Directions to Hesychasts, in a Hundred Chapters (14th cent.)

I found out about Directions to Hesychats, in a Hundred Chapters because of Lev Gillet’s discussion of it in The Jesus Prayer. Gillet says, “The Century remains a precious manual. Even today, to those called by God to adopt the [Jesus] Prayer as their own particular path and in a position to organize their life around it, one cannot recommend a better guide—with some necessary adaptation—or at least a better initiation” (63). A footnote in Gellet’s book pointed me to Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, where, on pages 164–270, an English translation of the Century, or “the Hundred Chapters,” of Callistus and Ignatius of Xanthopoulos can be found. [Fortunately, I received Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart for my birthday a few years ago. Many thanks to my family for such a fine gift.]

This “manual” itself, like most writings in the Philokalia, is a commentary on a collection of quotes from saints and a synthesis of those quotes. It begins with a preface of sorts (ch. 1–13),* stating that the authors wrote this book to help its readers regain the state they had at their baptism. “When we are being baptized, our soul, purified by the Spirit, becomes brighter than the sun; not only are we then able to look at the glory of God, but we ourselves take on something of its radiance” (5). This state conferred at baptism, according to Callistus and Ignatius, is lost because “we cover it over with the fog of passions, either through abuse of temporal things, or through excess cares for worldly activities,” but the new state of baptism can be found again through “repentance and the fulfilment of commandments whose action is Divine” (6).

The preface concludes by saying that peace and love are paramount, and these are obtained “by calling on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ with faith . . . to obtain mercy and the true life concealed in Him” (9). Persons who “prefer prayer to the Lord above any other work or care” should have “the invoking of His holy and most sweet name, bearing it always in the mind, in the heart and on the lips” (13).

Starting with chapter 14, the authors get to the heart of prayer. It begins with renunciation of self-will and obedience to good authority. The authors here recommend a spiritual director, if for no other reason so that a person might learn obedience in following their directors directives.

Next, Callistus and Ignatius offer five virtues to grow into: faith, truth, not doing one’s own will, not being contentious, and sincere confession (15). Chapter 17 then discusses the two types of fear of God: the first is the fear that is the beginning of wisdom, as the Psalmist describes it. The second, called the perfect fear of God, according to St. Peter of Damascus, is “love of virtue and fear of changeability; for no man is safe from changing. Therefore in this life we should always fear falling down in whatever work we do.”

Chapters 19–24 begin direct advice on the Jesus Prayer along with breathing techniques. Several writers today, including, I believe, Gillet, but definitely Ware, counsel against linking prayer to breath, since breath is meant to be involuntary, but here Callistus and Ignatius suggests following one’s breath into one’s center, saying the prayer therein, and releasing the breath, but continuing to dwell in the center of one’s being—in the heart (thus, the Jesus Prayer is often called “the prayer of the heart”). As for the words, the authors suggest, following a number of saints, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Quoting St. John Chrysostom, “A monk when he eats, drinks, sits, officiates, travels or does any other thing must continually cry: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me!” so that the name of the Lord Jesus, descending into the depths of the heart, should subdue the serpent ruling over the inner pastures and bring life and salvation to the soul” (21).

The authors suggest praying in a dimly lit room so as to limit possible distractions (23) and to maintain a state of collectedness—”Collected thoughts and concentrated attention make the mind pray unceasingly, purely and undistractedly” (24).

The following chapters, chapters 25–27, focus on a prayer schedule, including prayer at night, after meals, first thing in the morning—because “[w]e are commanded to bring the first and the best as offering to God, that is our first thought which we must direct straight to our Lord Jesus Christ in a pure prayer of the heart” (26)—and all during the day, “[r]elying on God alone, and praying to Him with contrition to implore His help . . . ” (27).

A section on constancy in prayer follows, and the authors reiterate time and again how essential constant prayer is. In line with the Orthodox tradition, genuflections are prescribed—300 a day, or as one has strength—to make prayer discipline part of one’s bodily life (39).

Chapter 45 begins advice for beginners, which is comprised of “five activities of preliminary, or introductory, silence”: prayer; psalmody; reading the holy Apostle, the Gospels, and the writings of the holy fathers; remembrance of sins and meditation on judgment; and doing work with one’s hands. The “how” involves beginning with the fear of God, growing in trust and distraction-free prayer, and entering into perfection by unceasing spiritual prayer (46).

Chapters 48–51 talk about maturity in prayer, saying that the mature do not need the latter “have mercy on me…” phrase since the prayer of the mature is prayed in “attention and sobriety, with no other thought or imagining.” [Oh to have such prayer.] “‘Have mercy upon me’ added to the salvation-working words of the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’, it was added by the holy fathers chiefly for those who are sill infants in the work of virtue, the beginners and the imperfect. For the advanced and the perfect in Christ are content with any one of those forms: ‘Lord Jesus’; ‘Jesus Christ’; ‘Christ Son of God!’ or even with one word ‘Jesus’, which they kiss and embrace as the complete doing of the prayer . . .” But Callistus and Ignatius counsel not to change the wording of one’s prayer too often because, like a tree often uprooted and moved, it will not bear much fruit.

The “why” question is answered in the next chapter, where the authors say the prayer’s purpose is “to cast the enemy out of the pastures of the heart and to have Christ actively abide there instead” (52).

The authors next move on to various fruits and anti-fruits of prayer and distraction respectively. Prayer warms the heart and drives away those things with inhibit prayer. This allows one to be a “monk in heart” (56); a notion that I like very much, especially in light of some of the more renunciate-type language used in parts of the book (perhaps with notions of complete renunciation, one can adapt as Gillet advises in his book). A monk in heart turns away from distraction and bears fruit of pure prayer.

Beginning in chapter 63, the authors spend several chapters talking about the folly of imagination in prayer—which is directly counter Ignatian spirituality (here, Ignatius of Loyola). The Jesuits, who I quite like, following Ignatius of Loyola, use imagination as part of study and prayer, allowing themselves to get into the stories. Here, the authors though rather flatly advise against imagination, perhaps because it requires too much of one’s own faculties and creates internal noise—a barrier to the pure prayer described herein. It’s interesting, the various prayer traditions in the church. Here, as in Ignatian spirituality, the work of directing the mind is done by the Holy Spirit (66), and “the good and life-giving Spirit [creates] ‘love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance'” (73).

The book next discusses repentance and overcoming the passions (read: passions in the classical sense, things that drag us into vice as opposed to virtue). The authors say to “strive to lead [one’s] thoughts far away from every material passion which may trouble the soul, and to contemplate Divine things with a clear and unshaded eye, insatiably enjoying the Divine light” (86). On passionlessness, Callistus and Ignatius then quote St. Maximus:

I call the first passionlessness when the carnal impulse towards sin is not translated into action. I call the second passionlessness a complete renunciation of passionate thoughts of the soul, whereby passionate impulses wither, since they are not instigated to action by passionate thoughts. I call the third passionlessness a total immobility of passionate lust, which usually has place also in the second, which is purity of thoughts. I call the fourth passionlessness a complete renunciation of passionate imaginings in thought (86).

In the end, the goal is the cardinal virtues, the three-cord rope as the authors say, of faith, hope, and love (90).

The final major section of the book contains a plea to participate in the Sacraments of the church—especially the Eucharist, the bread of life (91). The authors here quote St. John of the Cross, who says, “If a body coming into contact with another body undergoes a change under its influence, how can a [person] not change if [he or she] touches the body of God with pure hands?” Callistus and Ignatius sum up by saying that there are three “things which our deadly enemies fear most . . . : the cross, baptism and communion” (92). I think it is entirely appropriate to end with a meditation on the Sacraments of the church, for they strengthen us for contemplation and action.

The book then ends with a summary, a blessing, and a call to “refrain from casting aside such blessings, honours and joys [e.g., being children of God and coheirs with Christ] for the sake of some petty and short-lived self-pandering negligence and laziness or counterfeit pleasure.”


I apologize for the overly book report/summary format of this post. If you made it to the end, thank you. I hope you got something out of it despite the less than flowing format.

* All parenthetical citations refer to the chapter number, not to page numbers.

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