Philokalia Monday: St. Isaiah (continued)

We return to blogging my way through, by reading and commenting on the four volumes of the English translation of the Philokalia. This work is, to quote wiki, “Other than the Bible, and a handful of writings by early Christian Fathers, the Philokalia is by far the most influential and widely admired example of Eastern Orthodox piety in print today. It is featured prominently in another much shorter well-known book called The Way of a Pilgrim, in which a Russian traveler learns to pray from various people he meets on his travels and by reading the Philokalia.” This work is a collection of writings from the fourth through at least the 15th centuries. The first writer quoted or excerpted in this work is by St. Isaiah the Solitary. Our redactor tells us he is attributed often as being dated at 370 but “more reliable” as a monk from the Sketis desert who died in 490.

The format of St. Isaiah’s work which is included in this collection is entitled “On Guarding the Intellect.” As noted before the format of these, and indeed many if not most, of the works in the Philokalia have an expository style which is unfamiliar to us today. These are largely in the form of short “chapters”, of just a few sentences in length. This format was the best fit for a pre-moveable type, collective contemplative monastic/cenoebitic community. These chapters could be memorized, used to center meditations and provide for easy recollection. St. Isaiah’s contribution is short, 27 chapters only.

A few are copied below the fold, after which some short commentary, which should be taken with a grain of salt of course.

  • (#2) If you find yourself hating your fellow men and resist this hatred, and you see that it grows weak and withdraws, do not rejoice in your heart; for this withdrawal is a trick of the evil spirits. They are preparing a second attack worse than the first; they have left their troops behind the city and ordered them to remain there. If you go out to attack them they will flee efore you in weakness. But if your heart is then elated because you have driven them away, and you leave the city, some of them will attack you from the rear while the rest will stand their ground in front of you; and your wretched soul will be caught between them with no means of escape. The city is prayer. Resistance is rebuttal through Christ Jesus. The foundation is incensive power [or aspect of the soul from thymos or to thymikon].
  • (#6) If your heart comes to feel a natural hatred for sin it has defeated the causes of sin and freed itself from them. Keep hell’s torments in mind; but know that your helper is at hand. Do nothing that will greive Him, but say to Him with tears: ‘Be merciful and deliver me, O Lord, for without my help I cannot escape from the hands of  m enemies.’ Be attentive to your heart, and He will guard you from all evil.
  • (#7) The monk should shut all the gates of his soul, that is, the senses, so that he is not lured astray. When the intellect sees that it is not dominated by anything, it prepares itself for immortality, gathering its senses together and forming them into one body.
  • (#8) If your intellect is freed from all hope in things visible, this is a sign that sin has died in you.
  • (#9) If your intellect is freed, the breach between it and God is eliminated.
  • (#16) He who receives no help when at war should feel no confidence at peace.

St. Isaiah in his chapters continues and returns frequently to metaphors of war and struggle. He varies between the ascetic struggle through military and other physical more obvious examples of struggle and encouragment by noting milestones indicitave of progress.

What can this tell the modern Christian (or perchance the secular). First, the monastic calling is not just for monks. Given faith, among those works that exist and grow if the faith is real is to strive to become closer to God. Until quite recently, becoming closer to God was an ascetic contemplative struggle. For “monk” in writings of the Philokalia we should read, “earnest believer.”

One might also wonder at the accuracy of the estimation given in #16, regarding Iraq.

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