Hesychasm


#1

I’m currently exploring icons, Orthodox Church spirituality and subsequently hesychasm for a thesis.

I was going to argue that icons could help build the interior life of contemporary Roman Catholics. I’ve equated the practice of developing one’s interior life with hesychasm. I’m confused after reading New Advent’s article on hesychasm Is hesychasm regarded as a heresy in the Catholic Church?

Please help !

Leo


#2

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Hesychasm is not a heresy for Catholics, but almost no Catholics practice it. It requires strong spiritual direction from someone who has experience with it.

New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia is not a good place to get information on a subject like this because the authors of many such articles let their prejudices show blatantly. It was written almost 100 years ago I think, and there was a cold war mentality at the time.

Monk Barlaam was a Byzantine rite priest from Italy, he was probably a member of the Italo-Greek Catholic church, but it is clear that he understood himself to be Orthodox. Being from Italy he would have exposed to Western Scholasticism and he carried that understanding with him in his interactions with his contemporaries in the Greek church.

Some people have confused Hesychasm with Quietism, they are not the same.

There was a time (I’m told) when Eastern Catholics of the Byzantine-Slav tradition (and probably also the Italo-Greeks)were prevented from comemorating/venorating St. Gregory Palamas, that is no longer the case.

Most Byzantine Catholics I know will pray the Jesus Prayer, myself included, however those who wish to begin using Hesychast techniques should seek the advice of a good solid Spiritual Director, and he might forbid it. I think one could get the same advice from many (or perhaps most) Orthodox Spiritual Directors who would certainly not want anyone to approach this practice before they are ready.

By the way I have also been told not to read the Philokalia by an Orthodox priest, that after I had spent the money for four volumes. The feeling is that a person should have guidance and have grown in understanding before being exposed to some of these things.

+T+


#3

I followed the thread on Quietism but I’ve never heard of this . . . could you briefly describe? Also, what are Hesychast techniques?

Thanks!


#4

Glory to Jesus Christ!

I know precious little about quietism, and I am afraid that if I say much about it, I will misrepresent it.

I know a little more about Hesychasm, but then again only what I am told, or what I can find out. I think the best response would be to quote some things I have read with the hope that this will answer the questions.

Hesychasm is not an emptying, but rather a watchfulness, or mindfulness. This requires overcoming the passions, which will only get in the way of the goal, which is ultimately seeing the Face of God, or deification (theosis).

To quote John Meyendorff:
*** Man is called to participate in God without there being any confusion about his nature and that of God, without any diminution of his freedom; on the contrary, it is in this communion that he finds, "in the total feeling of certainty of the heart"
his own destiny, while continuing the fight against Satan, who retains his power until the day of judgement**. *Macarius

[size=2]Meyendorff goes on to say:
** The name of Yahweh was pronounced only once a year in the Holy of Holies by the high priest of the Old Testament. But after the incarnation, that name - identified with the name of Jesus- must be constantly present in the mind of each faithful; for God has become immanent and can be partaken of. This specifically Christian character of the monk’s prayer is expressed clearly by a remarkable spiritual doctor of the fifth century, Diadochus of Photike. Taking over the Evagrian ([size=1]Evagrius Ponticus[size=2]) idea oof prayer as the mind’s “proper occupation” he writes:
[/size][/size][/size][size=2][/size]**
[size=2][size=1][size=2]The mind demands of us, when we close all it’s opening by the thought of God, a work to satisfy it’s need of activity. It must therefore be given the [/size][/size]Lord Jesus as the only occupation corresponding fully to it’s objective.* For no one,*** as it is written, can say “Jesus is Lord” unless he is guided by the Holy Spirit(1 Cor 12:3) …For all who meditate without ceasing in the depth of their hearts on this holy and glorious name, can also see at last the light of their own minds… Then in fact the soul contains the very grace which meditates and shouts with it, the LORD JESUS, as a mother teaches her child the word father by repeating it with the child until, instead of any other baby talk, she will have accostomed it to callling distinctly it’s father, even in it’s sleep.

Meyendorff continues:
**The practice of the Jesus Prayer dominates Eastern monasticism to our day: it is the essential element of Byzantine Hesychasm. Based on the synergy of human effort and grace, constant prayer is the proper occupation for the mind freed from the passions.

And John Climacus (‘of the ladder’) the author of the Ladder of Paradise (aka Ladder of Divine Ascent) also describes the hesychast’s prayer: *** “Hesychia is an uninterrupted cult and service of God. May the memory of Jesus be one with your breathing and you shall understand the usefulness of hesychia”*

{continued}

+T+

[/size]


#5

{Continued from #4}

Finally I will quote Vladimir Lossky. (I have to type all of this myself and I am slow and getting tired) From the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church he writes:

The mystical experience which is inseparable from the way towards union can only be gained in prayer and by prayer. In the most general sense, every presence of man before the face of God is a prayer; but this presence must become a constant and conscious attitude–prayer must become perpetual, as uninterrupted as breathing or the beating of the heart. For this a special mastery is needed, a technique of prayer which is a complete spiritual science, and to which monk’s are entirely dedicated. The method of interior or spiritual prayer which is known by the name of ‘hesychasm’ is a part of the ascetic tradition of the Eastern church, and is undoubtedly of great antiquity. Transmitted from master to disciple by word of mouth, by example and by spiritual direction, this discipline of interior prayer was only committed to paper at the beginning of the eleventh century in a treatise attributed to St Symeon the New Theologian. it was the subject of special treatises by Nicephorus the Monk (13th century) and by St Gregory of Sinai, who at the beginning of the fourteenth century re-established it’s practice on Mt Athos. Less explicit references to the same ascetic tradition are to be found in St John Climacus (7th century), St Hesychius of Sinai (8th century), and other masters of the spiritual life in the Christian East.

Further on Vladimir Lossky describes some of the Western misconceptions concerning the practice and then writes:
**
There is, it is true, a physical aspect involved --certain procedures in regard to the control of breathing, the position of the body during prayer, the rhythm of prayer-- but this exterior discipline has only one object in view: that of assisting concentration. The whole of the attention must be given to the words of the short prayer: ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’. This prayer, continually repeated at each drawing of the breath, becomes to a monk as it were second nature. Far from rendering the interior life mechanical, it has the effect on the contrary, of freeing it and turning it towards contemplation by constantly driving away from the region of the heart all contagion of sin…**

That’s it, I can type no more tonight!
God bless!


#6

[quote=Hesychios]Lossky describes some of the Western misconceptions concerning the practice
[/quote]

Don’t overlook Carmelite spirituality, which is discussed with helpful links in this recent thread. Saint John of the Cross (ora pro nobis – Dec. 14) and Saint Teresa of Avila are both Doctors of the Church.


#7

[quote=FrmrTrad]Don’t overlook Carmelite spirituality, which is discussed with helpful links in this recent thread. Saint John of the Cross (ora pro nobis – Dec. 14) and Saint Teresa of Avila are both Doctors of the Church.
[/quote]

Hello FrmrTrad!
Oh yes, I agree! I am deeply moved by John of the Cross, we can learn much from him. Ralph Martin did a pretty good audio set on him too (St Joseph Comm) and I highly recommend it. I was going to mention Carmelite spirituality in a yet unwritten response to you for another thread. I think reading his poetry in the original language would be all the reason anyone should need to learn Spanish!

I wonder if the spirituality of the two doctors might give us some insights into the mysticism of the hesychasts, and vice versa?

I am also intrigued by Meister Eckhart, I have been reading him recently, I think his theory of the ground might be another way of describing (or understanding) what is known as the heart in the East.

We tend to think of these traditions or charisms as unique in and of themselves, yet I find that there are common threads throughout Christian thought and they seem interconnected in surprising ways.

+T+


#8

Thanks Hesychios and FrmrTrad for your posts and comments. I find all of this fascinating!

I’m in formation as a Secular Carmelite so I’m fairly familiar with western mysticism . . . eastern is a bit of a mystery to me. Sorry, no pun intended :slight_smile:

I was reading an article a couple of weeks ago that touched on this. I probably have the facts/people wrong but the basic gist was something like this: Origen, Dionysius, Meister Eckhart are mystics of one type . . . St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila are of another.

I’ll try to dig up this article. While I believe there are many similiarites between these two mystical traditions, a specific point of differentiation was mentioned . . . but I don’t recall off hand what it was.


#9

So hesychasm is emphatically not regarded as a heresy within the Catholic Church? New Advent has muddled hesychasm up with Quietism.

Would it therefore be a viable argument to promote the veneration of icons in contemporary Catholicism and the hesychasm spirituality that is closely related to icon veneration?

Is hesychasm and the mystical ascetic practice of St John of the Cross in general the same thing? If not what are the differences?

Thanks for your time,

Leo


#10

I was reading an article a couple of weeks ago that touched on this. I probably have the facts/people wrong but the basic gist was something like this: Origen, Dionysius, Meister Eckhart are mystics of one type . . . St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila are of another.

I might be going off half-cocked here because I don’t know much about the differentr mystical traditions but I’d still like to comment.

All I can say is that to me John of the Cross is very experiential, when I read his poetry I feel that I am sharing in the experience through his description.

It seems that the learning comes from the experience, a sort of spontaneous eruption. It is very much a felt experience, but less well undertood theologically.

Meister Eckhart’s writings are homilies and treatises. He is not sharing in his experiences, he is actually reticent to share them. The whole thing is an intellectual exercise as if logic or reasoning is used to understand or expand on the insights. It is not shared in the telling but basically described only, or explained. One is left to wonder what the experience must be like but understanding better what it might actually mean. I have an impression of him sitting like a philosopher with his head in his hand thinking it through.

I am only making comments based upon my very shallow exposure to them. I wonder if anyone has deeper or more complete insights to share here.

+T+


#11

[quote=Leao]So hesychasm is emphatically not regarded as a heresy within the Catholic Church? New Advent has muddled hesychasm up with Quietism.
[/quote]

Yes.

Would it therefore be a viable argument to promote the veneration of icons in contemporary Catholicism and the hesychasm spirituality that is closely related to icon veneration?

First, the veneration of icons is a constant feature of Eastern worship and stands on it’s own merits, with or without the Jesus Prayer. Hesychasm is a mystical prayer practice that could exist without the use of icons, they are not joined at the hip.

It is important to understand the spirituality of icons, it might not be appropriate for Western Catholics. I’m not trying to express elitism or anything like that, it’s just that the East thinks of icons differently, and it took me a long time to grasp it myself and I am not so sure I will explain it well.

For instance, Westerners will usually think of icons as decorations. Even stations of the Cross in the West can be viewed that way: some are elaborate paintings in gilded frames, some are alabaster bas-reliefs, and some are bronze modern art. One looks at the image and is inspired to think about what it represents, in other words one intellectualizes about the theme or event and the whole topic is removed from the image and resides in the mind of the observer.

With icons, one is gazing through a window at the actual subject (saint or event) and experiencing it in the here and now. It is less intellectualized and more experienced. For instance, we know that at the Divine Liturgy the saints and angels, as well as Our Lord are present among us, and we are in a zone that intersects our world with the timelessness of God. It is a very cosmic notion.

The icons there are not merely images of past events or persons, but rather windows through the mist.

Is hesychasm and the mystical ascetic practice of St John of the Cross in general the same thing? If not what are the differences?

I don’t know, I don’t think so. Perhaps someone else can address this question.

I would like to point out that Carmel originated in Palestine with hermits that actually resided on Mt. Carmel. The cultural milieau was eastern there and the first hermits are likely to have been Jewish, eventually Christian hermits displaced or dwelled among the Jewish ones. These Christian hermits originated from all over the Byzantine empire and were Byzantine in practice and theology. Westerners did not become numerous there until the Crusading era and the community had Palestininan-Greek roots.

When the Carmelites began to flee to the West they brought their own unique spirituality with them, they even had their own liturgy until about the time of John of the Cross! (as I am told, don’t ask me to prove it) I am not sure of all of the details but I would not be surprised if the spirituality of the Carmelites share a lot of commonalities with the Eastern Christians of the first millenium.

+T+


#12

I have known the Mystic Rose and recognise it when I see it in the writings of others.As an expression of complexity or simplicity it surpasses human understanding yet it is perfectly understood.In no way do the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite express a tendency towards quietist practices even though they can be mistaken for a procedure to imitate the experience.

Again,for those who are not contemplatives there is no concern with quietism (which can be a good thing as meditation) however the vision which Christian quietists seek is contemplative material and can generate a false light which is neither good nor right.


#13

Thanks for the comment

[quote=Hesychios]First, the veneration of icons is a constant feature of Eastern worship and stands on it’s own merits, with or without the Jesus Prayer. Hesychasm is a mystical prayer practice that could exist without the use of icons, they are not joined at the hip.
[/quote]

Icons and hesychasm aren’t joined at the hip but as John Baggley writes in Doors of perception (1987) the spirituality of the icon painter is quintessentially hesychasm, and the icon he paints is an externalisation of that hesychast spirituality.

[quote=Hesychios] It is important to understand the spirituality of icons, it might not be appropriate for Western Catholics. I’m not trying to express elitism or anything like that, it’s just that the East thinks of icons differently, and it took me a long time to grasp it myself and I am not so sure I will explain it well. For instance, Westerners will usually think of icons as decorations. Even stations of the Cross in the West can be viewed that way: some are elaborate paintings in gilded frames, some are alabaster bas-reliefs, and some are bronze modern art.
[/quote]

The fact that many Western Catholics see icons and religious art in general as purely decorative is surely down to ignorance? As Ouspensky wrote in Theology of the Icon, Icons and everything about a church should aim to direct the faithful towards God rather than just acting as elaborate religious wallpaper.

[quote=Hesychios] One looks at the image and is inspired to think about what it represents, in other words one intellectualises about the theme or event and the whole topic is removed from the image and resides in the mind of the observer. With icons, one is gazing through a window at the actual subject (saint or event) and experiencing it in the here and now. It is less intellectualized and more experienced. For instance, we know that at the Divine Liturgy the saints and angels, as well as Our Lord are present among us, and we are in a zone that intersects our world with the timelessness of God. It is a very cosmic notion. The icons there are not merely images of past events or persons, but rather windows through the mist.
[/quote]

Aren’t all icons supposed to be gazed at and intellectualised? An Orthodox priest told me that Eastern Christians are often much better informed in Christian theology than their Western counterparts, partly because of the omnipresence of the icon and its educative function. Isn’t it feasible through education on the traditional role of the icon that Western Christians could approach an icon as a window into heaven like Easterners do instinctively.


#14

I don’t know enough about eastern mysticism to even comment on the degree of commonality to the western tradition. But after re-reading the link in your original post, I think there’s probably some big differences.

Here is a very good overview of western spirituality from a Carmelite (Teresian) perspective:

www.carmelite.com/saints/other/more.htm

This is about as close to a discussion on “technique” that you’ll probably find (especially the parts on lectio divina). When specific methods are discussed from a western perspective, they’re usually dealing with meditation. By meditation I’m referring to those active efforts of our own intellect to come to some knowledge or understanding of God.

Contemplation, on the other hand, is something entirely different. This is a passive, intuitive knowing infused by God into our souls. It can’t be produced by our efforts (i.e. technique) because it is a gift from God. We can hope for it, pray for it, live our lives in a manner conducive to it . . . but in the end, contemplation is up to God.

I’d love to hear the thoughts and comments from those from the eastern tradition.


#15

Leo and Hesychios -

I just noticed the discussion on images on the “Teresian Methods” page of this link:

www.carmelite.com/saints/other/more.htm

Does this help at all?


#16

[quote=Leao]Thanks for the comment
Icons and hesychasm aren’t joined at the hip but as John Baggley writes in Doors of perception (1987) the spirituality of the icon painter is quintessentially hesychasm, and the icon he paints is an externalisation of that hesychast spirituality.
[/quote]

Yes, I was going to make a comment about the spiritual attitude that is at the root of both, but I didn’t know how to frame it and I was afraid that I was going off on a tangent.

Aren’t all icons supposed to be gazed at and intellectualised? An Orthodox priest told me that Eastern Christians are often much better informed in Christian theology than their Western counterparts, partly because of the omnipresence of the icon and its educative function. Isn’t it feasible through education on the traditional role of the icon that Western Christians could approach an icon as a window into heaven like Easterners do instinctively.

Yes, of course. Icons are to be intellectualized as well.

Your comment about gazing just gave me an interesting thought, I think there can be three ways holy images could be used:

-1- The educating function, it’s almost primary. With it we do intellectualize. It is an indispensable tool.

-2- The gazing, which to me is just that they form a backdrop, or set a mood. I think the effect is subliminal and we might not even be aware of the message. These images can tell us immediately “this is a holy space”. I sometimes sit wordlessly in the church and just stare, thoughts of my own don’t come as readily as feelings do. In a sense this is the function of decoration, and I feel that thew more modern architecture can lose some of this quality and the worshippers may suffer for lack of the inspiration.

Music can perform this function as an “aural image”.

Eastern churches take full advantage of this effect, but it is not uniquely eastern.

-3- The “existential link”, praying through the image from the one reality to the other. This is a fundamental use of icons. It is why icons are kissed so much.

To quote father Sergius Bulgakov [size=2]“By the blessing of the icon of Christ, a mystical meeting of the faithful and Christ is made possible.” [/size]This is what I think is meant by the spirituality of icons, and might be what you are thinking about.

+T+


#17

[quote=DBT]Leo and Hesychios -

I just noticed the discussion on images on the “Teresian Methods” page of this link:

www.carmelite.com/saints/other/more.htm

Does this help at all?
[/quote]

It looks like a good place to start for someone like myself.

I might take a few weeks to study it! I am interested though, I just cannot comment on it.

+T+


#18

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