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Keeping Silence of the Heart: Cultivating Attention and Sobriety According to the Philokalia

Silence of the heart, practiced with wisdom, will see a lofty depth; and the ear of the silent mind will hear untold wonders.”

– Hesychius of Jerusalem

The Philokalia is a collection of texts written by spiritual masters of the Eastern Orthodox Church between the 4th and 15th centuries. Philokalia means ‘love of the beautiful and the good’, and the writings that were added to this collection were mostly concerned with the importance of awakening and developing attention and consciousness in order to be connected with the Deity. In the foreword to this particular version that was translated from Russian, the translators write: ‘The primordial condition and absolute necessity is to know oneself,’ and that a practitioner ‘must learn to be alive to the many-sided possibilities of the ego; and he must eliminate all obstacles, personal as well as external.’ They add, ‘Silence and quiet are indispensable for concentration.’ This extract from the work of 5th century monk Hesychius of Jerusalem emphasizes the concentration and practice necessary to cleanse the ‘Inner Man’, and to clear the mind of all thought and form in order that it can be illuminated by the Deity.

Sobriety is the way of every virtue and every commandment of God. It is also called silence of the heart, and is the same as guarding the mind, kept perfectly free of all fantasies.

Attention is unceasing silence of the heart, free of all thoughts. At all times, constantly and without ceasing, it breathes Christ Jesus, the Son of God and God, and Him alone, it calls upon Him, and with Him bravely fights against the enemies, and makes confession to Him Who has power to forgive sins. Such a soul, through continual calling on Christ, embraces Him Who alone searches the heart; and it seeks to hide its sweetness and its inner attainment from all men in every way, lest the evil one should have an easy entrance for his wickedness and destroy its excellent working.

Sobriety is the steadfast setting up of the thought of the mind and posting it at the door of the heart, so that it sees alien thoughts as they come, those thieves and robbers, and hears what these destroyers say and do; and sees what is the image inscribed and figured in them by the demons, who are trying thus to seduce the mind by fantasy. For this work, when it is done with loving effort, reveals to us very fundamentally and clearly, by experience, the art of mental war and brings skill in it.

If we cut off the causes of the passions (occasions for their excitement), and busy ourselves with spiritual works only for a short time, but do not continue in them and persist in this same work for the rest of our life, we easily return to the passions of the flesh, having gained no other fruit than final darkening of the mind, and the deepest plunge into materiality.

Let a man holding a mirror and gazing attentively into it be an example to you of silence of the heart. And then (if you imitate him) you will see mentally inscribed in your heart both wicked things and good.

Be steadfast in attention of the mind, and you shall not be overburdened by temptations. Retreat from this, and suffer what befalls.

As those who have lost their appetite and taste for food are helped by bitter wormwood, so for those who have bad habits suffering is useful.

Since every thought enters the heart through imagining something sensory (and the sensory hinders the mental), so the light of the Deity begins to illumine the mind only when it is freed of everything and is totally empty of form (without representation of shape or form). For this illumination is manifested in a mind already pure, on condition that it is free of all thoughts.

In so far as you have perfect attention in your mind, by so much will you pray to Jesus with warm desire. And again, in so far as you watch over your mind carelessly, by so much will you become distant from Jesus. And as perfect attention entirely fills the air of the mind with light, so too, to be without sobriety and without the sweet invocation of Jesus makes it wholly dark. And the matter is naturally such as we have said it to be and not otherwise. This you will find by experience, if you will test it in practice; since virtue and especially this light-giving and sweet work is naturally learned only by experience.

A good teacher both of the body and the soul is perfect remembrance of death, when a man, looking beyond everything that is between (that is, between the present moment and the hour of death), is always seeing forward to that bed upon which we shall one day lie, breathing out our life; and at that which comes after.

It is impossible for a man to look at the sun, and the pupils of his eyes not glitter with the light. So too a man, who constantly penetrates into the air of the heart, cannot but shine with light.

This virtue of attention is called mental love of wisdom. Practice it with great sobriety and zealous warmth, with prayer to Jesus, with humility and constancy, with silence of your physical and mental lips, with abstinence in food and drink, withdrawing from all sin. Practice it by following the mental path skillfully with good judgement, and with God’s help it will reveal to you things you never expected, will give you knowledge, will enlighten you, make you wise and will teach you things which formerly your mind could not even receive, when you were walking in the obscurity of passions and dark deeds, plunged in the abyss of forgetfulness and confusion of thoughts.

The miller’s donkey cannot go straight ahead, but must move with the grindstone to which it is tied it goes round and round on the same spot until the grindstone is stopped). Similarly the mind can make no progress in the virtue that creates perfection (that is, progress in sobriety which leads to perfection) if it does not put the inner man in order (by stopping thoughts turning round and round). For such a man’s inner eye is always blind and he has no possibility to see virtue and the radiance of Jesus.

Silence of the heart, practised with wisdom, will see a lofty depth; and the ear of the silent mind will hear untold wonders.

Contemplation and knowledge promote and guide a man in strictness of living, for they lift up the heart on high and thus make it despise earthly pleasures and all worldly delights as something utterly worthless.

If the heart is completely freed of fantasies, it begins to give birth to Divine and mysterious thoughts, which play within it as fishes play and dolphins leap in a calm sea. The sea is fanned by a light breeze, but the depths of the heart—by the Holy Spirit. And the Apostle says: ‘And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father!’ (Gal. iv. 6).

Every monk will be doubtful and hesitant to undertake spiritual doing before acquiring sobriety of mind, either because he has not as yet experienced its beauty or because, having experienced this, he lacks the zeal to give him strength for the undertaking. But this hesitation will undoubtedly cease as soon as he begins the work of guarding the mind, which is and is called mental love of wisdom or active love of wisdom of the mind. For then he will find the way of Him Who said: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (John xiv. 6).

Hesychius of Jerusalem (5th Century)
From: Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart. Translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer

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