Edit. Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, Athens 2004.
The Philokalia yesterday and today
Such is the character of the Philokalia: what, then, has been its influence? In the Greek world the book had initially only a limited impact, in part perhaps because (as already noted) almost all the texts were given in the original Patristic or Byzantine Greek, not in a neo-Greek paraphrase. More than a century passed before a second Greek edition appeared in 1893; and it was not until 64 years later that another Greek edition commenced publication in 1957. Thus, during the first 175 years of its existence, the Greek Philokalia was printed only three times; it was not exactly a best seller! It is significant that a standard work of reference in the 1930’s, the multi-volume Great Hellenic Encyclopedia, under the heading ‘Philokalia’ mentions only the Philokalia of Origen, edited by St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian, while making no reference at all to the Philokalia of St Makarios and St Nikodimos (29).
In the Slav world, on the other hand, the Philokalia enjoyed a markedly different fortune. The Slavonic translation by St Paissy Velichovsky published in 1793, and the enlarged Russian edition by St Theophan the Recluse which began to appear in 1877, were both regularly reprinted, enjoying during the nineteenth century an influence vastly more extensive than that of the Greek original. To mention only three examples of its popularity, the Slavonic Dobrotolubiye was read and quoted by St Seraphim of Sarov; it was used and recommended by the startsi of Optina; and it was carried in his knapsack by the anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim as he wandered through the Russian forests with the Jesus Prayer on his lips and a komvoschoinion in his hand.
Yet the true era of the Philokalia came neither in the eighteenth century world of the Kollyvades nor in the ‘Holy Russia’ of the nineteenth century, but in the latter half of the twentieth century, following the Second World War. The third edition of the Greek Philokalia, issued in five volumes by the publishing house Astir-Papadimitriou (1957-63), was widely distributed, and it was reprinted in 1974-76; and the Philokalia in its entirety has also been translated into Modern Greek. Until forty years ago knowledge of the Philokalia in the Greek world was limited almost entirely to certain monasteries, but today it is being studied and appreciated to an ever-increasing degree by members of the laity – which is exactly what St Makarios and St Nikodimos had intended.
Another Orthodox country which has been profoundly influenced by the Philokalia since the Second World War is Romania. A Romanian translation began to appear in 1946, under the editorship of the eminent theologian Archpriest Dumitru Staniloae (1903-93). By 1948 this had reached its fourth volume, when publication had to be suspended because of pressure from the Communist authorities. Thirty years later it proved possible to resume publication, and during 1976-81 a further six volumes were issued, making a total of ten volumes (amounting in all to more than 4.650 pages) (30). In comparison with its Greek prototype, the Romanian Philokalia contains a greatly expanded selection of texts; in particular, Fr Staniloae has added many further works by St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas. He has also rewritten the introductory sections before each author, and has added numerous footnotes; these take full account of critical scholarship in the contemporary West, but the results of this scholarship are always carefully assessed by Fr Staniloae from an Orthodox standpoint. This Romanian Philokalia has contributed, in a decisive and creative manner, to the spiritual renewal which is today plainly manifest in Orthodox Romania. Under Fr Staniloae’s inspiration, there has emerged an impressive group of younger bishops and theologians who are deeply ‘Philokalic’ in their orientation. In Romania today, as in contemporary Greece, the effect of the Philokalia is by no means restricted to monastic circles but extends to the life of the Church as a whole.
If the recent influence of the Philokalia in Romania is indeed striking, yet more remarkable is the widespread success of the Philokalia in the Western world during the past fifty years. The first edition, published at Venice in 1782, was sent almost in its entirety to the Levant, and few indeed were the copies to be found in the libraries of Western Europe. The learned Dom Pitra and the other editors of the Patrologia Graeca published by J.-P. Migne had access to the Greek Philokalia only from volume 85 onwards, and they emphasize the extreme rarity of the work: ‘… ex libro inter rariores rarissimo'(PG127: 1127).
A pioneer role in the transmission of the Philokalia to the West has been played by Britain. In the early 1950s a selection of material, translated from the Russian Dobrotolubiye of St Theophan, appeared under the editorship of the Russian Orthodox Evgeniya Kadloubovsky and the English Orthodox Gerald Palmer. Two volumes were issued: Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart in 1951, and Early Fathers from the Philokalia in 1954. These enjoyed an unexpected success: Writings from the Philokalia was hailed by a leading Roman Catholic journal, The Catholic Herald, as ‘one of the most important spiritual treatises ever to be translated into English’, and both volumes have been frequently reprinted.
It is interesting to note that the publishers of the English Philokalia, Faber and Faber, would never have accepted the work but for the support given by T.S. Eliot, who was one of the directors of the firm. So favourably impressed was he by the teachings of the Philokalia that he insisted in its publication by Fabers, even though he in common with the other directors expected that it would incur a serious financial loss. In fact it proved an outstanding commercial success. ‘We have never lost money on an Orthodox book’, a member of Fabers said to me not long ago. The late Philip Sherrard told me that one day, when in the library of George Seferis, he noticed a copy of the English volume Writings from the Philokalia on the shelves; taking it down, he found that it had been sent to Seferis by Eliot, with the inscription in Greek ‘τὰ σὰ ἐκ τῶν σῶν’. I do not know if Seferis actually read the book, but I am reasonably sure that Eliot had done so with some care.
In 1979 a new English rendering commenced publication. This second version contains not just a selection from the Greek Philokalia but all the works included there; and it is based not upon the Russian version of Theophan but upon the original Greek, using modern critical editions where these are available. This integral English translation is now approaching completion: the fifth and final volume is in preparation. Like its two-volume predecessor, the new translation has appealed to a surprisingly large English-speaking readership, and the earlier volumes have been regularly reprinted. From the correspondence that the English editors have received, it is clear that the circulation of the English Philokalia has not been limited to members of the Orthodox Church, or indeed to the Christian world; it is appreciated also by followers of other faiths and it has proved attractive to ‘seekers’ who do not yet belong to any religious tradition. In this way the translation is performing an important missionary function.
Britain’s example has been followed by other Western countries. From 1953 onwards, translations from the Philokalia began to appear, first in French, then in German, Italian, Spanish and Finnish. At first these versions contained only selections, and were not always based on the original Greek. But the last twenty years have witnessed the appearance, not only in English but in several other Western languages, of complete editions translated directly from the Greek prototype. As in Britain, these translations have been widely distributed, far beyond the initial expectations of the editors.
Alike in Orthodox countries and in the West, as we embark upon the third millennium the voice of the Philokalia is being heard more and more widely. It is surely remarkable – and, to me, profoundly encouraging – that a collection of texts intended for Greek Orthodox Christians living in the eighteenth-century Turcocratia has in fact achieved its main impact some 200 years later, in the utterly different milieu of a post-Christian Europe that is becoming radically secularized. The teachings of Orthodox Hesychasm, so greatly loved and so faithfully transmitted by St Nikodimos the Hagiorite and St Makarios of Corinth, have not lost their relevance for the contemporary world.
29. Μεγάλη Ἑλληνική Ἐγκυκλοπαίδεια, vol. 24 (Athens 1934), 8.
30. Two further volumes have since then been added.