September 17, 2014 Length: 1:06:45
Bishop Alexander of the Bulgarian Diocese of the OCA gave the Second Annual Meyendorff Lecture at SVOTS on September 14, 2014. The title of his lecture was "Force Your Mind to Descend into the Heart: Some Resemblances between Byzantine Hesychasm and Merkavah Mysticism."
Fr. John Behr: Your Beatitude, your Grace, reverend Fathers, brothers and sisters: It is my pleasure to welcome everyone to St. Vladimir’s Seminary this evening. For several decades, we have marked the beginning of our spring semester and our patronal feast of the Three Hierarchs with the Annual Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture. And now for the second time at the beginning of the fall semester and with the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, we have a lecture in honor of our former Dean, Fr. John Meyendorff. And I guess now that it is a second lecture, it is actually an annual lecture series.
Fr. John Meyendorff is one of the names that is synonymous with St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and with Orthodoxy in America, and indeed, Orthodoxy worldwide in the second half of the 20th century. He came here in 1959 after completing his doctorate in theology with a ground-breaking study of St. Gregory Palamas and also having taught at the St. Sergius Institute in Paris.
He held positions in Harvard University, Dumbarton Oaks, Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and also at Fordham University. After 25 years of working alongside Fr Alexander Schmemann, Fr John became the Dean of this school in 1984 until June of 1992, falling asleep in the Lord a month later.
Fr John really was one of the most prominent figures in the theological world and the Orthodox Church more generally in the second half of the 20th century. Through his work we learned again to return to the Fathers, especially St. Gregory Palamas and the Hesychast tradition. And his tireless work for the up-building of the Orthodox Church in this country as a Church for this country resulted most notably in the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America in 1970.
He truly embodied all that we strive for here in the Seminary, the Seminary which bears his imprint in so many ways: to articulate the Orthodox faith in a manner which has a contemporary, existential relevance, and to bear witness to that faith in a strong, united, and indigenous ecclesial body.
And this evening we are very pleased and happy to welcome back to his alma mater a distinguished alumnus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, His Grace Bishop Alexander of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese of the OCA, and currently locum tenens of the Diocese of the Midwest in the OCA. His Grace studied here in the early 70s, then went on to gain his doctorate in 1980 from the University of Oxford, working under His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos. He wrote on Dionysius Areopagite. During his doctoral years, His Grace spent several years on Mount Athos, becoming a monk of Simonos Petra, as a disciple of the Elder Aimilianos. His doctoral dissertation was published by Moni Vlatadon in Thessalonika under the title Et introibo ad altare Dei: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita in 1994. It has been republished in a second edition under the title of Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita published by Cistercian Publications last year.
It was his living experience of the mystical and liturgical traditions of the Holy Mountain that opened his eyes to the profound dimensions of the work of Dionysius, the dimensions which had escaped so much of scholarly work on that corpus over the previous centuries, so that the work of His Grace was truly ground-breaking in that regard. He continued his scholarly work for many decades, writing on and translating St. Symeon the New Theologian in a three-volume edition which we are very pleased and happy to have in our Popular Patristics Series, published in the mid-90s.
And ever since he has been working both backwards and forwards—backwards to explore the origin of the Christian mystical tradition in the traditions and the world of Second Temple Judaism, and forward to see how those seeds flourished in the subsequent Christian tradition, both in the Greek- and Syriac-speaking worlds and also in the subsequent Jewish mystical traditions.
A striking example of how apparently revolutionary this work has been, though of course completely traditional, can be seen by comparing the work of His Grace to other modern classics on the theme of the origins of the Christian mystical tradition, which until very recently, without exception, only looked for background to the Greek philosophical tradition. His Grace has emphasized, and rightly so, the shared world of Second Temple Judaism as the fertile background, the precipitate solution, as it were, which crystallized in the preaching of the Gospel.
His Grace carried out this work at Marquette University where he taught from 1989 to 2012, attracting and inspiring numerous students, many of whom have gone on to begin academic careers themselves, and are promising new lights in the world of Orthodox theology.
And so great has his influence been that there is in fact a whole school devoted to this work, the Theophaneia School.
This evening His Grace is going to speak on the history of these traditions in the Christian and in the Jewish mystical tradition and their interaction, with a talk entitled “‘Force your Mind to Descend into the Heart’: Some Resemblances between Byzantine Hesychasm and the Merkavah Mystical Tradition.” Your Grace.
Bishop Alexander: Your Beatitude, reverend Clergy, brothers and sisters: I doubt I can live up to that introduction. In fact, I am sure of it. But I am delighted—genuinely delighted—to be speaking at an Annual Father John Meyendorff Lecture. And that is because, as Fr John pointed out, the other Fr John, whom we are honoring, was such a seminal figure, but in my case, a seminal figure for me. He was an unfailing friend and patron, and I cherish his memory and will to my dying day. And will continue to profit from his works, just as I fought him over Dionysius!>
Now the paper I am going to read to you was one, I have to confess, was written some time ago for the Society of Biblical Literature Jewish and Early Christian Mysticism section, and I was addressing—it was designed for an audience thoroughly familiar with the Jewish materials of Second Temple and Late Antiquity but didn’t have a clue about what this Eastern Christian stuff was. So I am afraid you are going to hear rather a lot of what you might, in some cases at least, know very well already—the hesychasts—and then I will move at the end to certain parallels within merkavah. Another reason it is appropriate that this should be the Fr John Meyendorff Lecture is that that illustration [in a handout] comes from Fr John’s little book, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, and is peculiarly apposite: it’s an 11th century illustration of St. John’s The Ladder showing a monk at prayer, and I will refer to it a number of times in the course of the talk following.
So given that is such a different audience, I though I might begin with a couple of words of background to this business of merkavah and one associated term that will appear in my paper a few times, the term hekhalot.
The word merkavah is the Hebrew word for ‘chariot’ and it refers to the chariot throne of God that the prophet Ezekiel sees in the first chapter of that prophet’s books, where he is on the canal Chebar in exile in Babylon and he has a vision of the divine presence enthroned on the throne carried by the cherubim and the wheeled angels (the ophanim). There is little understating the importance of that vision and its subsequent influence, but I won’t go into that now. That’s for another time.
The other word is hekhalot, which is a plural of the Hebrew word hekhal, that can mean either ‘temple’ or ‘palace,’ and the temples or palaces in question in this literature are the heavenly ones, usually arranged in a series of seven heavens, at the top of which the highest heavenly hekhal or palace is the place of the throne of God, and this literature is concerned with the ascent of the seven heavens, such that the adept may look on the presence enthroned in the highest heaven.
It is a literature which was not much in prominence until very recently, and I will open with a reference to this scholar, Gershom Scholem, largely because like a lot of our literature, say, for example, the Macarian Homilies in Greek, existed only in medieval manuscripts, and was therefore relegated to a thoroughly marginal place reserved for the vagaries of medieval Jewish mystical speculation, which also included the Kabbalah which comes out of thirteenth century Spain, and it was the work of Scholem, whom I will open with, to argue for a much older source for these medieval manuscripts, that they in fact were texts copied from late antiquity, perhaps going back into the very earliest centuries of the Christian era. And that thesis, as I will note a bit later on, has had a remarkably fertile, and I would say for Orthodox, liberating effect on a lot of scholarship on both early Christianity and Christian origins themselves. So with that preface said, I will begin.
At the end of the chapter on Merkavah Mysticism in his epochal book, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem remarks that the late fourth-century, anonymous monastic author of the Macarian Homilies offers his readers “a mystical reinterpretation of the Merkabah” by presenting the chariot vision of Ezekiel as “the secret of the soul that is on the point of admitting its Master and becoming the throne of his Glory.” Now to the best of my knowledge, next to no one has followed up on Scholem’s implied suggestion of affinities between Jewish merkavah mysticism and Eastern Christian, monastic spirituality. In this paper, I would like to take a few, tentative steps along that still largely unexplored path, though I choose to limit myself here to certain texts from the latter days of the Byzantine era nearly a millennium after the Macarian homilist, since it is only in this later period that we find detailed descriptions of the praxis engaged in by monks hoping for the vision of the “light of Tabor,” that is, the divine radiance which shone from Christ at his transfiguration detailed in all three Synoptics.
I should also note that both items just mentioned, the particular praxis of the these monks, and their belief in the availability of the “uncreated light” (to aktiston phos) of Tabor,
were at the center of the last great theological controversy within the Byzantine Church prior to that empire’s conquest by the Ottoman Turks. The monks’ chief defender was the sometime monk of Mount Athos, later the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Gregory Palamas, whom I shall be citing a bit later on. That there was a “Hesychast Controversy” at all, and that it lasted for a full decade (the 1340s)—and lingered on and off for sometime afterwards—indicates that neither the praxis associated with the “Jesus Prayer,” nor the accessibility or at least the definition of the “divine light,” were widely known or accepted within the broader reaches of the Byzantine educated elite.
Now the term, “hesychast” comes from the Greek for “quiet” or “silence” (hesychia), and from earliest monastic literature denoted a hermit or anchorite, one who lives alone in the quiet of ascetical withdrawal. The Hesychasts of the controversy were thus chiefly—or even exclusively—hermits, often perhaps with one or more disciples, who lived not in the large common-life monasteries of the Athonite peninsula or elsewhere in the Eastern Christian world, but in hermitages—caves, small houses or huts, or collections of such dwellings such as can still be found on Athos. Although their praxis and theology of the Jesus Prayer and of the divine light were upheld as in accord with Orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 1351, it should be borne in mind that they were and remained only a very small group within the Eastern Church.
Still, we ought also recall, first, that the monk, especially in Eastern Christianity, actually the West, too, up until the mendicant monks, has—together with the martyr—been understand as the exemplar par excellence of Christian life ever since monasticism’s first appearance in the fourth century. Second, within the monks as a group, the hermit has always—though not without occasional controversy (see Basil the Great)—enjoyed a real pre-eminence. Thus, third, though they were very few and physically isolated, it can be argued that these fourteenth-century monastic practitioners represented in a certain sense at least the heart of the Eastern Christian tradition, a view that was in fact confirmed by the conciliar decree just noted.
While the notes of light, of the invocation of the name of Jesus, and even the latter associated with respiration, can muster witnesses from very early on in monastic history, the complete Hesychast praxis appears in writing for the first time in the brief tract, “Three Methods of Prayer,” traditionally ascribed to the turn of the second millennium, Constantinopolitan abbot and mystic, Symeon the New Theologian. The scholarly consensus of the past seventy years, however, holds that Symeon did not write this piece, and I would agree. There is no agreement as to its precise date, so I shall simply say that it was composed sometime between the late 11th century and the late 13th. (By the way, scholars do this all the time—sort of fudging and splitting the difference on dates when they don’t know!) The treatise begins with a warning against certain methods of prayer, in particular standing with “hands, eyes, and intellect raised heavenwards,” and then seeking to fill the mind “with divine thoughts and images of celestial beauty, of the angelic hosts, of the abodes of the righteous.” Those who do so, the author continues,
...will almost inevitably become deranged…thinking that they see light with their bodily eyes, smell sweet scents, hear voices…Others fail to recognize the devil when he transforms himself into an angel of light ...and still others, incited by the devil, have committed suicide, throwing themselves over a precipice….
To pray incorrectly, therefore, invites great peril, including the threat of death itself. Pseudo-Symeon’s warning echoes much earlier monastic literature, for example the admonitory tale of Philoxenus of Mabbug at the turn of the 6th century, which tells of a foolish monk who is tricked into accepting a ride to heaven in an apparently celestial chariot, only to have the latter dissolve in mid-flight and leave him to tumble to his death. The notes of madness and death also echo, if in a slightly different key, in the story of the four who “entered the garden” (Paradise) in the Babylonian Talmud, as well as elsewhere where the same story appears in other texts in early Jewish literature. A third evil, heresy, typified in the same Jewish text by the figure names ‘Aher’ (which simply means ‘Other’), is not touched upon by Pseudo-Symeon, but does appear as a danger elsewhere in both earlier monastic literature, such as Palladius of Heliopolis’ Lausiac History, and in the later Hesychasts.
To circumvent these perils, Pseudo-Symeon recommends, first, “exact obedience” to one’s spiritual father; and, second, keeping one’s
...conscience pure in three respects: first, with respect to God; second, with respect to your spiritual father; and, third, with respect to other people and material things…[i.e., taking care] not to misuse them, whether food, drink, or clothing. In brief, do everything as if you were in the presence of God.
Having established these pre-conditions, which involve inter alia the recollection of typically monastic asceticism, and after adding a further exhortation to keep one’s intellect firmly “on patrol within the heart,” he proceeds to his third and preferred method of prayer which, he warns us, “very few” practice, and which is to be engaged in only under the supervision of an “unerring guide”:
Sit down in a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself…Close the door and withdraw your intellect from everything transient and worthless. Rest your beard on your chest and focus your physical gaze, together with your whole intellect, upon the center of your belly or navel. Restrain the drawing in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself for the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. To start with, you will find there darkness and impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy.
For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which previously it knew nothing. It sees the open space within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination. From then on, from whatever side a distracting thought may appear, before it…has assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ…The rest you will learn by yourself, with God’s help, by keeping guard over your intellect and by retaining Jesus in your heart…As the saying goes, [and here he is quoting the Desert Fathers] ‘Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.’
He concludes with another warning against raising one’s “eyes and intellect to heaven in the hope of envisaging noetic realities,” since this only produces “fantasies rather than the truth”,
and by urging his readers to work on becoming a “spiritual house [oikos]” in Christ. In effect, they are themselves to become the “place” of revelation of heavenly things.
There is much that is familiar here in what I just read from earliest Eastern Christian, monastic literature. Those familiar elements include:
The linkage in prayer between the name of Jesus and the breath is also nearly as old as the first six elements, all of which go back at least to the fourth century (and some much earlier).
In the late 5th century, Diadochus of Photiki in northwestern Greece, though fleetingly and quite without detail, counsels continual invocation of the name of Jesus. John of Sinai in the 7th century (which that illustration is illuminating) urges in his Ladder that this invocation be linked with the breath, while Hesychius of Sinai writes several times in the 8th or 9th century of the continual activity of “the Jesus prayer” at work in “the treasury [tameion] of the heart.” In addition, Antoine Guillaumont has provided evidence of the “Jesus prayer” in Coptic monasticism as early as the seventh and eighth centuries, where in certain texts the invocation of the Name of Jesus is expressly linked to the act of breathing. This textual evidence is supported by his archaeological work, specifically his discovery of an inscription in a monk’s cell which advocates this prayer, and gives the entirety of the text of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” in Coptic, and which likewise dated to around the turn of the 8th century. Precise details of the practice, however, are missing in any of these earlier witnesses. Pseudo-Symeon is the first to supply us with them.
He also adds what seem to a couple of obvious novelties: sitting down while praying intensively; and doing so bent over with “the beard upon the chest,” or, as in your 11th century manuscript illumination, with the head between the knees. As Kallistos Ware remarks, “In ancient times the normal attitude for prayer was definitely to stand,” such that the posture advocated by our text is “surely to be seen as an innovation.” We shall see about that. It is, finally, in this matter of sitting and inclined posture, taken in order to approach the things of heaven, that we find what I take to be the clearest indication anywhere of a possible crossover from Jewish mystical literature to Christian writings sometime after the turn of the first Christian millennium.
I shall come to that last remark presently. For now, allow me to light briefly upon the witness of the clearly 14th century witness of the Athonite Hesychasts. The most enthusiastic and unsophisticated advocate of the “Jesus Prayer” is a certain Nicephorus the Monk, who writes around the turn of the 14th century. His brief treatise, “On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart,” opens with a series of invitations to “the wondrous divine illumination of our Saviour, Jesus Christ,” to an experience of “the supra-celestial fire” within the heart, to “the Kingdom of Heaven within,” and “the palace [palation] of the mindfulness of God.”
He then moves a roll-call of monastic witnesses, beginning with the Anthony the Great and running down to Hesychius and our text from Pseudo-Symeon. Like the latter, Nicephorus urges the acquisition of an “unerring guide” before commencing the method, since most of those who attain to the “greatest of gifts do so through being taught.” Rather unusually, however, he goes on encourage his readers to go ahead with the method even if they cannot find a guide. His description of the method itself is essentially that of Pseudo-Symeon, save with a greater (if not physiologically accurate) anatomical precision:
Seat yourself, then concentrate your intellect and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on it, and force your intellect to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart.
Keeping the mind there, he tells us, is at first difficult, since “it is strongly disinclined to remain constrained and circumscribed,” but once it grows used to this, “it can no longer bear to be outside the heart.” Once enclosed, the intellect is to be kept active with the constant repetition of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The treatise concludes with an assurance that, if practiced assiduously, “the whole choir of the virtues—love, joy, peace, and the others—will come to you.”
Nicephorus does not touch on the inclined posture that Pseudo-Symeon emphasized, though we shall that feature reiterated in Gregory of Sinai and in Gregory Palamas. His confidence in the power of the praxis is unmatched by the later writers. They will be more cautious about its efficacy and, perhaps especially in Gregory of Palamas’ case, its necessity. Nicephorus adds a few theological details —if I may so speak—which are interesting in light of the imagery of the hekhalot texts, in particular the notes of “divine illumination,” “supra-celestial fire,” the “palace,” and the “shrine [tameion]” of the heart. All of these expressions are also attested in much older monastic literature, but what is of interest for us is their specific connection here with a particular method of prayer.
Similar language recurs in another brief treatise included in the Philokalia, “On Inner Work in Christ and the Monastic Vocation,” a letter of advice written by Metropolitan Theoliptos of Philadelphia to the Abbess Irene-Eulogia of Constantinople. The bishop says nothing about either breathing or posture, save a passing mention of praying while sitting alone in one’s cell. He does, though, stress the importance of “unceasingly repeat[ing] the name of the Lord…the divine name.” If one does so with all the force and attention of the intellect, he writes, “the light of the knowledge of God will overshadow [episkiasei] the entire soul like a luminous cloud”—an echo at once of Exodus 40:34, to which the Greek editor of the Philokalia tentatively directs the reader, and more so of the Synoptic Transfiguration accounts, especially Matthew 17:5.
Elsewhere, Theoliptos compares prayer to approaching a King, and as revealing “the bridal chamber [nymphon]” and leading the practitioner within it, “filling you with ineffable glory [doxa arretos] and joy.” The imagery of the temple and high-priesthood are likewise deployed:
You will become a temple of God, praising Him undistractedly…and you will penetrate the innermost sanctuary of the intellect [en adytois tou nou eisienai], mystically beholding [katopteuein] the Invisible, and alone celebrating [lit., “liturgizing,” leitourgon—i.e., acting as priest] in solitude with God alone in the unity of divine knowledge and the outpourings of love.
Gregory of Sinai was perhaps the most important evangelizer of the Jesus Prayer and accompanying Hesychast method in the 14th century. His biographer, the Patriarch Kallistos of Constantinople, describes a singularly peripatetic life, beginning on the coast of Asia Minor near Smyrna and wandering over much of the Near East, the Greek islands, Mount Athos, Constantinople, and concluding in the Kingdom of Bulgaria where Gregory contributed importantly to the spread of the Hesychast renewal to Slavic-speaking, Orthodox monasticism. Kallistos also tells us that his hero did not learn of the Hesychast on Athos, nor at St. Catherine’s Sinai, the monastery of his tonsure, but from a certain monk Arsenius while staying in Crete prior to arriving on Mount Athos around the turn of the 14th century.
This would seem an indication that while the praxis may have been rare, it was not confined to either the Athonite peninsula or to the environs of the capital. While Gregory dwells on the method everywhere in his works, his most detailed description comes in the second of his treatises, “Fifteen Texts on Stillness,” where he writes:
Sitting down on a seat about 9” high, compel your intellect to descend from your head into your heart, and retain it there, keeping your head forcibly bent downwards and, suffering acute pain in your chest, shoulders, and neck, persevere in repeating noetically or in your soul “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy”... Restrain your breathing, so as not to breathe unimpededly, for when you exhale the air, rising from the heart, ruffles your thinking, keeping the intellect away from the heart…
Unlike Nicephorus, who in this regard is unique, Gregory thinks engagement in this praxis a very bad idea if not done under the discerning eye of an accomplished guide, as practitioners “may easily be deluded” into mistaking their own or demonically-inspired fantasies for truth. Neither does he believe that is universally applicable or necessary, even with a guide. He is also insistent on the traditional virtues of monastic life:
I have learnt this from experience, that unless a monk cultivates the following virtues, he will never make progress: fasting, self-control [engkrateia], keeping vigil, patient endurance, courage, stillness, prayer, silence inward grief, and humility.
Echoing Evagrius of Pontus a thousand years earlier, as well as Pseudo-Symeon and others cited above, he is emphatic in his rejection of exterior visions:
If while engaged in spiritual work you see a light or fire outside you, or a form supposedly of Christ or of an angel, or of someone else, reject it lest you suffer harm…[as] not from God, but… sent by the devil.
An addition to most of the manuscripts of this treatise underlines the last point:
Unceasingly cry out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.” and do not allow yourself to retain any concept, object, thought, or form that is supposedly divine, or any sequence or arrangement of colors, but concentrate on the pure, simple, formless remembrance of Jesus. Then God, seeing your intellect so strict in guarding itself, will himself bestow pure and unerring vision upon it, and will make it participate in God…What is of God, says St. Isaac [of Nineveh], comes of itself, without you knowing when it will come.
The concluding insistence on divine initiative is perhaps in response to the nearly automatic quality of visitation suggested by Nicephorus’ enthusiastic advocacy of the method, and to a lesser degree the same in Pseudo-Symeon. The rejection of all forms and visible manifestations of Christ, angels, light, fire, and even—in the manuscript addition just cited—in sequences of colors is, on the face of it, strikingly in opposition to the exuberant, not say overwhelming imagery of the heavenly realm that we find in the Jewish hekhalot literature, though the note of danger is certainly present in both the latter and in the Hesychasts—even lethal danger, as we saw in Pseudo-Symeon.
I do not think that Gregory here, or the ancients before him like Evagrius (or, going still further back, Clement and especially Origen), is setting his face against specifically Jewish mystical texts, but rather against fellow monks or Christians, particularly 3rd century writers, who are enamored of the spectacular visions and heavenly ascents characteristic, for example, of post-biblical, apocalyptic literature, of many New Testament apocrypha, or of a great deal of popular hagiography—all three of which were in circulation among Orthodox monks of the middle ages. As we shall see in a moment, Gregory also likely had in mind contemporary opposition in learned circles to the praxis and claims of the Hesychast movement.
I should include some notice of the imagery of transformation which Gregory, like my other exemplars, understands as the goal of Hesychast praxis. The same notes of light, glory, splendor, fire, etc. appearing within the soul and suffusing both it and, on occasion, the body of the monk appear in him as in the others, and it is certainly no accident that the one extended discourse of his that we possess is devoted to Christ’s transfiguration on Tabor. Likewise, he makes important use of the temple and high-priestly imagery that we saw especially in Theoliptos, perhaps most strikingly—with its echoes at once of Exodus, Leviticus, and Dionysius Areopagite—in the following from his “137 Edifying Texts,” here number 43:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like the Tabernacle which was built by God, and which he disclosed to Moses as a pattern, for it, too, has an outer and an inner sanctuary. Into the first will enter all who are priests of grace. But into the second…will enter only those who in this life have attainted the divine darkness [gnophos] of theological wisdom and there, as true hierarchs, have celebrated the triadic liturgy, entering into the Tabernacle that Jesus himself has set up, where he acts as their consecrator and chief Hierarchy before the Trinity, and illumines them ever more richly with his own splendor.
A last note, not appearing in any of the writers cited so far, is the recovery of the luminous image or robe of Adam, such that not only the soul, the body as well may become, in Christ, “a resplendent and fiery image of divine beauty.” As David Balfour, one of the few scholars who has made a careful study of Gregory, remarked, this notion of the recovery of the Adamic condition is perhaps the royal road to his thought.
Mystical Hesychasm was not without its opponents, as I alluded to at the beginning. Around 1340, one Barlaam the Calabrian, an Greek-speaking, Italian monk recently appointed by the Emperor to a chair of philosophy in Constantinople, decided to travel to Athos to investigate for himself the reports of supra-normal experiences emanating from the mountain. He was not impressed by what he heard from the monks. “I was initiated by them,” he wrote back to a friend,
...into certain monstrosities and absurd doctrines…the product of an erroneous belief and a rash fantasy. They told me about their teachings concerning marvelous separations and reunions of the intellect with the soul, about the fusion of demons with the soul, about the different sorts of red and white lights, about certain noetic entries and exits through the nostrils in conjunction with the respiration, about some kind of palpitations which occur around the navel, and finally about the vision of our Lord with the soul which comes to pass in the navel in a manner perceived by the senses with full certitude of heart.
While we cannot know how much of this denunciation is the product of Barlaam’s own sarcasm, or his encounters with unsophisticated and overly enthusiastic monks, it is not difficult to catch echoes of Nicephorus, or Pseudo-Symeon, or both. With this letter, the Calabrian opened a controversy that would last over ten years, and on and off reverberates even to the present day. The debate would quickly move from the issue of the physical praxis to the deeper matters of the role of the body in the visio dei luminis, to the nature itself of the light which these monks claimed some were given to see, and finally to the distinction in God between the incommunicable divine essence and communicated divine energies which Gregory Palamas advanced successfully against Barlaam and others in order, as Palamas saw it, to defend both the reality of divinization and the light of the Transfiguration as uncreated.
These broader issues do not concern us, at least for purposes of this paper. Let it suffice merely to note that, in the course of his massive Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, Palamas provides a kind of compendium, with accompanying theological rationale, of prior monastic tradition—and of its traditional imagery of transformation, i.e., glory, light, fire, temple, etc., together with the idea of the luminous image or “robe of glory” lost by Adam and recovered through Christ. That the debate did move to deeper things meant that this Gregory does not spend much time in the Triads on the physical praxis of the Jesus prayer, save one section in the first book.
The latter is still instructive. First, we find Palamas beginning with the citation of scriptural texts bearing traditionally on the theme of the inner temple—I Corinthians 6:19, Hebrews 3:6, Leviticus 26:12, and 2 Corinthians 6:16—and moving quickly to an invocation of Matthew 5:8 (the pure in heart shall see God) and 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 (the vision of the risen Christ in the heart). The body and, within it, the heart are established through these citations as the place of encounter with the light of God. Gregory denounces any effort escape the body in order to “attain noetic visions” as “the worst of profane delusions, the root and source of every heresy, an invention of demons.” To use the body for prayer, secondly, is not only right, but necessary. “It is,” he continues, “therefore not
...out of place to teach beginners to look within themselves and to bring their intellect within themselves by means of their breathing…with the aid of certain methods…That is why some teachers recommend them to pay attention to the inhalation and exhalation of their breath, and to restrain it a little, so that while they are watching it, the intellect, too, may be held in check. This they should do until they advance, with God’s help, to a higher stage and are able to prevent their intellect from going out to external things…
This defense of the Hesychast breathing techniques is certainly much less categorical and more cautious than a Nicephorus or Pseudo-Symeon, nor do the latter suggest, as Palamas does here, that their use is restricted especially to beginners. Here we may discern a certain concession to Barlaam’s criticisms perhaps, but the theological basis for the techniques is solid in Gregory’s eyes, and he will not reject the practice entirely.
Turning his attention to the “curved” posture advocated by his predecessors, he advances several arguments in its favor. First, he recalls the circular motion of the intellect described by Dionysius Areopagites in the 4th chapter of the latter’s Divine Names, and by the way, Dionysius was a singularly important authority for both sides of the Hesychast debate, and then argues for the Hesychast posture as its physical analogue:
When someone is striving to concentrate his intellect in himself so that it functions….according to the circular, delusion-free form, how could he not gain immensely if, instead of letting his gaze flit hither and thither, he fixes it upon his chest or his navel as a point of support? Outwardly curling himself—so far as possible—into the form of a circle, in conformity with the mode of action that he tries to establish in his intellect, he also, through this same position of his body, sends into his heart the power of the intellect that is dispersed outwardly when his gaze is turned outwards…
Following a second affirmation of the body’s capacity for transfiguration, as capable of becoming, together with the soul, “the possessor and dwelling-place of God,” he turns to scriptural exemplars:
Elijah himself, pre-eminent among spiritual visionaries, leaned his head upon his knees, and having assiduously gathered his intellect into itself and into God, he put an end to the drought that had lasted many years. [Citing I Kings 18]
To Elijah he adds the example of the publican in Luke 18:13, who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven.” The example of Elijah is surely what we also have suggested in that manuscript illumination two hundred—at least three hundred—years before Palamas, as well as even earlier in Jewish texts, notably Rabbi Akiva in Hekhalot Zutarti and Hai Gaon, whom I shall both cite momentarily. Gregory’s defense of the physical praxis concludes with a roll-call of ascetical saints from the recent past, including Pseudo-Symeon, Nicephorus, and Theoliptos. He adds that some of these people were his own teachers. “Are we then,” he asks rhetorically,
...to count as nothing these people who have been taught by experience and grace, and to submit ourselves to those who assume the role of teachers out of conceit? ...This we will never, never do!
Palamas and his fellow-monks carried the day in the mid-14th century. Their teaching had spread to the far corners of the Eastern Orthodox world within a couple of generations, and continued to produce direct descendants as late as Nil of Sora and his disciples in early 16th century Muscovy. Hesychasm would then go into eclipse for two hundred years. We have little or nothing by way of literary evidence for its continuity from, say, the mid-16th to the mid-18th centuries, though research into this era of the Eastern Church is scarcely abundant, let alone exhaustive. We hear of it again only in the mid-18th century, and the renewal movement associated in particular with the names of two monks, the Greek Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and the Ukrainian Paissy Velichkovsky.
Through their efforts, the five-volume collection of the Philokalia is published toward the end of the 18th century, first in Greek, then (significantly, in slightly different form) in Slavonic, and (partially) in Romanian. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of these volumes. They are, in one way or another, but most directly, at the heart of a series of monastic renewals that are still under way today, and which in the past half-century especially (thanks in part to Fr John Meyendorff) have broken out the cloister to invade the sancta of academic theology in the West, as well as into convocations such as this one.
While not yet household names, Gregory Palamas and company are arguably better or at least more widely known today than ever they have been before.
Thanks to the labors of Gershom Scholem and the many who continue to work in his train, the same might be said for the hekhalot literature. Indeed, I think that the latter is much more prominent in recent mainstream (or nearly mainstream) scholarship, and on a much, much broader front—ranging from re-evaluation of the ancient apocalypses, to the Qumran Scrolls, to Christian origins, Gnosticism, early Rabbinica, and on to medieval Kabbalah—than have been my Hesychasts and their earlier monastic predecessors, who are still often dismissed (when mentioned at all) as so many uninteresting and uninstructive examples of a vaguely all-purpose “Neoplatonism,”
I can say generally with a certain generation of patristic scholars up until very recently, whenever anything mystical appears in a patristic text, ‘Neoplatonist’ is the default setting for its evaluation but almost never with any specific quotation from Plotinus or any of the actual Neo-Platonists (‘It’s mystical so it must be Neoplatonist” is the essential instinct)—as well as of an ancient, Hellenistic prejudice against the body and all its works—as examples, in short, of “life-denying” asceticism.
Yet, when I read Scholem’s Major Trends for the first time 22 years ago, and then Alan Segal’s study of Paul a couple of years later, and subsequently scholars such as Gilles Quispel, Jarl Fossum, Christopher Morray-Jones, April DeConick, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, and others, or Richard Bauckham (whom I saw with pleasure that Fr John was using for one of his classes), what hammered me between the eyes was, more than anything else, a breathtaking sense of familiarity.
To be sure, there are differences between Jew and Christian, hence my reluctance today to stray from the turf familiar to me and venture to pronounce on the Hekhalot texts (though I shall try in a moment), but still I believe I ought be bold enough to assert that the latter strike me as related to my own so-to-speak progenitors in God, though doubtless neither they nor the descendants of the merkavah would have much appreciated the comparison. Still, they are linked, relatives, at least in the sense that each represents a concurrent and parallel stream flowing out common sources in Second Temple Judaism.
Each stream is certainly distinct and distinctive, nor does either one require the other for its self-explication, but I do believe that they can find in each other a certain—for want of a better phrase right now—mutual corroboration, at the very least with regard to their respective claims to a continuity of descent from origins in post-Exilic Israel. I have just noted the usual dismissal of Eastern Christian, ascetico-mystical literature as “Neoplatonist,” and therefore of little or no relevance whatever for the study of earliest Christianity (let alone Second Temple variants of Judaism), since they can only represent thus a corruption of some earlier, pristine Gospel.
Those students of the Hekhalot texts who wish to argue for continuities, have another problem: the very great difficulty of securely dating their materials. It thus seems to me that each of us, those who work with early (and later) Eastern Christian mystical texts, and those who work with Jewish mysticism, can be of assistance to the other provided we allow for that certain kinship, that parallel flow of related if clearly distinctive traditions. The familiarity which struck me so forcibly did so because it revealed to me the Jewish roots of Eastern Christian mysticism, which I had long suspected but never expected to find so stunningly confirmed.
One good turn deserves another, so might I then not offer to students of the Hekhalot texts the corroborative witness of the Christian East, with an almost impeccably dated continuum stretching from, at the least, the third century of Clement and Origen, or the early 4th century of an Aphrahat of Persia, to the end of the Byzantine era and beyond? Prior to the 3rd century things get a little more muddled, but not—given the early martyrologies, New Testament apocrypha, even in places someone like an Irenaeus or an Ignatius or a Justin—all that difficult, I think.
Permit me to turn now to a few, general similarities (and some differences) that I find between my Hesychasts and their predecessors, on the one hand, and the hekhalot literature, on the other. I should then like to conclude with what may be one of the rare cases of a discernible crossover—seepage, one might say—from one current to the other, to which I have also alluded a couple of times above. To begin with the similarities, we find in common:
Then there are the obvious differences:
Even given these differences, the kinship seems pretty obvious to me. When we arrive at the Hesychast method itself, one similarity in particular should leap out at us: the matter of the posture assumed for prayer. Breathing, from what I have seen, does not figure in the Jewish texts, though it does (together with posture) in the later Sufi writings, but sitting with the body bent over shows up in a couple of places, one earlier appearance of which comes in Hekhalot Zutarti:
Rabbi Akiva said: whoever seeks to learn this teaching and to explicate the Name fully, must sit in fasting 40 days; and he must place his head between his knees until the fasting overcomes him.
And then, finally, the text that I have been alluding to a number of times, Hai Gaon. Gaon was an authoritative commentator on the Talmud shortly after the latter’s final compilation. He is writing sometime in the 10th century, probably. Hai Gaon, as David Halperin pointed out some years ago, is likely commenting on this passage I just read when he writes:
When one who is worthy… seeks to have a vision of the chariot, [he] has ways to do it. He sits in fasting a certain number of days and rests his head between his knees and whispers to the ground many songs and praises which are specified. And so he peers into his inner rooms or chambers like one who sees seven palaces with his eyes, and he has a vision as if he were entering from palace to palace and seeing what is in each.
This is very close, indeed, in fact practically identical to the procedure advocated by the Hesychasts—though perhaps I might better say that it is they who are close to the Gaon, since his is the earlier composition. The manuscript illumination of the monk at prayer could as easily be used to illustrate the Jewish scholar’s text as Pseudo-Symeon’s, or rather the former fits the picture even more exactly than does the latter, since Symeon mentions only placing “the beard upon the chest” while both the image and the Gaon (as Palamas later on) have the head specifically between the knees. It is difficult for me not to think that there is some kind of connection here. Finally, all three witnesses (or four, if we count the Sufi Al-Ghazali) are within a century or so of each other, with Hai Gaon (and more so, Hekhalot Zutarti) enjoying a clear, chronological priority.
Is there then an instance here of a “crossover” or “seepage” from the Jewish mystical current to the Christian? I am tempted to say yes, and I hesitate to do so only because I am not certain of the provenance of either the manuscript illumination or of Pseudo-Symeon, nor am I sure of the latter’s dating. Hai Gaon lived in Mesopotamia, while the two Greek witnesses—the image and the text—are likely (though not assuredly) from the vicinity of Constantinople west to the Greek mainland. It is not impossible for me to imagine some passage from Mesopotamia to the Byzantine capital (and beyond), especially since I think I can discern in the original Symeon the New Theologian himself, as well as in his disciple, Nicetas Stethatos, some affinities with Merkavah mysticism and even some sympathy (especially in Nicetas’ case) for Jewish thought.
That will have to be the subject of another paper. For now, I must content myself with merely suggesting that there appears to have been some commerce between the two (or three, if we include the Sufis) mystical streams sometime around the turn of the second Christian millennium or shortly thereafter, and here I conclude—for now. Thank you.