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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The fall of Byzantium

The Hesychast movement


The Original Greek New Testament
Page 2

The historical significance of the chief spokesmen for the Hesychast doctrine comes from the fact that they were not only the spokesmen for the Greek national ideas in the struggle with the West, but, still more important, stood at the head of the monastic movement and had the support of Athos and the monasteries in the Balkan peninsula which depended upon the Holy Mountain. A more recent investigator of this problem, Papamichael, whose book came out in 1911, did not deny that the struggle of the monks (the party of the zealots) with the politicians, and some philosophical speculation, were secondary factors in the movement: but he believed that the correct interpretation of the Hesychast quarrel lies primarily in the purely religious domain. On the one hand it is found in that intense mysticism prevalent at that time, not only in the West but also in the East, especially in Athos; on the other hand, in the attempt of the western Greek monk Barlaam to Latinize the Orthodox Byzantine East, by rationalistic and sarcastic attacks, which shook monastic authority in Byzantium.

Barlaams Latin proselyting is not yet satisfactorily proved. Putting that aside, the Hesychast movement, though primarily religious, became still more interesting in connection with the prevailing mysticism in western and eastern Europe, and with some cultural phenomena of the epoch of the Italian renaissance. The study of this aspect of the Hesychast movement belongs to the future.

The most prominent of the Hesychasts in the fourteenth century and the man who best reduced to a system the doctrine of hesychia was the archbishop of Thessalonica, Gregorius Palamas, a well-educated man and an able writer, a sworn adversary of Barlaam and the head of the party of the Palamites, named from him. At the same time many other Hesychasts were explaining and interpreting the doctrine of hesychia, especially a Byzantine mystic, unfortunately very little known, Nicholas Cabasilas, whose ideas and works deserve careful study.

According to the above-mentioned work of Papamichael and its exposition by J. Sokolov, the Hesychasts devote themselves entirely to the knowledge and contemplation of God, and the attainment of unity with Him, and concentrate all their strength for this purpose. They retire from the whole world and all that reminds them of the world, and isolate themselves by means of the concentration and gathering of the mind in themselves. To attain this concentration the Hesychast has to detach himself from all imagination, all conceptions, all thoughts, and free his mind from all knowledge, in order to be able freely, by an absolute independent flight, to merge easily into the truly mystic darkness of ignorance. The highest, most sincere, and most perfect prayer of the perfect Hesychasts is an immediate intercourse with God, in which there exist no thoughts, ideas, images of the present or recollection of the past. This is the highest contemplation - the contemplation of God one and alone, the perfect ecstasy of mind and withdrawal from matter. No thought is more perfect or higher than such a prayer. It is a state of ecstasy, a mystic unity with God, deification (apotheosis; θέωσις).

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