Virtually every spiritual tradition has an authoritative scripture or scriptures that serve as a foundational text for its beliefs, practices, and spirituality. For Christians, that collection of texts is the Holy Bible. But the fracturing of the Christian Church in the fifth century (following the Council of Chalcedon in 451), the eleventh century (the break between what came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches), and the sixteenth century (the Protestant Reformation) has produced a dizzying variety of spiritual traditions. Each of these traditions in turn has its own set of subsidiary texts that serve as spiritual classics within the particular tradition. These secondary texts give expression to each tradition’s appropriation of the Bible. Each spiritual tradition reflects a lived interpretation of scripture.
In the anonymous nineteenth-century Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim asks a staretz, or spiritual father, whether the Philokalia is “more exalted and holier than the Bible.” The staretz answers:
No, it is not more exalted or holier than the Bible, but it contains enlightened explanations of what is mystically contained in the Bible, and it is so lofty that it is not easily comprehended by our shortsighted intellects. Let me give you an illustration. The sun is the greatest, the most resplendent and magnificent source of light, but you cannot contemplate or examine it with the simple naked eye. You would need to use a special viewing lens, which, though a million times smaller and dimmer than the sun, would enable you to study this magnificent source of all light and to endure and delight in its fiery rays. Thus the Holy Scriptures are like a brilliant sun, for which the Philokalia is the lens needed in order to view it.
The contemplative tradition of the Holy Mountain (as Mount Athos is known in Greece) had reached its height in the fourteenth century, but by the seventeenth it had become prey to secularizing influences from the West. Realizing the danger to the authentic spiritual character of Mount Athos, the leaders of the Athonite monasteries sought to recover its true heritage. One leader in this was Nikodimos. Although best remembered for the Philokalia, he authored or translated over a hundred books on the spiritual life. Makarios, a fellow monk who later left the Holy Mountain to become archbishop of Corinth, aided him in the compilation of the Philokalia.
~Allyne Smith, Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts (Selections Annotated & Explained. Translation by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).