A method of prayer in the Oriental Church that depended on the control of physical faculties and concentration on the jesus prayer to achieve peace of soul and union with God. Originally a contemplative, monastic practice, it was popularized in the 13th and 14th centuries and became identified with Palamism.
The earliest descriptions of the hesychastic method of contemplation go back at least to the fifth century: it is mentioned in the vita of the Jerusalem monk, St. John the Hesychast, of the laura of St. Sabas (Acta Sanctorum May 3:232–238); Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) seems to have had an equivalent practice in mind in his Rules (Reg. fus. tract. 6–8; Patrologia Graeca 31:925–941). john climacus (d. 649) in his Ladder of Paradise (ch.27) described the method as characteristic of the monastery on Mt. sinai. In this instance only certain monks, after observing the common life for several years, were permitted to retire to a private cell (celliotes ) under the spiritual guidance of the monastic superior. There they were encouraged to achieve complete control of their bodily movements while seeking an interior peacefulness by banishing thought and concentrating on a short prayer formula involving the name of Jesus. The practitioners were warned frequently against acedia or spiritual list-lessness, and they sought the gift of tears.
The Justinian Code (Novel. 5.3; 123.36) and the council in Trullo (c.41) warned against false and extravagant versions of this type of ascetical practice; and St. Anastasius, the founder of the laura on Mt. Athos, would allow only five of the more perfect monks in each community of 120 to attempt it. With symeon the new theologian (949–1022) the mystical element in the theological foundation of the hesychastic practice became an issue. The goal of this contemplative procedure was set by Nicephorus (fl. c. 1260) as an experience of the photophaneia or light of glory that surrounded the risen Christ (PG 147:945), whereas gregory sinaites (d. 1346) warned continually that visions were the work of the devil (PG 150:1924), although his ascetical system was based upon the hesychastic method.
Gregory palamas (d. 1359) gave hesychasm its full theological foundation by distinguishing between two concepts of God: the transcendent, indescribable, and uncreated Being, and the experience of God's goodness that He shared with man in creation and in the divinizing process of grace. Palamas made a real distinction between the Being and the energy or outward activity of God that was experienced in the mystical realization of the presence of grace in the form of the light that surrounded Christ in His transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. This theological position was challenged by barlaam of calabria and became the source of a great theological controversy during the 14th century.
In 1342 Palamas's writings were condemned in two Constantinopolitan synods, but under Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus, a synod in 1347 certified the orthodoxy of the Palamite explanation of hesychasm. In 1351 the various opponents of Palamas were excommunicated in the so-called Blachernae Synod, and hesychasm was recognized as an official doctrine of the Orthodox Church with its center on Mt. Athos.
The practice of hesychastic contemplation began with a system of breath control, with the chin resting on the breast and the eyes concentrating on the navel (omphalopsychia ), while the practitioner ceaselessly repeated the Jesus Prayer. This exercise prepared one for the achievement of absolute quietude of soul and for an experience of divine light; hence its practitioners were referred to also as Taborites.
See Also: tabor, mount.
Bibliography: i. hausherr, La Méthode d'oraison hésychaste, Orientalia Christiania Analecta 9 (1927) 97–209. m. jugie, Dictionnaire de theologie catholique 11.2:1777–1818. g. wunderle, Zur Psychologie des hesychastischen Gebets (Würzburg 1949). a. m. ammann, Die Gottesschau im palamit. Hesychasmus (Würzburg 1948). j. meyendorff, Nouvelle revue théologique 79 (1957) 905–914; A Study of Gregory Palamas, tr. g. lawrence (London 1964). h. c. graef, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, j. hofer and k. rahner, eds. (Freiburg 1957–65) 5:307–308.
[f. x. murphy]