Based on Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your closet to pray", Hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God (see theoria).
The origin of the term hesychasmos, and of the related terms hesychastes, hesychia and hesychazo, is not entirely certain. According to the entries in Lampe's A Patristic Greek Lexicon, the basic terms hesychia and hesychazo appear as early as the 4th Century in such Fathers as St John Chrysostom and the Cappadocians. The terms also appear in the same period in Evagrius Pontikos (c.345–399), who although he is writing in Egypt is out of the circle of the Cappadocians, and in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
The term Hesychast is used sparingly in Christian ascetical writings emanating from Egypt from the 4th Century on, although the writings of Evagrius and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers do attest to it. In Egypt, the terms more often used are anchoretism (Gr. ἀναχώρησις, "withdrawal, retreat"), and anchorite (Gr. ἀναχωρητής, "one who withdraws or retreats, i.e. a hermit").
The term Hesychast was used in the 6th Century in Palestine in the Lives of Cyril of Scythopolis, many of which lives treat of Hesychasts who were contemporaries of Cyril. Here, it should be noted that several of the saints about whom Cyril was writing, especially Euthymios and Savas, were in fact from Cappadocia.
The laws (novella) of the Emperor Justinian (6th Century) treat Hesychast and anchorite as synonyms, making them interchangeable terms.
The terms hesychia and Hesychast are used quite systematically in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai (523–603) and in Pros Theodoulon by St Hesychios (c.750?), who is ordinarily also considered to be of the School of Sinai. It is not known where either St John of Sinai or St Hesychios were born, nor where they received their monastic formation.
It appears that the particularity of the term Hesychast has to do with the integration of the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer into the practices of mental ascesis already used by hermits in Egypt.
Hesychasm itself is not recorded in Lampe, which indicates that it is a much later usage.
By the 14th Century on Mt Athos the terms Hesychasm and Hesychast refer to the practice and to the practitioner of a method of mental ascesis that involves the use of the Jesus Prayer assisted by certain psychophysical techniques. Most likely, the rise of the term Hesychasm reflects the coming to the fore of this practice as something concrete and specific that can be discussed.
Books used by the Hesychast include the Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer and solitary mental ascesis written from the 4th to the 15th Centuries, this collection existing in a number of independent redactions; the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the collected works of St Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022); and the works of St Isaac the Syrian (7th C.?–8th C.?), as they were selected and translated into Greek at the Monastery of St Savas near Jerusalem about the 10th Century.
Hesychastic practice bears some resemblance to mystical prayer or meditation in Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism, compare with yoga), although this similarity is often over-emphasized in popular accounts and generally rejected by actual Orthodox practitioners of Hesychasm. The practice may involve specific body postures and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns. However, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary both by modern Athonite practitioners of Hesychasm (e.g. Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, p. 114 [Greek edition]) and by the more ancient texts in the Philokalia (e.g. On the Two Methods of Prayer by St Gregory of Sinai), the emphasis being on the primary role of Grace.
Hesychasts are fully integrated into the Liturgical and sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, including the daily cycle of liturgical prayer of the Divine Office and the Divine Liturgy. However, Hesychasts who are living as hermits might have a very rare attendance at the Divine Liturgy (see the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov) and might not recite the Divine Office except by means of the Jesus Prayer (attested practice on Mt Athos). In general, the Hesychast restricts his external activities for the sake of his Hesychastic practice.
Hesychastic practice involves acquiring an inner stillness and ignoring the physical senses. In this, Hesychasm shows its roots in Evagrius Pontikos and even in the Greek tradition of asceticism going back to Plato. The Hesychast interprets Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your closet to pray" to mean that one should ignore the senses and withdraw inward. Saint John of Sinai writes: "Hesychasm is the enclosing of the bodiless primary Cognitive faculty of the soul (Orthodoxy teaches of two cognitive faculties, the nous and logos) in the bodily house of the body." (Ladder, Step 27, 5, (Step 27, 6 in the Holy Transfiguration edition).)
In Step 27, 21 of the Ladder (Step 27, 22–3 of the Holy Transfiguration edition), St John of Sinai describes Hesychast practice as follows:
In this passage, St John of Sinai says that the primary task of the Hesychast is to engage in mental ascesis. This mental ascesis is the rejection of tempting thoughts (the “thieves”) that come to the Hesychast as he watches in sober attention in his hermitage. Much of the literature of Hesychasm is occupied with the psychological analysis of such tempting thoughts (e.g. St Mark the Ascetic). This psychological analysis owes much to the ascetical works of Evagrius Pontikos, with its doctrine of the eight passions.
St. John Cassian is not represented in the Philokalia except by two brief extracts, but this is most likely due to his having written in Latin. His works (Coenobitical Institutions and the Conferences) represent a transmittal of Evagrius Pontikos’ ascetical doctrines to the West. These works formed the basis of much of the spirituality of the Order of St Benedict and its offshoots. Hence, the tradition of St John Cassian in the West concerning the spiritual practice of the hermit can be considered to be a tradition parallel to that of Hesychasm in the Orthodox Church.
The highest goal of the Hesychast is the experiential knowledge of God. In the 14th Century, the possibility of this experiential knowledge of God was challenged by a Calabrian monk, Barlaam, who although he was formally a member of the Orthodox Church had been trained in Western Scholastic theology. Barlaam asserted that our knowledge of God can only be propositional. The practice of the Hesychasts was defended by St. Gregory Palamas. (See below.)
In solitude and retirement the Hesychast repeats the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The Hesychast prays the Jesus Prayer 'with the heart'—with meaning, with intent, 'for real' (see ontic). He never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables whose 'surface' or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He considers bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a 'mystical' inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous. This emphasis on the actual, real invocation of Jesus Christ marks a divergence from Eastern forms of meditation.
There is a very great emphasis on humility in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, great cautions being given in the texts about the disaster that will befall the would-be Hesychast if he proceeds in pride, arrogance or conceit. It is also assumed in the Hesychast texts that the Hesychast is a member of the Orthodox Church in good standing.
While he maintains his practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the Hesychast cultivates watchful attention (Gr. nepsis). Sobriety contributes to this mental askesis described above that rejects tempting thoughts; it puts a great emphasis on focus and attention. The Hesychast is to pay extreme attention to the consciousness of his inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer, not letting his mind wander in any way at all.
The Hesychast is to attach Eros (Gr. eros), that is, "yearning", to his practice of sobriety so as to overcome the temptation to accidie (sloth). He is also to use an extremely directed and controlled anger against the tempting thoughts, although to obliterate them entirely he is to invoke Jesus Christ via the Jesus Prayer.
The Hesychast is to bring his mind (Gr. nous) into his heart so as to practise both the Jesus Prayer and sobriety with his mind in his heart. The descent of the mind into the heart is taken quite literally by the practitioners of Hesychasm and is not at all considered to be a metaphorical expression. Some of the psychophysical techniques described in the texts are to assist the descent of the mind into the heart at those times that only with difficulty it descends on its own.
The goal at this stage is a practice of the Jesus Prayer with the mind in the heart, which practice is free of images (see Pros Theodoulon). What this means is that by the exercise of sobriety (the mental ascesis against tempting thoughts), the Hesychast arrives at a continual practice of the Jesus Prayer with his mind in his heart and where his consciousness is no longer encumbered by the spontaneous inception of images: his mind has a certain stillness and emptiness that is punctuated only by the eternal repetition of the Jesus Prayer.
This stage is called the guard of the mind. This is a very advanced stage of ascetical and spiritual practice, and attempting to accomplish this prematurely, especially with psychophysical techniques, can cause very serious spiritual and emotional harm to the would-be Hesychast. St Theophan the Recluse once remarked that bodily postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his youth, since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only "in ruining their lungs."
The guard of the mind is the practical goal of the Hesychast. It is the condition in which he remains as a matter of course throughout his day, every day until he dies. It is from the guard of the mind that he is raised to contemplation by the Grace of God.
The Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God as light, the Uncreated Light of the theology of St Gregory Palamas. The Hesychast, when he has by the mercy of God been granted such an experience, does not remain in that experience for a very long time (there are exceptions—see for example the Life of St Savas the Fool for Christ (14th Century), written by St Philotheos Kokkinos (14th Century)), but he returns 'to earth' and continues to practise the guard of the mind.
The Uncreated Light that the Hesychast experiences is identified with the Holy Spirit. Experiences of the Uncreated Light are allied to the 'acquisition of the Holy Spirit'. Notable accounts of encounters with the Holy Spirit in this fashion are found in St Symeon the New Theologian's account of the illumination of 'George' (considered a pseudonym of St Symeon himself); in the 'conversation with Motovilov' in the Life of St Seraphim of Sarov (1759 – 1833); and, more recently, in the reminiscences of Elder Porphyrios (Wounded by Love pp. 27 – 31).
Orthodox Tradition warns against seeking ecstasy as an end in itself. Hesychasm is a traditional complex of ascetical practices embedded in the doctrine and practice of the Orthodox Church and intended to purify the member of the Orthodox Church and to make him ready for an encounter with God that comes to him when and if God wants, through God's Grace. The goal is to acquire, through purification and Grace, the Holy Spirit and salvation. Any ecstatic states or other unusual phenomena which may occur in the course of Hesychast practice are considered secondary and unimportant, even quite dangerous. Moreover, seeking after unusual 'spiritual' experiences can itself cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Such a seeking after 'spiritual' experiences can lead to spiritual delusion (Ru. prelest, Gr. plani)—the antonym of sobriety—in which a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, has hallucinations in which he or she 'sees' angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion is in a superficial, egotistical way pleasurable, but can lead to madness and suicide, and, according to the Hesychast fathers, makes salvation impossible.
Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of Hesychasm. St Paisius Velichkovsky and his disciples made the practice known in Russia and Romania, although Hesychasm was already previously known in Russia, as is attested by St Seraphim of Sarov's independent practice of it.
About the year 1337 Hesychasm attracted the attention of a learned member of the Orthodox Church, Barlaam, a Calabrian monk who at that time held the office of abbot in the Monastery of St Saviour's in Constantinople and who visited Mount Athos. Mount Athos was then at the height of its fame and influence under the reign of Andronicus III Palaeologus and under the 'first-ship' of the Protos Symeon. On Mount Athos, Barlaam encountered Hesychasts and heard descriptions of their practices, also reading the writings of the teacher in Hesychasm of St Gregory Palamas, himself an Athonite monk. Trained in Western Scholastic theology, Barlaam was scandalized by Hesychasm and began to combat it both orally and in his writings. As a private teacher of theology in the Western Scholastic mode, Barlaam propounded a more intellectual and propositional approach to the knowledge of God than the Hesychasts taught.
Barlaam took exception to, as heretical and blasphemous, the doctrine entertained by the Hesychasts as to the nature of the light, the experience of which was said to be the goal of Hesychast practice. It was maintained by the Hesychasts to be of divine origin and to be identical to that light which had been manifested to Jesus' disciples on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration. This Barlaam held to be polytheistic, inasmuch as it postulated two eternal substances, a visible and an invisible God.
On the Hesychast side, the controversy was taken up by St Gregory Palamas, afterwards Archbishop of Thessalonica, who was asked by his fellow monks on Mt Athos to defend Hesychasm from the attacks of Barlaam. St Gregory himself was well-educated in Greek philosophy. St Gregory defended Hesychasm in the 1340s at three different synods in Constantinople, and he also wrote a number of works in its defense.
In these works, St Gregory Palamas uses a distinction, already found in the 4th Century in the works of the Cappadocian Fathers, between the energies or operations (Gr. energeies) of God and the essence of God. St Gregory taught that the energies or operations of God were uncreated. He taught that the essence of God can never be known by his creature even in the next life, but that his uncreated energies or operations can be known both in this life and in the next, and convey to the Hesychast in this life and to the righteous in the next life a true spiritual knowledge of God. In Palamite theology, it is the uncreated energies of God that illumine the Hesychast who has been vouchsafed an experience of the Uncreated Light.
In 1341 the dispute came before a synod held at Constantinople and presided over by the Emperor Andronicus; the synod, taking into account the regard in which the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius were held, condemned Barlaam, who recanted and returned to Calabria, afterwards becoming bishop in the Roman Catholic Church.
One of Barlaam's friends, Gregory Akindynos, who originally was also a friend of St Gregory Palamas, took up the controversy, and three other synods on the subject were held, at the second of which the followers of Barlaam gained a brief victory. But in 1351 at a synod under the presidency of the Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus, Hesychast doctrine was established as the doctrine of the Orthodox Church.
Up to this day, the Latin Rite Catholic Church has never fully accepted Hesychasm , especially the distinction between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God, and the notion that those energies or operations of God are uncreated In Latin Rite theology as it has developed since the Scholastic period, the essence of God can be known, but only in the next life; the grace of God is always created; and the essence of God is pure act, so that there can be no distinction between the energies or operations and the essence of God (see, e.g., the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas). Some of these positions depend on Aristotelian metaphysics.
The contemporary historians Cantacuzenus and Nicephorus Gregoras deal very copiously with this subject, taking the Hesychast and Barlaamite sides respectively.