The Tension of Hesychia (Stillness)

8 December 2020

The period we are now going through is characterised by the silent expectation of the greatest event under the sun, the coming in the Flesh of the Saviour God on earth.

All the great events of God’s dealings with man, which are recorded in sacred history, were consequences of the holy and prolonged stillness of the people of God in His presence.  From the beginning of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered in silence over the void of nothingness and all of a sudden ‘hatched’ the whole creation.  Jacob wrestled the whole night in prayer so as to take hold of the blessing of God before facing his beastly brother Esau.  In the desert, Moses and the Israelites kept silence for forty days, and only then did the prophet enter the cloud of divine glory.  Joshua, the son of Nun, remained in stillness with his people, praying for seven days around the walls of Jericho, and on the seventh day, at the sound of the trumpet, the walls fell down. Prophet Elijah journeyed for forty days from Galilea to Mount Horeb, having only one thought, the desire to enter into the presence of God, and his prayer brought down from heaven a wind, an earthquake, fire and finally the small breeze wherein God was present.  Job remained silent in the presence of his friends for seven days, searching the depths of the judgments of God, and when he opened his mouth, his word was like thunder.

In the New Testament, the Holy Virgin received the supernatural message of the Annunciation after years of hesychastic life in the Holy of holies. The Word of God Himself was born from the silence of the Father.  The Lord remained in stillness with His disciples for one week, before beginning to ascend in prayerful silence on holy Mount Tabor, where the Lord manifested His glory.  The Resurrection occurred after ‘every human flesh’ remained silent for three days.  The Holy Spirit came into the world while the disciples were gathered and praying together in stillness.

The spirit of this wondrous and peculiar stillness is very important, for the ethos of the Church is hesychastic.

What is hesychasm?  In spoken language, by stillness people imply idleness, leisure, but in ascetic terminology it has a special meaning.  Hesychia, stillness, is not a passive divesting of the mind after the pattern of eastern asceticism, but it is a fervency of spirit which brings changes in the heart.  It begets intuitions and sensations that transfer man from one fulness to a greater and greater fulness of divine love. They fill his soul with His peace, ‘which passeth all understanding’,[1] and which alone can be imparted as a still small breeze to those around him.  Stillness is a tension of love, which is extreme, but also peaceful at the same time.

Hesychasts do not surrender to inactivity, but experience in silence the most dynamic state that man’s spirit can bear, being strengthened by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Their activity is a crucifixion, for the mind of man after the fall is like unto a ball floating on the water of the sea. If we try to push it under, we soon understand that it will never remain at the bottom, but will always bounce back to the surface.  Likewise, man must exert great violence on himself for the mind to remain in the heart.

The whole being of those who continue with patience in this activity becomes spirit, for they do not allow their mind to wander even for one second.  Established in the furnace of the heart, the mind remains immersed in the invocation of the Holy Name of the Almighty Jesus. Although this is torture for the fallen and divided human nature, it is also the one and only way for man to be healed and render to the Lord the total love that he owes Him.

Hesychasm is the quintessence of the Orthodox ascetic tradition and those who embrace it are a living miracle. Despising tortures and death, the martyrs give their good testimony in one instant, shed their blood and enter unhindered in the heavenly feast.  The hesychasts suffer for years the martyrdom of living on earth in a body with senses and a soul that constantly drag them down and yet, overcoming every natural law, they unceasingly stand in the presence of God.  They separate themselves from all, from every human consolation, while at the same time being united with the whole Adam, bearing in their heart not only his tragedy but also the blessedness of Heaven.

The greatest hesychast was the Holy Virgin in the Holy of holies.  We read about Her in Scripture: ‘The king’s daughter is all glorious within.’[2] Following Her example, the hesychasts are those ascetics who are unceasingly engaged with their heart and immerse themselves within, ‘digging in’ so as to find its depth, knowing that Heaven itself stands with attention before the deep heart of man.  When the Holy Virgin was only a young maiden in the Holy of holies, She discovered in the fervency of Her prayer Her deep heart, where She was united with God and became aware of Her consubstantiality with all humankind.  Having established the will of God as the sole law of Her existence, she naturally began to intercede for the salvation of the whole world.  Sanctified by the energy of her hesychastic life and of her love for God and man, She did not only receive a word from God, but also the Word of God Himself.  The Archangel called Her ‘highly favoured’, because She found grace with the Lord being already full of grace.

[1] Phil. 4:7.
[2] Ps. 45:13.

The kondakion of Saint Gregory Palamas mentions that, as a hesychast, he stood before ‘the First Mind’. This is the definition of stillness: the unwavering and constant abiding in the Spirit of God. This occurs when the mind of man continuously and infallibly stands before God without wavering. The fallen mind is unrestrained. It can only be bridled when the heart is circumcised by the yearning of love for Christ, which does not allow it to forget the beloved Lord even for one instant.

Mental stillness, which is the centre of the spiritual tradition of our Church, is the prefiguration of the eternal Sabbath wherein the Lord entered after having accomplished all His works. It symbolises the victory over the passions, the victory brought to the world by Christ Who has come and shall come again. The victory of Christ consists in the fact that ‘by death He hath overcome death’.

According to the Apostle, ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’[3] The abolition of death is a concrete event that takes place in the deep heart of man, which surfaces gradually, as the ascetic abides in the presence of God.  The Lord removes the uselessness that has accumulated therein and ‘consumes the lawless with the spirit of His mouth’.[4] Then man becomes dead unto the world and considers as insignificant that which before would crush him psychologically.  He becomes as brave as a lion, for every desire of his heart is now directed towards ‘the extreme desire’, towards his Lord and God.[5]

Undoubtedly, the measure of the Holy Fathers incomparably surpasses the measure of most people. However, knowledge of the teaching of the Church is a guiding star.[6] Not all the faithful see the uncreated Light.  Nevertheless, following the saints and living in the Church of God, which unites in her bosom saints and sinners who repent, the latter are saved by the prayers of the former.

The Fathers considered as spiritual adultery the slightest deviation or wavering of the mind from the thought of God.  So high was the vision that inspired them. Their mind was above all possessed by the care to preserve spiritual virginity, that is, to steadfastly stay the mind in the memory of God.

The Fathers resembled life to a glass of blurred water. If we agitate it, it remains blurry, but if we leave it still, the dirt will settle on the bottom, and the water will become clear.  This is also what happens with man.  In order to know himself, he needs to remain still.  More often than not, people cannot see themselves as they are, neither can they discern their thoughts.  It is only when they find stillness and concentrate in one thought, the thought of prayer, that ‘the secrets of the heart’[7] come to the surface.

Saint Gregory Palamas discerns two kinds of stillness. The first is inner and the second external, and they are connected with the two aspects of the Cross, to which Saint Paul makes reference: ‘the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.’[8] Saint John of Gaza defines inner stillness as the effort of ‘restraining one’s heart from giving and taking, from people-pleasing and other such actions’.[9] In other words, external stillness consists of avoiding the agitation of the cares of this life, that is, the useless exchanges, the various images and the manifold impressions, the noises and countless temptations, contenting oneself with the minimum necessary.

To a certain extent, this kind of stillness is practiced by Christians on Sundays when, ‘laying aside all earthly care’,[10] they dedicate this day to the worship and the word of God, which inspires the living hope for the true Kingdom that is soon to come.  In their desire for the Divine Liturgy that is to be celebrated, they begin with great expectation to live in a hesychastic manner already from the previous day, restraining from external activities as much as possible and feeding their mind and heart with prayer and study of the divine words.  Avoiding external temptations, they abide in the presence of God, which purifies the stained garment of the vanity of thoughts.  In this way, they add sanctification upon sanctification. Such stillness increases inspiration and brings proximity with the word of God. When the Christian approaches the fearful Mystery and stands before the great King, the Lord recognises him and seals him with the sanctification of the Divine Eucharist.

It is true that external stillness is necessary, but only as a precondition for inner stillness, which is defined by Saint John of the Ladder as ‘the knowledge of one’s thoughts and an inviolable mind’.[11] In order to practice inner stillness, the Christian strives to prevent his mind and soul from wandering about in the created world, so as not to give any chance to a foreign thought to enter within, and thus to be able to converse with God undistracted. In other words, he becomes able to speak to God clearly, with one thought and with a clear mind. At the same time, he listens with rapt attention to the voice of the Lord in the innermost parts of his being.

Consequently, stillness is man’s standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart. In this state of stillness of the soul, the ascetic strives to confine his mind in his heart and from there, in secret, to call upon God continually.  Man’s whole being is concentrated in the heart and the Name of the Lord gradually cleanses him. Then, as a powerful sovereign, the mind of man keeps guard at the watchtowers of the heart.  It perceives the thoughts that attempt to approach, and discerns clearly the good thoughts from those that approach as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, trying to plunder the heart. Thus, the mind learns to open the gates wide for the first and close them tight for the last, ‘for it is not ignorant of the enemy’s devices’ and distinctly discerns them from the thoughts of God.[12]

[3] 1 Cor. 15:26.
[4] Cf. 2 Thess. 2:8.
[5] See Ps. 38:10.
[6] Saint Sophrony writes: ‘I really do want to know about more perfect prayer – prayer that surpasses me. Not because I am pretentious. No. But because it seems to me vital to glimpse a guiding star to check whether I am on the right path. In ancient times mariners took their bearings by an incredibly remote star. In the same way I should like to have a true criterion, however out of reach, so that I shall not be content with the little I have so far discovered.’ Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), We Shall See Him as He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 2004), p. 64.
[7] Ps. 44:21.
[8] Gal. 6:14.
[9] Barsanuphius and John, Letters from the Desert, trans. John Chryssavgis, (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 314, p. 118.
[10] Cherubic Hymn.
[11] Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Lazarus Moore, (Boston, Massachusetts: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2012), Step 27:2, p. 222.
[12] Cf. 2 Cor.  2:11.

 In this way, man’s whole being which is now unified, cleaves to God. And whoever cleaves to God, becomes one spirit with Him, according to the word of the Apostle: ‘He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.’[13] This sacred activity is the knowledge of thoughts, and the fact that it is ‘an inviolable mind’ means that, for as long as it lasts, the mind of the Christian remains continually united with God and nothing can separate it from Him.

Many people have zeal. They pray and receive grace, but they fail to preserve it because they have not learnt to guard their mind against bad thoughts. For as long as the mind remains unfenced, the thoughts freely enter in and grace is lost, until man learns not only to ‘work’ Paradise, but also to ‘keep’[14] it through the guarding of the mind.

The two kinds of stillness are described in simple words in this saying of the Desert Fathers: ‘Confine your body in your cell and your mind in your body.’

The first stillness consists in disengaging from external activities whereas the second in disengaging from thoughts, by laying aside every reflection and crucifying the reason.

The second presupposes the perfect surrendering of the ascetic into the mighty hands of God and his continual abiding in His Spirit. This is true inner stillness, and those who have tried to acquire it have found that it has nothing to do with idleness, but rather requires a struggle unto death.  The saying of the saints, ‘Give blood and receive the Spirit,’ is not an exaggerated expression, nor the fruit of morbid imagination. Inner stillness is the fruit and the crown of inner martyrdom, the martyrdom of the conscience.[15]

Like Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians, Saint Gregory Palamas makes a distinction between the fleshly wisdom[16] of the world ruled by the prince of darkness, and the wisdom of God, ‘the wisdom from above’, which is ‘peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy’.[17] The first is the wisdom of philosophers, of all the wise and prudent of this world. Whilst the wisdom of God is spiritual, and in order to acquire it, one does not need a great intellect, nor high education, but only discipleship to the Cross of Christ. True wisdom is acquired, when man cleanses the image of God that he bears within and acquires intimacy with Him, that is, when the Giver of knowledge makes His abode in his heart.  In order to show the pre-eminence of this wisdom, the Lord did not choose philosophers, but poor, simple and uneducated fishermen as His disciples.

Saint Gregory also speaks about two kingdoms. The first belongs to the prince of this world. The second, which is invisible, ‘is not of this world, not from hence’;[18] it is the blessed and all-good Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. When man comes to know that this world ‘lieth in wickedness’,[19] He becomes sober, vigilant, discerning. With the help of the commandments, he begins the struggle of discerning the Kingdom of God from the kingdom of the enemy, for the borderline between the two is not always clear.

The Kingdom of God is also present in this world, but in a mystical, spiritual way. It manifests itself only in pure vessels ‘sealed with the Spirit’,[20] made ready to accommodate it, vessels which, like unto the Holy Virgin, receive the gift of the Lord and seal it, not allowing even the slightest particle of this treasure to be lost. Christ Himself declared that, ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’[21] The Kingdom of God is concealed as a pearl of great price in the heart of man, if it is pure and sanctified.

A great gulf separates the Kingdom of the glory of God from the natural kingdom, and this gulf is bridged by the kingdom of grace. As a transitional state, the intermediate kingdom is a place of initiation, of learning how grace acts, how it is acquired and how it is preserved. It gradually renders the Christian fit for the Kingdom of glory, wherein he will be finally assimilated. Through the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance, the man who has not yet become a partaker of the Kingdom is transfigured and receives the seed of deification, the garment that will grant him entrance into the Bridechamber of the Lord.

After the fall, man belongs to ‘the people which sat in darkness; to them that dwell in the land of the shadow of death’.[22] His mind is blurred, stained, and his senses burdened because of his attachment to the visible world. His darkened intellect is in a state of lethargy and does not allow him to come to himself so as to behold the unapproachable Light.

In his Triads, Saint Gregory Palamas refers to the vision of the uncreated Light, which is given only to a few in every generation; to those who, hating even their own life, have surrendered themselves to merciless and inconsolable repentance, and who humble themselves until their soul cleaves unto the dust.[23] In this way, they become as pure as the sun, able to be penetrated by the Light of God, pierced through by the uncreated lightning of Divinity.

This Light is God Himself in the form of His energy and, according to Saint Symeon the New Theologian, His radiance heals every wound of the soul and transforms the psychological man into spiritual, rendering him able to ‘judge all things, though he himself is judged of no man’.[24] Impossible to be described by poor human words, this radiance is fulness of life.  It is called Light, not because it resembles the light of the physical sun, but because it bears an analogy with it and gives life to those it illumines.

For as long as the mind is separated from the heart, man is ill.  When, however, he finds his deep heart, he is healed and ‘set at liberty’,[25] even though he continues to move and live in this unstable world. The tragedy of contemporary man lies in that he lives outside of his heart, although often he is even an active member of the Church.  For this reason, the teaching of Saint Gregory about the union of mind and heart is particularly relevant for our times. The axis around which modern civilisation develops is comfort and avoidance of every kind of self-restraint.  It is perhaps for this reason that it is not easy for this generation to make spiritual progress.  The expression ‘mourning that brings gladness’ seems incomprehensible, since people nowadays reject every pain and particularly the life-giving pain of repentance.

The more man becomes ‘past feeling’[26] by shaking off every pain, the more the mind is darkened and fails to acquire spiritual sight. More often than not, the industrious man of our times is not preoccupied with his heart. He ignores the existence of the spiritual heart and thus he does not even attempt to discover its wondrous place, so as to enter within and become unassailable in temptations.

All gifts have come into the world first through the descent of the Son of God on earth and to the nether regions, and then through His ascent above all heavens.[27] In a way, the same things are also repeated in man. First, the mind is crucified by the wisdom of the Crucified God through obedience, the keeping of the commandments and the invocation of His Holy Name. Through the pain of crucifixion, the mind descends into the heart, first into the fleshly heart and then ‘into those depths that are no longer of the flesh.’[28] Then man unexpectedly discovers and meets the Saviour Lord and comes to know His invincible power. In this way, repentance and pain become precious in the striving to find the heart and become like unto Christ, Who is ‘suffering’ in this world, as we read in the Book of Acts.[29]

Just as in the beginning of creation the Spirit of God ‘moved upon the face of the waters’[30] and hatched the abyss of nothingness, from which this wondrous and manifold world suddenly appeared through the word of God, so also the Name of the Almighty Jesus moves over the chest of the Christian and ‘hatches’ his heart until he finds contact with the Holy of holies and discovers his deep heart, so precious to his Creator.

For the healing of the soul and the union of mind and heart, the Fathers recommend with particular emphasis spiritual mourning and tears, that is, the extreme pain of inconsolable mourning, brought about by the awareness of the distance which separates man from his Creator; the mourning of the man who ‘perishes with hunger’[31] far from the house of his Father and wallows in the mire of the passions, although he was created for the light and the abundance of the Kingdom.

When man is healed and his nature unified, power errupts from within him and he begins to experience ‘ascents in his heart’,[32] the reflections of the grace of God. Then ‘the true man goeth forth unto his work and to his true labour until the evening.’[33] Another sun rises in his heart, another morning star, and man becomes a true worker of godliness, knowing how to ‘perfect holiness in the fear of God’.[34] Then he renders unto God those things that He deserves, ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise’.[35]

This text will be published as a chapter in Archimandrite Zacharias’ next book Alive from the Dead.

[13] 1 Cor. 6:17.
[14] Cf. Gen. 2:15.
[15] See 2 Cor. 1:12.
[16] 2 Cor. 1:12.
[17] Cf. Jas. 3:17.
[18] John 18:36.
[19] 1 John 5:19.
[20] Eph. 1:13.
[21] Luke 17:21.
[22] Cf. Matt. 4:16; Isa. 9:2.
[23] Cf. Ps. 118:25.
[24] Cf. 1 Cor. 2:15.
[25] Cf. Luke 4:18.
[26] Cf. Eph. 4:19.
[27] Cf. Eph. 4:8-10.
[28] Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1991), p. 47.
[29] Acts 26:23.
[30] Cf. Gen.  1:2.
[31] Cf. Luke 15:17.
[32] Cf. Ps. 83:6 (LXX).
[33] Cf. Ps. 104:23.
[34] 2 Cor. 7:1.
[35] Phil.  4:8.