The paper I partially reproduce below is brilliantly written and
thoroughly researched and documented. (It appears that the original
must have been written in Greek?). But even more so, this work is
imbued with a sense of awe. It communicates to the reader the sheer
magnificence of a life of prayer and stillness, as well as the desire to
engage himself in prayer. May our hearts become aflame with the
longing to be in the Presence of the Living God, the God of Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob.
The Heart in the Hesychastic Treatises of St Gregory Palamas
by Monk Vartholomaeos
In a Russian village not so long ago, a pious middle-aged Russian
woman, striving to live a conscientious Christian life, went to see
her priest for confession. Having listened to her for a while, and
perceiving her general instability of thought and therefore also life,
the elderly priest took a small metal cross into his hand, and in a
friendly, but stern manner, struck the woman twice upon the head
saying, ‘you silly woman, go inside, go inside, and you will find
rest’. This unorthodox behaviour of the confessor, in a strange
way, is a most practical and direct way to express what we mean
by the term Hesychasm.
When one speaks about the heart, in an Eastern Christian
context, one is somewhat obliged to talk about Hesychasm
also. Furthermore, when one is talking about Hesychasm,
St Gregory Palamas inevitably enters the equation. The
heart possesses a centrality few can claim. If one accepts
that man is the centre and crown of creation (1) [seeNotes],
it would not be an exaggeration to say that the heart is at
the centre of the world. If this can be applied to the material
world, even more so does it appertain to the spiritual. For
the heart is the meeting point between the Creator and
creation, between God and man. St Augustine asks the
following question, ‘Where can we find God?", and
continues in answer, "not on earth, for He is not here. And
not in heaven, for we are not there. But in our own hearts we
can find Him." (2)
St Gregory Palamas was a prolific writer. It was not until the second
half of the previous century that his works were finally compiled and
published by Professor Christou Panagiotis in Thessalonica, the city
where St Gregory served as Archbishop. It is a voluminous corpus
consisting of theological treatises, letters, ascetic writings, homilies,
and prayers. I have chosen to focus on three of his works: the
Treatises in Defence of those who Practise Holy Stillness (3)
(1338-40), commonly termed the Triads due to their structure, for
they consist of three sets of triple tracts. This is, indisputably,
St Gregory Palamas' most important theological work (4), and another
treatise, To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia (1345/6), a statement of
traditional Orthodox asceticism, written at Xenia’s request, and finally,
for obvious reasons, one of Palamas’s briefest works, On Prayer and
the Purity of Heart (1336/7).
I. Pre-requisites to Understanding St Gregory Palamas
i. The Person (St Gregory)
After the sack of Constantinople, by the fourth Crusade in 1204,
Byzantium never fully recovered. The material and military power
under the Palaeologoi was nothing but a shadow of what it once
was in the days of Constantine and Justinian. Throughout the
fourteenth century, her borders were steadily declining in the face
of the advancing Turks. Yet, the last two centuries of the Byzantine
Empire were far from being a story of merely increasing weakness
and steady decline. In the realm of the ‘spirit’, Byzantium continued
to be vibrant and creative right until the very end. The fourteenth
century witnessed the last Byzantine renaissance, marked by
scholars and humanists such as Theodore Metochites (5)
(1270-1331) and Nicephorus Gregoras (1296-1360).
It was likewise a time of outstanding artistic brilliance. One only
needs to look at the mosaics and frescos of the monastery of
Chora in Constantinople (6) and the later Byzantine churches of
Thessalonica. Last, but not least, it was also an era of renewal for
ascetic and mystical theology. It was at this time that the Hesychast
Controversy broke out. An eloquent and authoritative spokesman
came to its defence: Saint Gregory Palamas (7).
Palamas has been described as the greatest Byzantine theologian
of the fourteenth century, and one of the most renowned of all ages
(8). He was born in Constantinople in 1296 into a noble and pious
family. He grew up in the court of emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus.
Palamas’s father was so well respected by the Emperor that the heir,
Andronicus III, was placed under his personal tuition. Palamas himself
received a first class education at the imperial university, which the
Emperor personally supervised, since Palamas’s father had died when
the young Gregory was still only seven years old. Indeed, it is said that
when he had to talk about Aristotle in the presence of the Emperor, at
the tender age of seventeen, he was so successful that Theodore
Metochites, Chancellor of the university at the time, exclaimed to the
Emperor that even if Aristotle himself were present he would have
praised him (9). However, under the influence of the hesychast Bishop
Theoleptus of Philadelphia, Palamas, to the great disappointment of
the Emperor, decided to turn his back on a glorious secular future and
to enter the monastic estate at the age of twenty. Prior to his death,
Palamas’ father had also taken monastic vows; now it was the turn of
his mother, three sisters, and two brothers to follow suit. St Gregory
Palamas was thus free to embark on a new life. Due to political turmoil,
and the Hesychast Controversy, Palamas spent most of his monastic
life on Mount Athos, Northern Greece, and Constantinople. At the age
of thirty, he was ordained priest in Thessalonica. Following the
hesychast custom, he generally spent his time in utter seclusion,
returning to the monastery only at weekends, in order to celebrate the
Divine Liturgy with his fellow ascetics.
The Hesychast Controversy broke out when the notorious Greek monk
Barlaam (1290-1338) came from Calabria (10) to Thessalonica and
started attacking various aspects of Hesychasm. St Gregory Palamas,
prompted by his fellow monks, came to their defence writing his
famous Triads. The anti-Palamite baton had been passed from
Barlaam to Gregory Akindynus (11) a former friend of Palamas, to the
learned scholar Nicephorus Gregoras. Three councils were convened
in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351 where Hesychasm was
vindicated. This period was marked by civil strife and complicated
turn of events. Palamas found himself imprisoned and
excommunicated from the Church, only to later be exonerated and
even raised to the rank of Archbishop of Thessalonica. Apart from
a short period of imprisonment by the Turks, Palamas ended his
life peacefully fulfilling his pastoral responsibilities with great
diligence, as one can see from his homilies (12). His life ended on
14th November 1359. By synodal act in 1368, Palamas’ name
entered the Church calendar of Constantinople, and he was
officially revered as a saint. His memory is celebrated twice a year:
on the day of his death and on the second Sunday of Great Lent (13).
This indicates the importance the Church ascribed to St Gregory
Palamas and his teaching.
The question we are faced with from the start is what is Hesychasm?
It is derived from the Greek word ἡσυχία, which means silence/
stillness. According to the Father Sophrony Sakharov, Hesychasm is
such a rich and splendid ‘culture’ that any description of it sounds
incoherent and incomplete (14). Palamas refers to it as ἱερή ἡσυχία
(15) [holy silence] and calls it, ‘the art of arts’ (16).
Hesychasm is a way of life in which a monk, in the midst of
intense ascetic struggle, seeks inner stillness (ἡσυχία) and the
cleansing from the passions, which in turn leads to a mystical
union with God, essentially effected by divine grace. Great
attention is given to νήψις (vigilant inner sobriety), and physical
techniques have sometimes been employed. The mystical
tradition to which Hesychasm belongs is marked by a strong
use of apophatic theology.
God cannot be properly comprehended by the human mind,
and all language applied to Him is inevitably inaccurate. It is,
therefore, less misleading to use negative theology when
speaking about God, rather than positive. This negative, or
apophatic theology as it is more commonly termed, reaches
its classical expression in Dionysius the Areopagite
(5th–6th c.). Many have used this approach not only as a
device indicating God’s utter transcendence (17) but more
fundamentally, as a means for attaining union with Him
through prayer. These negations act as a springboard
whereby the monk seeks to leap up into the living mystery
of God. This ‘way of negation’ is at the same time a ‘way of
union’ (18). Apophaticism, therefore, is seen as a spiritual
pathway, which prepares one to see God (19).
Chronologically, many have restricted Hesychasm to the controversies
of the fourteenth century. Hesychasm has a long history and continues
to play an essential role in Eastern monasticism to this very day.
It has its roots in the first hermits who fled in the fourth century to the
barren deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria (20). From the sixth
century, the word ‘Hesychast’ has been synonymous with the word
‘monk’ (21). Besides, even from the time of Origen (c.185-c.254) the
word ἡσυχία took on the meaning of ‘solitude’ and life far from the
world (22). From the very beginning ἡσυχία, was a characteristic
feature of monasticism. According to one contemporary Greek
theologian, Orthodox monasticism is at the same time Hesychasm
Some Hesychasts, and indeed Palamas himself, claimed that they
would experience a vision of the divine light, that same divine light
that shone on Mount Tabor, bringing about union with God (24).
Although this may be the result of the Hesychast’s life, it cannot be
his purpose. A Hesychast is warned not to enter the monastery or
desert in order to receive supernatural visitations, but rather to
engage in spiritual warfare. Thus, one may say that there are no
‘mystics’ in the Orthodox Church, since one is clearly warned to
avoid contemplation and the seeing of visions (25).
One of the fruits of Hesychasm is rest, essentially internal in
character. However, this rest has little to do with absence of
conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of an intense
daily struggle (26). Temptation and labour remains to the end.
A Hesychast does not try to run away from temptation, but
rather, seeks to obtain that inner strength that enables him
to bear it. In deed, the Fathers knew that temptations were
unavoidable, but also salutary.
According to St Anthony the Great, ‘whoever has not experienced
temptation cannot enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Without
temptation no one can be saved’ (27).
For a better understanding of Hesychasm, it is essential to draw
a distinction between loneliness and solitude. The word ‘monk’
is of Greek origin and is derived from the word μόνος (to be
alone). However, the life of the monk is far from being an
unbearable state of isolation or an undesirable banishment.
Rather, the life of the hesychast is rich in transformations and
sensations, essentially spiritual in character (28). The
Hesychast tries to turn his aloneness into solitude, and not let
it slip into loneliness.
Loneliness is painful, whereas solitude is peaceful; and one
might add, and Hesychasm is blissful. It is a lifelong struggle
(29). The Desert Fathers never thought of solitude as being
alone with one’s self, but as being with God. They did not
think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God.
Solitude and silence are the context in which prayer is
practiced (30), they are also the conditions that the
One must be alone in order to realize how far one is from
singleness of heart, and thus discover a deep longing for God.
Getting on in the world clutters up the heart with an array of
preoccupations and concerns which dampens this longing for
God (31). In order to express this theory - the manner in which
external activities can obstruct the Hesychast from seeing his
true inner state - the Desert Fathers would use the example of
water being disturbed by the dropping of a stone.
The ripples do not allow the onlooker to see his face clearly in
the water. But once tranquillity has prevailed, one then is able
to see an undisturbed reflection of one’s self.
Hesychasm must not be perceived as an unhealthy esoteric movement
of the later Byzantine period, but rather as a spiritual renewal of a most
authentic tradition in the Christian East (32). For some, the word
Hesychast is synonymous with an uneducated monk. Undeniably,
most of the monks were not learned, but it is not right to think of
Hesychasm as only for the untutored. The example of Palamas himself
is proof of this. Furthermore, it is also wrong to believe that
Hesychasm leads to a utopian, nirvana-type of peace. Rather, it seeks
the peace of God in the midst of intense daily struggle (33).
There is nothing mechanical about Hesychasm. It is not some
sort of spiritual technique that leads to divine contemplation,
for God is not subject to automatic influence or compulsion.
God freely communicates His grace to the soul when He wills
and when the soul is ready. This readiness consists of the
soul ardently aspiring towards God by the keeping of the
commandments. The preparation for this is suffering,
repentance, and tears (34).
Palamas was no revolutionary innovator, but firmly rooted in the
tradition of the past; yet he was a creative theologian of the first
rank, and his work shows that Orthodox theology did not cease
to be active after the eighth century and the seventh Ecumenical
Council (35). He was not one who merely repeats, as the starting
point of his theology was his own spiritual experience and not
only the study of the Fathers (36)
Palamas’ teaching is a new reading of traditional theology,
formulated in response to the fresh challenges for the Orthodox
faith (37). Tradition is not passive but active. It is active in two
ways. Firstly, it is about receiving what your ancestors –
namely the Fathers of the Church - have passed on. Secondly,
it is active as an act of offering, of passing on that which you
have received (38).
It was due to St Gregory Palamas’s efforts that Hesychasm, that
age long tradition, was set on a firm doctrinal basis, the
Constantinopolitan councils of 1341 and 1351 confirming his
teaching. Although these councils were local, they are of great
importance for Orthodox theology; in authority, ranking just
below the seven general councils themselves (39). Palamas truly
lived the tradition of the Church. He was thus in a position to
defend it, subsequently also to add to it.
iii. The Jesus Prayer
As the name suggests we are dealing with a prayer that has
Jesus Christ at its centre. It is a very short prayer that, with
a few variations, runs thus: "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God
have mercy on me a sinner." At the heart of Hesychasm we
find ‘heart spirituality’, and at the centre of this heart
spirituality we find the Jesus Prayer (40).
Phrases such as, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ [Rev. 22:20] (41) the humble
prayer of the publican: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’
(Lk. 18:13), and the cry of the blind men: ‘thou Son of David, have
mercy on us’ (Matt. 9:28) are all seen as prototypes of the Jesus
Prayer. The parable of Jesus which urges men, ‘always to pray
and not to faint’ (Lk. 18:1-8), and the admonition of St Paul, ‘pray
without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), have been taken as the scriptural
basis of the Jesus Prayer.
How to accomplish this unceasing prayer has long occupied the
Christian mind. Others saw it as a combination of frequent prayers
and good works (Origen). In their attempt to practice unceasing
prayer, the Messalians (42) rejected other ‘external’ aspects of
worship. In the fifth century we even had the so-called ‘ἀκοίμητοι
μοναχοί’, literally translated the monks that never slept.
Groups of monks that would take turns to stay in church so that
prayer would continue incessantly day and night (43). Barlaam
interpreted this injunction in a strange manner. For him, by prayer,
the apostle meant to have the habit of praying; and to have this habit
means to be aware that no one can do anything if God does not will it.
Palamas rejected this understanding, for in such a case, he said, even
the devil would be praying continually (44). All the above-mentioned
techniques tried to accomplish unceasing prayer in an external and
Gradually, in the East, prayer started to be seen more as a state
rather than as an act. The Desert Fathers would use short ‘arrow
prayers’ (45) which would lead to this perpetual state of prayer. It was
not until the fifth-sixth century that these arrow prayers became
integrated with the name of Jesus and thus gave us the standard
form of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer has exercised immense
influence upon the spirituality of the Christian East – not the least in
our own times as it is probably being practiced more than ever before,
by lay people as well as by monastics (46). Palamas did not discuss
the Jesus Prayer specifically as a topic on its own, but it is taken for
granted in almost all of his writings, since he was replying to attacks
aimed against it (47). Its practice was so widespread that it was
superfluous to discuss it. However, he does speak about
μονολόγιστη εὐχή -the prayer of a single thought- (48) which
essentially is the Jesus Prayer.
By the constant repetition of this short prayer, the mind is
brought to a certain concentration. Μονολογία, thus, leads to
ἡσυχία (49). Although Hesychasm is the work of the monk par
excellence, it is not only confined to monasticism. Indeed,
Palamas felt strongly about this himself. In his biography, it is
recorded that he had a dispute with a certain monk Job over the
matter (50). The Hesychast teachers sought to spread the practice
of the Jesus Prayer outside the cloisters, for to them it was
pre-eminently a means of making the grace of baptism real and
efficacious (51). The Jesus Prayer is said to contain the whole
Gospel (52). It declares that the second person of the Holy Trinity
‘Lord Jesus Christ son of God’ came into the world to save fallen
man ‘have mercy upon me a sinner’. Is this not that trustworthy
saying given to Timothy? ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to
save sinners’ (1 Tim.1:15).
This paper can be read in its entirety (nineteen pages) here
1 See Gen. 1:26-28.
2 Quoted in Anthony Coniaris, Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality (Minneapolis: Light and Life,1998), 261.
3 Ὑπὲρ τῶν ἱερῶς Ἡσυχαζόντων.
4 John Meyendorff, The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church (New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press,1982) 167.
5 In fact, Palamas studied under his supervision.
6 In the early fourteenth century, the church was restored and redecorated by none other than the Grand Logothete Theodore Metochites, during the reign of Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282-1328).
7 Kallistos Ware, Act out of Stillness (Toronto: The Hellenic Canadian Association of Constantinople, 1995) 1-3.
8 George Mantzarides, Παλαμικά, (Thessalonica: Πουρναράς, 1998) 79.
9 Philotheos Kokkinos, Λόγος Ἐγκωμιαστικὸς εἰς τὸν ἐν Ἁγίοις Πατέρα ἡμῶν Γρηγόριον Ἀρχιεπίσκοπον Θεσσαλονίκης τὸν Παλαμά, in J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, vol. 151 (Paris: 1865), 560A.
10 Southern Italy.
11 Born early 14th century.
12 Of which two volumes have already been published in English by St Tikhon’s Seminary Press.
13 For a fuller account see: Carmelo Giuseppe Conticello, and Vassa Conticello (eds.) Le Theologie Byzantine et sa Tradition, vol. II (Turnhout: Brepolis, 2002), 131-137, and Παναγιώτης Χρήστου ‘Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς’, in Α. Μαρτίνος (ed.), Θρησκευτική και Ηθική Εγκυγκλοπαιδεία (Athens: Μαρτίνος, 1965) vol. IV, 775-794.
14 See Sophrony Sakharov, Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999), 142.
15 Gregory Palamas, Défence des Saints Hésychastes, Jean Meyendorff (ed.) (Louvain: Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaneiense, 1973), 2. 2. 12. 345.
16 Palamas, Défence des Saints Hésychastes, 1. 2. 2. 321.
17 An early patristic example of this would be the works of St Gregory of Nyssa The Life of Moses and the Homilies on the Song of Songs.
18 Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 63-4.
19 Don Fairbairn, ‘Eastern Orthodox Mystical Theology’, in C. Partridge and T. Gabriel (eds.), Mysticism East and West: Studies in Mystical Experience (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2003) 154-5.
20 Alphonse Goettmann, Prayer of Jesus – Prayer of the Heart (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), viii.
21 Philip Sheldrake (ed.), The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (London: SCM Press, 2005), 335.2
22 Mantzarides, Παλαμικά, 80.
23 George Mantzarides, ‘Tradition and Renewal in the Theology of Saint Gregory Palamas’, Eastern Churches Review 9, no. 1 (1977), 3.
23 George Mantzarides, ‘Tradition and Renewal in the Theology of Saint Gregory Palamas’, Eastern Churches Review 9, no. 1 (1977), 3.
24 Ware, The Orthodox Church, 66.
25 John Romanides, ‘Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics – II’, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 9, no. 2 (1963-64), 230.
26 Coniaris, Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality, 70.
27 Apopthegmata Partum, in J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, vol. 65 (Paris: 1865), 77A.
28 Zacharias Zacharou, Αναφορά στη Θεολογία του Γέροντος Σωφρονίου (Essex: Ιερά Μονή Τιμίου Προδρόμου, 2000), 223.
29 Henri Nouwen quoted from Coniaris, Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality, 215.
30 Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 69.
31 See Andrew Louth, The Wilderness of God (London: Darton, Longman and
Todd, 1999), 52.
Todd, 1999), 52.
32 John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, trans. George Lawrence (London: The Faith Press, 1964),201.
33 Coniaris, Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality, 218.
34 See Sophrony, Saint Silouan, 147.
35 Ware, The Orthodox Church, 70.
36 Basil Krivoshein, The Ascetic and Theological Theology of Gregory Palamas (London: Coldwell, 1954), 48.3
37 Conticello, Le Theologie Byzantine, 171.
38 Mantzarides, Παλαμικά, 17.
39 Ware, The Orthodox Church, 67.
40 Goettmann, Prayer of Jesus – Prayer of the Heart, viii.
41 See Ware, ‘The Beginnings of the Jesus Prayer’, in B. Ward and R. Waller (eds.), Joy of Heaven (London:SPCK, 2003), 3.
42 From the Syriac word mslÿn (praying people) in Greek εὐχήται. An
extreme ascetic movement widespread in the Near East during the 4th
and 5th centuries. Characterised by an over spiritualised approach to
prayer and anti-sacramentalism. They never formed an institutionalized
sect, neither did they develop any doctrine. They were criticized by
Fathers and councils, including the third ecumenical council in
43 See George Galitis, ‘Η Αδιάλειπτη Προσευχή κατά τον ΄Αγιον Γρηγόριον τον Παλαμά’, in Γ.Μαντζαρίδης and Χ. Κοντάκης (eds.), Πρακτικά Θεολογικού Συνεδρίου (Thessalonica: Ιερά Μητρόπολις Θεσσαλονίκης, 1986), 177.
44 See Palamas, Défence, 2. 1. 30. 283.
45 Kallistos Ware, ‘Praying with the Body: The Hesychast Method and Non-Christian Parallels’, Sobornost 14, no. 2 (1992), 9.
46 Ware, ‘The Beginnings of the Jesus Prayer’, 2.
47 Lev Gillet, The Jesus Prayer (New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 60.
48 See Défence, 1. 3. 2. 109.
49 Ware, ‘The Beginnings of the Jesus Prayer’, 20.
50 Philotheos Kokkinos, Λόγος Ἐγκωμιαστικός, 573BC.4