The Philokalia: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

If you read a previous blog post about The Way of a Pilgrim, you may have been introduced to The Philokalia, a vast and wise collection of spiritual writings from the early and medieval Church. The title is a Greek word for love of the beautiful (PHILO – love; KALIA – beautiful). Paul writes in Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8). Paul calls us to focus our minds, our thoughts upon excellent things. Reading The Philokalia is such an activity.

Introducing The Philokalia

From the Introduction of The Philokalia, “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 . . . and was first published at Venice [Italy] in 1782.” It gathers writings of Greek followers of Jesus, many of whom lived on a peninsula in northern Greece known as Mount Athos, one of the great centers in the ancient world for Christian spiritual life and prayer. The Philokalia was originally written in Greek, though four of the five volumes of collected writings have been translated into English. The four volumes I have gather the teachings and sayings of a variety of ancient authors. Reading the Philokalia is like walking into an ancient library filled with old parchments of hand-written volumes filled with wisdom on prayer and living the Christian life. In this library, you’ll discover writings by Isaiah the Solitary, Evagrios, John Cassian, Mark the Ascetic, Hesychios, Neilos, Diadochos of Photiki, John of Karpathos, Theodoros, Maximos the Confessor, Thalassios the Lybian, John of Damaskos, Theognostos, Philotheos of Sinai, Ilias, Theophanis, Peter of Damaskos, and Makarios of Egypt.

Themes from The Philokalia

One of the consistent themes found in The Philokalia is how to “pray without ceasing,” as Paul tells four different churches to do in the New Testament, including the Church in Rome, Ephesus, Colossae, and Thessalonica. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 stands out among these as a simple, yet mature way of prayer: Pray without ceasing.  As Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in Praying the Jesus Prayer, “[Paul] must have thought this message was important, because he said it to four different communities–the Romans, Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians. It must have been one of the points he emphasized regularly. And he must have thought it was possible. He wouldn’t have kept on telling these early believers to ‘pray constantly’ if they were humanly incapable of doing so.” The way of contemplative, inward prayer comes up frequently in The Philokalia, including the prayer found so often in the Bible that it became known as “the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” The prayer, “Lord, have mercy!” is found often in the Psalms, including:

  • Psalm 6:2, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint.”
  • Psalm 9:13, “Lord, see how my enemies persecute me! Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death.”
  • Psalm 41:4, 10. I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you. . . . But may you have mercy on me, Lord.”
  • Psalm 86:3. “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I call to you all day long.”
  • Psalm 123:3. “Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us.”

In the New Testament, a variety of people call out in prayer to Jesus, praying what later became known as the Jesus Prayer:

  • Matthew 15:22. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to Jesus, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
  • Matthew 17:15. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.”
  • Luke 18:13-14. Jesus told a parable in this passage about prayer, including the prayer of a religious hypocrite, and the prayer of a sinful person who was a tax collector. “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:38-39. He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

In the early Church, followers of Jesus often prayed, “Lord, have mercy,” praying the Bible, praying prayers from the Bible, learning to pray the Bible way of prayer. The Jesus Prayer developed in the first couple of hundred years of the early church, based upon these Bible passages on prayer, and got expressed in a collection of wise spiritual teachings called Philokalia.

Another regular theme found in The Philokalia is of finding our soul’s inner quiet or rest, what in Greek is known as hesychia. This contemplative approach to the Christian spiritual life became known as the Hesychastic tradition, a way often taught in the writings from The Philokalia. Peter of Damaskos calls us to live quiet lives, “living without distraction, far from all wordly care.” Philimon wrote, “The only path to heaven is that of complete stillness, the avoidance of all evil, the acquisition of blessings, perfect love toward God and communion with him in holiness and righteousness. I a [person] has attained these things, [you] will soon ascent to the heavenly realm.” Finding our way into a life of complete stillness remains a mystery and impossibility for those who only pursue the active Christian life without considering the contemplative way and such wisdom as found in The Philokalia.

Quotes from The Philokalia

  • “You must not leave your heart unguarded, but should at every moment pray to God for His help and mercy.” ~ Isaiah the Solitary
  • “Safeguard the way of stillness. . . . Do everything possible to attain stillness and freedom from distraction . . . make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything, and choose always what contributes to it.” ~Evagrios
  • “Always act as if you are going to die tomorrow; yet you should treat your body as if it was going to live for many years.” ~Evagrios
  • “Reciting the psalms, long-suffering and compassion curb our incensive power when it is unruly. Anything untimely or pushed to excess is short-lived and harmful rather than helpful.” ~Evagrios
  • “When you are in the inner temple, pray not as the Pharisee but as the publican, who prayed, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ so that you too are set free by the Lord.”  ~Evagrios
  • “If when praying no other joy can attract you, then truly you have found prayer.” ~Evagrios
  • “Do not do anything with a view to being praised by other people, but seek God’s reward only.” ~John Cassian
  • “Humility, in its turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentleness and the shedding of all possessions. It is by means of these that we attain perfect love, through the grace and compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory through all the ages. Amen.” ~John Cassian
  • “If you wish to conquer these three passions, forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance, and put them to flight, enter within yourself through prayer and with the help of God. Descend into the depths of the heart.” ~Mark the Ascetic
  • “Take up the weapons of righteousness that are directly opposed to destructive passions: mindfulness of God, for this is the cause of all blessings; the light of spiritual knowledge, through which the soul awakens from its slumber and drives out of itself the darkness of ignorance; and true ardour, which makes the soul eager for salvation.” ~Mark the Ascetic
  • “Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness . . . in this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and Himself God.” ~Hesychios
  • “This in its turn is succeeded by persistence in the Jesus Prayer and by the state that Jesus confers, in which the intellect enjoys complete quietude.” ~Hesychios
  • “Continually and humbly call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for help.” ~Hesychios
  • “The more the rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, Christ’s holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon Him.” ~Hesychios
  • “To invoke Jesus continually with a sweet longing is to fill the heart in its great attentiveness with joy and tranquility.” ~Hesychios
  • “Watchfulness and the Jesus Prayer, as I have said, mutually reinforce one another; for close attentiveness goes with constant prayer, while prayer goes with close watchfulness and attentiveness of intellect.” ~Hesychios
  • “Let the name of Jesus adhere to your breath, and then you will know the blessings of stillness.” ~Hesychios
  • “This is the path of true spiritual wisdom. In great watchfulness and fervent desire travel along it with the Jesus Prayer, with humility and concentration.” ~Hesychios
  • “We will adorn the chamber of our heart with the holy and venerable name of Jesus Christ as with a lighted lamp, and will sweep our heart clean of wickedness, purifying an embellishing it.” ~Hesychios
  • “If you really wish to be still and calm, and to watch over your heart without hindrance, let the Jesus Prayer cleave to your breath, and in a few days you will find that this is possible.” ~Hesychios
  • “Truly blessed is the person whose mind and heart are as closely attached to the Jesus Prayer as to the ceaseless invocation of His name as air to the body or flame to the wax. The sun rising over the earth creates the daylight; and the venerable and holy name of the Lord Jesus, shining continually in the mind, gives birth to countless intellections radiant as the sun.” ~Hesychios

Editions of The Philokalia

I have several editions of The Philokalia, including the four volume edition published by Faber and Faber titled, The Philokalia: The Complete Text compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. This edition was translated from the Greek and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.

I also have an edition published by SkyLight, titled Philokalia: The Easter Christian Spiritual Texts, Selections, Annotated & Explained.