Nicephorus on Renouncing the World and its Illusions

Kadloubovsky and Palmer open their selection, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (1951) with a text by Nicephorus the Solitary known as “On Sobriety,” or, to provide its longer title, “A Most Profitable Discourse on Sobriety and the Guarding of the Heart.” It is unlikely that the author himself named it. As mentioned in a recent article, this translation was made not from the Greek original of the Philokalia but from the Russian Dobrotolubiye, based, I believe, on the Slavonic translation of the same name. The Russian translation was made by Bishop Theophan the Recluse (†1894).

The first thing to observe, and to hold in mind, is that this short work is addressed to hermits and monks: “You … who … have renounced all this world” (22). Also, the short treatise spends much of its time in citing other texts by and about recluses. There are several other references to the fact of its monastic target. The extent of the citations are such that it suggests that Nicephorus does not expect his recluses to have readily available to them those writings. Since Nicephorus died around 1340, this is probably correct: few hermits or even monks will have had reliable and easy access to good libraries.

That it is written for monks and hermits is not only relevant but also critical: a person living in the common domain of life cannot follow these instructions, because they are too onerous. They must, rather, be adapted, and this requires one who has some understanding to make the right and not the wrong adjustments to the instructions. Yet, to read the material is, in itself, good. Mr Adie said to us that the writers of the Philokalia were “undoubted spiritual masters.” Their works bring us into direct contact with the quality of their being, and that can only be a good thing, even if we cannot employ the exercises.

The second point is that the text falls into three sections, an introduction (22-24), a selection of writings from other writers (24-31), and only then the spiritual exercises which form the distinctive essence, and therefore the purpose of the whole work (31-34). That is, most of the book is preparation for the exercises, but the middle section is longer than the other two combined. That relatively lengthy group of quotations therefore needs to be understood as having its own value, even if that value is fully realised in the exercises.

The third point, and I think this is critical, is that if one cannot work at these exercises well, devoting to them all the with time they need, with good attention, and when you are not tired, it is better not to work at them at all, but only to profit from the ideas expressed.

Renunciation of the World of Illusion

 Now let us turn to the introduction. The opening is quite different from what we expect in devotional literature to the point of being startling:

You who desire to capture the wondrous divine illumination of Our Saviour Jesus Christ – who seek to feel the divine fire in your heart – who strive to sense the experience and feeling of reconciliation with God – who in order to unearth the treasure buried in the field of your hearts and to gain possession of it, have renounced everything worldly … and who for this purpose have renounced all the world … (22)

It is startling because it does not speak of salvation, redemption, the sacramental life or of virtue as such. Rather, it speaks of sensing one’s experience. That is, we have to be impartial to our own experience, and not be lost in it. Behind all of our thought, feeling and experience there is a soul which can sense them, and that is the treasure in the field of the heart, because that is forever united to God when it is in a state of grace. Also, it speaks of actually capturing and feeling divine illumination and fire. This is too large a topic to go into here, but this shows that Nicephorus us writing within a mystical tradition. One large part of that tradition came to be known as “Hesychasm,” and is associated with the name of St Gregory Palamas, perhaps above all others, but there are reasons to think that the tradition has other currents, too.

Then, when Nicephorus speaks of renouncing the world, Kadloubovsky and Palmer add a note that the Russian word means “the actual” and refers to “the apparent reality of the world of the senses, the passions and the discursive reason.” The Greek equivalent of the word they have translated as “the world” is ta paronta. This could hardly be more significant.

Paronta is a neuter plural participle serving as a noun. It comes from the verb pareimi, which means, before all else, “to be present.” I am using the BDAG dictionary for those who have studied Greek, citing p.773. The noun paronta is cited as having a specific nuance of “what one has, one’s possessions” (774). In other words, we could paraphrase Nicephorus as addressing: “You who for the experience of God have renounced all you have.” And even, one might say, all you are. But as Kadloubovsky and Palmer point out, the idea is the renunciation of illusion, the search, therefore, for truth.

Now, what does it mean to have renounced the apparent reality of the senses, the passions and the discursive reason? In Gurdjieff’s terms, it means not to identity with my sense impressions, feelings, and formatory thought – in short, to struggle with the eight features of sleep. So this treatise is not directed to the ordinary person, but to one who is already embarked upon a rigorous spiritual discipline. That is who it is addressed to. But it can be adapted for all of us.

I shall return to this in future articles, but you can see how deep and rich this material is.

May the prayers of St Nicephorus the Solitary always be with us.

Joseph Azize, the Feast of the Shoonoyo (the Assumption), 2017

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