just as against all other evil thoughts, and so has no success against him.

But someone might say that it is possible for the other person also to call on Christ against such a suggestion. Yes, it is possible. However, by experience we all know that it is not the custom nowadays for any of those who labor to fulfill an external rule to learn how to pray against evil thoughts. It is these persons in particular who refuse to accept either the spoken or written word concerning internal attention, wherein lies the art of praying against evil thoughts.

Not only do they refuse to accept, they even raise up opposition and, setting themselves up as teachers, say that this noetic work is not for beginners, according to the tradition of the holy fathers, but only psalms, troparia and canons performed by the mouth and the tongue. And even though they speak and teach wrongly, everyone listens to them. For such a form of prayer there is no need to become aware of or to deny worldly desires. Anyone, be he a monk or a layman, if only he wants to, can pray this way. But sacred noetic work, this glorious and God-pleasing art that surpasses all arts, is found by no one unless he deny the world with its desires and employ much instruction and study. This is why this activity has virtually disappeared among monastics. Relentless warfare comes on those who are ignorant of the power of the holy Scriptures and in particular of the art of mental attentiveness over the inner man. In the midst of all this, one must beware of wandering off to the right or to the left, that is, into despair or audacity.

When we see what is written here, that is, how those who are learning noetic work by happenstance and not by intention, suffer incidental and involuntary falls, which the fathers call daily sins, let us have no doubt about this: Both the progress and the fall from good to its opposite correspond to the measure of each person, be he a beginner or in the middle or near perfection, the fathers say.

Then again, when we hear of the great loving-kindness of God to us sinners, we must not be overly bold or take recourse to this sacred noetic liturgy fearlessly, without great humility and the fulfillment of the commandments to the utmost of our ability. Let us rather understand that audacity and despair are from the enemy and mightily flee both of them. Thus, learn this activity with extensive searching of the holy Scriptures and the counsel of those skilled in humility.

It also appears necessary to underscore the following as well. Here are great weapons against the enemy and evil desires: memory of death or of gehenna and of eternal torments or the last judgement, the trials of the soul after death, or of the heavenly kingdom and the joy of the saints and other such matters. However for us, passionate and insensitive as we are, all this is very weak without mental attentiveness and calling on the name of Jesus Christ. If a person who has overcome insensitivity can quench the lusts of the flesh and vanquish evil thoughts from his soul by the remembrance of such things, still the terrible name of Jesus Christ has greater power beyond all compare to cleanse the heart and mind completely. Therefore, when noetic work is yoked with the memory of such things we work with redoubled strength, imparting no little reinforcement to the prayer itself. Moreover, even we ourselves shine like light from the prayer when the darkness and fog of the passions is driven from our mind by the name of Jesus Christ.

In order to complete everything we have written here, we present the words of St. Anastasios of Sinai who said:

We have the following understanding and opinion concerning those who receive the holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of the Lord, that if persons have some small human sins that are readily forgiven, such as: being robbed [committing a sin] by the tongue or hearing or eyes or by vainglory or by sorrow or anger or such things as these, that once they rebuke themselves and make confession to God let them thus receive the holy Mysteries. We believe that the reception of the holy Mysteries for such persons is unto the cleansing of sins.

Here we find the same basic concept and criterion that we applied above in discussing the falls suffered by those who are learning the practice of noetic prayer.

Now insofar as the fathers say that the key to understanding the Scriptures is noetic and sacred prayer, it becomes clear that those who do not want to learn it are completely unable to comprehend the power of the writings of the Scriptures and the fathers. For this reason, some who argue against speaking about noetic prayer, be it only a little or at great length, point to the writings of the fathers which say a person must first put the physical senses in order, that is sight, smell, taste, speaking and touch, so that he not sin through them. Then once this is all put in good order, he undertakes noetic prayer. To these persons we reply: No one, my dear friends, is arguing against putting the physical senses in proper order, but to separate the ordering of the senses from noetic work is to introduce a great disharmony.

To begin with, St. Hesychios speaks thus:

Fear God and keep His commandments both in your feelings and in your intellect. If you force yourself to keep them in your intellect, bit by bit you will attain to fulfilling them in your feelings.

And again:

If a man does not do the will of God and keep His law within himself [literally: in the midst of his belly], that is in the midst of his heart, neither will he be able to fulfill it externally.

St. Symeon the New Theologian also says:

Since the holy fathers knew that through internal activity it is easy to put all the external virtues in order, they left off external activity and devoted all their effort to internal watchfulness, and so on.

As for you then, my friends who wish to separate the time for guarding the physical senses from that for learning noetic prayer, you show by this that you are ignorant of the order and action of the heart. Anyone who knows the art of noetic prayer does not separate the time for learning each of these, but he makes it his rule to learn them in equal measure together as one. By immersing his intellect within his heart at the time of prayer, he quenches the seething of the senses by not allowing the intellect to chase after them. When the intellect does not chase after the physical senses, the senses remain idle outside and thereby impart great stillness to the mind and heart. In this way, through the guarding of the mind men gradually train themselves not to follow the desires of the flesh.

You should also know that there is no lack of time or subjects or occasions for those who are given over to arguing about such matters, but for these persons there also remains what was written by the New Theologian, "He that is learning noetic work must first of all guard his conscience before God and men and things." But I believe that in a single hour or minute a man can reconcile his conscience with God and men and things, according to the great teacher. The sting, that is pangs of conscience, does not quench noetic work nor is anyone benefited by turning away from this good accuser. For I behold that great sinner entering the holy temple surrounded by demons but leaving it with the holy angels rejoicing over his conversion. And yet you, because of your advanced neglect of your conscience, would institute an appointed place and time for reconciling it with God. This is what you demonstrate by teaching that the acquisition of passionlessness precedes the learning of noetic work or, in other words, that noetic work is more advanced than passionlessness. So you have come to the point that not only do you never undertake mental sobriety yourselves, but you even abstain from communing the holy Mysteries also. For no such person receives Communion without reconciling his conscience with God. All that I am telling you, O man, is not my own personal idea about reconciliation of conscience; I am setting forth the confession of the holy fathers themselves. As for them, the closer they come to God, the more they behold themselves to be sinners. Following your logic, then, are we to conclude that the saints themselves did not reconcile their conscience with God?

But you retort, the saints said this about themselves out of humility. Stop tangling up my words and submit to the sense of what the saints are saying. If anyone says that out of humility, merely pretending to be sinners, the saints spoke these words, "Forgive us our debts"—let him be anathema.

Furthermore, if anyone wants to arrive at a proper understanding of these things, let him believe that God first made a body for Adam and likewise the soul; there was no distinction in time, but they were both created together with an intelligent purpose, even though Origen held a different opinion about this.

Likewise then, the guarding of our physical senses and the reconciliation of our conscience with God are accomplished together in an intelligent manner through mental attentiveness, even though it may seem to be otherwise to those who are ignorant of the power and art of internal activity.

Now do not marvel, my pious reader, that this introduction is composed of such polemical argumentation. When a brisk wind blows the sails are filled. In the times of the holy fathers when many were zealous for this noetic work and sought to acquire it through self-will and audacity, it was appropriate for the fathers to make an effort to restrain the audacity and disorderliness of such persons, so that they not dive into such things fearlessly. But now such instructions have been so badly forgotten and are in such disregard that many are beginning to wage war against and to slander this internal path both on the right and on the left, from above and from below, striving to bury it in the dust so that it be completely unknown to anyone. So it has become necessary to write about it in this way and to confront these issues in introducing the little book of Hesychios of Jerusalem, which contains nothing else than understanding and instruction on the path of sacred noetic work alone.

Whoever wants to be instructed in this first let him understand and do what St. Maximos said, "Provide for the body according to its strength and devote all your struggle to the mind." And again, "Physical virtues are pleasing [to God] if they are done with humility; without this our labor is in vain." And likewise, "Do not devote all of your effort to the flesh, but set it a limit of abstinence corresponding to its strength and turn your whole mind towards internal matters; for bodily training is of little benefit."

St. Hesychios says of this:

He that does not know how to travel the spiritual path does not take concern or correct his passionate thoughts, but devotes all of his exercise and care to the flesh. Such a person is either a glutton and dissipated, or gets depressed, loses his temper, holds grudges and thus darkens his mind, or through excessive abstinence he misses the mark and disturbs his mind.

Again, St. Diadochos says:

The same way as the body, being weighed down by abundance of food, makes the mind somehow cowardly and ill-tempered, so also it can weaken the mind through excessive abstinence and bring it to a state that is somewhat feeble and disinclined to behold worthy ideas. In opposition to bodily movements, one should make proper use of food, so that when the body is healthy it be wearied as much as is needful. But when it is ailing, let it be strengthened moderately. For the ascetic should not exhaust his body but provide for it so as to be able to practice his asceticism.

Yet again, St. John Climacus says, "I have seen this enemy put at ease and imparting vigilance to the mind" and so on. For we ought to have a body that is healthy but not uncontrolled, because noetic work requires physical strength. Therefore one must mightily flee from both excessive fasting and from laxity.

We recommend the rule laid down by St. Gregory of Sinai, who said of this:

For those who are still forcing themselves, a pound of bread is sufficient, and three or four cups of water or wine, according to the day, is enough for one who wants to find God. As for the sweets that may be at hand, take a little of each but not to satiety, so as to escape conceit and not disdain the good creations of God, giving thanks to Him for everything. Such is the reasoning of the wise. For those who are weak in the faith, abstinence in food is very beneficial, for it is them that the apostle commands to eat greens [Romans 14:2], because they do not believe that they are protected by God.

There are three degrees of eating: abstinence, adequacy and satiety. Abstinence is when one is hungry after eating. Adequacy is when one is neither hungry nor weighed down. Satiety is when one is weighed down a little. To eat beyond satiety is the door to gluttony through which lust enters in. And so, examine all this and chose what is suited for your strength, without violating the rules. It is for the perfect, and this is according to the apostle, to go hungry and to be filled and in all things to be strong [Philippians 4:12-13].

Finally we must also recall that those who know the art of noetic work realize that psalmody is not suited (it is proper for beginners and the passionate) for constantly praying for one’s sins or against evil thoughts and the passions, because of the multitude of words employed, some to glorify God, others beholding His creatures or God’s dispensation and providence or His threats and promises or that He is pre-eternal and incomprehensible, and such things as these which the passionate and ailing mind cannot behold. In psalmody one’s thoughts fall into fantasy and only passively observe. A person thus only keeps to an external quantity and when he gets used to keeping it, he falls into a kind of complacent self-satisfaction and boasting of the heart of which St. John Climacus, who was experienced in such things, has said:

Do not begin with being overly wordy, lest the mind be distracted by searching for words. A single word of the publican evoked the mercy of God and a single utterance saved the thief. A multitude of words has frequently distracted the mind and robbed it, while a few words gather it together well.

What the New Theologian wrote is correct. After the withering of the passions chanting comes naturally for the tongue. For how can one sing or chant the hymn of the Lord in a foreign land [Psalm 136:4]—that is, in a passionate heart?

Furthermore, if a person does not want to learn noetic work, he cannot learn this beginning phase in the first place, that is what suggestion is, and acceptance, captivity and passion. He that is ignorant of these things is ignorant of his own falling and rising. By not learning the art of such things he is deprived of hourly repentance. Because he does not have constant repentance, he is ignorant of his weakness. Being deprived of this realization, he is alien to contrition of heart and confession to God. Without these things he does not come to the fear of God. Because he does not have fear, he does not know how to pray constantly for his sins, but he is like a tenant farmer toiling only for the quantity of his psalmody.

Such an order of noetic work is described by St. Cassian, who says:

Concerning those lesser sins through which the righteous fall and rise up seven times a day [Proverbs 24:16], let us never remain without lamentation and repentance, for either by ignorance or forgetfulness or unintentionally or by necessity or out of physical weakness every day we sin voluntarily and involuntarily; as the apostle says, "I do what I do not want" and again, "O wretched man am I! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?" [Romans 7:15,24].

Now since everyone who is learning noetic work prays, or better to say practices the Jesus Prayer, for his sins or prays against evil thoughts as has been said, let him not practice much psalmody. For those who chant extensively do not understand what they chant, says the New Theologian, since prolonged chanting has been instituted for those who do not understand what they are chanting.

Likewise St. Isaac says:

Do you want to nourish yourself with psalmody during your liturgy? Then completely disregard quantity and set no rules concerning the amount.

And St. Gregory of Sinai says:

Some teach to chant much and some little. Do not chant too much, but rather imitate those who chant little. Much chanting is for those of the active life and not for those who live in stillness. For our chanting should correspond to our way of life and be angelic and not carnal, lest I say pagan.

To chant with the voice out loud was given because of our indolence and ignorance. None of the saints made a great effort to speak or write at length only about psalmody. Indeed, what need is there to write much about what everyone knows, not only monastics but lay folks as well? Laymen can also chant as much as they want, as has already been said. But as for this brief prayer which consists of five words, as the apostle says [1 Corinthians 14:19]: 1. Lord; 2. Jesus; 3. Christ; 4. have mercy; 5. on me—about this alone St. Hesychios wrote two hundred chapters in which he gives instructions only about mental attentiveness and this sacred prayer of Jesus. Likewise our fathers among the saints John Chrysostom, Ignatios, Photios and Kallistos, all of whom succeeded to the patriarchal throne of Constantinople, each individually wrote entire books with exceptional wisdom only about this brief prayer and attentiveness, as St. Symeon Archbishop of Thessalonica has said. Also in his own holy book he composed six entire chapters commanding both clergy and laymen to practice this sacred prayer with their mind and lips like their own breathing. Likewise St. Neilos the Ascetic, St. John Climacus, Philotheos of Sinai, Maximos the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Niketas Stethatos, Diadochos, Peter of Damascus, Gregory of Sinai, Barsanuphios, Philemon, Isaac of Syria and after all of these, Nil Sorsky—all of these, and a great multitude of others, composed many chapters concerning sacred noetic work. They beheld how these deeps are not easily mastered, so they strove, one after the other, to show us as clearly as possible how to traverse them. In contrast to external psalmody, which we have already discussed, this is not easily attained by anyone, not only lay folk but even monks themselves. When a ship stands at the shore, anyone can load or unload it with no hindrance or difficulty except the labor itself. But when it sails out to sea with a heavy cargo, then it is only the skillful helmsman who can govern it. Understand this with respect to the difference between external psalmody and noetic prayer.

Holy fathers and brethren, we must submit to the teachings of these holy fathers who teach about sacred noetic work and not just keep trudging around the same circle of lengthy psalmody like a donkey turning a millstone, because we are unwilling to travel the strait and direct path of venerable noetic stillness and prayer. The care of the saints for this sacred activity was so great that they command us to pray for those who do not know this noetic light of the heart which is enlightened by the name of Christ our God.

Moreover let no one be in doubt when he leaves off prolonged psalmody, as if he is being deprived of a monastic rule. For just as those who believe in Christ have fulfilled all the law even if they have abandoned it, so also those who exchange prolonged psalmody for sacred noetic work fulfill the entire rule. Just as the law conducted all to Christ and longed for this, so also psalmody, after teaching us in advance, gives way to attentiveness of heart and prayer. And if psalmody itself decreases, this is what it was intended for. If some of those who are ignorant of the art of sacred noetic work and who do not want to learn it contrive many reasons and want to voice or express opinions that are to the contrary to what we write here, then let them read the holy books mentioned above, which were set down by the holy patriarchs, by the venerable fathers, and in particular this little book of St. Hesychios. As I believe in God, they will either find rest for their soul, or, because they are incurably ill, they will turn their blasphemy against the holy fathers who have written this way, or better to say against the Holy Spirit Who spoke in them. Such blasphemy will not be forgiven them either in this age or in the future, according to the word of the Lord [Matthew 12:31]. Amen.

Having thus given an answer, as far as I was able, to those afflicted with doubts and who are making opposition with objections from the right and from the left, we need to take up what we did not finish, taking the word from the Gospel which says, "Master, did we not sow good seed? Then where did the tares come from?" [Matthew 13:27]. It is not possible for evil not to steal in among the good and so delusion is mixed in with this sacred noetic work, like the proverbial scavenge vines on a tree. It takes its origins from conceit and self-will. These are healed by humility, searching the Scriptures and spiritual counsel, but not by turning away from learning noetic work. For St. Gregory of Sinai says that we must not fear or doubt when we call on God; and if some have gone astray, suffering mental harm, then be certain that they suffered all this because of self-will and conceit. The cause of this conceit is unreasonable and excessive fasting when the faster thinks that he is fulfilling a virtue, and not fasting for the sake of self-restraint, says St. Dorotheos, and also because of living alone. This same saint says when he explains the former cause, that for this reason the person living in stillness must always keep to the royal path for he knows that conceit quickly or easily follows excess in anything, and it is followed by delusion. Cutting down the second, he says "It is for the powerful and the perfect to enter into single combat with the demons and to wield against them the sword which is the word of God."

The manner and method of delusion is the enemy’s communicating with the desires of the inner entrails, in the former instance, but in the second through hallucinations and mental fantasy. Concerning the former, he gives warning by saying:

The enemy disguises himself within the natural entrails in some spiritual guise, because he wants to bring on his own burning in place of spiritual warmth, introducing his own burning with profane delight and the sweetness of the humors in place of joy and impels a person to consider his delusion to be active grace at work. Nevertheless, time and experience and sensitivity will bring him to light.

Concerning the second, he gives this instruction, warning of the danger:

And if you are living in stillness by no means accept anything that you see through the senses or the mind either externally or internally, be it the image of Christ or of the angels or the appearance of a saint or light or fire, etc.

For it is here that the snarer once again comes to life and he will attack to make noetic work the cause of delusion.

Some think that there is no delusion mixed in with external psalmody. But be sure of this, that delusion can be equally mixed in with either psalmody or prayer, due to the lack of skill on the part of those who are practicing it. St. John Climacus says:

Let us examine and see and take measure how much the sweetness of the lustful demons comes to us in chanting and how much of the grace and power that is in you is from spiritual words.

And again:

When chanting and praying, be on guard for the pleasure that may arise, lest it be intermingled with bitter poisons.

And so, you see, does this not apply equally to the delusion of those who are chanting as well as to those who are practicing prayers? But because those who are ignorant of noetic work are concerned only about completing their rule of psalmody they have no concept of evil thoughts and the seething of desires. Therefore they do not realize when the appetitive faculty is seething on its own and when it is filled with passionate delight, through communing with the enemy.

Nor do they know how to escape such things. As it is written, "They hear the battle and they suffer wounds, but who the enemies are and why they are making war they do not know," even though these sinful ones be working lawlessness on their own back or before their very eyes.

Thus having learned that it is not noetic work which is the cause of delusion, but only our own self-will and conceit, we should not flee from noetic work. For it is not this which brings delusion upon us, but rather it opens our noetic eyes to understand and recognize delusions, which will never be recognized by a person who has not been instructed in this sacred noetic work, even if he be a very great faster and anchorite.

It is good for those who are practicing noetic work to know this also. When warmth begins to seethe on its own from the belly, without carnal thoughts and comes to the heart, do not be terrified by this or lose courage, but simply turn away from it with your will and mind as being something useless, and send it back. However, if someone accepts this or thinks that it is grace, he is deceived.

For beginners, the true action of prayer free from delusion is to begin noetic prayer in the heart and to finish it in the heart, so that the intellect is covered in the depth of the heart, but not in the appetitive faculty, says the all-holy Patriarch Kallistos. Above all, understand from the beginning that a person’s attention at the time of prayer must be focused not in the middle of the heart nor below it, but above so that the intellect guards the midst of the heart. Here is the reason for this. By experience it has been learned that if the intellect practices the prayer in the middle of the breast, simply looking to the middle of the heart, then willingly or unwillingly, lustful heat at times will affect it, because it lies near the belly. When a person encounters this, he turns from it, but he will have to endure much toil and distress because of his unskillful attention. If a person dares to concentrate his attention at the bottom of the heart, his intellect lying entirely in the belly and looking from there into the depths of the heart and practicing the prayer, he will commit adultery in his heart by wilfully kindling his members with passionate lust, because he is providing a place for the enemy within himself. This is obvious delusion which nowadays many persons encounter and suffer from because of their ignorance. After such suffering they jump back from learning noetic work, saying this is only for passionless men. And thus they become a stumbling block for themselves and for all who want to undertake mental attentiveness. For them it would be better to have a stone hung around their neck and be drowned than to scandalize themselves and many others [Matthew 18:6].

Moreover, they do not confess their ignorance and self-willed audacity but proclaim themselves teachers and say that all who want to learn mental attentiveness will suffer likewise. May this not be so!

Therefore, everyone must overshadow his heart from above with the intellect and constantly gazing into its depth practice the prayer. For, according to the writings, when the mind is seated here in the midst of the heart and not to one side in the breast, like a king on a lofty throne it is able to avoid the belly completely and repel the heat of desires in particular. As it beholds from that height all that is swirling around before its eyes below, it can turn away from some, cast out others, and yet others, which are the infants of Babylon, it can smash on the rock which is Christ [Psalm 136:9].

From Elder Basil of Poiana Marului: Spiritual Father of St. Paisy Velichkovsky, by a Monk of Prophet Elias Skete (Liberty, TN: Saint John of Kronstadt Press, 1997), pp. 69-85. Blessed Hesychios' writings have been translated into English and appear in The Philokalia. See especially On Watchfulness and Holiness in volume I of The Philokalia, pp. 162-179. This introduction has been published on the internet with the kind permission of the anonymous author and Father Gregory Williams. For the textual apparatus see the book.