Christopher Cook’s The Philokalia and the Inner Life On Passions and Prayer

This recent book (2011) examines the teachings of the Philokalia, a collection of texts on Orthodoxspiritual life written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries, from the perspective of a psychiatrist with a particular interest in addictive behaviour who is also an Anglican priest. Starting with an arresting notion of Evagrios that humans are shepherds whose thoughts are to be cared for like sheep who have a tendency to wander, and the wise remark that for most of us the sheep often head for places we’d rather they didn’t, Cook works his way through what the Philokalia has to say about the passions (that is, any appetites or impulses that violently dominate the soul, not only sexual ones) which are seen as ‘hostile pleasures’. His words bear quoting at length: ‘[T]he passions represent a rich and complex understanding of the inner life of human beings which goes a long way towards providing a robust psychological framework for understanding the struggle for virtue….the concept [of demons] as developed by the Desert Fathers, Evagrios and the other authors of the Philokalia maintains the tension necessary to recognise both external influence and inner motivation; both the way in which human beings are acted upon, and also the way in which they must accept personal responsibility.’  

In later chapters Cook discusses remedies the Philokalia offers for the passions that are ‘based upon perceptive psychological insights, and a depth of theological reflection’, mental well being and the question of the forms a flourishing human life might take, the common ground between the Philokalia and psychotherapy, and thoughts and prayer. Here, the thoughts that earlier in the book appeared dangerously susceptible to veering out of control operate in a positive way. Quoting famous words of Evagrios, ‘If you are a theologian you will pray truly, and if you pray truly you will be a theologian’, Cook suggests that thoughts have the capacity both to deny and enable prayer, and to obscure and reveal God. 

Mention of demons touches a tricky area. The traditional notion of them has, let’s face it, little cash value these days, and it’s occurred to me that if demons do exist they may nowadays tempt people into believing in their existence, knowing that the things believed in won’t be taken seriously. But there can be no-one of some experience of life who hasn’t come up with what seem hard-wired tendencies, whether in themselves or in society, that seem to exist independently of human will and that, if followed to the end, would lead to the non-existence traditionally seen as the culmination of evil.

This book, too briefly summarized here, deserves to be widely read, perhaps particularly by Orthodox, for it makes accessible and as it were translates into a modern key a difficult but important part of their tradition.

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