MYSTICISM: Discourse On Abba Philimon

Discourse On Abba Philimon

From The Philokalia

It is said that Abba Philimon, the anchorite, lived for a long time enclosed in a certain cave not far from the Lavra of the Romans.  There he engaged in the life of ascetic struggle, always asking himself the question which, it is reported, the great Arsenios used to put to himself: “Philimon, why did you come here?”  He used to plait ropes and make baskets, giving them to the steward of the Lavra in exchange for a small ration of bread.  He ate only bread and salt, and even that not every day.  In this way he took no thought for the flesh, but, initiated into ineffable mysteries through the pursuit of contemplation, he was enveloped by divine light and established in a state of joyfulness.  When he went to church on Saturdays and Sundays, he walked alone in deep thought, allowing no one to approach him lest his concentration should be interrupted.  In church he stood in a corner, keeping his face turned to the ground and shedding streams of tears.  For, like the holy fathers, and especially like his great model Arsenios, he was always full of contrition and kept the thought of death continually in his mind.

When a heresy arose in Alexandria and the surrounding area, Philimon left his cave and went to the Lavra near that of Nikanor.  There he was welcomed by the blessed Paulinos, who gave him his own retreat and enabled him to follow a life of complete stillness.  For a whole year Paulinos allowed absolutely no one to approach him, and he himself disturbed him only when he had to give him bread.

On the feast of the holy resurrection of Christ, Philimon and Paulinos were talking when the subject of the eremitical state came up.  Philimon knew that Paulinos, too, aspired to this state, and with this in mind he implanted in him teachings taken from scripture and the fathers that emphasized, as Moses had done, how impossible it is to conform to God without complete stillness; how stillness gives birth to ascetic effort, ascetic effort to tears, tears to awe, awe to humility, humility to foresight, foresight to love; and how love restores the soul to health and makes it dispassionate, so that one then knows that one is not far from God.

He used to say to Paulinos: “You must purify your intellect completely through stillness and engage it ceaselessly in spiritual work.  For just as the eye is attentive to sensible things and is fascinated by what is sees, so rapt by spiritual contemplation that it is hard to tear it away.  And the more the intellect is stripped of the passions and purified through stillness, the greater the spiritual knowledge it is found worthy to receive.  The intellect is perfect when it transcends knowledge of created things and is united with God: having then attained a royal dignity it no longer allows itself to be pauperized or aroused by lower desires, even if offered all the kingdoms of the world.  If, therefore, you want to acquire all these virtues, be detached from every man, flee the world, and sedulously follow the path of the saints.  Dress shabbily, behave simply, speak unaffectedly, do not be haughty in the way you walk, live in poverty and let yourself be despised by everyone.  Above all, guard the intellect and be watchful, patiently enduring indigence and hardship, and keeping intact and undisturbed the spiritual blessings that you have been granted.  Pay strict attention to yourself, not allowing any sensual pleasure to infiltrate.  For the soul’s passions are allayed by stillness; but when they are stimulated and aroused they grow more savage and force us into greater sin; and they become hard to cure, like the body’s wounds when they are scratched and chafed.  Even an idle word can make the intellect forget God, the demons enforcing this with the compliance of the senses.

“Great struggle and awe are needed to guard the soul.  You have to divorce yourself from the whole world and sunder your soul’s affection for the body.  You have to become cityless, homeless, possessionless, free from avarice, from worldly concerns and society, humble, compassionate, good, gentle, still, ready to receive in your heart the stamp of divine knowledge.  You cannot write on wax unless you have first expunged the letters written on it.  Basil the Great teaches us these things.

“The saints were people of this kind.  They were totally severed from the ways of the world, and by keeping the vision of Heaven unsullied in themselves they made its light shine by observing the divine laws.  And having mortified their Earthly aspects through self-control and through awe and love for God, they were radiant with holy words and actions.  For through unceasing prayer and the study of the divine scriptures the soul’s noetic eyes are opened, and they see the King of the celestial powers, and great joy and fierce longing burn intensely in the soul; and as the flesh, too, is taken up by the Spirit, man becomes wholly spiritual.  These are the things which those who in solitude practice blessed stillnesss and the strictest way of life, and who have separated themselves from all human solace, confess openly to the Lord in Heaven alone.”

When the good brother heard this, his soul was wounded by divine longing; and he and Abba Philimon went to live in Sketis where the greatest of the holy fathers had pursued the path of sanctity.  They settled in the Lavra of Saint John the Small, and asked the steward of the Lavra to see to their needs, as they wished to lead a life of stillness.  And by the grace of God they lived in complete stillness, unfailingly attending church on Saturdays and Sundays but on other days of the week staying in their cells, praying and fulfilling their rule.

The rule of the holy Elder was as follows.  During the night he quietly chanted the entire psalter and the biblical canticles, and recited part of the gospels.  Then he sat down and intently repeated, “Lord have mercy,” for as long as he could.  After that he slept, rising towards dawn to chant the First Hour.  Then he again sat down, facing eastward, and alternately chanted psalms and recited by heart sections of the epistles and gospels.  He spent the whole day in this manner, chanting and praying unceasingly, and being nourished by the contemplation of Heavenly things.  His intellect was often lifted up to contemplation, and he did not know if he was still on Earth.

His brother, seeing him devoted so unremittingly to this rule and completely transformed by divine thoughts, said to him: “Why, father, do you exhaust yourself so much at your age, disciplining your body and bringing it into subjection?”  And he replied: “Believe me, my son, God has placed such love for my rule in my soul that I lack the strength to satisfy the longing within me.  Yet longing for God and hope of the blessings held in store triumph over bodily weakness.”  Thus at all times, even when he was eating, he raised his intellect up to the heavens on the wings of his longing.

Once a certain brother who lived with him asked him: “What is the mystery of contemplation?”  Realizing that he was intent on learning, the Elder replied: “I tell you, my son, that when one’s intellect is completely pure, God reveals to him the visions that are granted to the ministering powers and angelic hosts.”  The same brother also asked: “Why, father, do you find more joy in the psalms than in any other part of divine scripture?  And why, when quietly chanting them, do you say the words as though were were speaking with someone?”  And Abba Philimon replied: “My son, God has impressed the power of the psalms on my poor soul as he did on the soul of the prophet David.  I cannot be separated from the sweetness of the visions about which they speak: they embrace all scripture.”  He confessed these things with great humility, after being much pressed, and then only for the benefit of the questioner.

A brother named John came from the coast to Father Philimon and, clasping his feet, said to him: “What shall I do to be saved?  For my intellect vacillates to and fro and strays after all the wrong things.”  After a pause, the father replied: “This is one of the outer passions and it stays with you because you still have not acquired a perfect longing for God.  The warmth of this longing and of the knowledge of God has not yet come to you.”  The brother said to him: “What shall I do, father?”  Abba Philimon replied: “Meditate inwardly for a while, deep in your heart, for this can cleanse your intellect of these things.”  The brother, not understanding what was said, asked the Elder: “What is inward meditation, father?”  The Elder replied: “Keep watch in your heart; and with watchfulness say in your mind with awe and trembling: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.’  For this is the advice which the blessed Diadochos gave to beginners.”

The brother departed; and with the help of God and the Elder’s prayers he found stillness and for a while was filled with sweetness by this meditation.  But then it suddenly left him and he could not practice it or pray watchfully.  So he went again to the Elder and told him what had happened.  And the Elder said to him: “You have had a brief taste of stillness and inner word, and have experienced the sweetness that comes from them.  This is what you should always be doing in your heart: whether eating or drinking, in company or outside your cell, or on a journey, repeat that prayer with a watchful mind and an undeflected intellect; also chant, and meditate on prayers and psalms.  Even when carrying out needful tasks, do not let your intellect be idle but keep it meditating inwardly and praying.  For in this way you can grasp the depths of divine scripture and the power hidden in it, and give unceasing work to the intellect, thus fulfilling the apostolic command: ‘Pray without ceasing.’  Pay strict attention to your heart and watch over it, so that it does not give admittance to thoughts that are evil or in any way vain and useless.  Without interruption, whether asleep or awake, eating, drinking, or in company, let your heart inwardly and mentally at times be meditating on the psalms, at other times be repeating the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.’  And when you chant, make sure that your mouth is not saying one thing while your mind is thinking about another.”

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