A Discourse on Abba Philimon: ACHIEVING INNER STILLNESS

Philokalia, vol. 2, p. 344,

We don’t know much about Abba Philimon except that he was humble, devoid of passions and uninterested in worldly things. This essay about him tells us that he was “initiated into ineffable mysteries through the pursuit of contemplation, he was enveloped by divine light and established in a state of joyfulness.”

His message is direct. It is simply impossible to unite with God “without complete stillness.” Hence, his lifelong goal was to achieve complete inner stillness.

Like all hesychasts, Abba Philimon’s premise is that passions bar us from ever becoming close to God. Passions are not to be toyed with, he tells us, because they are addictive and rapidly mushroom out of our control.

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.

Whether it is love for our work or for another person that becomes addictive; obsessive thoughts, jealousy or preoccupation over material goals, passions make anxiety the norm and clutter our minds, leaving no space for God to enter.  

Only stillness allays passions. When we are in a state of stillness, the intellect has “attained a royal dignity.”  We are anchored in firm ground and are no longer tossed in all directions by passions.

Zhou Yi, an 18th century Chinese seal carver and poet captures that state when writes: “I am so relaxed that I feel the white clouds are in a hurry.”

Abba Philimon’s teachings focus like a laser beam on the details of this journey from passion to stillness, unlocking a logical sequence of steps that guide us to God:  

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.

The progression is one of increasing clarity, inner freedom and unity with God and men.   Achieving a state of inner peace, gives you detachment from the passions that throw you off course. With this calm state of mind, we are able to shed tears.

Why tears? Note that these are not tears of frustration, sadness, or self-pity. They flow freely because, without the clutter of noise and delusion, we are suddenly able to see things we could not discern before. These are tears of awe and gratitude as the world is renewed for us and the glory of God becomes palpable. Awe, in turn, leads to humility as we see ourselves in true perspective –as pieces of God’s synergy and not as solitary beings lost in our own concerns and agendas.  Purified and enlivened, we reach the ultimate goal, love, and are restored to full health.

In this essay Philimon is presented as a spiritual master of asceticism, initiating us in meditation and a life of inner stillness. Stillness is not an abstract concept or expression of disembodied bliss. Philimon elucidates the rigorous process for attaining and maintaining it and gets to the nitty-gritty of daily practice.

Like a medical examiner performing an autopsy, he reveals the minute details of muscles, organs and circulation systems, hidden under the external form of a bod, and gives practical advice.

The description of his own ascetic rule is an example:

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.

He is equally practical and detailed in his advice to others.

When asked how to avoid fantasies in one’s sleep, for example, he suggests reciting prayers before going to sleep, especially psalms, and the creed.

He responds to the question about how to meditate inwardly with the admonishment:

Keep watch in your heart; and with watchfulness say in your mind with awe and trembling : Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me.

He knows that the state of stillness, especially in the beginning, is fragile. His advice to a person who lost the brief stillness he had achieved was to be patient and work to recapture it:

Pray without ceasing” ( I Thess. lj : I 7). 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.

Even though we are not ascetics, the process of attaining stillness and the presence of God must be always in our mind, as background music to our actions.

 Even when carrying out needful tasks, do not let your intellect be idle but keep it meditating inwardly and praying, 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. 

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