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Medieval Sourcebook:
Hesychasm:
Selected Readings


[HALSALL: Introduction]

Hesychasm can be a complex issue to understand, but it is easier when one realizes it has three distinct but interrelated meanings.

(The word itself derives from "hesychia" which means stillness, quiet, cf 1 Thess 4:1, 2 Thess 3:12, 1 Tim 2:2, 1 Pet 3:4)

1. A Method of Prayer

A psychosomatic method of prayer, probably dating back a long way in Byzantine monasticism [to St. Symeon the New Theologian in the 11th century, and earlier]. There is a possible, and speculative link to Buddhist methods [as with the rosary]. The method involved control of breathing, posture [perhaps including navel-gazing - hence the charge that the monks were "omphalapsychoi" - men (and it seems only to have involved men) with souls in their navels]. The intended effect of this prayer was the vision of light, often compared with the light seen at the Transfiguration at Mt. Tabor.

These methods, and in a sense monastic power, were attacked by Barlaam of Calabria [later in life Petrarch's Greek teacher] in the early 13th century.

2. A Theological System: Palamism

In response a distinct theological response, also known as Hesychasm, but also as Palamism, was evolved by St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359), an Athonite monk and later Archbishop of Thessalonica.

The essential point is that Palamas defended the reality of the monks' prayer experience. He did this by establishing a theological distinction analogous to that between Unity/Trinity with respect to God and nature/person with respect to Christ. Palamas said the God can be considered as, by nature, having an unknowable essence [a position required by the Neoplatonic Paradigm of an infinite and perfect being, by definition ineffable to finite beings] and [this is new, although Palamas would have denied it] knowable "energies".

One way of thinking about this is to say that for Palamas, in some sense, God's grace was part of God. These energies were knowable, and were what the monks were seeing during their prayer..

[In contrast Roman Catholic theologies of mystical experience, some of which is quite apophatic, have a real problem. Catholic theology also insists on God's ineffability, so how can mystical experience be understood? The one pope who insisted that the beatific vision was available on earth was castigated as being in error! Catholic writers vary between theories of some special grace, or are willing to assert that mystics do not experience God at all, but that God's grace give them a simulacrum of the experience - at least that was the argument of my Dominican friend, Fr. Aidan Nichols OP].

Although Palamas method was to use language of negation, I would not get too carried away with that, or modern mystagogy by some Orthodox writers. His project was in a sense related to that of Aquinas, who also faced the problem of the denial of possibility of saying anything about God. Aquinas answer was to develop [even if textbook theology took this too far] the notion of "analogy of being..

Palamite writers specifically call the process of reception of grace ["sanctification" to Catholics, impossible according to classical Protestantism] "theosis" which means "divinization" in reference to the words of Athanasios of Alexandria that "God became man that man might become God".

Palamas' theology represents intellectual footwork of a high order - completely analogous to that of the fourth and fifth century theological and Christological debate. The eventual adoption of Palamite theology and its significance is not always realized. One sometimes finds, for instance, Orthodox writers who accuse the Latins of altering the faith by adding the "filioque", but who do not recognize that the Orthodox also "developed" their theology just as much, perhaps more. [The whole issue was avoided at the Council of Florence, but by the late 19th and 20th centuries, this had become an area of dispute between Orthodox and Catholics, see for instance the very well informed, but incredibly hostile, writings of Martin Jugie, handily available in French in the Dictionaire de theologie Catholique.]

3. A Byzantine Political Grouping

Palamas theology, which brought about a huge conflict, got involved in Byzantine internal politics, which are particularly complex in the 14th century. There ended up being a Hesychast party, whose members might be neither monks nor theologians, and anti-Hesychasts who were extremely pious and even monastically inclined. eventually in series of councils in the mid-fourteenth century Palamite theology was adopted as the official position of the Orthodox Church.

This represented a victory both for the particular theology of Palamas, and for the monastic, especially Athonite, party in general. The result was a veritable monastic takeover of the Church - all later patriarchs, and many later bishops.

In effect this made the church stronger: and this same monastic, or Hesychast, party was responsible, at least if you take John Meyendorff's position, for pushing the spread of Orthodoxy in the Slavic world, along with its particular theology of prayer, and prayer directed at mystical experience. [This theme remained strong in Russia.]

The Hesychasts were not, in fact, hostile to the general population: the stress in its prayer methods on didactic repetition, and on physical approaches to grace, along with a new stress on the liturgy, stood the Orthodox church well under Turkish and Tsarist domination when preaching, as seen in Protestantism, was not possible due both to low education levels and state prohibition.

So in the widest perspective "Hesychasm" can be seen as the mystical aesthetic of the Orthodox church in its later Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods.

In sum, there is not one definition of "Hesychasm", rather a variety of meanings related to mystical prayer, Palamite theology, Byzantine politics and later Orthodox and monastic aesthetics.

The texts which follow are from http://www.digiserve.com/mystic/Christian/Orthodox/kunda.html, A website on mystical experience in many different religions. They represent the prayer tradition of Orthodoxy.

The Quotations

  • 1. Pervading
  • 2. Detachment and Renunciation
  • 3. Without Preferences
  • 4. Thinking about no thing
  • 5. Devotion
  • 6. Humility
  • 7. Sacred invocation

PERVADING

St. Symeon in Practical & Theological Discourses, 1.1:
When men search for God with their bodily eyes they find Him nowhere, for He is invisible. But for those who ponder in the Spirit He is present everywhere. He is in all, yet beyond all.

DETACHMENT AND RENUNCIATION

It is recorded somewhere of Amma Sarah that once as she was going along the road with some nuns a groups of monks came from the other direction. As they came near the monks discreetly crossed to the other side so as not to confront the nuns. Amma Sarah observed, "If you were true monks you would not have noticed that we are women."
"On Guarding the Intellect", taken from the Philokalia:

Abba Isaiah the Solitary:
7. Shut all the gates of your soul, that is the senses, so as to not be lured astray. When the intellect sees that it is not dominated by anything, it prepares itself for immortality, gathering its senses together and forming them into one body.
8-9. If your intellect is freed from all hope in things visible, this is a sign that sin has died in you. If your intellect is freed, the breach between it and God is eliminated.

St. Isaiah the Solitary:
25. The first virtue is detachment, that is, death in relation to every person or thing. This produces desire for God, and this in turn gives rise to the anger that is in accordance with nature, and that flares up against all the tricks of the enemy. Then the fear of God will establish itself within us, and through this fear love will be made manifest.

Saying of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward:

Amma Syncletica:
19. Amma Syncletica said, "There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts."

Amma Sarah:
8. Some monks of Scetis (an area of many hermits in the Egyptian desert) came one day to visit Amma Sarah. She offered them a small basket of fruit. They left the good fruit and ate e bad. So she said to them, "You are truemonks of Scetis."

WITHOUT PREFERENCES

Evagrios the Solitary, On Prayer, in the Philokalia
23 If you patiently accept what comes, you will always pray with joy.

THINKING ABOUT NO THING

Evagrios Ponticus, "On Prayer 61," in the Philokalia
Prayer is the laying aside of thoughts.

St. Isaac the Syrian in the Sebastian Brock translation of Homily 64
True wisdom is gazing at God. Gazing at God is silence of the thoughts. Stillness of mind is tranquillity which comes from discernment.

John the Solitary in On Prayer:
For God is silence, and in silence is he sung by means of that psalmody which is worthy of Him. I am not speaking of the silence of the tongue, for if someone merely keeps his tongue silent, without knowing how to sing in mind and spirit, then he is simply unoccupied and becomes filled with evil thoughts: ...There is a silence of the tongue, there is a silence of the whole body, there is a silence of the soul, there is the silence of the mind, and there is the silence of the spirit.

St. Isaac the Syrian writes that we pray with words until the words are cut off and we are left is a state of wonder.

Evagrios the Solitary, "On Prayer," in the Philokalia
If, then, you wish to behold and commune with Him who is beyond sense-perception and beyond concept, you must free yourself from every impassioned thought. Persevere with patience in your prayer, and repulse the cares and doubts that arise within you. Try to make your intellect deaf and dumb during prayer, you will then be able to pray.

Dionysius the Areopagite in Mystical Theology, Chapter 1:
In diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and non-being, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness.

Abbot Vasilios of Iveron Monastery in Hymn of Entry, p. 92:
by receiving a new sense of taste and a new form of knowledge in "stillness" and in giving himself over to God totally. Be still and know. Be still: remain in a state of spiritual wakefulness, with your prospects and your senses open, to hear what God's will is at each moment.

Abbot Vasilios of Iveron Monastery in Hymn of Entry, p. 103
Those who have been cleansed through following the path of stillness (hesychis) are counted worthy to see things invisible..., undergoing, as it were, the way of negation and not forming ideas about it. (citing St Gregory Palamas)

DEVOTION

St. Antony the Great once was living in the desert. The demons were giving him a hard time, beat him up, left him in a coma. Eventually folks found the body and carried him to the church, planning a funeral in the morning. In the middle of the night he got up and went back to his cave. And immediately the mean and nasties were at him again. Finally he called out in desperation, "Lord, help me!" and immediately Christ appeared and the demons scattered. "Lord, where were you when I needed you?" "I was always here, but I wanted to see what you were made of. As soon as you called (rather than relying on your own struggle) I am present."

Evagrios the Solitary, "On Prayer," in the Philokalia
The state of prayer is one of dispassion, which by virtue of the most intense love transports to the noetic realm the intellect that longs for wisdom.

HUMILITY

Saying of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward:

Amma Syncletica:
11....She also said, Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.
21. She also said, "Just as a treasure that is exposed loses its value, so a virtue which is known vanishes; just as wax melts when it is near fire, so the soul is destroyed by praise and loses all the results of its labor."
26. She also said, "Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility."

Amma Theodora:
The same Amma said that a teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him by flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; he must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern and a lover of souls.
She also said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that.

There was an anchorite (hermit) who was able to banish demons; and he asked them:
Hermit: What make you go away? Is it fasting?
The demons: We do not eat or drink.
Hermit: Is it vigils?
The demons: We do not sleep.
Hermit: Is it separation from the world?
The demons: We live in the deserts.
Hermit: What power sends you away then?
The demons: Nothing can overcome us, but only humility. Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons.?

SACRED INVOCATION

Invoke the Name of God, that's all we can do on our side, until God responds and leaves us wondering in silence. But that moment of silence changes all the sounds. The moment of divine light-filled darkness changes our perception of all colors.

THE TEACHER

Abbot George of Gregoriou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Eros of Repentance, pp. 18-19
The holy elders instruct the younger men not by calling them to imitate their virtues, but by showing them how much they feel thenselves to be sinners and unworthy. Athonites do not pretend to be good..A characteristic of the monk who lives in repentance is his attribution of every good thing to God...Those who possess the spirit of repentance and humility will normally withdraw from giving advice.

Saying of the Desert Fathers, The Alphbetical Collection, translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward:

Amma Syncletica:
12. She also said, "It is dangerous for anyone to teach who has not first been trained in the practical life. For if someone who owns a ruined house receives guests there, he does them harm because of the dilapidation of his dwelling. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; he causes loss tothose who come. By words one may convert them to salvation, but by evil behaviour, one injures them."

Amma Theodora:
The same amma said that a teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him by flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; he must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern and a lover of souls.

THE LIGHT

St. Symeon the New Theologian in The Catechetical Discourses XXII
During the day he managed a patrician's household and daily went to the palace, engaged in worldly affairs, so that no one was aware of his pursuits. One day, as he stood and recited, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner" Lk. 18:13), uttering it with his mind rather than his mouth, suddenly a flood of divine radiance appeared from above and filled all the room. As this happened the young man lost all awareness [of his surroundings]and forgot that he was in a house or that he was under a roof. He saw nothing but light all around him and did not know if he was standing on the ground. He was not afraid of falling: he was not concerned with the world nor did anything pertaining to men and corporeal beings enter his mind. Instead, he seemed to himself to have turned into light. Oblivious of all the world he was filled with tears and with ineffable joy and gladness. His mind then ascended to heaven and beheld yet another light, which was clearer than that which was close at hand. In a wonderful manner there appeared to him standing close to that light, the saint of whom we have spoken, the old man equal to angels, who had given him the commandment and the book. ...

St. Symeon the New Theologian in Catechetical Discourse XVI
So I entered the place where I usual prayed and mindful of the words of the holy man I began to say, "Holy God". At once I was so greatly moved to tears and loving desire for God that I would be unable to describe in words the joy and the delight I then felt. I fell prostrate on the ground, and at once I saw,and behold, a great light was immaterially shining on me and seized hold of my whole mind and soul, so that I was struck with amazement at the unexpected marvel and I was, as it were, in ecstasy. Moreover I forgot the place where I stood, who I and where and could only cry out, 'Lord, have mercy,' so that when I came to myself I discovered I was reciting this. But who it was that was speaking, and who moved my tongue, I do not know - only God knows.

St. Gregory Palamas in The Triads in Defence of the Hesychasts, Book3, Chapter 1, Paragraphs 29:
Deification is an enhypostatic and direct illumination which has no beginning, but appears in those worthy as something exceeding their comprehension. It is indeed mystical union with God, beyond intellect and reason, in the age when creatures will no longer know corruption.

St. Gregory Palamas in The Triads in Defence of the Hesychasts, Book 3, Chapter 1, Paragraphs 15:
Moreover, the transformation of our human nature, its deification and transfiguration - were these not accomplished in Christ from the start, from the moment in which He assumedour nature? Thus He was divine before, but He bestowed at thetime of His Transfiguration a divine power upon the eyes of the apostles and enabled them to look up and see for themselves.
This light, then was not a hallucination but will remain for eternity, and has existed from the beginning.

UNION

Abbot Vasilios of Iveron Monastery in Hymn of Entry, p. 102:
The soul can attain to the secrecy which is in God, where the mystery of unity beyond understanding and speech is celebrated, only when it has gone not only beyond the categories of vice and ignorance and of falsehood and wickedness - the vices which are opposite to virtue and knowledge and truth and goodness - but even, if one may say this, beyond the categories of virtue itself and of knowledge and truth and goodness as they are known to us. In the Kingdom of the Spirit of God, which lies beyond our senses and intellectual concepts and virtues, everything exists in a different way. It exists truly. (citing St. Maximos the Confessor)


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall June 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu