Egyptian Christians pray in their bombed church
John Paul II and the New Hesychasts
Understanding a great need for spiritual renewal Blessed John Paul the Great called the Church once to reconnect with the mystical tradition of the Church. In doing so he encouraged reading the teachings of saints associated with the western contemplative traditions. The holy father even said that those who would bring spiritual renewal in our churches would be contemplatives(the New Evangelists). There has been a strong response to this call in the Catholic Church over time. In fact, the resources to tap into the western contemplative teachings almost seem endless. However, its important as Byzantines that we respond to this call by also looking at our own mystical traditions. We have a rich tradition called Hesychasm and it has much to offer to the spiritual renewal of our churches.
In its traditional understanding Hesychasm is defined as the pursuit of stillness(hesychia) in Jesus Christ. It's also commonly known to be a tradition that has flourished in the context of Byzantine monastic communities. Basically, Hesychasm is a way for the (whole) person to experience God by achieving stillness (hesychia). In the teachings associated with Hesychasm, such as in the Philokalia, there are different systems that incorporate mental as well as physical activity. These systems help to purify a person making them able to acheive 'stillness' and experience God continually. For example, in the most common practice associated with Hesychasm, the Jesus Prayer, the body as well as mind are engaged in the work of purification. The body in its recitation and the mind in its focus on God. Its in hope that through these continual actions that the (whole) person will grow in their experience of God.
The activities used for purification in the tradition of Hesychasm are very diverse. You will find different fathers speaking about different activities to use in prayer and in daily life. However, even though there is diversity its important to understand them as synergistic and not just as mere methods. Every action in purification, physical or mental, has a dual character. On one end its your own effort but on the other it is the work of God because we are the temples of the Holy Spirit(1 Corinthians 3:9). This is a vital distinction to have because many times the actions Hesychasts employ are equated to practices in non-Christian religions or even therapeutic techniques. The difference rests in the fact that by working with the Holy Spirit we can give divinizing power and meaning to any action.
In contrast to what can be found in the western contemplative traditions there are a few things worth noting. The activities used to prepare one for encountering God are not always of the same nature. In fact, in the west discursive techniques are often abandoned ,such as meditation, when a state of contemplation is achieved. The activities used are even often referred to as "the work" to get to the state. In Hesychasm the activates used in the traditions do not have the form of preparing a person for a state. As I said they are synergistic and remain a normal part of a lifestyle of ongoing purification and encounter.
On the other hand, what the two traditions do have in common are moments of immersion in God where our activities cease. It's in these moments that St. Seraphim of Sarov once said that we "cease to pray" and enjoy the presence of God.
There will always be moments in the life of prayer in any tradition when God chooses to bless us as St. Seraphim described. However, these moments are not the goal in Hesychasm. The goal is to grow daily in experiencing who God is by becoming what he is through grace. The ongoing purification practiced by the Hesychast allows for a more and more richer experience of divinity in every aspect of what we are. For example, when my mind looks to Christ it is becoming Christ and when I do many prostrations my body is becoming Christ. In essence, Hesychasm is a very special way to live out our Byzantine tradition of Theosis. In fact, Hesychasm itself was birthed overtime from Byzantine spirituality and remains our most developed spiritual tradition.
In his vision Blessed John Paul the Great saw the renewal of our Church coming from modern contemplatives. In translating this vision into our Byzantine tradition we can say that the renewal of our churches will have their foundation in the New Hesychasts. The New Hesychast unlike the old must be a person who can learn to incorporate this spirituality into all modern circumstances. This can only happen if we learn to take the teachings of Hesychasm, such as in the Philokalia, beyond the walls of the monastery and into ordinary life. It was never to be a tradition for specialized monastic and needs to be rediscovered in order to fuel the spiritual renewal that we all wish to see.
Just like the western contemplative tradition, that Blessed John Paul the Great spoke of, Hesychasm can be a vital resource for renewal. Also, Hesychasm can be very simple. You can even be someone who works in front of a computer all day, stay at home parent, or even a garbage man. All you have to do is ask God to purify you through the action. It then becomes synergistic. You are exercising hope doing your best in the task (seeking hesychia) and He is making a way for you to become what HE is. This is no different than when we stand for long hours in prayer except in that there is a different level of intensity or intimacy. There is no part of the day that cannot lead us to encounter God! When St. Athanasius wrote "God became man so that men might become gods" he did not add "only on Sundays" or "clergy only". This was a saying for all people, of all times, and every moment. Through the practice of Hesychasm we can become what God is and be the vessels of renewal our churches desperately need.
(Note: for those who don't understand the Byzantine tradition on divinization. Man does not become another person of the Trinity. He participates in what God is making him a god by grace and never by nature.We are not born eternal beings but become so by participation in what God is. As it says in 2peter 1:4 "you may become partakers of the divine nature")
AN ORTHODOX CONTRIBUTION
HESYCHASM AND PENTECOSTALISM
As Orthodox, we need to be cautious. If we are not careful, we might miss something that God is trying to tell us. One case of that are some similarities between hesychasm and the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Look at the video above and ask yourself, what is hesychasm or hesychastic theology? The Wikipedia says:
Hesychasm is an eremitic tradition of prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and some of the Eastern Catholic Churches, such as the Byzantine Rite, practised by the hesychast .
Based on Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to “go into your closet to pray”, hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.
I want to you hang on to the words, “… of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.” Because, in much of Pentecostal / Charismatic singing, the very aim of the singing is to so lose yourself that you “cease to register the senses, in order to achieve and experiential knowledge of God.” Look at the video above and you can see a clear example of that. What the hesychast accomplishes by long silences and prayer, the Pentecostal / Charismatic accomplishes by singing. Saint Augustine says that, “he who sings prays twice.” In the Book of the Kings, it is well recorded, more than once, that singing opened people to the Spirit of God. So it was that when King Saul was troubled, it was the future King David’s songs on the psalter that brought peace to King Saul. It was in the midst of the singing of the choir that Solomon’s Temple was consecrated, and it was during that same chanting by the choir that the presence of God made itself both obvious and felt to the entire congregation.
Which of you have not been chanting the Trisagion Hymn and suddenly realized that you were shaken by the presence of God? When the Kievan representatives came to visit Constantinople near the end of the first millennium, they said that they did not know whether they were on heaven or on earth. They were not simply talking about seeing rich vestments or a complex liturgy. These were embassadors from a country which had a king and knew about rich dress and ceremonial. No, it was not simply vestments and liturgy that attracted them. Rather, it was precisely what they said, they did not know whether they were in heaven or on earth. It was the presence of God in the midst of the liturgy, as the choirs sang, as the priests chanted, as the incense flowed, as the faith of the fathers was kept in liturgical worship, but it was the presence of God that hit them with power. We need to be cautious that we do not make it seem as though the reason the Kievans “liked” what they saw was simply because they saw a well a “well-performed” rich liturgy. If we say that, we are in deep danger of depreciating any liturgy celebrated in a small parish, with a poor choir, as though the Kievans would not have assented to Orthodoxy in that setting. Do we really wish to say that?
It is the experience of that presence of God that Pentecostals / Charismatics, along with the hesychasts, desire. Do not miss that desire. It is a holy desire. It is a right desire. And, it is a desire which God has answered over and over from the times of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc., all the way through today. It is a desire which God used in this country, and in many others, to call the Church back to itself, to its duties, to its responsibilities, to its call to reach outwards in missions and social care, to realize that it is poor, weak, and in need of cleansing.
THE Harper Foundation (Charismatic, Catholic and Protestant)
So, let us be very cautious when we speak of Pentecostals and Charismatics. Many of us who are Orthodox today came through the cleansing fire of the Charismatic Movement which called us back to the experience of God. It was that perceived presence of God that broke us out of our molds and forced us to realize that what we had taken for granted about God was not fully true. Yes, it is true that there were some terrific lacks in theology. It is true that some weirdos sprang up and caused problems. But, it was that very movement, with its not-Apostles that first taught us that there was an apostolic succession. It was that movement that first said to us that we could so lose ourselves that in the silence that had been occupied by us, we could experience God. In fact, many of us would not be open to hesychasm and the Orthodox Church had it not been for that experience.
So, let those of us who are Orthodox and were Pentecostal / Charismatic thank the Lord that in his grace he saw fit to work through that movement to reach ever so many of us, who were sunk in ever so many wrong directions. And let us freely honor those movements, even while we must say that they were ever so mistaken in so many ways. They were mistaken in so many ways, but they opened the doors to the Kingdom to ever so many.
So, thank you Lord God for what you have done in so many countries in so many ways.
A TESTIMONY OF FATHER MICHAEL HARPER WHO PASSED FROM BEING AN EVANGELICAL ANGLICAN PRIEST, THROUGH THE CHARISMATIC RENEWAL, INTO ORTHODOXY (click)