I don’t know about anyone else, but I often become quite confused when reading the Fathers. This is not a big problem per se, but it is sometimes compounded by two other problems: 1) on certain rather ‘esoteric’ questions, I don’t have many sources to turn to for clarification when a particular passage is confusing, and 2) while my reading of the Fathers is never a purely academic exercise, sometimes I would even go so far as to say that the meaning of particular passages carries great existential significance for me, or at the very least, it concerns something I am more than idly curious about.
This post is about an interesting example of the phenomenon of which I speak. In Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (the first, I believe, of the three sources in which I read the sentence I am about to quote), under chap. 5—'How to psalmodise'—in St Gregory Sinaites's 'Instructions to Hesychasts', we read: 'To psalmodise much is good for those who follow active life, since they are ignorant of mental occupations and lead a life of labour' (E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart [London: Faber, 1992], p. 76). In the complete English Philokalia, the same treatise is called 'On Prayer: Seven Texts', and once again, chap. 5 is called 'How to Psalmodize'. The corresponding sentence reads: 'To psalmodize often is appropriate for novices in the ascetic life, because of the toil it involves and the spiritual knowledge it confers' (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], p. 278). The Greek Φιλοκαλία, enigmatically, says: 'Τὸ γὰρ πολλὰ ψάλλειν, τῶν πρακτικῶν ἐστι, διὰ τὴν ἀγνωσίαν καὶ τὸν κόπον·' (Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος Δ´ [Athens: Astir, 1982], p. 82).
In its context, this is a passing statement, almost like a note St Gregory has made to himself, one which certainly embodies the very soul of wit much better than poor Polonius could manage. Kadloubovsky and Palmer are translating from the Russian Добротолюбіе of St Theophan the Recluse (as opposed to Palmer, et al., of course), so one is tempted to conclude that the amplification in Writings is taken from St Theophan, though lacking the Russian edition I cannot verify this. But the point is that different translators, whoever they are, have taken the same terse statement and amplified it in ways that almost seem diametrically opposed to one another. In Writings, the statement seems to suggest that psalmodising (not to mention ‘labour’) and ‘mental occupations’ can never coincide, while in the complete Philokalia, the same passage suggests that psalmodising leads to ‘mental occupations’ (or ‘spiritual knowledge’, as the translators have it). Furthermore, the ‘labour’ (‘toil’) is apparently identified with the psalmodising itself in the later text, rather than being one of the qualifications for psalmodising much.
The most frustrating part was turning to the Greek (my ancient Greek is not good enough to just sit and read through the Fathers), and finding the question as it were simply handed back to me. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like it would have been nice if there were at least some possessive pronouns to accompany those words, διὰ τὴν ἀγνωσίαν καὶ τὸν κόπον. I mean, I'm not going to shoot myself, apostatise, or go mad if I can't figure this out. I'm not losing sleep. I trust that if I really need to know, God will enlighten me somehow. The fact that I'm reading a text that the Добротолюбіе has accurately characterised as 'Instructions to Hesychasts' should probably be a sign that it's all my own fault for not following the standard patristic advice to read according to my own spiritual station. But any suggestions are, of course, most welcome.
By the way, I couldn't help but notice that today was the feast of St Ioannikios of Devich, whose monastery was recently destroyed by Muslim Albanians in their continuing quest to eradicate the Orthodox heritage of Kosovo. Let's all say a prayer for the Orthodox Christians of that troubled Serbian land.