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     "THE WAY"
     (An Introduction to the Orthodox Faith)
 
by Protopresbyter fr. George D. Metallinos
Professor Emeritus of the Athens University
 

CHAPTER 6 

THE IMPORTANCE OF HESYCHASM IN THE HISTORY OF ORTHODOXY


1.

Hesychasm* constitutes the quintessence of Orthodox tradition, having related itself to everything that the term “Orthodoxy” embodies and expresses.  Orthodoxy outside the Hesychastic tradition is unthinkable and nonexistent.  Besides, Hesychasm itself is the “philosopher’s stone” by which one can recognize the genuine Christian image.  In the Orthodox tradition, the “divine charismas” are acquired through fasting, vigils and prayer. And it should be clarified, that Hesychasm is understood first of all as the course towards theosis and the experience of theosis, and only secondly, as a (theological) recording of this method of experience.  In Christianity (the authentic Christian conscience), we know that textual recordings are basically pursuant to practice and that they comprise descriptions of that practice; they do not however comprise a substitute. Saint Gregory Palamas’ “successors” are not located in academic theology; they can only be found in the continuance of his ascetic lifestyle.

«Hesychasm, as an ascetic therapeutic treatment, was at the core of Orthodoxy, even from the time of the Apostles, and it prevailed throughout the entire Roman kingdom, in the East and in the West» (Fr. John Romanides). This was the responsible verification of one of the most reliable researchers of Hesychasm and of Saint Gregory Palamas, i.e., father John Romanides.  In the framework of a tradition that was spiritually uplifted by Hesychasm, it is easy to understand and to interpret the national, social and (even) political history of Romanity (Fr. John Romanides). It is precisely within this framework that one can also properly evaluate the contribution of Saint Gregory Palamas. “Being a continuation of the ancient Fathers”, of the united and indivisible patristic tradition, he “expressed –according to the venerable Geron, father Theocletos Dionysiatis- the eternal spirit of the Orthodox Church, by reviving its experiences, its practices, its teachings and its promises.» He contributed decisively in this way, towards the preservation of the Church’s overall identity.

2.

It is –of course- a fact, that the consequences of the various ideological disputes of the 14th century, both spiritual and social, had visibly weakened the (Eastern Roman) Empire, which was already reduced in size as of the 13th century, leaving it unshielded from the expansionist dispositions of its neighbors, and mainly the Ottomans.  In 1354, the Ottoman Turks seized Callipolis, planting themselves firmly on its European side.  The Empire was heading towards a predetermined decline, and it did gradually end up a pitiful relic of its former self.

However, while the frequent civil uprisings, the social dissents and the enemy assaults were progressively weakening the Empire, the spiritual powers of the Nation, being perpetually re-baptized in the Hesychast patristic tradition, averted the danger of Romanity (“Byzantium”, see: http://www.romanity.org/ ) being transformed into a Frankish protectorate, at the same time preserving the inexhaustible fountain of mental prowess, stalwartness and spiritual vigor, throughout the prolonged period of slavery.  And yet, even after the Latin (1204) and the Ottoman (1453) sieges, the thing affected most of all was only the political aspect of the Nation, not its spirituality. The absolute center of Romanity continued to be those who had attained theosis; they were the ones who could attain theosis «at any point in history, in any situation, whether social or political» (Fr. John Romanides).

The Saints of the period of slavery, and all the sacred relics like those of Saints Gerasimos and Dionysios -especially in the Venetian-occupied regions- are the most powerful reassurances, even according to Eugene Bulgaris, that the spiritual acme of the Nation was not extinguished during its enslavement, nor did anyone succeed in alienating it; not even in those territories that were strongly inclined in this direction, as were the Latin-occupied ones.  Hesychast spirituality, with the Holy Mountain at its center, permeated the collective conscience of the Nation, and it deposited here and there the wholesome fruits of its presence, its efficacy and its power. «The Hesychast patristic tradition remained [...] the most powerful force of the Nation». «The Hesychast Fathers, according to the Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, were Romans who […] with their efforts had preserved the essence of Romanity. The anti-hesychasts were strangers to Romanity». I fully agree with him, when he asserts that «the Hesychast discourse (he meant during the 14th century) and the victory of the Orthodox Tradition were blessings from God, for the oncoming enslavement of our Nation […]. That Hesychast way of life was what had sustained the Nation, by preserving it with an ethnic and orthodox conscience, and it had also brought forth the martyrs and the confessors of the faith; furthermore, it was that same Hesychast way of life that created the organized communities and associations; it preserved the inner freedom of the soul, and it gave rise to the 1821 Revolution. As verified by researchers, we know that all the heroes of the Revolution were shaped by this Orthodox Roman tradition and were not in the least driven by Western Enlightenment.  In the tradition of our Nation, we had our own Enlightenment –the illumination of the Intellect (called “nous”, the `eye of the spiritual heart') – as declared and described by Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, by General Makryannis (one of the “founding fathers” of the modern Greek state, in 1821) and others.»

We have allowed the voice of the learned Hierarch to be heard, and not a professional historian’s, who nevertheless unreservedly agrees with these observations.  Hesychasm, as the existential form of Orthodoxy, shaped the conscience of the Orthodox Nations and their ideology, which were both realized creatively, throughout its historical duration.

The enslaved Orthodox nations survived, thanks to the preservation of the patristic therapeutic method, which, having being preserved in its fullness in the person of the Saints, drew constantly from the collective conscience of the broader basis of the laity, through its collectively accepted (albeit sometimes inadequate) practices. The centrifugal trends continued of course, and were located mainly in the realm of intellect that was influenced by the West. This trend has been contributing towards the gradual estrangement from the Orthodox Tradition, a phenomenon that is reaching its climax in our day, with a steadily widening gap between Patricity and the boom in anti-Patricity observed in the entire spectrum of daily life (for example, the western perception of a “dual” spirituality : monastic and secular).

3.

But it was the persistence in Hesychast tradition that also defined the stances opposite the Christian –but no longer Orthodox– West, as well as opposite ancient Hellenism, or, more specifically, opposite the unsettling phenomena observed in the monistic turn towards antiquity, in the guise of worship of the ancient Greek ideals.  By comparing eastern tradition with the western one, it became apparent that the West was not only no longer unanimous with the East, but it had actually become a threat to the very historical existence of the East.

In the 14th century, the first in-depth confrontation between East and West took place, in the field of ecclesiastic-theological tradition.  For the first time, the opportunity had presented itself in the East to document the radical differentiation and the lack of coincidence between East and West, in the person of an authentic “western” theologian; a bearer of Augustinian theological tradition and method.

It became evident that in the West, another kind of Christianity had formed, hypostatized as a civilization at the antipodes of the Roman East.  The mentality embraced by Barlaam later reached its apex with the English historian, Gibbon (1737-1794), who expressed in a classical manner the West’s perception of the Roman East, and who, together with the rationalist ecclesiastic historian Mosheim (18th century), prepared Adamantios Korais (: one of the “founding fathers” of the modern Greek state, at 1821 ) accordingly, as the patriarch of  “Westernizers”.

The inner light of the Hesychasts was, in Gibbon’s opinion, “the product of a capriciousness that is in bad taste; it is the product of an empty stomach and a vacant brain”. To him, Hesychasm was the culmination of “the religious nonsense of the Greeks”.  These prejudices, embedded in the European collective conscience through their education, have from that time onwards been shaping the Western stance towards the Orthodox East -and especially towards Hellenism- even up to this day.  Consequently, the “astonishment” over the stance of western Leaderships towards Greece and the Balkan countries in general is –among other things- a display of their ignorance of history.

On the other hand, the “Hellenicity” that was embodied in the scholastics of “Byzantium” (=Romanity)  such as Nikeforos Gregoras who proclaimed unreservedly that he was a “Hellene”, diametrically differentiated itself from the “Hellenicity” which had been assimilated by the Patristic lifestyle, and it comprised the natural continuation of Hellenic antiquity, except that it was only the Patristic synthesis of “Hellenicity”-Christianity that led to the cultural reality of Romanity.

4.

Hesychasm however had also played an important, unifying role during the culturally disturbed and disintegrated (due to their adventures) Balkans;  The Hesychasts moved freely throughout the Orthodox East, from land to land, transcending whichever ethnic differences.

Mention was made by a major theologian, Fr. Halkin, of an “Hesychasm International”; nowadays, when one makes mention of an “Orthodox arc” in the sense of a rampart against Islam, one should not omit to keep Hesychast spirituality in mind, which is the only element that can ensure a genuine unity within the boundaries of the supra-national and hyper-racial Roman unanimity. Our inter-Balkan unity is founded in just that Hesychast tradition.

The unity of our Nation, in its Balkan diffraction, has been threatened, but it had also been broken up at times, by the party of anti-hesychasts, called “Latin-Hellenes” (according to Saint Gregory Palamas) and “Graeco-Latins” (according to Saint Mark of Ephesus), who had aligned themselves with Franko-Latin metaphysics and had continued the spiritual dualism of the “Byzantine” (Eastern Roman)  intellect that was embodied programmatically by Psellos and Italos.  To the “Westernizing” anti-hesychasts, the fact that the East had no scholastic theology was looked upon as a form of decadence, so they made sure that it was introduced into the life and the education of our Nation.

The abandoning of Hesychasm, and the turn towards metaphysical theologizing gradually altered the identity of the Orthodox nations, which, after the founding of the Hellenic State, may have been liberated from “Turkish” slavery, but were not freed of “Frankish” slavery.  According to father Romanides, “with the expulsion of the Hesychasts from Neo-Hellenic ideology, and with the prevalence of Koraism, catharsis was replaced by ethics, and enlightenment was replaced by catechesis.  Thus, the Hesychast spiritual Fathers were replaced by moralizing organizers of catechist schools, who burdened the young with a system of morals that only a hypocrite can give the impression that it is being implemented. As a result, even the bios of the Saints ended up mostly as a kind of mythology» (Fr. John Romanides). Hesychasm was displaced by metaphysical pondering and dogmatism in the field of theologizing, but also by pietism, in place of lay religiousness.  Thus, monasteries began to lose their true therapeutic calling, now being substituted by secular missionary formations and an attempt to further transform them, into activity centers destined for public benefit services.

The publishing of the works of Saint Gregory Palamas under the supervision of a memorable professor, the late Mr. Panagiotis Christou, but also the profoundly traditional approach towards Hesychasm by monks of the Holy Mountain (such as the reverend father Theocletos Dionysiates) as well as by theologians (with father John Romanides at the lead), all contributed towards the re-discovery of the Hesychast tradition; in other words, our patristic foundations.

«Today, more than ever before, we are coming to realize the true worth of the Roman-Hesychast tradition».  Contemporary man is seeking to be cured of his psychological and existential problems.  The presence however of an “ideologicalized” or “religionized” Orthodoxy rather complicates these problems instead of solving them, thus rendering Orthodoxy a seemingly repulsive and useless thing.  The reverend Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and myself saw this for ourselves recently, in the United States. Our Hesychast tradition however, can most assuredly cure “the core of man’s existence”.

In conclusion therefore, and in concurrence with His Eminence the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos:  «Hesychasm, as expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas and preserved by the Orthodox Church as “the apple of Her eye”, is truly the life of the contemporary world. » (Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos) and the only means of salvation, or in other words, theosis.

 

Hesychasm:  The Orthodox method of spiritual living and salvation.

 


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Last update: 23-8-2010.