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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The fall of Byzantium

The Hesychast movement


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In this state the mind wholly transcends the limits of matter, frees itself from all thought, requires a complete insensibility to outward impressions and becomes deaf and mute. Not only is the Hesychast entirely cut off from outward impressions, but he also transcends his individuality and loses consciousness of himself, being wholly absorbed in the contemplation of God. Therefore he who has reached ecstasy no longer lives a personal and individual life; his spiritual and corporeal life stops, his mind remains immovable, attached to the object of contemplation. Thus, the basis and center of hesychia is the love of God from soul, heart, and mind, and the desire for divine contemplation through the abnegation of everything, however small and remote, which might recall the world and its contents.

The goal of the Hesychasts is attained by absolute isolation and silence, by the care of the heart and mortification of the mind, continuous penitence, abundant tears, the memory of God and death, and the constant repetition of an inner prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me; oh, Son of God, help me. The consequence of this prayerful spirit is a blissful humility. Later the doctrine of the sacred hesychia was more systematized, especially among the Athonian monks, where the way to attaining the more perfect hesychia was divided into several categories and composed of definite schemes and ladders, in one of which, for example, are the four deeds of the speechless: the beginners, progressives, successful, and perfect. Very few became perfect, i.e. attained the highest degree of hesychia, contemplation. The majority of ascetics reached only the first degrees.

The leader of the Hesychast movement was the archbishop of Thessalonica Gregorius Palamas. Under the protection of Andronicus II, he had received a broad and many-sided education at Constantinople, and he had been inclined from his youth to the study of the problems of monastic life. At twenty he took the monastic habit on Mount Athos. Then, dwelling in Athos, Thessalonica, and some isolated places in Macedonia, he excelled all his fellows on the Holy Mountain in ascetism and devoted all his strength to endeavoring to reach contemplation. He worked out a definition of his own of the so-called contemplation (θεωρία), and proceeded to devote his literary talents to the interpretation of his ascetic ideas. His intention to withdraw into complete solitude in order to devote himself wholly to the inner prayer was defeated by the outbreak on Athos of the troubles aroused by Barlaam.

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