From Ouspensky to the Philokalia

The Philokalia is really a miniature library. The manuscripts which comprise it were originally written in Greek. Although the texts are mostly far older, the present-day collection was compiled by Macarius of Corinth (1731-1805) and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (?1748-1809). It was published in Venice in 1782, a choice which I have not been able to understand. The Greek version was translated into Slavonic under the title Dobrotolubiye, by the monk Paissy Velichkovsky (†1794), who had visited Mount Athos. This translation was very important in the Slavonic tradition and the reinvigoration of the monastic tradition and the use of the “Jesus Prayer” which are dated to the beginning of the nineteenth century (thus showing how individual efforts can be, no matter how unpromising they first seem). Later, the Philokalia was translated into Russian by Bishop Theophan the Recluse (†1894), another important figure in the tradition.

The 1951 volume was the first large selection published in English. Prepared, edited, translated, and commented upon by Evgeniia Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, it was taken from the Russian text, and concentrated on the theme of the “Prayer of the Heart.” The four volume edition in English, however, is translated from the Greek, and was commenced by Palmer with Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware. There should be a fifth volume if it is to be complete. When volume 4 was published in 1995, it bore a note promising a fifth and final volume, but so far, it has not appeared.

In 1954, appeared Early Fathers from the Philokalia, a sequel to the 1951 volume, again by Kadloubovsky and Palmer. This included materials from St Isaac the Syrian, one of the most important writers of the entire Christian mystic tradition. Those were the only two volumes produced by that formidable team, who also in that same year (1954), saw the publication of Unseen Warfare as edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse. The rate at which these two worked was quite remarkable. When we consider how slowly the later texts appeared when Kadloubovsky was no longer on the team, I am not sure whether it is a testament to her efficiency and ability, or to the more rigorous nature of later editions, or a bit of both. This is based upon a work by Fr Lorenzo Scupoli, an Italian writer (c.530-1610), for whom I have tried to find information. Some details are known, e.g. that he was a Theatine, but little else. Nothing I can find in the Theatine tradition prepares us for the extraordinary insight in his little volume Il combattimento spiritual (1589). That it was taken up by Orthodox mystics is in itself quite interesting. Kadloubovksy and Palmer also translated The Art of Prayer, an anthology of texts which had been complied by Igumen Chariton. It was edited by Ware and published in 1966. I have not yet been able to examine that volume.

The first volume of the Greek translation of the Philokalia appeared in 1979, and as stated, the fourth volume was published in 1995, and a fifth was promised. However, the Greek translation was treated as if it were a new enterprise altogether. The first volume appeared bearing a dedication to Fr Nikon (†1963), a hermit of Mount Athos. It states that “without his inspiration this work would not have been undertaken.” This rather elides the memory of the earlier selections from the Russian. But apart from the fact that all are published by Faber & Faber, there is an evident continuity between the Russian translation and the Greek. Palmer was the runner who passed the baton from Gurdjieff’s esoteric current to the Orthodox tradition.

Evgenia Kadloubovsky was Ouspensky’s personal secretary, and it is not a bad guess that it was she who arranged the English translations which Ouspensky employed in his groups. Ouspensky adapted the techniques found in the books which comprise the Philokalia, rather than following them slavishly (e.g. instead of the short Jesus Prayer, he used longer prayers such as the “Our Father,” and he advised his students to try and remember themselves as they prayed, and to learn the prayers in different languages.) Of course, his idea of prayer was taken from Gurdjieff, rather than from the Orthodox tradition. Mr Adie had typescript notes from the Philokalia. I am guessing that they came from his Ouspensky days, but perhaps some of the Gurdjieff groups used them, too.

Gerald Eustace Howell Palmer (1904-1984), a one time pupil of P.D. Ouspensky, was the Conservative MP for Winchester from 1935 to 1945. He lost his seat at the 1945 election, and in 1948 visited Mount Athos, where he met Fr Nikon a hermit. Given that he travelled in 1948, the year after Ouspensky’s death, it would not surprise me if he had been one of the “refuseniks” who had rejected Mme Ouspensky’s advice to go to Gurdjieff in Paris. (My source for Palmer’s having been a pupil of Ouspensky is the Wikipedia article on Robin Amis. However, I had been pretty sure that it must have been so, for otherwise it hard to see how he would have been working with Kadloubovsky and how they could have published so much so quickly.)

Palmer achieved a direct connection with Mount Athos, where he continued to travel each year, while maintaining a distinguished career in England. Fr Nikon became his teacher (starets), and he translated other works from the Orthodox tradition. And so, after Ouspensky’s death, the group he had founded started to split and move into different pre-existing traditions. The Gurdjieff current has always had an uneasy relationship with other traditions, note, for example, how many of Gurdjieff’s own followers made their way to Buddhism, especially Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

Having said all that, we should not how the volumes published by Kadloubovsky and Palmer champion the Orthodox tradition (a tradition which Mme Blavatsky, too, preferred to the Western). Thus, at the end of their very lengthy introduction to Unseen Warfare, they write:

Perpetual prayer – the abiding sense of God’s presence in the soul – spiritual warmth of heart; these are the recurring themes in Theophan’s revision of this book. Their introduction restores the balance of the traditional Christian teaching, which in Scupoli as in other modern Latin authors had become disturbed. It makes Unseen Warfare a genuinely Orthodox work, a worthy companion to the Philokalia, with which, both in Greece and in Russia, it has shared the same editors.

That is an introduction to this area. In future articles, I shall consider some of these texts in a little more detail.


  1. Concerning the fifth volume of THE PHILOKALIA, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, the sole surviving member of the original translation team is still — as of this date — finishing this work. He has stated as such in recent interviews and has promised it will be finished and published. Working alone on this would be daunting for anyone and the Metropolitan is an incredibly busy man

    Faber & Faber responds that no publishing date for Volume 5 has yet been set and that it remains the most requested after volume of their entire body of published work.

    I’d like to bring your attention to another two volume selection from THE PHILOKALIA. These English translations were executed by the late and esteemed Byzantine and Greek Studies scholar Constantine Cavarnos. Cavarnos was on the original Faber & Faber translation team but, after differences of scholarly procedure, left after the first volume’s publication.

    Volume One, published within his lifetime, is essentially the same content as the complete edition’s Volume One. Volume Two was published posthumously and contains material from the yet-to- be-published Volume 5. Realizing that he would be unable to complete his own comprehensive text translation, Cavarnos (also, a very busy man) did want to make sure that the selection in his second volume was brought to completion.

    While I am in no authoritative position to judge the following assessment, serious students of THE PHILOKALIA find that his translations though stylistically ‘rougher’ and less fluid than Faber & Faber, do hew closer to the meanings of the original Greek. Comparison of the two translations often does betray subtle but important differences of detail to this reader.

    Scroll down on this publisher’s listing for a further description

    1. Thank you, Gregory, this is interesting. I have checked, and yes, Cavarnos is mentioned in vol. 1 as having assisted. I shall have to order in his books. Translating such texts is more than ordinarily difficult because in addition to all the usual challenges, we are more seriously limited in our grasp of the original by our spiritual understanding than by our linguistic and cultural conditioning. Yours in Christ,

    2. Fifth volume of the Philokalia has been published. Currently (May 2023) available in hardback only.

  2. A correction to my previous post:

    As a result of failing eyesight and increasingly delicate health, final polishing of Cavarnos’ Volume Two text was turned over to Hieromonk Patapios, Archbishop Chry­sos­tom­os, and The Reverend Asterios Gerostergios. I erroneously reported that this volume was published posthumously when in point of fact Cavarnos remained ‘in consultation’ through to its final form.

    This 2009 volume is Cavarnos’ last of his nearly one hundred published books.

    A tireless author and lecturer, Cavarnos fell asleep in the Lord on the morning of March 3, 2011 at St Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona, site of his late life Schemamonk tonsure and final residence

    He was buried there the same day.

  3. Mr. Azize, thank you for your interesting information.
    Perhaps some remarks if you don’t mind.

    The book “the art of prayer” from 1966 was a collaboration of E. Kadboulovsky with Elizabeth M. Palmer, not with G.E.H. Palmer. I don’t know if the two Palmer’s were related.

    The fact that Palmer & Kadboulovsky could publish three essential and difficult books in 1951 and 1954 was not so much due to hard work in those three years alone, but more to the fact that Faber & Faber hesitated a long time before taking the risk to publish them. They were already for a long time studyïng and translating, also during the war-years. A lot of writers and publishers in those days had to wait long before publishing was possible, because of shortage of paper, money, the war effort and scarcity and especially the lack of buying-power from the customers. The market in those days was very small.

    Thirdly; why did Nikodemos & Makarios publish their greek work in Venice in 1782 ? Simply because the Greece of those days didn’t exist, it was part of the Ottoman-Turkish empire, and there were no printing-presses in Greece at that time. When there were they were not allowed to print such works there. Venice had a great tradition in (free) printing, had a long tradition in fighting the Ottoman Empire, had long relations with the Balkans and stood in a Byzantine tradition. I suppose Nikodemos & Makarios took a risk in openly publishing, in a samizdat-style in those days. I am interested to know if the first edition of the Philokalia was printed openly with their names, or anonymus.

    Greetings, and thank you,

    Machiel van Wolferen
    Temple of Silence, Enschede, Netherlands

  4. “The book “The Art of Prayer” from 1966 was a collaboration of E. Kadboulovsky with Elizabeth M. Palmer, not with G.E.H. Palmer. I don’t know if the two Palmer’s were related.”

    Yes, Elizabeth Palmer was the sister of Gerald [George] Palmer. The then Archimandrite Vitaly (later Metropolitan Vitaly, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) first received Gerald Palmer into the Russian Orthodox Church in London in 1949. Two years later, in 1951, he received into Orthodoxy Elizabeth Palmer.

      1. In 1969 I was received into Orthodoxy at the London Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia which then was located at Emperor’s Gate, London SW7. At that time both Gerald [George] Palmer and Elizabeth Palmer usually attended services at the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Annunciation in north London but they were also involved at Emperor’s Gate. In particular, they were generous benefactors of the Cathedral. Memory eternal to George and Elizabeth!

        For an historical reference, see “Embassy, Emigrants, and Englishmen” by Christopher Birchall (2014), pp. 358, 443, 496-505.

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