Monday, February 13, 2017

Some thoughts on Hesychasm

     In my opinion, Hesychasm is the most suitable way for modern man to experience the Gospel.  Unfortunately, Hesychasm is a topic that many people in my church are not familiar with. Regardless, all Byzantine Catholic churches today share a foundation in it. Hesychasm became an official doctrine in 1300’s and it was the Hesychasts who helped develop the structure of the Byzantine rite as we know it, in what was called the Neo-Sabaitic Typikon. Basically, the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos promoted and circulated the Typikon. In addition, it was their spirituality that accompanied and supported the Typikon. Some of the evidence for this is still with us today. For instance, the Athonite tradition of the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” is a popular prayer for Byzantines. Also, It’s not uncommon to see those who practice this prayer using a prayer rope, along with various ascetic postures that have their root in Hesychasm. Another instance, the monastic texts compiled on Mt. Athos in what’s called The Philokalia is still revered among Byzantine Catholics, even though its relationship to Hesychasm is generally not understood.
     Hesychasm is a spirituality for everyone. It is commonly known as the pursuit of stillness. A stillness that is achieved by learning how to approach God through prayer and watchfulness.. The stillness that a Hesychast seeks is in one sense a state of healing from what the fathers call the passions. The passions are the root of our sinful desires. The Hesychast follows various ascetic methods inspired by grace in order to overcome the passions. In this regard, Hesychasm is more like a science or a therapy that seeks to heal our relationship with God. In terms of it being a science the Philokalia is traditionally known as the perfect manual next to the bible for practicing Hesychasm.  
     Also, it could be said that a return to the heart is the overall emphasis of Hesychasm. The heart is the place where we encounter God. Being in the heart is the natural state of the human person, which is achieved through God’s grace and cooperation with him. To understand this better it is necessary to elaborate more on the concept of the heart. Basically, in the Byzantine tradition the heart is the essence of the soul. It is also the center and summation of the three faculties of the soul: the rational faculty (our ability to reason), the appetitive faculty (our ability to desire), and the incensive faculty (our capacity to will). In addition, there is also an energy of our soul that originates in our hearts, which the Byzantine tradition calls the Nous, it is the power that operates through our faculties. Also, the Nous should be understood as located in the heart not like in a vessel but as if in an organ. For example, just like how the physical organs maintain the function of the body through blood flow, the heart produces the noetic energy as fuel for the functions of our soul. Consequently, everything that the soul does has its foundation from what is conceived in the heart through the noetic energy that operates in our faculties.
     The natural disposition of the Nous is oriented toward God through the heart. In fact, the three faculties of the soul were designed to find God in the created order through the noetic energy. However, this is no longer the case do to sin. The problem now with the heart is that the nous is scattered and diffused through our senses into a fallen world. In the original sin the heart became darkened in its relationship with God causing the Nous to malfunction. This is reflected in the creation narrative in how man tried to become a god by following the consul of the serpent (Genesis 3:1). Man indeed was to become a god being in the image of God and called to be like him. This was done through a natural disposition of the Nous and in following the commands that God gave to man. However, man used his noetic energy to follow what is called a Logismoi, which are thoughts often connected with a false image. As result, the noetic energy that once operated toward God replaced God with a false image, and the passions were born.
     The passions remain the great tragedy of the fall that we can’t escape. There is always a Logismoi that comes to our rational faculty saying that this is “the way “or this will make you “fulfilled”. Just like the serpent who spoke to our ancestors in the garden we also yield our desire and will to the serpent’s voice and our noetic energy is no longer directed toward God, which gives birth to a passion. Wanting to find “the way” or being “fulfilled” or in the case of our ancestors “becoming gods” in their own right are not bad things. However, like our ancestors, we are just putting the energy in the wrong place and are powerless to do otherwise, when left to ourselves. Thanks be to God that he gives us the grace now in Christ to overcome our passions, which can be found in the practice of Hesychasm.
     As it says so eloquently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God. The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods (460)”. Christ did the work of Hesychasm that we could not do, which results in Theosis, becoming a god through grace. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, the Lord, "became a man without the slightest change or mutation". There was nothing different about the humanity that God assumed and it is the same humanity that you and I have now. The exception is in what God did with his human nature. Where we are powerless to overcome the passions, because of sin, we find that Christ, "By His privations in the flesh He re-established and renewed the human state", which is to say that he never yielded his noetic energy to a Logismoi. We lacked the power before Him to do this, but now, "by His own incarnation He bestowed human nature the supernatural grace of deification", which can be found in the practice of Hesychasm (Philokalia v2 pg246). 
     It is through the sacraments that we are initiated into the life of Christ, which is the life of Hesychast. The sacraments provide the unmerited encounter God necessary to practice Hesychasm. They also renew the encounter and enrich it. As St. Diadochos in the Philokalia teaches it’s through the sacraments that we receive “all grace” (v1 pg. 279). This is to say, we don’t get part or pieces of God but everything that he is through the mediation of the sacraments. However, this encounter with God is mediated and depends upon our cooperation with him. By grace God comes to take up residence in our hearts through the sacraments but our experience of this salvation depends upon our cooperation. This is where our own ascetical battle with the passion comes into play. He provides the power but it’s up to us now if we want to be truly free, to become hesychasts, and in turn grow in our experience with him.
      One of the ways of utilizing the sacramental power that I have been speaking of is through what our tradition calls Nepsis. Nepsis comes from the Greek word “nepho,” which means to guard, watch over, and keep under surveillance. Nepsis in Hesychasm is the practice for what we allow in our hearts. Nepsis could be described as if having the foreknowledge of a thief that was going to rob you. With this knowledge, you give all your attention to the coming of the thief, you are watchful. Through Nepsis we are seeking to guard the heart. As I shared earlier the Nous is malfunctioning because of sin. Nepsis is the foundational means to heal the Nous. Sin begins with a Logismoi that comes to our rational faculty. If we are not watchful of this activity the Logismoi can lead us to a desire it. The Nous then leaves the heart and then is redirected toward the false reality that the Logismoi offered leaving our heart darkened, which stops the flow of Divine grace into it. This is a very serious thing that happens when one is not watchful. For if we are not watchful, what started with one thought and one sin could lead to a whole lifestyle of indulging in impassioned thoughts leading us further and further away from God. Nepsis seeks to put a stop to this by learning to always be vigilant in what we let into our heart.
     Some of the Fathers of the East in speaking about Nepsis refer to it as an ascetical method inspired by divine grace for it leads us into prayer. It is not something we master but something to always be practiced. Much like someone who plays a sport who is always practicing for it. In practicing the cleansing of the heart from impassioned thoughts, seeking a Hesychia of the mind, there must always be a loving attentiveness to God. In choosing not to receive the Logismoi into the heart we are saying we want something else in the heart, which is to say we want God. Thus, Nepsis gives way to prayer where we can call out, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.  We are doing the work that God wants us to do and at the same time we must anticipate through prayer that God in some mysterious way is illumining our intentions with divine grace.
     In anticipating the work of God there is no static or clear cut response. We know that he is doing something but we can never fully grasp what it is. All we know is that there is an experience of God and we know this through grace. It’s not the kind of experience that can be measured by feelings or the miraculous. It’s more like a memory of God that we can know and can genuinely respond to. It is this memory that becomes the aim for our entire life where we can through faith seek to see God as He is.  As St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches, “Do not say that God cannot be seen by human beings. Do not say that humans may never see the light of God; Or at least that it is not possible for this generation. My friends this is never impossible. It is more than possible – for those who desire it".


  1. Some Orthodox say that Eastern Catholics can not follow Hesychasm in its fullness because the teaching of St. Gregory on the uncreated energies is not compatible with the official doctrine of the (Roman) Catholic Church on the grace, according with St. Thomas Aquinas' works. What do you think about that?

    1. Some of the Eastern churches have the exact same theological tradition as some of the Eastern Orthodox churches. As far as Roman Catholic churches are concerned there is no binding theological school of thought. The St. Thomas Aquinas school of theological has not been the official school of thought for over 50yrs. In fact, being the official does not mean that it’s the only. The Roman church recognizes the Eastern theological traditions of the Church as authentic expressions of the One True Apostolic Faith. As for the assumption that one cannot practice Hesychasm based on being Roman Catholic I think that such assumption contradicts Hesychasm. Hesychasm is made possible by God alone and if a Roman Catholic discovers the teachings found in the Philokalia and practices them they will experience the same results.