THE [14th century]

Bishop Kallistos Ware


  Gregory Pallamas, 16th c. icon , Dionysius Monast. , Athos

The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn, Wainwright, Yarnold
(Oxford University Press, 1986) (pp. 242-255)

__The Hesychast Controversy_

§4. Barlaam

§1  Nicephorus

§5. Gregory Palamas

§2. Gregory of Sinai

§6. Kallistos & Ignatios

§3. Maximus of Kapsokalyvia

§7. Nicolas Cabasilas

[0] The Hesychast Controversy

Introduction to the Hesychast Controversy

THE fourteenth century is an era of exceptional significance in the history of Greek Orthodox spirituality, a time of both crisis and creative development, when the tradition of prayer known as ‘Hesychasm’ was called in question, reaffirmed and deepened.

The term ‘Hesychasm’ can be used in a variety of ways. It is derived from the Greek word hēsuchia, meaning ‘quiet’ or ‘stillness’. In principle, therefore, Hesychasm might be termed ‘Byzantine Quietism’; but this is confusing, since many of the distinctive opinions of the seventeenth century Western Quietists are not characteristic of the Greek Hesychasts. The word ‘Hesychast’ may be used in an exterior and spatial sense, to denote a hermit or solitary as contrasted with a monk in a cenobitic community. But more commonly it is employed in an interior sense, to indicate one who practises inner prayer and seeks silence of the heart. If understood in this way, the title ‘Hesychast’ can be applied to many writers earlier than the fourteenth century, such as St Maximus the Confessor or St Symeon the New Theologian. On the whole, however, the word is used more narrowly, to mean one who practises the Jesus Prayer, and who in particular adopts the so-called ‘physical technique’ connected with the Prayer. Yet more specifically, ‘Hesychasm’ may signify those who, during the middle of the fourteenth century, supported St Gregory Palamas and accepted the distinction that he drew between the essence and the energies of God.

Thus the ‘Hesychast controversy’ means the dispute in which Palamas was involved during 1337-47.The physical technique, which constituted one of the points at issue in this controversy, is in fact somewhat older than Palamas himself. Allusions to some kind of method linking the Jesus Prayer to the rhythm of the breathing are perhaps to be detected in Greek authors of the seventh to ninth centuries such as Climacus and Hesychius, and can certainly be found in Coptic sources dating from the same period (see p. 183).

 [1] Nicephorus

[1] Nicephorus the Hesychast (Athos) & Pseudo-Symeon

THE first developed description of such a method in the Greek sources, however, dates only from the late thirteenth century, in the work On Vigilance and the Guarding of the Heart by Nicephorus the Hesychast, a monk of Mount Athos. There is a closely similar description in a text attributed to Symeon the New Theologian, entitled Method of Holy Prayer and Attentiveness; it is now generally agreed that Symeon cannot be the author of this, and very possibly it is also by Nicephorus. Nicephorus recommends that the Jesus Prayer be recited with the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, that is to say, using the standard formula first found in the Life of Abba Philemon (see p. 180). There are three main features in the physical technique that he and Ps.-Symeon describe:

1. A particular bodily posture is enjoined. The aspirant is to sit with his head bowed, ‘resting your beard on your chest and directing your bodily eye together with your entire intellect (nous) towards the middle of your belly, that is, towards your navel (Ps.- Symeon, in Hausherr, p. 164). Other texts suggest that the gaze is to be fixed on the place of the heart. Gregory of Sinai specifies that the monk should sit on a low stool about nine inches high. In any case the shoulders are bowed and the back is bent; contrast the ‘lotus’ position in Yoga, where the back is straight. The adoption of a seated position would have appeared more surprising to a Byzantine than it does to a contemporary Westerner, for in the Christian East the normal position for prayer has always been to stand (see Plate 3).

2. The rhythm of the breathing is to be slowed down: ‘Restrain the inhalation of your breath through the nose, so as not to breathe in and out at your ease’ (Ps.- Symeon, p. 164). Nicephorus and Ps.-Symeon imply that this slowing-down of the respiration precedes rather than accompanies the recitation of the Jesus Prayer; the control of the breathing is a preliminary exercise, designed to secure calmness and concentration before the actual invocation of the Holy Name has commenced. Not until the end of the fourteenth century, in the teaching of Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, is it clearly implied that the tempo of the breathing should be co-ordinated with the actual words of the Prayer (On the Life of Stillness, §25). In modern Orthodox practice it is usual to say the first part of the Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’, while breathing in, and the remainder while breathing out; but there are several variations. According to the anonymous nineteenth-century Russian work The Way of a Pilgrim (tr. R. M. French [SPCK 1954], pp. 19-20, 102), the recitation of the Prayer may be connected with the beating of the heart; but nothing is said of this in the Byzantine sources.

3. As he controls his breathing, the one who prays is at the same time to search inwardly for the place of the heart. He is, says Nicephorus, to imagine his breath entering through the nostrils and then passing down within the lungs until it reaches the heart. In this way he is to make his intellect (nous) descend with his breath, so that intellect and heart are united. The effect of this will be a sense of joyful homecoming, like that of a man, ‘long absent abroad, who cannot restrain his gladness on once more meeting his wife and children’. When the intellect has found the place of the heart, ‘accustom it not to come out quickly. At first it grows very weary of being narrowly enclosed within; but, having once become used to this, it no longer yearns to wander abroad. For the kingdom of heaven is within us’(PG 147-964A). Having found the place of the heart, one then commences the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. Thus, as with the control of the breathing, the inward exploration precedes the actual saying of the Prayer. Established within the heart, the nous beholds itself ‘entirely luminous’ (Ps.- Symeon, p. 165). This is a vision, not of the uncreated light of the Godhead, but of the intrinsic luminosity of the human intellect; a similar vision of the light of the nous is mentioned by Evagrius (Praktikos, 64) and by Diadochus (Chapters, 59). ‘From this moment onwards’, Ps.-Symeon continues, ‘as soon as a thought arises, before it comes to completion and assumes a form, the intellect expels and destroys it by the invocation of Jesus Christ’ (p. 165). In this way the physical technique, combined with the Jesus Prayer, is a help in keeping guard over the heart and expelling thoughts from it. The aim, as in Evagrius and Diadochus, is to acquire a state of inner simplicity, free from images and discursive thinking.

The accounts of the ‘method’ in Nicephorus and Ps.-Symeon lack subtlety and sophistication, and are surely too crude in the correlation that they posit between physical processes and mental acts of prayer. Nevertheless the bodily technique rests ultimately upon a sound theological principle: the human person is a single unity, and therefore the body as well as the soul has a positive, dynamic part to play in the task of praying. The references to the heart should not be understood too literally. In Nicephorus and Ps.-Symeon, as in Scripture and the Macarian Homilies, the heart signifies not merely the physical organ in the chest, and not merely the emotions and affections, but the deep centre of the human person as a whole, the point where created humanity is most directly open to uncreated love. ‘Prayer of the heart’, therefore, means not just ‘affective prayer’ but prayer of the entire person. Phrases such as ‘finding the place of the heart’ or ‘descending with the intellect into the heart’ signify a state of reintegration, in which the one who prays is totally united with the prayer itself and with the Divine Companion to whom the prayer is addressed. The aim is to become like St Francis of Assisi, as described by Thomas of Celano: totus non tam orans quam oratio factus, ‘with his whole being, not so much saying prayers as himself turned into prayer’.

While commending the physical technique, Nicephorus did not regard it as indispensable, but saw it as no more than an accessory, useful to some but not obligatory upon all; indeed, none of the Hesychasts imagined that the bodily ‘method’ constitutes the essence of prayer. There are striking parallels between the ‘method’, as found in Nicephorus, and the techniques used in Yoga and Sufism (cf. pp. 507, 500), which also involve control of the breathing and concentration of the attention upon specific psychosomatic centres. It is possible that the Byzantine Hesychasts were influenced by the Sufis, but conclusive evidence of this is so far lacking.

[2] Gregory of Sinai

[2] Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346)

THE immediate influence of Nicephorus seems to have been limited. At any rate, when St Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346) came to Mount Athos in the early years of the fourteenth century, less than a generation after Nicephorus’ death, it was only after long searching that he found anyone experienced in hesuchia and inner prayer; according to Gregory’s biographer Patriarch Kallistos -- who is perhaps exaggerating a little -virtually all the monks of the Holy Mountain at that time devoted their efforts exclusively to fasting and other forms of ascetic effort. Gregory himself had learnt about inner prayer while in Crete, prior to reaching Athos. He left the Holy Mountain around 1335, taking no direct part in the subsequent Hesychast controversy at Constantinople, but spending his last years at Paroria, on the borders between the Byzantine Empire and Bulgaria. His disciples were instrumental in propagating Hesychast teaching throughout Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia, and Gregory forms in this way an important connecting link between the Greek and Slav worlds.

In his spiritual teaching Gregory of Sinai assigns a central place to the Jesus Prayer. He recited it in the standard form, ‘ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’; his biographer Kallistos tells us that he used also to add at the end the words ‘a sinner’, a practice widespread in modern Orthodoxy. Gregory also suggests the use of shorter forms: one may alternate between ‘ Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’ and ‘Son of God, have mercy on me’. But he issues a warning against changing the form of words too often: ‘Trees that are constantly transplanted do not bear fruit’ (PG 150. 1316B).

Gregory recommends the physical technique, as found in Nicephorus: ‘Sit down on a low stool . . . compress your intellect, forcing it down from your brain into your heart, and retain it there within the heart. Laboriously bow yourself down, feeling sharp pain in your chest, shoulders and neck . . . Control the drawing-in of your breath . . . So far as possible, hold back its expulsion, enclosing your intellect in the heart (1316AB). It is interesting that Gregory says ‘feeling sharp pain’: he acknowledges that the posture recommended will prove highly uncomfortable. Control of the breathing helps to control the thoughts: ‘The retention of the breath, with the mouth kept tightly closed, controls the intellect, but only partially, for it becomes dispersed once more’ (1332B). Here, as in Nicephorus and Ps.-Symeon, the physical technique is a way of keeping guard over the heart. But the purely physical aspect, so Gregory insists, is not to be unduly emphasized. The aim is always the concentration of the mind: ‘Closing the mouth a little, control the respiration of the intellect and not that of the nostrils, as the uninstructed do’ (1344B).

Following earlier tradition, Gregory urges that the use of the Jesus Prayer should be so far as possible continuous. Like Diadochus and Hesychius, he sees it as a way of attaining image-free, non-discursive prayer: ‘Always keep your intellect free from images, naked of concepts and thoughts’, he says (1341D). The imagination or phantasia is to be restrained; otherwise one may find that one has become ‘not a Hesychast but a phantast’ (1284A). But, while images and thoughts are to be excluded, not all feelings should be rejected. Rightly practised, the Jesus Prayer leads to a sense of joyful sorrow (charmolupē) -- here Gregory draws upon Climacus -- and to a feeling of warmth (thermē) that is not physical but spiritual: ‘The true beginning of prayer is a feeling of warmth in the heart’ (1324AB). From these feelings of compunction and warmth the aspirant ascends to the ‘contemplation of the divine light’ that was manifested to the three disciples at the transfiguration on Tabor (1300C) (see Plate 1). Although Gregory does not discuss in detail the theological meaning of this light, it is clear that he has in view, not just a vision of the created light or intrinsic luminosity of the intellect, as in Ps.Symeon, but a vision of the uncreated light of the Godhead, as in Palamas.

Gregory of Sinai sets the Jesus Prayer firmly in a sacramental context. Prayer, he says, is ‘the revelation of baptism’ (1277D), and this is true in particular of the Jesus Prayer. It is in no sense an alternative to the normal sacramental life of the Church, but precisely the means whereby sacramental grace takes fire within us. As Christians we have all received the Holy Spirit ‘secretly’ at our baptism, but most of us are unconscious of his presence; the Jesus Prayer enables us to become aware of this ‘secret’ baptismal indwelling in an active and conscious manner. With his appeal to the feeling of warmth, to the conscious experience of baptismal grace, Gregory of Sinai takes his place in the ‘affective’ tradition of Eastern spirituality, extending back through Symeon the New Theologian to Diadochus and the Macarian Homilies.

[2.5] Maximus of Kapsokalyvia

[3] Maximus of Kapsokalyvia

IN Gregory of Sinai’s contemporary and friend on Mount Athos, St Maximus of Kapsokalyvia -- the name means ‘burnt huts’: it was Maximus’ practice to move from place to place, each time burning down the simple cell in which he was living -- the Jesus Prayer is linked especially with the person of the Mother of God (the Theotokos). Maximus’ disciple, Theophanes of Vatopedi, reports him as saying:

One day, as with tears and intense love I kissed her most pure icon, suddenly there came a great warmth in my breast and my heart, not burning me up but refreshing me like dew, and filling me with sweetness and deep compunction. From that moment my heart began to say the Prayer inwardly, and at the same time my reason with my intellect holds fast the remembrance of Jesus and of my Theotokos; and this remembrance has never left me (Life 15: in Analecta Bollandiana 54 [ 1936], p. 85).

The way in which the Jesus Prayer is here associated with the Virgin Mary is unusual, but not in itself surprising in view of the prominent place assigned to Our Lady in all Orthodox worship. Maximus’ references to the feeling of warmth reflect the same ‘affective’ approach as is found in Gregory of Sinai. Maximus agrees with Gregory also in what he says about the vision of divine light: the Holy Spirit transports the aspirant in ecstasy ‘to the non-material realm of inconceivable divine light’; his intellect is ‘kindled into flame by the fire of the Godhead, and it is dissolved in its thoughts and swallowed up by the divine light, becoming itself entirely divine light of surpassing radiance’ (Life 15: pp. 86-7). It is clear that Maximus envisages here, not merely a physical light of the senses or the natural luminosity of the intellect, but the uncreated light of God himself. In Maximus’ view, as in that of Symeon, the light has a transforming effect, and the visionary is taken up into the glory that he contemplates. According to the testimony of those who knew him personally, this happened to Maximus himself, who used to be seen surrounded by dazzling radiance.

[3] Barlaam

[4] Barlaam and the Hesychast Controversy

THE spiritual tradition represented by Symeon the New Theologian, Nicephorus, Gregory of Sinai and Maximus of Kapsokalyvia, was called in question and challenged during the decade 1337-47, in what is known as the Hesychast controversy. The attack on Hesychasm was launched by a learned Greek from South Italy, Barlaam the Calabrian (c. 1290- 1348), who was answered by a monk from the Holy Mountain, St Gregory Palamas (1296- 1359). Unlike Symeon the New Theologian, with his urban cenobitic background, Palamas had spent most of his monastic life prior to 1337 at remote hermitages in the ‘desert’. Although it is sometimes suggested that Barlaam was influenced by Western Nominalism, he seems in fact to have been fundamentally a Greek in culture and education, and at any rate until his defeat in 1341 he regarded himself as a loyal member of the Orthodox Church, in his writings frequently attacking Latin theology. The controversy between him and Palamas was not a dispute between the Latin West and the Greek East, but essentially a conflict within the Greek tradition, involving two different ways of interpreting Dionysius the Areopagite (cf. pp. 184-9). For Barlaam the Areopagite was a philosophical theologian, using negative, apophatic language to affirm, on the level of reasoned argument, the radical transcendence of God. For Palamas, the Areopagite was above all a mystical theologian; the ‘unknowing’ of which the Dionysian writings speak is not merely a philosophical theory, for within and beyond the ‘unknowing’ they affirm a direct and personal experience of union with the divine. It is here, over the question whether or not direct experience of God is possible here and now, in this life, that the basic difference between Palamas and Barlaam should be situated.

Palamas standpoint was upheld by a synod at Constantinople in 1341. Barlaam now withdrew from the controversy and returned to Italy, but the anti-Hesychast position continued to be urged, although on somewhat different grounds, by Akindynos and Nicephorus Gregoras. Political factors prolonged and complicated the debate, but the Palamite teaching was eventually vindicated at two further councils in Constantinople (1347, 1351). Palamas himself was appointed Archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347, taking up residence in 1350; thus, after an early life of semi-eremitic solitude, he spent his last years not in the desert but in the city, charged with heavy pastoral duties. He illustrates the connection often existing between mysticism and society. He was canonized in 1368, only nine years after his death.Barlaam’s indictment of Hesychasm involves three main points:

1. The knowledge of God. Underlining the divine incomprehensibility, Barlaam argues that our knowledge of God during the present life is indirect, through Scripture and church tradition, through signs and symbols. He therefore denies the Hesychast claim to attain in this life a direct experience of the divinity and unmediated union with him.

2. The vision of God. Since direct experience of God is not possible in this life, it follows that the light which the Hesychasts claim to see with their bodily eyes cannot be the uncreated light of the Godhead; it must be a physical and created light.

3. The physical technique of the Hesychasts. Denouncing this as materialistic and grossly superstitious, Barlaam labels the Hesychasts omphalopsychoi, ‘those who locate the soul in the navel’.

The first and second points pose the basic question of our relationship as human persons to the divine realm: in what way is the hidden God revealed? They involve also our understanding of eschatology: here Barlaam is ‘futurist’, reserving the vision of God to the age to come, whereas Palamas’eschatology is ‘realized’ or, more exactly, ‘inaugurated’ -- the pledge and firstfruits of the future age can be experienced already in this present life. The second and third points both raise the further issue of the role of the body within the spiritual life: Barlaam attacks the Hesychasts’ claim to see the divine light with or through the bodily eyes, as also their attempt to harness the bodily organism to the task of praying. Platonist in his approach, in both cases he repudiates what he sees as the materialism of the Hesychasts.

[4] Gregory Palamas

[5] Gregory Palamas

WHAT is Palamas’ answer? On the first point, he agrees with Barlaam that God is indeed unknowable. Using the apophatic language characteristic of Dionysius, he speaks of God as ‘the beyond-essence, anonymous, surpassing all names’ (Against Akindynos, II, xiv, 63), who ‘in a manner beyond all being transcends every being’ (Triads, I, iii, 8). But, where Barlaam stops short at the divine unknowability, Palamas goes a step further. He draws a distinction between the essence or inner being of God, and his energies or acts of power. The essence indicates the divine transcendence and otherness; and as such it remains unknowable not only in the present life but in the age to come, not only to humankind but to the angels -- it is radically unknowable.  Never in all eternity shall we come to know God’s essence -- that is to say, never shall we come to know God in the manner that he knows himself -- simply because he is Creator and we are creatures. Even in heaven the distinction between the uncreated and the created still prevails. But, unknowable in his essence, God is dynamically disclosed to us in his energies, which permeate the universe and in which we humans can directly participate, even in this present life. These energies are not an intermediary between God and man, but the living God himself in action; and so, sharing in the divine energies, the saints are indeed enjoying the true vision of God ‘face to face’.

Barlaam considered that Palamas, in thus differentiating between the essence and the energies of God, was introducing a division into the Godhead, thereby impairing the divine simplicity; and so the Calabrian accused him of ‘ditheism’. Akindynos charged Palamas more particularly with innovation: in his view the essence--energies distinction, as drawn by Palamas, is not to be found in earlier tradition. Both these charges have been repeated by Western critics of Palamism from the fourteenth century up to our own time, although there are also many contemporary Roman Catholics who see nothing heretical in his teaching. For his part Palamas considers that the essence--energies distinction no more destroys the divine indivisibility than does the distinction between the three persons of the Trinity; and he also argues that the distinction can claim a sound pedigree, employed as it is (in his opinion) by the Cappadocians, Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor. How far Palamas has correctly interpreted the earlier patristic tradition remains a matter for continuing dispute among modern specialists.

The essence-energies distinction-in-unity is for Palamas a way of holding in balance both transcendence and immanence, both the otherness and the nearness of God. He wishes to exclude pantheism, and yet to uphold the reality of direct personal communion with God. Because we participate in God’s energies, not in his essence, the mystical union is a union without confusion. Theōsis signifies the glorification but not the absorption of our created personal identity [The criticisms of the theōsis doctrine by, for example, B. Drewery in P. Brooks, ed., Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honour of Gordon Rupp (London, SCM, 1975), pp. 35-62, are not applicable to the Palamite position, correctly understood.]

The term ‘energy’ has a somewhat abstract and elusive flavour: what does it really signify? Fortunately Palamas also uses words with a more specific connotation. First, the uncreated energies, in relation to us humans, can be termed divine grace; the Palamite doctrine of energies is in fact an Eastern theology of grace. Secondly, the light which the Hesychasts behold in prayer -- and here we come to the second point in Barlaam’s attack -- is to be interpreted as a manifestation of the divine energies. The vision of light is the vision of God himself; of God, however, in his energies and not in his essence. What the saints see is the same uncreated light that shone from Christ at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and that will shine from him equally at his second coming. Of this light, Gregory affirms seven things:

1.  It is a ‘non-material’ light (Triads, III, i, 22) -- this recalls Symeon’s description (see p. 240) -- ‘a light that is noetic and intelligible, or rather spiritual’ (Triads, I, iii, 10), not a physical light of the senses.

2. Although non-material, the light is not merely imaginary or symbolic; it is not just a metaphorical ‘light of knowledge’ but is ‘hypostatic’, an existent reality (Triads, I, iii, 7).

3. Although the light is not a physical light of the senses, it can be perceived through the senses, provided that they are transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit; for the human person is an integral unity, and the body shares with the soul in the vision of God. Thus the three disciples on Mount Tabor beheld the glory of the transfiguration through their bodily eyes; and the righteous at the resurrection of the body on the last day will likewise see the glorified Christ through their physical senses. Yet what enables us to see the divine light is not the organs of sense-perception by virtue of their own intrinsic power, but rather the grace of God that is active within them. None can behold the light except those who are spiritually prepared so to do; that is why Christ was transfigured before three disciples only, not before the crowds. In this way the light is to be termed both ‘invisible’ and yet ‘visible’ (Triads, I, iii, 16).

4. The light is not created but uncreated and divine; it is the light of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. But, while the light is God, it is God in his energies, not in his essence; it is God’s glory, not his inner nature. Because it is divine and is God himself, the light divinizes the beholder, conferring upon him the gift of  theōsis.

5. The light is infinite, ‘like an ocean without limits’ (Triads, III, i, 33), and so human beings will never see the whole of it, either in this life or in the age to come. God is indeed truly revealed in his divine energies, but he is never exhaustively revealed. In this way Palamas allows for St Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of epektasis or unending progress. Perfection is to be seen not in static but in dynamic terms: the blessed never reach a point where their pilgrimage comes to an end, but through all eternity they continue to advance further and further into the love of God.

6. The light may rightly be termed both radiance and darkness. Taking up the statement of Dionysius the Areopagite, ‘The divine darkness is the unapproachable light in which God is said to dwell’ (Letter 5: PG 3. 1073A), Palamas says that ‘in the strict sense it is light’, for it is a supremely positive reality; but, ‘by virtue of its transcendence’, it is experienced by us as ‘darkness’ (Triads, II, iii, 51). So, like the Areopagite, he combines ‘solar’ and ‘nocturnal’ symbolism: ‘Even though it is darkness, yet it is surpassingly bright; and in that dazzling darkness, as the great Dionysius says, things divine are granted to the saints’ (Triads, I, iii, 18).

7. Palamas, like Symeon, believes that the light has a transforming effect upon the beholder. Just as Western saints who receive the stigmata, such as Francis of Assisi, enter physically into the mystery of the cross, so in the Byzantine East -- where the phenomenon of stigmatization is unknown -- the saints in their bodily experience enter rather into the mystery of the transfiguration. Taken up into the uncreated splendour, they themselves shine outwardly with the divine radiance that they contemplate, ‘transfigured from glory into glory’ (2 Cor. 3.18): ‘Participating in that which surpasses them they are themselves transformed into it . . . the light alone shines through them and it alone is what they see . . . and in this way God is all in all’ (Triads, II, iii, 31). This glorification of the body, while reserved in its plenitude to the last day, is partially anticipated even in this present life.

Palamas’ understanding of the divine light, as will by now be apparent, is strongly eschatological. He sees it as the light not only of Tabor but of the parousia, and so he regards the vision of the uncreated light as a foretaste of the age to come, as the firstfruits of eternal life. It will also have become clear that, in his understanding of the vision of God, Palamas is upholding a doctrine of the human person that is not dichotomist but holistic, not Platonist but biblical: the human being is not in his view a soul dwelling temporarily in a body but an integrated whole of mind and matter together, and therefore the body shares with the soul in the experience of the divine light. Citing Maximus the Confessor, Palamas affirms a doctrine of total redemption: ‘The body is deified along with the soul’ (Triads, I, iii, 37). Appealing to the incarnation, he insists that Christ took not only a human soul but a human body, and so ‘he has made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification’ (Homily 16: PG 151. 193B). Even the passionate aspect of our personhood is to be consecrated to God: Palamas speaks of ‘blessed passions’ (Triads, II, ii, 12), and argues that apatheia or ‘dispassion’ involves not the ‘mortification’ (nekrōsis) but the ‘redirection’ (metathesis) of the passions (Triads, III, iii, 15).

This brings us to the third point in Barlaam’s polemic, his attack on the physical technique used in combination with the Jesus Prayer. Palamas does not in fact attach particular importance to this technique, considering it suitable primarily for ‘beginners’ (Triads, I, ii, 7; II, ii, 2). But he regards it as theologically defensible, based as it is upon a biblical anthropology which treats human nature as a single whole. Body and soul interact upon each other, and the outer affects the inner: ‘Through our bodily posture we train ourselves to be inwardly attentive’ (Triads, I, ii, 10). If body and soul are in this way essentially united -- if, moreover, the body will rise again from the dead at the last day, and is capable of sharing even now in the vision of God -- then the body should also be employed to the full at every stage upon the journey of prayer.

Such are the leitmotifs of St Gregory Palamas’ spiritual teaching. ‘Unknown, yet well known’, God is utterly transcendent in his essence, yet directly revealed in his uncreated energies. Humans are united with these energies, even during this present life, through the vision of divine light. In this vision the body shares together with the soul -- once more, in this present life as well as in the age to come. Body and soul co-operate likewise in the practice of the Jesus Prayer with the accompanying physical technique. In all this Palamas, like Symeon, emerges plainly as a theologian of personal experience. Christianity is not merely a philosophical theory or a moral code, but involves a direct sharing in divine life and glory, a transforming union with God ‘face to face’.

[5] Kallistos & Ignatios

[6] Kallistos & Ignatios Xanthopoulos

TOWARDS the end of the fourteenth century, after the heat of the Palamite controversy had died down, the Hesychast teaching on the Jesus Prayer was summarized in a balanced and tranquil way by St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos in their work On the Life of Stillness and Solitude. Their approach is close to that of Gregory of Sinai. Like him, they see the aim of the spiritual life as the ever-increasing ‘manifestation’ of the grace of baptism: ‘Our final end . . . is to return to that perfect spiritual re-creation by grace which was conferred upon us at the outset as a free gift from above by the holy font’ (§4). They attach cardinal importance also to the Eucharist: communion should be ‘continual’ (§91), even daily (§92), for ‘these are the things that the enemies fear most of all: the cross, baptism, communion’ (§92). In the spiritual life they assign a privileged place to the Jesus Prayer: ‘The beginning of all work pleasing to God is the invocation with faith of the saving name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (§8). The Prayer may be accompanied by the physical technique, with control of the breathing, but this is no more than an accessory or laid’ (§24). The invocation should be without ‘thoughts’ or the use of the imagination (§25), and should be so far as possible continual:

This all-holy and most sweet name should be our uninterrupted task and study, and we should always carry it with us in our heart, in our intellect, and on our lips. In it and with it we should breathe and live, sleep and wake, move and eat and drink, and in short do everything (§13).

 [6] Nicolas Cabasilas

[7] Nicolas Cabasilas

KALLISTOS and Ignatios, like Gregory of Sinai, are writing with monks in mind. But the Hesychast teaching was never restricted to an exclusively monastic milieu. Gregory of Sinai sent his disciples back to the city from the desert, to act as guides to lay people, and Gregory Palamas, in a sharp dispute with a certain monk Job, insisted that Paul’s injunction “‘Pray without ceasing’“ (1 Thess. 5.17) is addressed to every Christian without exception. The links of Hesychasm with the wider culture of the day are exemplified in particular by Palamas’ contemporary and friend St Nicolas Cabasilas (c. 1320--c. 1391). Highly educated, pursuing in his earlier years a political career, Cabasilas to the best of our knowledge was never ordained or professed a monk. Although he wrote a short tract in support of Palamas against Gregoras, in his two main works, The Life in Christ and A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, Cabasilas avoids all explicit reference to specifically Hesychast themes, such as the Jesus Prayer, the light of Tabor, or the uncreated energies. He expounds the spiritual way simply in terms of the sacraments: ‘life in Christ’ is nothing else than ‘life in the sacraments’, and this is accessible to each one alike, whether monastic or married, whether priest, soldier, farmer or the mother of a family. Like Palamas, he sees continual prayer as the vocation of all: ‘It is quite possible to practise continual meditation in one’s own home without giving up any of one’s possessions’ (The Life in Christ, 6; ET, p. 174). Hesychasm is in principle a universal path.



Nicephorus of Mount Athos, On Vigilance and the Guarding of the Heart, Greek text PG 147. 945-66; ET E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London, Faber, 1951), pp. 22-34.

Pseudo-Symeon, Method of Holy Prayer and Attentiveness, Greek text and French tr. I. Hausherr, La méthode d’oraison hésychaste, Orientalia Christiana 9, 2 (36) (Rome, 1927), pp. 150-72; ET Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings, pp. 152-611. [The Kadloubovsky-Palmer rendering of Nicephorus and Ps.-Symeon (as also of Gregory of Sinai and Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos) is based on the nineteenth century Russian version by Theophan the Recluse, not on the original Greek; this results in some inaccuracies. For more exact translations, made directly from the Greek, see J. Gouillard, Petite Philocalie de la Prière du Coeur (Paris, 1953)]

Gregory of Sinai, Greek text PG 150. 1240- 1345; ET Kadloubovsky and Palmer, writings, pp. 37-94; Discourse on the Transfiguration, Greek text and ET D. Balfour: reprint (Athens, 1983) from the journal Theologia.

Gregory Palamas, Greek text P. K. Christou, 3 vols. (in progress) (Thessalonica 1962-70): for works not yet included in this, see PG 150-1 and the edition of the Homilies by S. Oikonomos (Athens, 1861). For Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts, cf. Greek text and French tr. J. Meyendorff (Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense30-31: Louvain, 2nd edn, 1973). ET of Triads (selections only) N. Gendle, CWS 1983.

Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, On the Life of Stillness and Solitude, Greek text PG 147. 636-812; ET Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings, pp. 164-270.

Nicolas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, Greek text PG150. 493-725; ET C. J. de Catanzaro (Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974); A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, Greek text and French tr. S. Salaville and others, SC 4 (2nd edn, 1967); ET J. M. Hussey and P. A. McNulty (London, SPCK, 4th edn, 1978).



V. Lossky, (ET) The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. London, J. Clarke, 1957.

Lossky V., (ET) The Vision of God. London, Faith Press, 1963.

Lossky V., (ET) In the Image and Likeness of God. Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.

Meyendorff J., Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. New York, Fordham University Press, 1974; London, Mowbray, 1975.

Gregory of Sinai

Ware K., “‘The Jesus Prayer in St Gregory of Sinai’“, ECR 4 (1972), pp. 3-22.

Gregory Palamas

Krivochéine B., The Ascetic and Theological Teaching of Gregory Palamas. Reprint from The Eastern Churches Quarterly, London, 1954.

Mantzaridis G. I., The Deification of Man: St Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition. Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984.

Meyendorff J., (ET) A Study of Gregory Palamas. London, Faith Press, 1964.

Meyendorff J., (ET) St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.

Nicolas Cabasilas

Lot-Borodine M., Un maître de la spiritualité byzantine au XIVe siècle: Nicolas Cabasilas. Paris, 1958.

Nellas P., The Vocation of the Human Person, part 2. Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985.

Völker W., Die Sacramentsmystik des Nikolaus Kabasilas. Wiesbaden, 1977.

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