Excerpt #21 — Gregory Palamas on the Cross-Purposes of Spiritual-Ascetical Strivings and Literary Activity

This excerpt is too long to conscientiously include in the upcoming post I was going to cite it in, so I’m shaving it off and leaving it here.

Needless to say, the spiritual aspirations of ascetical practices and the cultivation of interior stillness are so far removed from our rabidly online existence and culture of online commenting that it seems clear that the very virtues that most of these fora lack and need are at massive cross-purposes with them.

The excerpt below is of interest in looking at various motives for writing, or not writing, and at least one kind of concern and purpose that runs afoul, in principle if not in practice, of the purposes that can often attend to writing. Also of concern is the understanding of words, and speaking, and the highest aims one ascribes to both — and whether writing is ever more than a proxy for that.

This formulation is, perhaps, approaching what many today would consider extreme (in rhetoric, if not in actual sentiment — though it is not far from the attitude of those who pull out of social media altogether, or who get rid of their cell phones), but for that very reason, helpful.

From Gregory Palamas, To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia, from The Philokalia: The Complete Text vol. 4 transl. & ed. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, & Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), 293ff.

1. Those who truly desire to live a monastic life find all talk troublesome, whether it is with people at large or with those living in the same way as themselves. For it breaks the continuity of their joyful intercourse with God and sunders, and sometimes shatters, that one-pointed concentration of the intellect which constitutes the inward and true monk. For this reason one of the fathers [Arsenios], when asked why he avoided people, answered that he could not be with God while associating with men. Another father, speaking of these things from experience, affirms that not only talk with others but even the sight of them can destroy the steady quietude of mind possessed by those who practice stillness.

2. If you observe carefully you will find that even the thought of someone’s approach, and the expectation of a visit and of having to talk, disrupt your mental tranquility. If you write you burden your intellect with even more demanding worries. For if you are among those who are well advanced on the spiritual path and who through their soul’s good health have attained God’s love, then though this love will be active within you while you write, it will be so only indirectly and not unalloyed. But if you are one who still falls into many maladies and passions of the soul –and such in truth am I– and must continually cry out to God, “Heal me, for I have sinned against Thee” (cf. Ps. 41:4), then it is unwise for you to leave off prayer before being healed and of your own accord to occupy yourself with something else. In addition, through your writings you converse also with those who are not present, and often what you write falls into the hands of others, sometimes of those whom you would not wish to read it, since writings usually survive the death of their author.

[294] 3. For this reason many of the fathers who practiced extreme stillness could not bear to write anything at all, although they were in a position to set forth great and profitable things. It is true that I myself, who totally lack the strict observance of the fathers, have the habit of writing, although only when some great need compels me to do so. Now, however, those who look upon certain of my writings with malicious eyes and seek to find in them grounds to do me wrong have made me more reluctant to write. Such people, according to [Pseudo Dionysius Divine Names IV.11], are passionately attached to the component parts of letters, to meaningless penstrokes, to unfamiliar syllables and words — things that do not touch their power of noetic understanding. It is indeed witless, perverse, and entirely inappropriate to want to understand divine things and yet to pay attention, not to the purpose of what is said, but to the words alone.


6. I myself had intended to give up writing altogether because of the somewhat trivial attacks made upon me, even though those who attacked me have been synodically condemned. But now you, most reverend mother, through your constant requests in letters and [295] messages, have persuaded me once again to write words of counsel, though indeed you have no great need of counsel. For by the grace of Christ you have gained, together with old age, a venerable understanding, and for many years you have studied and applied the ordinances of the divine commandments, dividing your life in due measure between obedience and stillness. In this way you have wiped clean the tablet of your soul, so that it is capable of receiving and preserving whatever God writes on it. But the soul completely dominated by its desire for spiritual instruction is never sated.

[297] 13. Life of the soul is union with God, as life of the body is its union with the soul. […] the Lord says in the Gospels, “The words I speak to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). And having experienced the truth of this, St. Peter said to Him, “Thy words are the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). But they are words of eternal life for those who obey them

This is only a short excerpt; there are a number of motifs that Palamas takes up, in sections of this work that I have not cited, that I cannot get into here, as they are off-topic to the question of the relationship between writing and spiritual aspirations. I mean to get to these topics as background material with regard to the practices of writing in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. 

One thought on “Excerpt #21 — Gregory Palamas on the Cross-Purposes of Spiritual-Ascetical Strivings and Literary Activity

  1. Pingback: Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 2 | Into the Clarities

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