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Introduction to the Philokalic Writings of St. Gregory of Sinai

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


Introduction, or Preparation for those who Wish to Read the Book* of our Holy Father among the Saints Gregory of Sinai, that they not Misconstrue the Meaning of its Contents

Many read this holy little book of St. Gregory of Sinai but, because they are ignorant of the art of noetic work, they misconstrue its true meaning by thinking that this labor is appropriate only for passionless and holy men. Consequently, keeping exclusively to the outward habit of chanting psalms, troparia and canons, they grow complacent with this merely outward prayer of theirs. They are unaware of the fact that such chanted prayer was given to us by the fathers only for a time, because of the weakness and infantile state of our minds, so that, rather than loitering therein till our dying day, by gradually training ourselves we might ascend to the level of noetic work. For what could be more childish than saying external prayers with our lips while being carried away by the joyful notion of imagining that we are doing something great, consoling ourselves merely with quantity and thereby nourishing the pharisee within?

Weaning us from such childish weakness, like infants nursed at the breast, the holy fathers show us the crudity of this practice by comparing chanting aloud to the singing of the heathen. “In accordance with our way of life,” this St. Gregory of Sinai says in chapter five, “our psalmody also should be angelic and not carnal—not to say heathen. We were given chanting aloud with the voice on account of our sloth and ignorance, that we be gradually introduced to what is genuine.”

The fruit that comes from such outward prayer was described by St. Symeon the New Theologian when he spoke about the second method of attention.

The second method of attention and prayer is this: a man tears his intellect away from everything perceived by the senses and leads it within himself, guarding his senses and collecting his thoughts, so that they cease to wander amid the vanities of this world. Now he examines his thoughts, now ponders over the words of the prayer his lips utter, now pulls back his thoughts if, ravished by the devil, they have become evil and vain, now with great labor and self-exertion strives to come back into himself, after being caught and vanquished by some passion. In this struggle and warfare against himself, a man can never be at peace nor find time to practice virtues and to gain the crown of truth. Such a man is like one fighting his enemies at night, in the dark; he hears their voices and suffers their blows, but cannot see clearly who they are, whence they come, and how and for what purpose they attack him. Because the darkness enveloping his intellect and the storms raging in his thoughts are the cause of this defeat, he cannot evade his noetic enemies, that they not destroy him. In spite of his enormous labors, he is deprived of any reward, since he is robbed unawares by vainglory and imagines he is attentive to himself. In his pride, he often despises and criticizes others and deems himself worthy to be a shepherd of the sheep and to guide others—and so he is like a blind man who undertakes to lead the blind [Matthew 15:14].

So speaks St. Symeon.

Now is it indeed possible to guard the intellect by means of the outward senses or to concentrate it by these senses which naturally, on their own, scatter about and soar after perceptible objects: the sight by looking at what is beautiful or ugly; the hearing by listening to what is soothing or harsh; the smell by sensing what is fragrant or malodorous; the taste by discerning what is sweet or bitter; the touch by feeling what is good or bad? The senses are like leaves that are quivering and fluttering in the wind. Now, can the intellect that is occupied with the senses alone, that ponders their effects, ever take leave of the thoughts coming from the right and from the left? By no means! Never!

Since the outward senses are incapable of affording the intellect any rest from thoughts the need thus appears for the intellect to flee from the senses at the hour of prayer, inwards, to the heart, and there to stand deaf and dumb to all thoughts. If a person only outwardly refrains from looking and listening and speaking, he thereby acquires some respite from the passions and evil thoughts.

However, when he withdraws his intellect from the five outward senses, locking it in the inner and natural closet [Matthew 6:6] and desert, how much more will it delight in rest from evil thoughts and taste the spiritual joy that comes with noetic prayer and guarding the heart? Just as a sharp, two-edged sword with its keen edge cuts whatever it touches, so also does the Jesus Prayer act: now against evil thoughts and the passions, now against sins, when it is wielded by the memory of death, judgement and eternal torment. If anyone, without employing noetic prayer, wants to repel a suggestion of the enemy and to resist any passion or wicked thought by chanting prayers, by opposing them with the outward senses, he will quickly be overwhelmed in many ways. The demons will seize upon him despite his resistance.

On the other hand, the demons may voluntarily submit, as if overcome by his resistance and contention, and thus mock him and dispose his thinking to vainglory and conceit, calling him a teacher and a shepherd for the sheep. Concerning this St. Hesychios says:

Our 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 act as if they are giving in and pretend to be overcome and then trip you up by filling you with vainglory. But when you call upon Jesus Christ, they cannot bear to remain in your presence and play their tricks with you even for a second.

And again:

Take heed that you do not become conceited like the ancient Israelites, and so betray yourself into the hands of your noetic enemies. For the Israelites, liberated from the Egyptians by the God of all, devised a cast idol to help them [Exodus 32:4]. The molten idol denotes our crippled intellect. So long as the intellect invokes Jesus Christ against the demons, it easily routs them, putting their invisible forces to flight with the artful skill born of knowledge. But when it stupidly places all its confidence in itself, it is shattered and falls with an astonishing fall, like the bird called swift-winged.

Thus spoke Hesychios.

This is sufficient for us to recognize the power and the measure of noetic work, that is of prayer and chanting. Do not think, my devout reader, that the holy fathers, by restraining us from excessive outward worship and in directing us towards noetic prayer devalue the psalms and canons. Nothing of the sort! For all of the rites of the Church were entrusted to it by the Holy Spirit. All of its sanctifying rites are presided over by the ordained clergy. They contain within themselves the entire mystery of the dispensation of God the Word up to His second coming and our resurrection. There is nothing human in the rites of the Church. Rather, everything is the activity of God’s grace, activity which does not increase as a result of our virtues and does not decrease as a result of our sins.

Here, however, we are speaking not about the institutions of the holy Church but about the particular rule and discipline of each individual monk, that is, of noetic prayer which is capable of attracting the grace of the Holy Spirit through diligence and uprightness of heart, and not merely through the words of psalms being chanted by the mouth and tongue alone without mental attention. As the apostle said, “I prefer to speak five words with my mind rather than ten thousand with my tongue” [1 Corinthians 14:19]. Therefore a person must first cleanse his mind and heart with these five words, ever saying in the depth of his heart, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” and thus climb to chanting with understanding [Psalm 46:8].

Every beginner and passionate person can use this prayer intelligently in guarding his heart, but he cannot do so with chanting until he has first been purified by this prayer. For this reason St. Gregory of Sinai, after a detailed examination and study of the lives and writings and spiritual skills of all the saints, and above all by the means of the Holy Spirit that dwelt within him, lays down the rule that we devote all of our effort to this prayer. Furthermore, St. Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, possessing the same Spirit and gift, directs and advises bishops, priests, monks and all laymen to say and to breathe this holy prayer at every season and every hour, because, he says with the apostle, there is no mightier weapon either in heaven or on earth than the name of Jesus Christ [Philippians 2:9-10].

Be informed also, O good laborer in sacred noetic work, that not only in the desert or in lonely seclusion have men lived who taught or practiced this noetic work, but all the more in the great monasteries and in the midst of the cities.

One must marvel at the most holy Patriarch Photios who was taken from a high secular office to become patriarch. Even though he had not been a monk, nevertheless, he learned noetic work even in this high office, and he excelled in it to such a degree that, according to St. Symeon of Thessalonica, his face shone like that of a second Moses from the grace of the Holy Spirit within him.

St. Symeon testifies that St. Photios also composed a book about noetic work with his supreme erudition and philosophical skill. He also says that John Chrysostom, as well as Ignatios and Kallistos, who also were patriarchs of the same see of Constantinople, each wrote books about inner activity.

So what do you lack, my Christ-loving reader, for you to set aside all doubt and undertake the learning of mental attentiveness? If you say that you do not lead a solitary life, then the most holy Patriarch Kallistos is an example for you, for he learned noetic work while he was serving as cook in the Great Lavra on Mount Athos. And if you have reservations because you are not far off in the desert, then you have a second example, the most holy Patriarch Photios, who learned the art of attentiveness of the heart while in the office of patriarch.

And if you are still too indolent to take up mental sobriety, on the pretext that you are under obedience, then you deserve to be ridiculed. For neither the desert nor solitary life provide so much profit in this labor as does obedience with discretion, as St. Gregory of Sinai says.

Again, if you are trying to beg off to the right, on the pretext that you have no teacher for such activity, then the Lord Himself commands you to learn from the Scriptures, for He says, “Search the Scriptures, for in them you will find life eternal” [John 5:39]. Or if you are drawn off to the left, being upset that you cannot find a quiet place, then you are refuted by St. Peter of Damascus who says, “This is the beginning of our salvation: by our free choice we abandon our own wishes and thoughts and do what God wishes and thinks. There is no object or activity or place in the whole of creation that can prevent us.” Again, if you come up with a seemingly viable excuse by stumbling over the long discussion of St. Gregory of Sinai about the delusion that can occur in this activity, then this same saint will set you straight when he says:

So in calling to God we must neither fear nor doubt. If some people have gone astray and damaged their mind, be certain that they have incurred this through self-will and conceit. For if a man seeks God with obedience, questioning and humblemindedness, he will always be protected from harm by the grace of Christ.

As the fathers testify, the person who is living rightly and has a blameless life, who avoids self-gratification and conceit, will suffer no harm, even if the whole army of demons raise up countless temptations against him. It is only those who act presumptuously and according to their own dictates who fall into delusion. If there be some who stumble over the rock of these writings of the saint and take what is meant to show us the way of delusion as a prohibition of noetic work, then let them know that they are turning everything upside-down. For it is not to prohibit us noetic work that the holy fathers show the causes that lead to delusion, but rather to warn us about delusion. Likewise St. Gregory of Sinai, when he commands us not to be fearful or doubtful when we are learning prayer, also indicates the two causes of delusion: self-will and conceit.

It is because the holy fathers want us to remain unblemished by such things that they command us to search the holy Scriptures and to be instructed by them, taking a brother as a good counselor, as Peter of Damascus says. If you cannot find an elder skillful in word and deed, well versed in patristic writings and like the holy fathers — then in solitude, in stillness, you must take your spiritual counsel entirely from the teachings and instructions of the holy fathers, and question them about every matter and virtue. For this is the measure and order that are proper for us who read the writings: that we keep to them and not wander from the teachings and instructions that they contain.

However, there are some who are ignorant of the art of noetic work but who nonetheless regard themselves as discerning in the matter. They show themselves through three pretexts or ruses, or, better to say, they discourage learning this sacred noetic work. First, they claim this is only for holy and passionless men; they think this activity is exclusively for them and not for those with passions. The second is the extreme dearth of instructors and teachers for such a life and path. The third is the delusion that can occur because of such activity.

Now the first of these pretexts or ruses is pointless and wrong. The first step for beginners in monasticism is to reduce the passions through mental sobriety and attentiveness of heart, which is the form of noetic prayer suited for those who are leading an active life. The second is unreasonable and contains no ruse. In place of a teacher, the writings are a teacher for us if we cannot find an instructor, as we have already said. The third is self-contradictory. When they read about delusion, they refute themselves by the very writings which they wrongly interpret. Instead of taking these writings as a warning and instruction concerning delusion, they see them as an excuse for shunning noetic work. This is like a military commander who learns from someone that the enemy is lying in ambush along the road, planning to defeat him by cunning and a surprise attack because they are unable to wage open warfare against him. But instead of outwitting them and attacking them by surprise in their secret ambush and thus gaining a decisive victory, this commander is so foolhardy that he is stricken with fear where there is no fear [Psalm 52:6], takes to flight and puts himself to perpetual shame, especially before the King and his noblemen.

On the other hand, if it is only out of reverence and the simplicity of your heart that you are fearful of this activity and of learning it, well, then, I myself am filled to an even greater extent with the same fear as you. But the proverb that says, “To fear the wolf means staying out of the forest” does not apply here. It is God that we should fear, but we should not run from Him or renounce Him. It is true: fear and trembling, contrition and humility, and much searching of the writings of the saints and the counsel of like-minded brethren are demanded by this activity, but not flight and denial nor, on the other hand, boldness and self-will. It is said of the audacious and the scornful man, that when he seeks what is beyond his station and degree he is boastfully trying to harvest before the season of his ripening for pure, spiritual prayer. And again, if someone imagines in his self-esteem that he will attain to some lofty state, then he has already acquired a satanic desire; the devil will easily catch him in his snares like his own houseboy. Who are we to seek for lofty attainments in noetic and sacred prayer, which is granted to scarcely one in ten thousand, according to St. Isaac? It is enough, enough, I say, for us passionate and impotent ones just to pick up the trail to mental stillness, that is, active noetic prayer, whereby the suggestions of the enemy and evil thoughts are expelled from the heart. This is the real task of beginners, of passionate monks. In this way, if God wills, a person can climb to divine vision and spiritual prayer.

Now we need not despair that only a few are found worthy of divine vision in prayer, for there is no unrighteousness with God. Only let us not be slothful in travelling the path that leads to this sacred prayer, that is, using active, noetic prayer to counteract suggestions, passions and evil thoughts. Should we thus complete our earthly journey on this path of the saints, we will be deemed worthy of their lot, even if we do not receive perfection here, say St. Isaac and many of the saints.

This also is worthy of marvel and awe: while some people know the writings but do not search them, there are others who neither know them nor examine them, yet they presume, on the basis of their own ideas, to undertake mental attentiveness. They go so far as to claim that attentiveness and prayer should act in the appetitive faculty of the soul; and this, they say, is located midway between the belly and the heart. This is a firsthand and willful delusion. For not only should prayer and attentiveness take no effect in that region, but the very warmth which at the time of prayer comes from the appetitive faculty into the heart should not be accepted at all. According to St. Theophylaktos, the heart itself is in the center of the torso, neither near the navel nor in the middle of the breast, but under the left nipple.

The three faculties of the soul are ordered in this way: the intelligent faculty is in the breast; the incensive or zealous faculty is in the heart; the appetitive faculty is in the loins around the navel, where the devil has a convenient entrance, according to Job [Job 40:11], for it foams and smoulders like leeches and frogs in a swampy lake, having sensual pleasure as its food and delight.

St. Gregory of Sinai says:

Thus it is no small labor to learn the truth clearly and to keep pure from what is opposed to grace. Because in beginners, the devil is wont to present his delusion by transforming his deceit into something apparently spiritual.

The enemy tries to substitute the imaginary for the spiritual in your loins, offering the one in place of the other, bringing disorderly burning instead of warmth, exciting profane delight and the sweetness of the humors instead of joy.

It seems beneficial for a person practicing these things to know about this in particular: burning or warmth from the loins sometimes passes naturally into the heart on its own without carnal thoughts. “This is not from delusion but from nature,” says St. Kallistos the Patriarch. But if someone thinks that this is from grace and not from nature, then this is truly delusion. This being the case, he adds, the ascetic ought to disregard such warmth and dismiss it. At other times, by combining his burning with our desires, the devil draws the mind into carnal thoughts. This is delusion beyond any doubt. However, if the entire body is warmed, while the mind remains pure and passionless, so that it is immersed in the depth of the heart, beginning and completing the prayer in the heart, this surely is from grace and not from delusion. For some ascetics, physical infirmity presents no small obstacle to this sacred activity. Being incapable of maintaining the supernatural measure and proportion of labors and fasting such as the saints maintained, they think that they are incapable of undertaking noetic work without these things. Putting this vanity of theirs in proper perspective, the great Basil teaches as follows:

Continence is determined by each person according to his physical strength. I think it is proper to take care not to undermine the body’s strength by excessive abstinence and thus render it useless and ineffective for profitable activity. The body should be active and by no means disabled by excess. Had it been beneficial for us that our body be disabled and prostrate, as if dead and scarcely breathing, then surely God would have created us this way in the beginning. But since He did not create us this way, then those people sin who do not preserve intact what was created good. The devout ascetic should concern himself with only one thing: Is there any evil concealed in his soul because of indolence? Have sobriety and the earnest striving of his mind to God at any point been weakened? Have his spiritual sanctification and the resulting enlightenment of his soul in any way been darkened? For if all the above virtues keep growing within him, there will be no time at all for the bodily passions to arise, since his soul is occupied with things on high and leaves the body no time for the passions to arise. If the soul is thus disposed, the person who partakes of food is not different from the one who does not eat at all. Such a person has mastered not only fasting but total abstinence as well, and he is to be commended for his excellent discernment concerning his body. A temperate life does not know the burning of desire.

In agreement with this St. Isaac also has said, “If you compel your body when it is weak to labors that exceed its strength, you will instill darkness upon darkness into your soul.” St. John Climacus says, “I saw this opponent [the belly] put at ease and lending vigilance to the mind and again, I saw it withering from fasting and making troubles, so that we put our hope not in ourselves but in the living God.”

St. Nikon also records an account that supports this same view:

In our time an elder was discovered in the desert who had not seen a single person for thirty years. He ate no food except roots, yet he confessed that during all those years he had been assailed by the demon of lust. And the fathers judged that neither pride nor food had been the cause of his warfare, but the fact that the elder had not learned mental sobriety and how to repulse the suggestions of the enemy.

For this reason St. Maximos says we should provide for the body in keeping with its strength and concentrate all our struggle on noetic work. In addition, St. Diadochos says:

Fasting, while of value in itself, is not something to boast of before God, for it is simply a tool for training those who desire self-restraint. The ascetic should not feel proud because he fasts; but with faith in God he should think only of reaching his goal. For no artist in any form of art ever boasts that his accomplishment is simply due to his tools; he waits, rather, for the work itself to give proof of his skill.

Adopting such a rule concerning food, do not put all of your effort and hope in fasting alone. Instead, while fasting according to your measure and strength, concentrate on noetic work. If you have the strength to be satisfied with bread and water, then that is good. It is said that no other foods strengthen the body as bread and water do. However, do not think that by doing this, you are practicing some virtue in fasting, expecting to acquire self-restraint by fasting. If your are weak, let your fasting be with discernment, says St. Dorotheos.

St. Gregory of Sinai gives these directions:

You who strive after salvation should be satisfied with one litra [3/4 lb.] of bread and three or four cups of water or wine a day, and a little of any other victuals which may be to hand. You must not let yourself eat to satiety. By thus eating all kinds of food you can both avoid boastfulness and avoid disdaining God’s creations which are most excellent; and you thank God for everything. Such is the reasoning of the wise! If you eat all the kinds of food at hand and drink a little wine, but doubt your salvation because of this, this is lack of faith and a disability of thought....

The measure of partaking of food that is free from sin and pleasing to God has three degrees: abstinence, adequacy and satiety. To abstain means to remain a little hungry after eating; to eat adequately means neither to feel hungry nor weighed down. But eating beyond satiety is the door to gluttony through which lust comes in. But you, firm in this knowledge, choose what is best for you, according to your powers, without violating the established rule: for the perfect, according to the apostle, whether they be satisfied or in hunger, are mighty in all ways” [Philippians 4:12-13].

O laborer in mental attentiveness! These things have been
shown to you from the very words of the great and holy
fathers concerning the measure of continence
and intelligent fasting, and how you
should devote yourself to
attentiveness.

* By "book" he means a single volume that contained his various writings. These have been translated into English and appear in The Philokalia, Vol. 4, and Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart.

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. 43-53. 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. Posted on 10 Mar, 2006 (n.s.).