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 carnalnot 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 othersand 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.
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 Gods 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
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 bodys 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
Gods 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
* 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.).