Hesychasm (Gr., esuchos, quiet).—The story of the system of mysticism defended by the monks of Athos in the fourteenth century forms one of the most curious chapters in the history of the Byzantine Church. In itself an obscure speculation, with the wildest form of mystic extravagance as a result, it became the watchword of a political party, and incidentally involved again the everlasting controversy with Rome. It is the only great mystic movement in the Orthodox Church. Ehrhard describes it rightly as “a reaction of national Greek theology against the invasion of Western scholasticism” (Krumbacher, Byzant. Litt., p. 43). The clearest way of describing the movement will be to explain first the point at issue and then its history.
I. THE HESYCHAST SYSTEM.—Hesychasts (esuchastes—quietist) were people, nearly all monks, who defended the theory that it is possible by an elaborate system of asceticism, detachment from earthly cares, submission to an approved master, prayer, especially perfect repose of body and will, to see a mystic light, which is none other than the uncreated light of God. The contemplation of this light is the highest end of man on earth; in this way is a man most intimately united with God. The light seen by Hesychasts is the same as appeared at Christ’s Transfiguration. This was no mere created phenomenon, but the eternal light of God Himself. It is not the Divine essence; no man can see God face to face in this world (John, i, 18), but it is the Divine action or operation. For in God action (enerleia, actus, operatio) is really distinct from essence (ousia). There was a regular process for seeing the uncreated light; the body was to be held immovable for a long time, the chin pressed against the breast, the breath held, the eyes turned in, and so on. Then in due time the monk began to see the wonderful light. The likeness of this process of auto-suggestion to that of fakirs, Sunnyasis, and such people all over the East is obvious.
Hesychasm then contains two elements, the belief that quietist contemplation is the highest occupation for men, and the assertion of real distinction between the divine essence and the divine operation. Both points had been prepared by Greek theologians many centuries before. Although there was comparatively little mysticism in the Byzantine Church, many Greek Fathers and theologians had maintained that knowledge of God can be obtained by purity of soul and prayer better than by study. The quotations made by Hesychasts at the councils (see below) supply many such texts. Clement of Alexandria was most often invoked for this axiom. Pseudo-Dionysius seems to have brought the statement a step nearer to Hesychasm. He describes a medium in which God may be contemplated; this medium is a mystic light that is itself half darkness. But it was Simeon, “the new theologian” (c. 1025-c. 1092; see Krumbacher, op. cit., 152-154), a monk of Studion, the “greatest mystic of the Greek Church” (loc. cit.), who evolved the quietist theory so elaborately that he may be called the father of Hesychasm. For the union with God in contemplation (which is the highest object of our life) he required a regular system of spiritual education beginning with baptism and passing through regulated exercises of penance and asceticism under the guidance of a director. But he had not conceived the grossly magic practices of the later Hesychasts; his ideal is still enormously more philosophical than theirs. There seems also to have been a strong element of the pantheism that so often accompanies mysticism in the fully developed Hesychast system. By contemplating the uncreated light one became united with God so intimately that one became absorbed in Him. This suspicion of pantheism (never very remote from neo-Platonic theories) is constantly insisted on by the opponents of the system.
The other element of fourteenth-century Hesychasm was the famous real distinction between essence and attributes (specifically one attribute—energy) in God. This theory, fundamentally opposed to the whole conception of God in the Western Scholastic system, had also been prepared by Eastern Fathers and theologians. Remotely it may be traced back to neo-Platonism. The Platonists had conceived God as something in every way unapproachable, remote from all categories of being known to us. God Himself could not even touch or act upon matter. Divine action was carried into effect by demiurges, intermediaries between God and creatures. The Greek Fathers (after Clement of Alexandria mostly Platonists) had a tendency in the same way to distinguish between God‘s unapproachable essence and His action, energy, operation on creatures. God Himself transcends all things. He is absolute, unknown, infinite above everything; no eye can see, no mind conceive Him. What we can know and attain is His action. The foundation of a real distinction between the unapproachable essence (ousia) and the approachable energy (enerleia) is thus laid. For this system, too, the quotations made by Hesychasts from Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, especially from Pseudo-Dionysius, supply enough examples. The Hesychasts were fond of illustrating their distinction between God‘s essence and energy (light) by comparing them to the sun, whose rays are really distinct from its globe, although there is only one sun. It is to be noted that the philosophic opponents of Hesychasm always borrow their weapons from St. Thomas Aquinas and the Western Schoolmen. They argue, quite in terms of Latin Aristotelean philosophy, that God is simple; except for the Trinity there can be no distinctions in an actus purus. This distinct energy, uncreated light that is not the essence of God, would be a kind of demiurge, something neither God nor creature; or there would be two Gods, an essence and an energy. From one point of view, then, the Hesychast controversy may be conceived as an issue between Greek Platonist philosophy and Latin rationalist Aristoteleanism. It is significant that the Hesychasts were all vehemently Byzantine and bitter opponents of the West, while their opponents were all latinizers, eager for reunion.
II. HISTORY OF THE CONTROVERSY.—The leaders of either side were Palamas the Hesychast and Barlaam, from whom the other side is often called that of the Barlaamites. Gregory Palamas (d. about 1360; Krumbacher, op. cit., 103-105) was a monk at Athos, then from 1349 Bishop of Thessalonica. He wrote no less than sixty works in defense of Hesychasm, one especially against the Scholastic identification of God‘s essence and attributes. He found fifty heresies in his opponents. He was also vehemently anti-Latin, wrote a refutation of John Beccus‘s latinizing work, and did his duty by Orthodoxy in supplying the usual treatise against the double procession of the Holy Ghost. Naturally his opponents call him a ditheist, while he considers them Arians, Sabellians, and Epicureans. Barlaam (Krumbacher, op. cit., 100), his chief adversary, was a monk from Calabria who came to Constantinople in the reign of Andronicus III (1328-1341). At first he opposed the Latins, but eventually he wrote in defense of reunion, of the Filioque, and the papal primacy. In 1348 he left Constantinople and became Bishop of Gerace in Calabria. The date of his death is unknown. It was from this Barlaam that Petrarch learned Greek. Gregory Akindynos, a friend and contemporary of Barlaam, also a monk, wrote a work against the Hesychasts“Peri ousias kai enerleias,” in six books, of which the first two are nothing but translations from St. Thomas’s “Summa contra Gentes”. Nicephorus Gregoras (ib., 101, 293-298), the historian (d. after 1359), was also one of the chief opponents of Hesychasm. He came to the emperor’s court as a young man, was educated by the most famous scholars of that time the Patriarch John Glycus (John XIII, 1316-1320), and the Great Logothete Theodorus Metochites, and became himself perhaps the most distinguished man of learning in the Greek world of the fourteenth century. He wrote theology, philosophy, astronomy, history, rhetoric, poetry, and grammar. His best-known work is a Roman history in thirty-seven books, describing the period from 1204 to 1329. In the midst of so many occupations he made the acquaintance of Barlaam, and entered the lists with him against Palamas and the Hesychasts. He wrote a number of controversial works to confute these people, and tells the story of the quarrel in his history (books XV, XVIII, XIX, XXII) with much animus against them. Like most of the anti-Hesychasts Gregoras was a pronounced latinizer. At the time when Barlaam was opposed to the Latins Gregoras wrote against him; with Palamas too he discussed the question of reunion with the West in a friendly and conciliatory way. Eventually Gregoras fell into disfavor with the Court and disappeared.
The monks of Athos might have contemplated their uncreated light without attracting much attention, had not the question become mixed up with the unending Latin controversy and with political issues. They had already practiced their system of auto-suggestion for a long time when Barlaam, arriving at Constantinople, began to denounce it as superstitious and absurd. There had been some opposition before. People had heard Palamas boast that he could see the light of God with his eves, and had accused him of blasphemy; but, since Isaias, the Patriarch of Constantinople (1323-1334), was himself a monk of Athos and a disciple of Palamas, the opposition had not been very successful. However, from the year 1339, when Barlaam arrived in the city, began the really serious quarrel which for twenty years was to rend Orthodox theology, cause enormous commotion at Constantinople, Athos, and all the great centers of the Orthodox world, and lead even to active persecution., Barlaam, like all opponents of Hesychasm, based his objections mainly on a vehement denial of the possibility of an uncreated light that was yet not God‘s essence; throughout the controversy he and his party used the arguments they had learned in the West to show the impossibility of such distinctions in God. He also made bitter mockery of what he calls the Omphalopsuchia of the monks who sit with bent heads gazing at their own person, and brought various accusations against Palamas’s life and manners. After Isaias, John XIV (John Aprenus, 1334-47) had become patriarch. Barlaam demanded of him a synod to settle the question. For a time the patriarch refused to take the matter so seriously; eventually, since the quarrel became more and more bitter, in 1341 the first synod of the Hesychast question was summoned at Constantinople. The emperor (Andronicus III) presided. This first synod considered only two questions: (I) Whether the light of Thabor (that of the Transfiguration) was created or not; (2) a certain prayer used by Hesychasts, stated by Barlaam to contain ditheism. The enormous influence of the monks at Court and the want of energy of the patriarch (who was in his heart on Barlaam’s side) made this first synod a victory for Hesychasm. In both points the monks and their theory were approved, and Barlaam was forced to withdraw his accusations. Soon afterwards he left Constantinople forever; his cause was taken up by Gregory Akindynos. The emperor died a few days after the synod. John VI, Cantacuzenus (1341-1355), who gradually usurped the imperial power, first as rival, then as fellow-emperor, of Andronicus’s son John V, Palaeologus (1341-76), was always a friend of Palamas and the Hesychast monks. The second Hesychast synod under Cantacuzenus, but without the patriarch, condemned Akindynos and introduced a new element by representing him and all its opponents as latinizers who were trying to destroy Orthodoxy.
In 1345 the patriarch summoned the third synod. By now he had definitely made up his mind to with-stand the Hesychasts. This synod then, under his. direction, excommunicated Palamas and Isidore Buchiras, Bishop elect of Monembasia in Thessaly, one of Palamas’s disciples. Buchiras and Palamas withdrew their heresy outwardly, and waited for a better chance. The chance came in 1347. By this time their protector John Cantacuzenus had entered Constantinople in triumph and had been crowned emperor. The other party (that of the child-emperor John Palaeologus and of his mother Ann of Savoy) was now helpless. The controversy from this time is complicated by a political issue. Cantacuzenus and his friends were Hesychasts; the party of the Palaeologi were Barlaamites. As long as Cantacuzenus triumphed the Hesychasts triumphed with him; by the time he fell Hesychasm had become so much identified with the cause of the Orthodox Church against. the Latins that the other side never succeeded in ousting it. On February 2, 1347, the fourth Hesychast synod was held. It deposed the patriarch, John XIV, and excommunicated Akindynos. Isidore Buchiras, who had been excommunicated by the third synod, was now made patriarch (Isidore I, 1347-1349). In the same year (1347) the Barlaamites held the fifth synod, refusing to acknowledge Isidore and excommunicating Palamas. From this time Nicephorus Gregoras becomes the chief opponent of Hesychasm. Isidore I died in 1349: the Hesychasts replaced him by one of their monks, Callistus I (1350-1354). In 1351 the sixth synod met in the Blachernae palace under Cantacuzenus. Gregoras defended his views boldly and skillfully, but again the Hesychasts had it all their own way, deposed Barlaamite bishops, and used violence against their own opponents. In this synod six questions about God‘s essence and attributes were answered, all in the Hesychast sense, while Palamas was declared to be without any doubt orthodox and unimpeachable. The synod finally published, in defense of Palamas and his views, a decree (Tomos) which eventually was looked upon as an authentic declaration of the Orthodox Church. From this time Hesychasm may be said to have defeated all opposition. Gregoras was arrested and kept in custody in his own house. He was not set free till Cantacuzenus (with whom rests the eternal disgrace of having first invited the Turks to Europe) was deposed and the Palaeologi triumphed in 1354. Cantacuzenus then withdrew to Athos, became a monk himself, taking the name of Joasaph, and spent the rest of his life writing a history of his own times and contemplating the uncreated light. This history in four books (in Migne, P.G., CLIII, CLIV) covers the period from 1320 to 1356, and tells the whole story of the Hesychast controversy. Being written by a violent partisan, it forms an interesting contrast to that of Gregoras.
After the deposition of Cantacuzenus, the Barlaamites held an anti-Hesychast synod at Ephesus; but the patriarchs of Constantinople and the great mass of the people had by now become too firmly persuaded that the cause of Hesychasm was that of Orthodoxy. To oppose it was to incur the guilt of latinizing; so even Cantacuzenus’s fall was not enough to turn the scale. Hesychasm from this time is always triumphant. About 1360 Palamas died. In 1368 the seventh Synod of Constantinople (concerning this matter) under the Patriarch Philotheus (1364-1376: Callistus’s successor) excommunicated the Barlaamite monk Prochorus Cydonius, confirmed the “Tomus” of 1351 as a “Faultless Canon of the true faith of Christians”, and canonized Palamas as a Father and Doctor of the Church. So by the end of the fourteenth century Hesychasm had become a dogma of the Orthodox Church. It is so still. The interest in the question gradually died out, but the Orthodox still maintain the Tomus of 1351 as binding; the real distinction between God‘s essence and operation remains one more principle, though it is rarely insisted on now, in which the Orthodox differ from Catholics. Gregory Palamas is a saint to them. They keep his feast on the second Sunday of Lent and again on November 14 (Nilles, “Kalendarium manuale”, Innsbruck, 1897, II, 124-125). The office for this feast was composed by the Patriarch Philotheus. In the nineteenth century there was among the Orthodox a certain revival of interest in the question, partly historical, but also speculative and philosophical. Nicodemus, a monk of Athos, defended the Hesychasts in his (1801); Eugenius Bulgaris and others, especially Athos monks, have again discussed this old controversy; it is always evident that their theology still stands by the Tomus of 1351, and still maintains the distinction between the Divine essence and energy.
There was a very faint echo of Hesychasm in the West. Latin theology on the whole was too deeply impregnated with the Aristotelean Scholastic system to tolerate a theory that opposed its very foundation. That all created beings are composed of actus and potentia, that God alone is actus purus, simple as He is infinite—this is the root of all Scholastic natural theology. Nevertheless one or two Latins seem to have had ideas similar to Hesychasm. Gilbertus Porretanus (de la Porree, d. 1154) is quoted as having said that the Divine essence is not God—implying some kind of real distinction; John of Varennes, a hermit in the Diocese of Reims (c. 1396), said that the Apostles at the Transfiguration had seen the Divine essence as clearly as it is seen in heaven. About the same time John of Brescain made a proposition: Creatam lucem infinitam et immensam esse. But these isolated opinions formed no school. We know of them chiefly through the indignant condemnations they at once provoked. St. Bernard wrote to refute Gilbert de la Porree; the University of Paris and the legate Odo condemned John of Brescain’s proposition. Hesychasm has never had a party among Catholics. In the Orthodox Church the controversy, waged furiously just at the time when the enemies of the empire were finally overturning it and unity among its last defenders was the most crying need, is a significant witness of the decay of a lost cause.