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Mystical Hesychast in Byzantine Russian Orthodoxy

Fri, 14 May 1999

Prof. Evgueni Tortchinov


posted on the Donmeh mail list


It was very interesting for me to know from Prof. Elqayam's post about the Byzantine and Hesychast roots of AMIRA"H"'s Kabbalah. Hesychasm is also a very important part of Russian Orthodox mysticism derived from Byzantine in 14 century. Hesychasm (from Greek "silence", "calm" "tranquility") is a mystical practice of the Greek Orthodox monks from the Isle of Athon/Athonos (where there is also a Russian monastery). It was theoretically expressed by St. Gregory Palamas in his polemics with the Catholic rationalistic theologian Barlaam of Calabria. This practice included:

1. Constant repetition of the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus, God's Son be merciful to me"). It is "mindful prayer" or "heart prayer".

2. The practice of puting mind into the heart combined with the mental concentration on the heart center.

3. Some special contemplative postures and respiratory techniques combined with the Jesus prayer.

4. Mystical theology og the uncreated energies revealed by Christ on the Mt. Thabor in his transfigiration. These uncreated energies are mediators between created humans and absolute God; being joined together with these uncreated energies of eternal uncreated Light saintly humans obtain "theosis", or divinisation, becoming thus a God-man by God's mercy (like Christ was God-man by his very nature). It is a very Christocentric theology, and mysticism of eternal uncreated Light is substantial for Hesychasm.

Hesychast theology was recognized as orthodox by the Church Councils of Constantinople of 1341 and 1351. St. Gregory Palamas obtained title of the Church Father in the realm of predominance of the churches of Greek Orthodox confession (like Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Serbia).

It is interesting that Russia gave a number of the saints of Orthodox church who practiced Hesychasm (St. Serge of Radonezh, St. Neehl of Sor, St. Seraphim of Sarov, etc.).

Yakov Leib comments:

I'm very grateful to Prof. Tortchinov -- who, of all of us, should know whereof he speaks about Byzantine mysticism, since he is professor and chairman of the department of religion and oriental studies at the University of St. Petersburg, Russia -- I'm very grateful to him for his summary of the practice of Hesychast mysticism in the Russian Orthodoxy.

I first learned about Hesychast mysticism 45 years ago, when I was a sopohmore in college. I had read a short story in the New Yorker Magazine called "Franny & Zooie" (sic) by J.D. Salinger. (Actually, it's the source of the now-common phrase with which it ends, "when the fat lady sings.) In it, a Jewish boy named "Zooie" trys to comfort his young sister, "Franny" who has gone crazy in the stall of a public toilet after a prolonged period of having practiced Hesychast. Needless to say, I was intrigued and have been praticing it, on and off in a small way, ever since.

For those who may be interested, there's an excellent little book on Hesychast called ON THE PRAYER OF JESUS, translated by Father Lazarus from the "Ecstatic Essays of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaniov" (London: John M. Watkins, 1965). It may be out of print, but those of you with access to a Vedanta Society Bookstore can probably find it there. That's where I originally found it myself around 30 years ago.

(I might add that one of the most extraordinary experiences of my spiritual life was when I attended a Russian Orthodox Easter Service in San Francisco, just a few years before Bishop Ignatius's book on Hesychast was re-issued in 1965.)




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