The Philokalia is an ancient collection of texts collected from Near-Eastern monks throughout the centuries. While completely unheard of by Christians in the West, it’s still massively popular among Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; you might say it’s like the Summa Theologica or Confessions of the East. So I’ve compiled a list of some wisdom-points to pique yall’s interest in picking up the Philokalia.

Why Should I Care about the Philokalia?

First: It contains advice from some of the greatest monks (some of them saints) on resisting temptation, fighting the demons, being virtuous, and achieving harmony of the soul (which they call dispassion, but we might call chastity or temperance). Moreover, as St. John Cassian writes “True discrimination [of truth] comes to us only by following in all things the words of our elders, regarding as good what they have judged to be so.” (Cassian, “On the Holy Fathers of Sketis”)

In other words, listening to those in the Catholic Tradition who have gone before us allows us to quickly discern the good, and easily shun the bad, even though they might be impossible for us to gauge by ourselves since it’s easy to be deceived, especially if demons are involved. (read some terrifying examples of especially smart demons deceiving monks in the section of the Philokalia titled “On the Holy Fathers of Sketis”).

Second: Prayer is not an inborn talent; it’s a skill, and you can only excel in skills if you have good guidance. A vital part of prayer is habit and our inner disposition: “The way of prayer is twofold: it comprises practice of the virtues and contemplation.” (“On Prayer”, Prologue) If something is out of alignment in our souls or habits, we won’t be able to pray perfectly: “He who wishes to pray truly must not only control his desiring, but must also free himself from every impassioned thought.’ (“On Prayer”, Prologue) So if we want to succeed in any spiritual struggles and pray properly, we must work on our virtues. And the Philokalia is a very practical manual that helps us train our virtue and apply it to prayer.

Bits of Wisdom from the Philokalia

 1 – Spiritual Warfare Begins in Uncontrolled Imagination

In “Texts on Discrimination” Evagrios the Solitary explains the beginning of spiritual warfare, and how temptations get through to us to begin with. It begins with having something pop into our imagination that causes us to sin in reaction to it: “All thoughts inspired by the demons produce within us conceptions of sensory objects… So, by recognizing the object presented to it, the intellect knows which demon is approaching. For example, if the face of a person who has done me harm or insulted me appears in my mind, I recognize the demon of rancor approaching… In the same way with other thoughts, we can infer from the object appearing in the mind which demon is close at hand, suggesting that object to us.” (Discrimination, Sec #2)

While we are at a disadvantage against the demon insofar as we can’t always be fully vigilant of our imagination, we are at an advantage insofar as we can tell that a demon is approaching, and preemptively defend ourselves, depending on the impressions our imaginations bring to us if we are paying attention.

It would be best to make this practical point early on: the attitude towards demons in the Philokalia is not that demons are the cause of every sin. Evagrios makes this clear: “I do not say that all thoughts of such things come from the demons; for when the intellect is activated by man it is its nature to bring forth the images of past events.” (Discrimination, Sec #2) In other words, we can’t start attributing every struggle to demons; many times we sin without temptation purely by our own failings. What Evagrios is trying to say here, then, is that demons are like spiritual bacteria; they come to you looking for a wound to infect, and if we freely give into vice, they will infect us and begin to oppress us until we disinfect the wound. And if the wound is not tended to, it will turn gangrene and begin to drive us towards despair, which is the aim of all demonic activity and the worst state for our souls to be in, since despair makes us want to give up on God.

2 – How to Fight Spiritual Battles at Your Worst

The writers of the Philokalia approach spiritual warfare much differently than the typical modern reader does. This can be shown easily with the following observation: these monks rarely make reference to the sacraments, and rarely speak of relying on them to save them from spiritual troubles. This is not because they didn’t value the sacraments as much as we do (ancient Christians, in fact, tend to put far more value on the sacraments than modern Christians do) but because of practical reasons: they rarely had access to them. Many of these monks spent at least part of their lives in complete solitude, separated from the world including the Church and Her sacraments. Due to the practical hardships of such a life, they were forced to find grace through other channels, and resist demons without the assistance of near-at-hand sacraments.

Far from scandalizing us, this austere kind of life should give us great hope. After all, there are points in every day and throughout life in which we’re struggling spiritually and, for whatever reason, cannot get to the sacraments we need. Yet, these are also often the times when we’re at our weakest, and most likely to be spiritually tested. And when these times come, must we become hopeless and inevitably give into sin? No, and this is proven by the fact that there have gone before us many holy people who suffered the same struggles, and for much longer, yet survived and even achieved purity and sainthood through them.

Thus the writers of the Philokalia advise us on how to survive our hardest days without falling into despair, after having experienced the hardest of days themselves.

3 – (Good) Emotions Are the Best Weapon in Spiritual Warfare

How often have you heard (or assumed) that in order to be a good Christian, you have to suppress your emotions and desires, which are bad and have nothing good to contribute to the spiritual life? The charismatic movement is starting to make Christians rethink their attitude towards their emotions, but Modernity’s obsession over “objectivity” has seriously stripped us of our “theology of emotion” and made us uncomfortable about embracing them. But the writers of the Philokalia couldn’t disagree more with this modern discomfort.

Now, granted, all writers in the Philokalia agree that normal human emotions tend to be wild, immoderate, and in need of transformation. This is obvious when Evagrios the Solitary writes that the three main lines of demonic attack come from vicious emotions of gluttony, avarice and pride: “of the demons opposing us in the practice of the ascetic life, there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of man, all other demons follow behind them” (Discrimination, Sec #1)

And St. John Cassian makes it clear as well: “desire, even if implanted in man by the Creator for a good purpose, appear to change through neglect from being natural in the body into something that is unnatural.” (On the Eight Vices)

But this is quite different from wanting to get rid of emotion altogether. To get rid of one’s emotions, to Evagrios and Cassian, would mean cutting off a major part of the human soul, which would actually knock the soul out of harmony and create a barrier against God; since the foundation of prayer is a passionate love, according to St. Isaiah the Solitary (On Guarding the Intellect, Sec #2). The Philokalia emphasizes transforming and purging our emotions, and getting them under control so that we can aim our love at the right thing: giving ourselves fully to God.

At this point it’s important to realize that the writers of the Philokalia thought of the soul as divided into three different parts, an idea they borrowed from Plato: every person has an intellect, a will, and emotions. The intellect, while it gives you access to God through your rationality, is weak by itself; if it has to fight with the will or emotions over a decision it almost always loses. The will is stronger than the intellect, and usually tends to side with the intellect (which is why it’s sometimes called the conscious in the Philokalia) but it is still usually overpowered by the emotions, which are the most powerful part of the soul. Unfortunately, people normally desire things they know they shouldn’t, which is why Plato usually referred to the emotions as a wild, uncontrollable horse. Yet, the goal for Plato, and the goal for the Philokalia writers, is not to get rid of this horse, but to tame it, and train it to love the right things. When this finally happened, Plato said that the soul became completely harmonious and just, and the Philokalia writers agree that this spiritual harmony, which they call dispassion, is the goal; it’s how we win the spiritual war and pray perfectly.

When we can finally get our emotions under control and train them to love God fully, we turn the tide against demons because our strong emotions now fight against the demons instead of obeying temptation: “Our incensive power is also a good defense against this demon (that upsets our desires). When it is directed against evil thoughts, such power fills the demon with fear and destroys his designs. And this is the meaning of the statement: ‘Be angry, and do not sin (Psalm 4:4)’.” (Discrimination, Sec #15) This is why it is said “He who has mastery over his incensive power [AKA emotions and desires] has mastery also over the demons.”(Discrimination, Sec #12)

So, if you want to learn how to fruitfully integrate your emotions into your spiritual life, and how to use them to resist sin, read the Philokalia.

 4 – Fear is the Training Ground of Spiritual Progress

Everyone has moments of fear, especially in spiritual warfare. A demon can introduce thoughts into our minds that worry us, or assault us in more direct ways. Yet, no matter how frightening these assaults become, we can’t give in to fear, since fear so often leads to sin or despair. How is it that this happens? When we’re frightened, our mind loses the ability to think about holy things, and instead becomes focused on the evil we’re facing. But “evil thoughts cut off good thoughts” (Discrimination, Sec #6) and thus we find ourselves forgetting about God out of sheer panic and terror. If this terror lasts too long, we might altogether forget that God is even present or concerned, which leaves us in an extremely vulnerable position not too far from despair, which is exactly where a demon would like to have us.

Instead, the next time you find yourself assaulted, don’t let panic make you forget what you know to be true about God, but see the assault in a new perspective. In the same way that athletes go through difficult training to perfect themselves for great victories, the fear is an opportunity to perfect yourself. This is what Evagrios the Solitary had in mind when he wrote “Do not be afraid of the noises you may hear. Even if you should see some demonic fantasy, do not be terrified or flee from the training ground so apt for your progress. Endure fearlessly, and you will see the great things of God, His help, His care, and all the other assurances of salvation. For as the Psalm says ‘I waited for Him who delivers me from distress of spirit and the tempest (Psalm 55:8).” (“On Asceticism & Stillness”)

So, should you find yourself in a terrifying spiritual assault, the Philokalia is helpful for seeing things in a healthier perspective, and can help you withstand it and grow.

5 – Shame is a Friend Against Evil

Shame hasn’t been a popular concept in Western societies for centuries, and to most people it’s a useless relic of barbaric times. But you might reconsider that prejudice after reading the Philokalia, since it redeems the idea of shame by employing it as a failsafe against evil.

Here’s the basic idea: let’s say you’re in a battle against temptation, and starting to lose. You’re nearly at the point when all your defenses against sin are failing, and you’re getting close to giving up the fight and losing control. “Not so fast!” shouts Evagrios the Solitary: “Remember too, the day of your resurrection and how you will stand before God. Imagine that fearful and awesome judgment seat. Picture all that awaits those who sin: their shame before God the Father and His Anointed, before angels, archangels, principalities and all mankind.” (36) In other words, let your emotions enter the battle; let them feel the unspeakable shame of the future, and allow that to ruse them into hatred against the demons, which “contributes greatly to our salvation and helps our growth in holiness” (Discrimination, Sec #9)

Moreover, don’t forget that you aren’t alone in the spiritual war even at that very moment of weakness: “Know that the holy angels encourage us to pray and stand beside us, rejoicing and praying for us (cf Tobit 12:13)”. If nothing else can stop you from sinning, then at least know that the angels standing beside you get really upset when you give into temptation: “Therefore, if we are negligent and admit thoughts from the enemy, we greatly provoke the angels. For while they struggle hard on our behalf we do not even take the trouble to pray to God for ourselves.” (On Prayer, Sec #81)

Do you really want to make the angels cry? No, of course you don’t, so use that shame to ruse yourself against sin.

6 – All Suffering Makes us Better Spiritual Athletes

Finally, I want to touch on something I briefly mentioned in point 3 about spiritual athleticism. All suffering, no matter how bad, has some good that can be taken from it. This is, in my mind, one of the most important points one could probably take away from the Philokalia. Once you realize it, it will entirely flip the way that you view and approach suffering in life. Allow me to explain more in depth.

The writers of the Philokalia were no strangers to suffering, not only because of demonic activity against them but also their ascetic lifestyle. If they approached suffering as a punishment, or something in which no good could have emerged from, they would’ve collapsed into despair. So, the problem to answer in such a life becomes “how can we not only weather through suffering, but embrace it and find joy in spite of it?” The Philokalia suggests that the answer is to re-conceive of evil not as something to be despaired over, but as something to use as a means towards perfection. Begin to think of evil experienced in this lifetime as an athlete thinks of his training. It’s unpleasant, but if we make it part of a grand story that culminates in winning a championship, we give it a meaning which drives us forward instead of tearing us down into despair. Reconceived as part of a training program that leads towards excellence, the suffering becomes bearable, and we now experience it as a small exercise towards the greater purpose of virtue instead of despairing over it. Thus, “suffering and dishonor give birth to virtues” (“No Righteousness by Works”, Sec #157)

This explains the sort-of-odd fact that the monks thought of themselves as spiritual athletes (after all, the Greek word we translate as “asceticism” literally means “military training” or “athletic practice”). It’s because they were accepting all the suffering they experienced as athletic training towards perfection. This attitude is well summed-up by the following quotes from St. Mark the Ascetic:

“If it is not easy to find anyone conforming to God’s will who has not been put to the test, we ought to thank God for everything that happens to us.” (No Righteousness by Works, Sec #200)

“The mercy of God is hidden in sufferings not of our choice; and if we accept such sufferings patiently, they bring us to repentance and deliver us from everlasting punishment” (No Righteousness by Works, Sec #139)

Thus, the Philokalia constantly reminds us that with the proper perspective, we can transform our suffering so that it is no longer a vehicle for despair, but the training ground that will prepare us for holy victory, excellence and joy.

These are six of the most important ideas that I can currently think of in the Philokalia. As I hope to have shown, the Philokalia not only advises us on how to be virtuous and how to pray well, but it exposes the weak spots of our souls that the demons attempt to wound, and points out their invasion plans so that we may better prepare ourselves. The Philokalia encourages us to have strength during our darkest days, and shows us how through example.

And the Philokalia can teach us much more, of course, but hopefully I’ve cajoled the reader into discovering on their own what else it has to tell.