Tuesday, May 22, 2012

John Paul II and the New Hesychasts


     Understanding the great need for spiritual renewal, Blessed John Paul the Great called the Church once to reconnect with the mystical traditions. In doing so, he encouraged reading the teachings of saints associated with the western contemplative traditions. The holy father even said that those who would bring spiritual renewal in our churches would be contemplatives(the New Evangelists). There has been a strong response to his call in the Catholic Church over time. In fact, the resources to tap into the western contemplative teachings since then almost seem endless. However, its important as Byzantines that we respond to this call by also looking at our own mystical traditions. We have a rich tradition called Hesychasm and it has much to offer to the spiritual renewal of our churches.
     In its traditional understanding Hesychasm is defined as the pursuit of stillness(hesychia) in Jesus Christ. It's also commonly known to be a tradition that has flourished in the context of Byzantine monastic communities. Basically, Hesychasm is a way for the (whole) person to experience God by achieving stillness (hesychia). In the teachings associated with Hesychasm, such as in the Philokalia, there are different systems that incorporate mental as well as physical activity. These systems help to purify a person, making them able to achieve 'stillness' and experience God continually. For example, in the most common practice associated with Hesychasm, the Jesus Prayer, the body as well as mind are engaged in the work of purification. The purification takes place in the body through recitation and in the mind by its focus on God. Its in hope that through these continual actions the (whole) person will grow in their experience of God.
     The activities used for purification in the tradition of Hesychasm are very diverse. You will find different fathers speaking about different activities to use in prayer and in daily life. However, even though there is diversity its important to understand the activities as synergistic, and not just as mere methods. Every action in purification, physical or mental, has a dual character. On one end its your own effort, but, on the other it is the work of God. This goes to demonstrate that we are the temples of the Holy Spirit(1 Corinthians 3:9), since in a temple there are always two at work, both God and man. This is a vital distinction to have because many times the actions Hesychasts employ are equated to practices in non-Christian religions or even therapeutic techniques. The difference rests in the fact that by working with the Holy Spirit we can give divinizing power and meaning to any action.
     In contrast to what can be found in the western contemplative traditions there are a few things worth noting. The activities used to prepare one for encountering God are not always of the same nature. In fact, in the west discursive techniques are often abandoned ,such as meditation, when a state of contemplation is achieved. The activities used are even often referred to as "the work" to get to the state. In Hesychasm the activates used in the traditions do not have the form of preparing a person for a state. As I said they are synergistic and remain a normal part of a lifestyle of ongoing purification and encounter. On the other hand, what the two traditions do have in common are moments of immersion in God where our activities do cease. It's in these moments that St. Seraphim of Sarov once said that we "cease to pray" and enjoy the presence of God.
     There will always be moments in the life of prayer in any tradition when God chooses to bless us as St. Seraphim described. However, these moments are not the goal in Hesychasm. The goal is to grow daily in experiencing who God is by becoming what He is through grace. The ongoing purification practiced by the Hesychast allows for a more and more richer experience of divinity in every aspect of what we are. For example, when my mind looks to Christ it is becoming Christ and when I do many prostrations my body is becoming Christ. In essence, Hesychasm is a very special way to live out our Byzantine tradition of Theosis. In fact, Hesychasm itself was birthed overtime from Byzantine spirituality and remains our most developed spiritual tradition.
     In his vision Blessed John Paul the Great saw the renewal of our Church coming from modern contemplatives. In translating this vision into our Byzantine tradition we can say that the renewal of our churches will have their foundation in the New Hesychasts. The New Hesychast unlike the old must be a person who can learn to incorporate this spirituality into all modern circumstances. This can only happen if we learn to take the teachings of Hesychasm, such as in the Philokalia, beyond the walls of the monastery and into ordinary life. It was never to be a tradition for specialized monastic and needs to be rediscovered and renewed in order to fuel the spiritual renewal that we all wish to see.
     Just like the western contemplative tradition, that Blessed John Paul the Great spoke of, Hesychasm can be a vital resource for renewal. Also, Hesychasm can be very simple. You can even be someone who works in front of a computer all day, stay at home parent, or even a garbage man. All you have to do is ask God to purify you through the action. It then becomes synergistic. You are exercising hope doing your best in the task (seeking hesychia) and He is making a way for you to become what HE is. This is no different than when we stand for long hours in prayer except in that there is a different level of intensity or intimacy. There is no part of the day that cannot lead us to encounter God! When St. Athanasius wrote "God became man so that men might become gods" he did not add "only on Sundays" or "clergy only". This was a saying for all people, of all times, and every moment. Through the practice of Hesychasm we can become what God is and be the vessels of renewal our churches desperately need.

(Note: for those who don't understand the Byzantine tradition on divinization. Man does not become another person of the Trinity. He participates in what God is making him a god by grace and never by nature. We are not born eternal beings but become so by participation in what God is. As it says in 2peter 1:4 "you may become partakers of the divine nature")



4 comments:

  1. I have a Peruvian friend whose parents belonged to the Charismatic Renewal. On leaving school, he started a prayer group, really for social reasons; and he wasn't really attracted by the form of charismatic prayer and attended but rarely. One day, another member of prayer group told him to come because "strange things were happening".

    He attended at his friend's insistence. During the prayer he was hit by a forceful conviction of the Lord's presence and of God's love for him. It completely overwhelmed him. The next day, everyone wanted to meetagain. On the second day he was struck by his utter sunfullness, and his unworthiness at being in God's presence. By this time, the adults who had their own group had come because of what was happening. My friend began to lay hands on them and to tell them things about themselves that no one else knew.

    When all was over, he still didn't like the c harismatic way of praying simultaneously in a group; but he could not deny he had met God. He became a monk and is now an excellent painter of icons - an Orthodox iconographer has said he might turn out to be one of the best in the world. He says that his monastic vocation and his added vocation as an iconographer sprang from what Charismatics call "Baptism of the Spirit". He is exploring the hesychast tradition.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this Father. I'm glad to see that the Holy Spirit does not discriminate at the charismatic prayer meetings. It's also interesting to see that those who come alive in the Spirit do not always find a home in those types of spiritualities.

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  2. What about Ratzinger's comments on Hesychastism while he was head of the CDF under John Paul II?

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    1. Sam, do you mean CDF's on some aspects of Christian meditation? He only gives the same warnings we do our own people about certain ways to pray the Jesus Prayer. He even says "eastern masters themselves have also noted that not everyone is equally suited to making use of this symbolism". Hesychasm is a science as the Philokalia teaches. It is not restricted to forms or ways. Hesychasm is stillness in Jesus Christ and there are many ways to cultivate that.

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