Saturday, February 12, 2011

Readings: Timeless Wisdom

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I have recently begun reading The Philokalia in this edition. As its introduction states: "The Philokalia is a collection of texts written between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian tradition. It was compiled in the eighteenth century by two Greek monks, St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain of Athos (1749-1809) and St Makarios of Corinth (1731-1805), and was first published in Venice in 1782."

The first section of Volume 1 of this three-volume edition is attributed to St. Isaiah the Solitary, who lived in Egypt in the late fourth or fifth century, A.D. His writings are said by the editor to “[reflect] the authentic spirituality of the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine…”

As I frequently visit and comment at several Roman Catholic sites, I was interested, in planning this post, to see what the Catholic take on The Philokalia, and the Desert Fathers might be. As is my wont, in order to do this, I visited the New Advent online Catholic Encyclopedia. I was surprised to find that there was no article there on The Philokalia. I next tried “Desert Fathers” and again came up empty. Finally, I looked in New Advent for an article on “hesychasm,” a word related to the practices of a life of contemplation and inner work – “the cleansing of ‘the inside of the cup and plate so that their outside may also be clean’ (Matt. 23:26).” This time I scored a hit. It seems that hesychasm, having been condemned because

“Latin theology on the whole was too deeply impregnated with the Aristotelean Scholastic system to tolerate a theory that opposed its very foundation.”

warranted a mention so that the devout might be warned against its wickedness. Well, I don’t think so. (Aristotle! P-tui!) On the contrary, it seems to me that the teachings of the solitaries and monks to be found in The Philokalia conform to the wisdom practiced by saints of all cultures since time immemorial. Here, for example, is a brief excerpt from that first section, which I mentioned above:

St. Isaiah the Solitary:

So long as the contest continues, a man is full of fear and trembling, wondering whether he will win today or be defeated, whether he will win tomorrow or be defeated: the struggle and stress constrict his heart. But when he has attained dispassion, the contest comes to an end; he receives the prize of victory and has no further anxiety about the three that were divided, for now through God they have made peace with one another. These three are the soul, the body and the spirit. When they become one through the energy of the Holy Spirit, they cannot again be separated. Do not think, then, that you have died to sin, so long as you suffer violence, whether waking or sleeping, at the hands of your opponents, For while a man is still competing in the arena, he cannot be sure of victory.

If you’re channeling Vince Lombardi, you’re in for a world of grief. What they don’t want you to know is that all the players are losers. Complexity is the enemy of enlightenment. The devil is in the details. Don’t lose your-self through fruitless interaction with the ten-thousand things (cf. Tao Te Ching).
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