Patristic Hesychasm

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The origins of the renewal of Neopatristic Hesychasm in modern times lie back in the publication of the Greek Philokalia by Saint Macarius and Saint Nicodemos in 1782, but the Orthodox tradition of Patristic Hesychasm itself goes back at least fifteen hundred years before that, to the Desert Fathers of Syria in the second and third centuries and of Egypt in the fourth century.  The Macarian ‘Homilies’ from the Syrian desert and the Evagrian ‘Centuries’ from Egypt inspired the Patristic Hesychast tradition that had inspired them.  Both actually had much older roots in the prophetic circles of the deserts of Palestine, Sinai and Carmel under the Old Covenant.  Desert prophecy inspired Hesychast prayer and the wisdom of stillness during the early centuries of Byzantine Christendom.  Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), spoke as a prophet as well as a Hesychast elder in this Patristic wisdom tradition, uniting the witness of Evagrian ‘Centuries’ and Macarian ‘Homilies’ to awaken hearts partaking of deifying life in the Name.  Symeon’s ‘Life’ was written by his disciple, Saint Nicetas Stethatos (1005-1090), abbot of the Stoudion Monastery in Constantinople, but after Nicetas’ death, it appears that Symeon’s Hesychast influence evaporated and was largely eclipsed until his legacy was canonised through Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) by the Councils of Constantinople of 1341,1347 and 1351 (although Symeon was not named).  Gregory’s Hesychast Tome of Mount Athos was canonised in 1341, its Palamite wisdom confirmed in 1347 and finally given decisive canonical, conciliar status in 1351.  But Saint Symeon’s ‘Hymns of Love’ remained a hidden inspiration that would take many centuries to begin to assimilate.

There was a second eclipse of Patristic Hesychasm in Greece between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries until Neopatristic Hesychasm was renewed by gathering the Patristic Hesychast legacy together in the Greek Philokalia of 1782.  The Philokalia included many voices from Antony the Great to Maximus the Confessor and from Symeon the New Theologian to Gregory Palamas, inspiring Hesychast elders in Moldavia and Russia as well as on Mount Athos and in Greece.   Modern Neopatristic theologians like Father George Florovsky (1893-1979), Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958) and Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), do not merely repeat past Patristic formulae but continue to address contemporary theological questions in modern times in a traditional, Patristic spirit.  Saint Sophrony the Hesychast (1896-1993), knew and valued these Neopatristic theologians but like his elder, Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938), sought to live directly in the same Patristic Spirit as the fathers of the Philokalia, seeing with the mind of Christ, which is the anointed, spiritual mind that inspires the Patristic mind.  When the Orthodox Church canonised Saint Sophrony the Hesychast on November 27th 2019, it was canonising the Patristic Spirit that inspires the Patristic mind, including the Spirit of Patristic Hesychasm.

The eclipse of Patristic Hesychasm following the death of Saint Niketas Stethatos in 1090, was due in part to political persecution but also to widespread, instinctive hostility to Hesychasm.  It may also have concealed an unbroken but hidden oral transmission that resurfaced with Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who was canonised in 1368.  The second eclipse in Greece from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries may also have concealed a hidden oral transmission on Mount Athos, but in Russia, Saint Nil Sorsky (1433-1508) and radical non-possessors certainly continued to transmit Patristic Hesychasm, perhaps also inspiring oral transmission in Russia from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, until Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) renewed Patristic Hesychasm in Moldavia and Russia in the eighteenth century.  He and his disciples published a Slavonc Philokalia in 1793 which was translated into Russian in 1857 by Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov.  A five volume expansion of the Russian Philokalia was published by Saint Theophan the Recluse in 1877, helping to sustain Neopatristic Hesychasm in Optina and other monastic centres well into the twentieth century, since when there has been no comparable eclipse, although continuing persecution has been sporadic and oral tradition under pressure from aggressive literary consumerism.

The ebb and flow of Hesychast illumination and eclipse over the centuries has much to teach contemporary Hesychast tradition.  The prayer of the Holy Spirit in the heart transcends institutional transmission of the Church’s sacraments and monastic rites and blows where it wills as the Spirit gives it life.  For Hesychasm, which is not heretical Massalianism, there is no separation in principle between outward sacraments and their inner realisation, but in practice, not all who are tonsured or indeed baptised, actually turn and awaken to the mysteries the sacraments enshrine.  Spiritual awakening is a real mystery and is not dispensed like the form of a sacrament, although it is indeed spiritually empowered by the sacraments.  Ultimately, it is the gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit and not a reward for good behaviour or Church attendance.  Indeed, Christ came to save sinners, not the religious who are convinced they are saved, although they too, of course, are called.  Desert Hesychasm is alive today because the Name saves, opening hearts to the timeless life of God in his Kingdom of glory.  This deifying experience of the uncreated grace of divine life is not reducible to external rites or visible  attendance at audible services, even though the outer is still a valid icon of the inner.  The roots of Patristic Hesychasm do not lie in historical institutions alone but in the Spirit’s awakening of the eye of the heart, which is the deifying activity of the uncreated energies of God’s wisdom and glory.  Patristic Hesychasm is so much more than a neopatristic, academic, theological revival in the Universities.  It is the Spirit’s renewing of wisdom in stillness, hallowing the Name in glory that opens hearts to the Kingdom, which is eternal life.