Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Hesychasm

Ησυχασμός, from ησυχία (stillness, silence, and rest) is the mystical tradition of prayer, based on Christ's instruction to 'enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray.' (Matthew 6:6) Hesychasm has been the process of retiring inwards, closing off all other senses and cares, in order to fervently pray 'in secret,' leading to experiential knowledge of God. This short piece will discuss the origins of the Hesychast movement, its practices, its central role in Byzantine monasticism and spirituality, and its controversy within the Byzantine Empire. Finally, in the concluding paragraph, I will emphasise the inseparability between hesychastic mysticism and the theology of the Church.

Metropolitan Kallistos, in 'Act out of Stillness,' summarises the history and meaning of the hesychastic practice, in three concise points.  Firstly, it refers to the solitary life. Secondly it is the practice of inner prayer, aiming for union with God on the highest level, beyond concepts, or even images and language. This description is seen in Saint Maximus the Confessor's writings (580-662) as well as within the writings of Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) and the later work of Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). Finally, this quest for union with God is found through the prayer of the heart; the Jesus Prayer. 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,' with the earliest reference to the prayer found in Saint Diadochos of Photiki's work, which is included in the Philokalia.

The basic term appears as early as the 4th century, in Saint John Chrysostom, along with the Cappadocian and Desert fathers. In Egypt, the frequently used term is 'Anchoretism,' from αναχώρησις, meaning to withdraw, depart, or withdraw. Justinian himself treated both the terms 'Hesychasm' and 'Anchoretism' as interchangeable terms. Thus, Hesychasm has strong links with, and connotations of asceticism, hermitage, and of course, monasticism. The term Hesychasm is used often in the well known work of Saint John; 'The Ladder of Divine Ascent.' 

Saint John Climacus speaks of stillness as 'the accurate knowledge and management of one's feelings and perceptions. Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one's thoughts and is an unassailable mind'  For Saint John, it is a state of being all Christians are called to acquire in the presence of God. Those who philosophise about God are full of distractions and thoughts, all centred on the human mind; however for the hesychast, we are truly in God's presence in silence. The former consider theories of God, but the latter know Him personally, and experientially, as Lord and Father. Hesychasm is therefore not a movement exclusive to monastics and hermits, but in a way, should be followed by every Christian, for we are all called to know and love God personally. If we, as Christians are called to not conform to this world (Romans 12:2) then this means we should be able to reject external distractions and noisiness, in solitude and peace.

'The start of stillness is the rejection of all noisiness as something that will trouble the depths of the soul..' St John Climacus

Is Hesychasm then, a rejection and hatred of this world? One key principle of monastic solitude is in fact leaving this world, not out of hatred for it, but rather that we may one day return to it with perfect love and peacefulness. Saint John writes, 'The Solitary runs away from everyone, but does so without hatred, just as another runs towards the crowd, even if without enthusiasm.' 

Hesychasm is therefore an invitation to be at peace with ones self, in prayer, solitude and love. The hesychast does not have to find himself in a desert, or rural area, as one who keeps this prayerful way of life can truly be at peace anywhere. The reason for leading such a life, follows Saint Paul's teaching, that we should be in a state of prayer unceasingly. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

'Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with you every breath. Then you will appreciate the value of stillness.' 

Here, Saint John, referring to the Jesus prayer, highlights the fact that every minute of our lives should be sanctified, in prayer, peacefulness, content, and above all used to glorify Christ.

Though, as I have argued, Hesychasm follows Holy Scripture and its goal is unquestionably holy and inseparable to the teachings of the Christian Church, it has been, and remains controversial. The Hesychast controversy within the Byzantine Empire was centred on a number of factors, surrounding the friction between Saint Gregory of Palamas and Barlaam. It was in a way, an opposition of two cultures; the Latin culture represented by Barlaam, and the Byzantine Greek culture, represented by Gregory Palamas. However, it was not simply a struggle between ecclesiastical movements, but also philosophical ones; Aristotelianism and Platonism. Furthermore, as is the case today within the Orthodox Church, there was clearly an antagonism, between the two ecclesiastical parties of monastics, and more 'secular,' perhaps less 'pious' clergy. Father Andrew Louth, interestingly takes the view that the controversy between Gregory and Barlaam was not so much centred on a friction between the Latin West and Byzantine spirituality, but rather a dispute about how we reach knowledge of God. Barlaam is seen holding the view that we acquire knowledge of God through intellect, while Saint Gregory is concerned with the experience of God through prayer.

Saint Gregory's viewpoint was definitely shared by the Byzantine monastic order. Prayer was, and still is, the essential activity of the monk, in his quest and thirst for God. Evagrius writes, 'Disctractionless prayer is the mind's highest achievement.. the mind ascending toward God.' Rather than intellectual thought, prayer is the mind's 'proper occupation' for Evagrius. For this reason, the Jesus prayer began to, and still does, dominate Eastern monasticism, as the essential element of Byzantine hesychasm. Does this way of life and prayer, with its basis of personal ascetical efforts, contradict the work of God's grace? Meyendroff states that hesychasm is 'based on the synergy of human effort and grace.' It is therefore a two-way relationship; with man struggling against his passions and distractions in contemplative prayer and ascesis, only with the constant help and strength of God's grace. Saint Isaac of Ninevah tells us that 'when the Spirit establishes his dwelling in man, he can no longer stop praying.. for the Spirit never ceases praying in him. Rather than an act centred on the self, it is 'an uninterrupted service of God.' (St John Climacus)

To conclude, this piece has briefly discussed the origins and practices of Hesychasm, along with the controversies surrounding it. Although it could be argued that it has stimulated a somewhat extreme sense of Christian piety and asceticism, we must not disregard the fact that its basis and inspiration has been, and is, man recovering his original destiny in Christ. It is a path of synergy, to true freedom from the slavery of evil, participating in Christ's very kingdom 'within us' (Luke 17:20-21) leading to knowledge and love of God. This is essentially routed in the belief that God became man, for us to unite with Him - affirmed in the doctrines of the Ecumenical councils.  The incarnate Word assumes human nature, as the New Adam (1 Cor 15:22) in order for us to reach the pinnacle of this life, the ladder of divine ascent; the summit of virtue: '..Now at last, after all that has been said, there remains that triad, faith, hope and love, binding and securing the union of all,' (St John Climacus) Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou beautifully writes, 'Mysticism is never separated from dogma and theology. The purpose of both doctrine and mysticism is to know the true God, Who is Love.' 


Sources:
Vassilios Papavassiliou, Thirty Steps to Heaven - the Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life (Chesterton: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013)
St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (New York: Paulist Press, 1982)
Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Washington: Corpus, 1969)
Kallistos Ware, Act out of Stillness: The influence of Fourteenth-centry Hesychasm on Byzantine and Slav Civilisation (Toronto: Hellenic Canadian Association of Constantinople, 1995)







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