Hesychasm

The Hesychast movement made its appearance in Byzantium in the first part of the fourteenth century. The name comes from the Greek word hesychia, “quiet” or “silence.” It was applied to those individuals who devoted themselves in silence to mystical meditation, attempting to come into a full unity with God. This movement in the Byzantine Church illustrates the difference between official theology and the theology of experience. The ascetic monks of Mt. Athos attempted to meditate so intensely as to isolate themselves completely from the world and so attain the Divine Light. A monk of this persuasion would usually press his chin on his chest while focusing his eyes on his navel and holding his breath until his vision became dim. He would soon enter an ecstatic trance which would be the ultimate in union with God.

An extensive controversy broke out over this issue, primarily started by one Barlaam who in the West had been involved in an attempt to reunite the Eastern and Western churches. On his return to Constantinople he immediately began to ridicule the Hesychasts for their ecstatic experience of God. Barlaam and those who took similar views against the Hesychasts felt that it was wrong to have such an experience, for God could only be known indirectly. The Divine and Uncreated Light which came through the Hesychast experience was not authentic but simply an illusion. The various physical positions of prayer carried on by the Hesychasts were also part of the attack.

Gregory Palamas,* a former monk of Athos and then archbishop of Thessalonica, took up the defense of the Hesychasts. His articulate exposition of the position that man can know God even though God is by nature unknowable won the day. This was explained by differentiating between the energies of God which are knowable and the essence of God which is unknowable. Proper meditation involves the whole body since man is a unified being and must use that total being in his communion with God. A council was summoned on this issue in 1341; it sanctioned the doctrine of Uncreated Light and thus declared in favor of the Mt. Athos monks and Orthodox mysticism. To illustrate the extremes to which the victory was taken, Nicephorus Gregoras who was against the Hesychasts was reportedly dragged along the streets of the city after his death.

This was a difficult time for the Eastern Christian world because the Byzantine Empire being greatly weakened after the Crusades was having its very existence threatened by the advancing Muslims. The Muslim Turks were constantly creeping closer to Constantinople. The Slavs were stirring and causing Byzantium difficulty in the north. In the struggle for the identity of Byzantine theology, the mystical emphasis of the theology reigned supreme at this particular time.

See J. Meyendorff, St. Grégoire Palamas et la mystique orthodoxe (1959).