Identity and Difference in the Spiritual Life: Hesychasts, Yogis, and Sufis

Despite theological differences, the psychosomatic prayer techniques of Hesychasts, yogis, and Sufis share many similarities.


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Identity and Difference in the Spiritual Life: Hesychasts, Yogis, and Sufis

Opposition and Dialogue

Such is the best approach: not to contrast formal systems of doctrine, taken in isolation, but to consider how doctrine is lived out in personal devotion and mystical experience. Once we adopt this “existential” approach, we shall quickly discover a remarkable fact. Opposition and dialogue can frequently coexist. Religious groups that diverge sharply in their doctrinal formulae often agree at many points in their spirituality. Confrontation on one level is combined on another level with openness and the willingness to borrow from each other. Outward hostility is mitigated by inner convergence.

Orthodox and Catholics in the Eighteenth Century

Thus, in a sweeping and comprehensive fashion, the 1755 Definition denied the presence of any sacramental grace among the non-Orthodox. Roman Catholics, on this view, lack valid baptism, and therefore a fortiori they possess no valid priesthood and no genuine eucharist. They are outside the Church.[3]

Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, in his classic collection of the church canons entitled Pidalion (“Rudder”), first published at Leipzig in 1800, adheres closely to the 1755 Definition, declaring that all Roman Catholics must be rebaptized. He is aware, however, that in the early Church rebaptism of heretics had not always been required, and that the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, prior to 1755, had received Roman Catholics through anointing with the Holy Chrism, without requiring a new baptism. This variation in practice he explains by invoking the double principle of “strictness” or “exactness” ( akriveia ) and “economy” ( oikonomia ) or pastoral flexibility. “Economy” means, in this context, that the rigorous application of the canons may be moderated, if this will assist the salvation of human persons.[4]

From the viewpoint of “strictness,” Nikodimos argues, non-Orthodox sacraments are null and void; and therefore, according to akriveia, converts to the Church require to be rebaptized. Sometimes, however, outward circumstances make it advisable to apply “economy” and to treat the baptism of non-Orthodox converts as valid. Prior to 1755, Nikodimos continues, the Church of Constantinople had applied to Latin baptism the principle of “economy”; for, because of the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox dared not offend the Papacy and the Western powers. But now “Divine providence has set a guardian over us”—Nikodimos means the Ottoman Empire—and so the Orthodox have no longer any need to fear the Pope.“Economy, therefore, should be set aside and its place taken by strictness and the Apostolic Canons.” [5] Here Nikodimos has in mind Apostolic Canon 46: “Any bishop, priest, or deacon who accepts the baptism or sacrifice [i.e.eucharist] of heretics we order to be deposed; for what agreement has Christ with Belial, or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?” [6] Thus Nikodimos reaches an uncompromising conclusion: “Latin baptism is baptism falsely so called, and for this reason cannot be accepted, either on the principle of strictness or on that of economy.” [7]

So speaks Nikodimos the canonist. But when, on the other hand, he was concerned with prayer and the spiritual life, he adopted a far more positive attitude towards the Latin West. Despite the fact that he considered the Roman Catholics to be unbaptized and altogether deprived of sacramental grace, he was yet willing to make their works of devotion available in Greek and to circulate them among the Orthodox faithful.[8] The best known of these translations is the work Unseen Warfare, based on the Combattimento Spirituale of Lorenzo Scupoli (c. 1530–1610), a member of the Roman Catholic Theatine Order (Nikodimos 1952). This work, which enjoyed great popularity in the West, is a classic expression of Counter-Reformation spirituality. The Greek version of Nikodimos was translated into Russian by St. Theophan the Recluse (1815–1894); and in both the Greek and the Slavic worlds the book has continued to be widely read up to the present day. Nikodimos and Theophan both made changes in Scupoli’s text, but alike in the Greek and in the Russian version it remains substantially Scupoli’s work.[9] Nikodimos nowhere claimed to be himself the author, but merely stated on the title page that it was “composed some time ago by a certain wise man.” [10] He was of course well aware that the “wise man” in question was Roman Catholic, not Orthodox, but he refrained from pointing this out to his Orthodox readers.

This was not the only adaptation of a Catholic work that Nikodimos undertook. More surprisingly—in view of the marked suspicion with which Greek Orthodox customarily view the Jesuits—he also edited a Greek translation of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), in the expanded version of Giampetro Pinamonti (1632–1703). Furthermore, Nikodimos’s widely respected book on confession, Exomologitarion, is for the most part a direct translation of two works by another Jesuit, Paolo Segneri the Elder (1624–1694), Il penitente istruito and Il confessore istruito. On the other hand, the well-known work On Continual Communion, first published in 1777, and then—with extensive revisions and additions by Nikodimos—reissued in 1783, does not seem to be based on any single Western prototype, although it makes heavy use of Roman Catholic sources.

Modern Orthodox spokesmen have been perplexed by this readiness on the part of Nikodimos to draw on Roman Catholic texts. Greek authors, honouring Nikodimos as a champion of pure and unadulterated Orthodoxy, have often denied all possibility of such borrowing; but the evidence of his debt to the West is in fact clear and convincing. Other Orthodox writers, while accepting the fact that he did indeed make use of Catholic works, have trenchantly censured him for this. Thus the French Orthodox scholar Archimandrite Lev Gillet (1893–1980), reviewing the English edition of Unseen Warfare, accuses Nikodimos and Theophan of “literary and spiritual piracy.” Dismissing their efforts to give an Orthodox colouring to Scupoli’s book, Fr. Lev complains, “Far from obtaining a harmonious fusion we are confronted, as I think, with a clumsy mixture. The thoroughly ascetical text of the Combat … had to suffer mutilations, interpolations, additions, in order to make place for the mystical methods of Mount Athos. The result is a building where different styles have been tastelessly mixed. The Combat and Nicodemus, each taken apart, are interesting.Put together they lose their originality.” [11] Not everyone would agree with this harsh verdict.Professor Hodges, for example, in his introduction to the English edition of Unseen Warfare, as revised by Nikodimos and Theophan, speaks of it as “a genuinely Orthodox work, a worthy modern companion to the Philokalia .” [12]

Why did Nikodimos draw as he did on Roman Catholic sources? Certainly this cannot have been due to any ignorance on his part of the riches of Greek patristic spirituality, of which he had in fact an unrivalled knowledge, as is evident from his editions of the Philokalia and the Evergetinos, and of such classic writers as Barsanouphios, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas. If, then, he chose to make use of material from the Counter-Reformation West, it was not because he had nothing else available. He must have done this because he felt that the Catholic works embodied something of distinctive value not to be found in the Orthodox sources.

What this element of distinctive value may have been, Nikodimos nowhere explained. Possibly he valued the acute psychological insight displayed by the western authors, along with their warmly affective tone. He may also have considered that the techniques of discursive, imaginative meditation set forth in particular by Ignatius Loyola would help those Orthodox who found the imageless, “apophatic” prayer recommended in the Philokalia to be largely beyond their capacity. Here, in view of Nikodimos’s silence, we can do no more than speculate.

One thing, however, remains clear. Despite the animosity felt by most Greek Orthodox towards Roman Catholicism in Nikodimos’s day—and despite the fact that, following the accepted view held by the Greek Orthodox authorities at that time, he believed Catholics to be outside the Church, unbaptized and deprived of sacramental grace—he was willing to make use of their devotional writings. This he could scarcely have done, had he believed these writings to be erroneous and harmful. In this way he provides a striking example of the “coincidence of contradictories.” He shows how conflict on the level of official doctrine and ecclesiastical politics does not necessarily exclude constructive openness and the discovery of common ground on the level of spirituality. Opposition and dialogue can indeed coexist.

Glorify God in Your Body

The terms “Hesychasm” and “Hesychast” are derived from the Greek word hesychia, meaning quietness, silence, and inner stillness.[13] In this way, Hesychasm signifies the quest for union with God through “apophatic” or “noniconic” prayer, that is to say, prayer that is free from images and discursive thinking. Such prayer, according to the Hesychasts, leads the initiate to a vision of Divine Light. From the fifth century onwards, one of the chief means for fostering such Hesychast meditation has been the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer, a short invocation said most commonly in the form “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” There are, however, many variations in the precise formula employed, and in modern practice the words “the sinner” are often added at the end.[14] By the late thirteenth century, if not before, the recitation of the Jesus Prayer had come to be accompanied by a specific bodily technique or psychosomatic method.[15]

Fundamental to this tradition of prayer is a sense of profound reverence for the Holy Name “Jesus.” [16] There is, it is believed, an integral connection between the name and the person named. To invoke the Son of God by name is to render Him directly and dynamically present. Thus the Holy Name is felt to act in a semi-sacramental way as a means of grace and a source of strength. Hesychasm has flourished chiefly in certain monastic centres, above all on the Holy Mountain of Athos, but it has never been limited exclusively to monks and nuns. It is in principle a universal path, accessible to all, whether living in the “desert” or in the “world.”

In the Orthodox Church, teaching concerning the Jesus Prayer, and more particularly concerning the bodily technique, has been transmitted for the most part by word of mouth through direct contact between the spiritual guide and the disciple. Displaying a deliberate reserve, Hesychast masters have tended to be reluctant to convey detailed instructions in written form, in case someone who lacks personal direction should misapply what they say. St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos (late fourteenth century) are expressing a typical caution when they state in their Directions to Hesychasts, “Since, however, I heard about these matters from a living voice, you too will hear about them in the same way at the right time.But now is not the right time.” [17] When, therefore, allusions in the sources to the physical method strike the modern reader as puzzling and incomplete, this imprecision is probably intentional. It was assumed that written instructions would be supplemented by oral teaching.

Cryptic references to some kind of bodily technique occur in Sinaite authors during the seventh to the ninth centuries, and also in the Coptic Makarian cycle dating from the same period.[18] But it is only in the later Byzantine era that the evidence becomes more explicit. Descriptions are provided by four writers in particular, whose works are all contained in the Philokalia, edited by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain:

  1. St. Nikiphoros the Hesychast, On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart (second half of the thirteenth century).
  2. The text attributed to St. Symeon the New Theologian (959–1022), entitled The Three Methods of Prayer, also known as The Method of Sacred Prayer and Attentiveness (probably dating likewise from the later thirteenth century; sometimes attributed to Nikiphoros, although this is open to question).
  3. The treatises of St. Gregory of Sinai (died 1346).
  4. St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesychasts, also known as Century (late fourteenth century).

The physical technique, as described in these four sources, involves three elements: first, a particular bodily posture (a crouching or foetal position, on a low stool); second, control of the breathing (coordination of the Jesus Prayer with the rhythm of the breathing); third, inner exploration (descent of the intellect [ nous ] into the heart [ kardia ]). In addition to this physical technique, a chaplet or prayer rope may be used with the Jesus Prayer. This is known in Greek as komvoschoinion, and in the Slavic languages as vervitsa or tchotki . It is similar to the Roman Catholic rosary, but not altogether identical. There is no mention of the prayer rope in the fourteenth-century sources, but it has been used in Orthodoxy since at least the seventeenth century, and probably from an earlier date. Let us consider more fully the three aspects of the physical technique.

(1) Bodily posture. “Sit down on a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself,” states Pseudo-Symeon.“Rest your beard on your chest, and focus your physical gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the centre of your belly or your navel.” [23] Gregory of Sinai is somewhat more precise: “Sit on a seat one span high,” that is, about nine inches in height. He warns the spiritual aspirant that the crouching position will quickly become uncomfortable: “Keeping your head forcibly bent downwards, [you will suffer] acute pain in your chest, shoulders and neck”; nevertheless, it is necessary to persevere (Nikodimos 1995:264).Sometimes a Biblical precedent is noted: Elijah, praying on Mount Carmel, “bowed himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees.” [24] Pseudo-Symeon’s reference to gazing upon the navel led the Hesychasts to be ridiculed as omphalopsychoi , “navel-psychics,” people who locate the soul in the navel. But more often the Hesychast texts speak of concentrating the gaze upon the place of the heart.

(2) Control of breathing. While not always precise or consistent with one another, the Hesychast sources envisage some kind of correlation between the tempo of the Jesus Prayer and the rhythm of the breathing. The basic point in their instructions is that the speed of our inhalation and exhalation is to be deliberately slowed down. “Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily,” writes Pseudo-Symeon.[25] Gregory of Sinai speaks in similar terms of the need to “restrain” or “hold back” our breath. The act of breathing out, he believes, produces a dissipation of our attentiveness, and so we should delay it as long as possible.“Restrain your breathing,” he insists, “so as not to breath unimpededly; for when you exhale, the air, rising from the heart, beclouds the intellect and ruffles your thinking, keeping the intellect away from the heart.” [26] At the same time, Gregory warns the Hesychast not to hold back his breath to an excessive degree, for such violence will prove injurious: “Excess in anything easily leads to conceit, and conceit induces self-delusion.Keep the intellect at rest by gently pressing your lips together when you pray, but do not impede your nasal breathing, as the ignorant do, in case you harm yourself by building up the pressure.” [27] In any case, Gregory considers that control of the breathing possesses only a limited value; what matters much more is to control our intellect.“Holding the breath,” he says, “also helps to stabilize the intellect, but only temporarily, for after a little while it lapses into distraction again.” [28]

Nikiphoros and Pseudo-Symeon envisage this control of breathing as a preliminary exercise that precedes the actual recitation of the Jesus Prayer.In Gregory of Sinai, however, it does not just precede but accompanies the prayer: “Restraining your breathing as much as possible and enclosing your intellect in your heart, invoke the Lord Jesus continuously and diligently.” [29] This is somewhat vague—perhaps on purpose—but it may mean that the Jesus Prayer is to be recited in its entirety as we hold our breath, that is to say, between breathing in and breathing out.That, at any rate, is the practice advocated by Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain in his Handbook of Spiritual Counsel : “Do not breathe continually as is natural to our nature, but hold your breath until your inner consciousness has a chance to say the Prayer once.” [30]

Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos likewise regard control of the breathing not as a preliminary exercise but as a direct accompaniment of the Jesus Prayer: “As you draw in your breath, introduce at the same time the words of the Prayer, uniting them in some way with your breathing.” [31] As with Gregory of Sinai, this is unclear. What do the Xanthopouloi mean by saying “in some way”? Possibly their intention is that the whole of the Jesus Prayer is to be said while breathing in; if so, to the best of my knowledge this is a technique not to be found elsewhere. But perhaps they intend that the first half of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” is to be said while breathing in, and the second half, “have mercy on me [the sinner],” is to be said while breathing out. This is in fact the practice recommended in the anonymous work from nineteenth-century Russia, The Way of a Pilgrim (also known as The Pilgrim’s Tale ).[32] Contemporary Orthodox teachers likewise propose this method. At the same time they insist that any more elaborate form of breathing control should only be attempted under the personal direction of an experienced spiritual guide.

In The Way of a Pilgrim it is suggested that the rhythm of the Jesus Prayer may be coordinated not only with the breathing but with the beating of the heart.
Form an image of your heart.… Direct your eyes toward it as though you were looking at it. Listen attentively with your mind to its beating and how it pounds, one beat after another.… When you have mastered this, begin to fit the words of the prayer to every beat of the heart, all the while looking at it. Thus, with the first beat, say or think “Lord”; with the second, “Jesus”; with the third, “Christ”; with the fourth, “have mercy”; and with the fifth, “on me.” Repeat this over and over again.[33]
A “heart-beat technique” of this kind cannot, however, be found in fourteenth-century Greek sources, and it is not recommended by contemporary Orthodox guides. Many of them, indeed, consider it to be dangerous. As Franny’s boyfriend Lane objects, in J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey , “All this synchronization business and mumbo-jumbo.You get heart trouble?” [34] But, while absent from Hesychasm, such a technique is used, as we shall see, by the Sufis.

(3) Inner exploration. In Pseudo-Symeon, control of the breathing is closely associated with an interior search for the place of the heart. In words already quoted, he says: “Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily”; and then immediately he continues: “and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside.” Initially the results will be disappointing: “To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density.” But if a person persists, he will discover, “as though miraculously, unceasing joy.” Entry into the heart leads to a vision of light: “For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous.” From this point onwards the spiritual aspirant will be able to pray with full attentiveness, at once expelling every distractive thought.[35] Here Pseudo-Symeon, in common with other patristic authors, pictures the heart not as a pump but as a receptacle or vessel containing “open space.”

Nikiphoros offers a more developed rationale of this inner exploration, placing emphasis on the passage of air through the lungs.
You know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, this is for the heart’s sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, so that by discharging some of its heat when the air is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature. The cause of this process or, rather, its agent, are the lungs. The Creator has made these capable of expanding and contracting, like bellows, so that they can easily draw in and expel their contents.
Nikiphoros continues by saying that, at the same time as our breath passes through our nostrils, down the lungs, and so into the heart, we are to make the intellect pass downwards together with our breath, so that we descend in this way from the head into the heart.
Seat yourself, then, concentrate your intellect, and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart.
At first this will prove difficult and even disagreeable; but, once the intellect has grown accustomed to dwell in the heart, it will be “filled with indescribable delight,” like a traveller long absent from his home, who returns at last to his wife and family.[36]

Gregory of Sinai and the Xanthopouloi also advocate the practice of inner exploration, but without going into details.

Nikiphoros recommends this technique of inner exploration as an aid to those who cannot find a spiritual father. Most Orthodox teachers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, express a directly opposite opinion: in their view, no one should attempt this inner exploration without personal guidance from an expert “elder” (Greek geronta ; Slavonic starets ). For this reason St. Theophan the Recluse, editor of the Dobrotolubiye —the Russian translation of the Philokalia —drastically abbreviates the descriptions of the bodily technique provided by Pseudo-Symeon and Nikiphoros. In a footnote Theophan explains: “Here St. Symeon [=Pseudo-Symeon] describes certain exterior methods which scandalize some and lead them to abandon all practice of the prayer, while in the case of others such methods bring about a distortion in their actual use of the prayer. Since, owing to the scarcity of instructors, these methods may lead to evil effects, while in themselves they are nothing more than external predispositions for inner work and have no essential value, we omit them.The essential thing is to acquire the habit of making the intellect stand on guard in the heart—in the physical heart, but not in a physical way.” [37]

It is not at once clear what Theophan has in mind when he speaks of dwelling “in the physical heart, but not in a physical way.” To appreciate his meaning, and also to understand what Orthodox writers intend when they refer to “finding the place of the heart,” “entering the heart,” or “descending with intellect ( nous ) into the heart,” it has to be remembered that for them the term “heart” ( kardia ) indicates in the first instance the physical heart, the bodily organ situated in the chest, but has also a broader symbolic sense.[38] In Greek Hesychast texts, as in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, the heart denotes the moral and spiritual centre of the total human person. It signifies, not primarily the emotions and affections, as in the modern usage of the word, but rather the focal point of our spiritual nature in its entirety. This double character of the heart, as a reality both physical and spiritual, is evident from the passages cited above: the heart is, on the physical level, “the source of life and warmth for the body” (Nikiphoros), but it is also spiritually “the place … where all the powers of the soul reside” (Pseudo-Symeon). The heart is thus the seat of thought, intelligence, and wisdom, the determinant of our moral action, the place where the voice of the conscience is heard. It is moreover the point of encounter between the human and the divine, the secret sanctuary where we experience divine grace and where we know ourselves as created in God’s image and likeness.[39]

St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), the chief theologian of Hesychasm, when defending the physical method, uses the term “heart” in precisely this all-embracing sense. He speaks of “that innermost body within the body that we term the heart,” and he calls it “the ruling organ, the throne of grace.” In this context he quotes the Homilies of Makarios (? late fourth century): “The heart rules over the whole bodily organism, and when grace takes possession of the pastures of the heart, it reigns over all our thoughts and members. For the intellect and all the thoughts of the soul are located there.” Developing this theme, Palamas continues:
Our heart is, therefore, the shrine of the intelligence and the chief intellectual organ of the body.When, therefore, we strive to scrutinize and to amend our intelligence through rigorous watchfulness, how could we do this if we did not collect our intellect, outwardly dispersed through the senses, and bring it back within ourselves—back to the heart itself, the shrine of the thoughts?” [40]
If we understand the heart in this comprehensive way, it is possible to “demythologize” the method described by Nikiphoros, dissociating it from the outdated physiology which it presupposes. When Hesychast texts speak of “finding the place of the heart” and the like, they do indeed mean in the first instance that we are to concentrate our attention upon the region of the physical heart. But, since the heart is at the same time the spiritual centre of the total human being, through this concentration upon our physical heart we are enabled to enter into relationship with our deep self and so to discover the true dimensions of our personhood in God. To make the intellect “descend from the head into the heart” is to achieve integration, to realize oneself as a unified whole formed in the divine image. The outer concentration upon the movement of the breath through the nostrils and down the lungs is signum efficax , an effective sign, symbolizing and actualizing our inner journey from dispersal to single-pointedness, from fragmentation to unity in Christ.

The psychosomatic technique of the Hesychasts, especially in the account given by Nikiphoros, has often been criticized as crude and unsophisticated. Irénée Hausherr even dismisses it as a “ déformation ,” due to “ l’humaine bêtise .” [41] Yet in its defence it may be said that the physical method embodies a principle of the utmost importance: the body constitutes an essential element in our human personhood, and therefore it can and should play an active part in the working-out of our meditation and contemplative prayer. I do not merely “have” a body, but I am my body and my body is me, viewed from a particular point of view. The spiritual life, then, is not simply an affair of the soul, while the body is regarded as, at best, a passive lump of matter to be ignored so far as possible, and at worst as an active impediment. To repudiate the body in this way is directly to contradict the Biblical view, as expressed notably by St. Paul. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” he affirms.“Glorify God in your body”; “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” [42] Paul makes a careful distinction between “flesh” ( sarx ) and “body” ( soma ). “Flesh” denotes not our physicality but the total human person, in a fallen and sinful state. As Fr.Sergii Bulgakov (1871–1944) used to say, “Kill the flesh so as to acquire a body.” [43] Palamas rightly points out that what Paul condemns is not the body in itself but “the body of this death,” [44] that is to say our body in its present sinful condition, alienated from God and subject to the dominion of death. It is the great merit of the psychosomatic technique that it endeavours to apply the holistic anthropology of Paul in a practical manner, assigning to the body a positive role in the spiritual journey.

Palamas sums up the rationale of the psychosomatic technique by saying “After the Fall, our inner being naturally adapts itself to outward forms.” [45] Between our bodily organism and our inner activities there exists what Jacques-Albert Cuttat styles an “analogy-participation.” The physical and the psychic are joined together by an “organic connection” or “exact correspondence,” by an “inner continuity,” and it is this connection or continuity that the Hesychast method seeks to develop and exploit.[46] Every alteration in our physical condition affects our psychic state, and conversely each change in our psychic state has physical consequences. When we grow angry, the rhythm of our breathing accelerates; when we are engaged in deep reflection, it slows down. The Hesychast method is simply an application of this obvious interrelation. Anyone who closes his eyes when praying, who raises his hands to heaven, who kneels or makes prostrations, has already admitted the basic axiom determining the physical technique of the Hesychasts.

While Palamas in this way defended the legitimacy of the Hesychast method, as expressing a unitary and holistic view of human nature, neither he nor any of the other leading Hesychasts treated it as the essence of the Jesus Prayer. On the contrary, it was for them no more than an “exterior method,” to use Theophan’s phrase, an optional accessory, useful to some but in no sense obligatory upon all. Palamas suggested that it is chiefly suitable for “beginners,” whereas the more advanced can dispense with such exercises.[47] He and his colleagues in the Hesychast movement believed that the Jesus Prayer can be practised in its full integrity, simply through the invocation of the Holy Name accompanied by fervent faith, without the employment of any physical method at all. The only essential “technique” is love and obedience.

Byzantine Yogis?

The Polish steward has a point. There are indeed parallels between Hesychasm and non-Christian methods of meditation. He thinks that the Hesychasts have borrowed from yoga and Sufism, while the Pilgrim believes that the borrowing has been the other way round. Of course it is also possible that there has been no direct influence, for the same idea might arise independently in separated religious groups. The practice of maintaining inner recollection, for example, through the repetition of a short formula such as the Jesus Prayer or any other, is something natural and even obvious, that might easily occur in an unrelated way within different traditions. The same is true of the further practice of linking this repetition with the rhythm of the breathing. Is the resemblance between the Hesychasts, on the one side, and yogis and Sufis on the other, in fact so close that some kind of direct interaction becomes highly probable?

As regards the Hindu world, the yogis, in common with the Hesychasts, employ habitually a short formula of invocation or mantra , often using a chaplet. Their aim is samadhi (stillness, hesychia ), and they may experience a vision of light. The need for an experienced guide or guru is emphasized, as in Hesychasm. More specifically, we find in yoga, as among the fourteenth-century Hesychasts:

  1. The recommendation of specific bodily postures (āsanas).
  2. Control of the respiration (prāṇāyāma): the breathing is to be slowed down; the adept is told to breathe quietly through the nose, and in general to restrain his breath.
  3. Concentration of the attention upon particular psychosomatic centres (chakras).

Yet, if there are evident similarities, there are also differences. The Hesychast sits with head bowed and chin resting on his chest; in the “lotus” position of yoga the back is upright, although there may be other postures in yoga that involve a crouching position. The breathing exercises in yoga are far more complex and elaborate than anything suggested in the Byzantine tradition; the Hesychast method corresponds only to the first and simplest exercises in yoga. Furthermore, in yoga the inner exploration is extended to regions below the heart, but in Hesychast teaching this is forbidden. In yoga, there is not only a movement of descent but also a corresponding movement of ascent from the kundalini centre up the vertebral column to the chakra in the forehead between the two eyes (the “third eye”), and then to the supreme chakra at the top of the head. There is no equivalent to this in the psychosomatic symbolism of the Hesychasts. Having once descended into the place of the heart, the Hesychast seeks to remain there and does not reascend. Most important of all, the Jesus Prayer is specifically an invocation addressed to Christ as incarnate God. In yoga, on the other hand, we do not find the idea of an encounter with a transcendent, personal God. Yoga is a technique for concentration, not a conversation face-to-face with another person.

Taking all this into account, Abbé Jules Monchanin concludes, “Direct borrowing is unlikely.” [49] If there has been any direct borrowing, then it must be the Hesychasts who have borrowed from yoga, not vice versa, for the Indian practices date back to the pre-Christian era, long before the emergence of Hesychasm. It is also possible that, while there was no direct influence, a knowledge of Indian yoga was transmitted through the intermediary of the Sufis. Yet, even if the parallels between yoga and Hesychasm are due to independent convergence, they are nonetheless not without interest. In both the Indian and the Byzantine teaching, it is clearly affirmed that there is indeed an “analogy-participation” between the physical and the psychic levels, such that the body can and should play a positive part in meditation and prayer.

When we turn from yoga to Sufism, we are on firmer ground. Here some kind of immediate interaction does indeed seem probable. Islam shares far more with Christianity than does Hinduism. Muslims and Christians are “People of the Book,” with common roots in the Old Testament. Both believe in a single God, transcendent and personal: in Islam, exclusively one; in Christianity, one in three. When a Sufi practises dhikr —the memory and repeated invocation of the Name of God, “Allah”—he is addressing a particular person in prayer, just as the Christian is doing through the Jesus Prayer, in a way that is not necessarily the case when a yogi repeats a mantra . Moreover, in their doctrine of the human person, and above all in their understanding of the heart, Hesychasts and Sufis are in close agreement.

It is against this common background that the more particular similarities and differences between the Jesus Prayer and dhikr are to be assessed. Dhikr is often performed collectively, whereas the Jesus Prayer is normally recited by the Hesychast alone in the seclusion of his cell. (An exception here is to be found in the Orthodox Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex, where the Jesus Prayer is said communally in church, for two hours each morning and for another two hours each evening.) But otherwise Hesychasm and Sufism share many features. In dhikr , as with the Jesus Prayer, guidance from an experienced master is considered highly desirable, if not essential. A chaplet may be used. The practice of dhikr involves the same three features already noted in the bodily method of Hesychasts:

  1. Specific bodily postures are recommended, including the resting of the head upon the chest, and sometimes the placing of the head between the knees. But in dhikr, as in yoga, the postures are often highly elaborate, far more than is the case in Hesychasm.
  2. In dhikr the initiate practises breathing control, coordinating the invocation of the Name with the movement of the respiration. Once more, the exercises employed by the Sufis are more complex than anything found in Hesychasm. At a more advanced stage, the Sufi may synchronize the invocation with the beating of the heart. This is something mentioned, as we have seen, in The Way of a Pilgrim, but not found in Byzantine Hesychast sources.
  3. The Sufi is taught to take note of the movement of the prayer from the lips, by way of the breathing, down to the heart, this last being understood, as in Hesychasm, to signify the spiritual centre of the total person. Here, due to shared Biblical roots, dhikr is far closer to Hesychast anthropology than is the case with yoga.

Weighty though these points of similarity undoubtedly are, research into the origins of the two traditions has not yet disclosed exactly how mutual influence may have been exercised. We do not know at what date and in what places the two sides came first into contact, nor which side was influencing the other. Perhaps the Arab and Persian Sufis, drawing on yoga, transmitted the Indian observances to the Greek Orthodox world. On the other hand, the Sufis may have been influenced by Byzantine texts or teachers. The writings of the Syriac Father St. Isaac of Nineveh (died c. 700), for example, were studied by ascetic and mystical groups in early Islam. Even though Isaac himself says nothing about the invocation of the name of Jesus or about breathing techniques in prayer, may there not have been other Christian ascetics who spoke of these things to the Muslim Arabs? As mentioned above, Coptic sources dating from the seventh and eighth centuries link the invocation of Jesus to the breathing: may not these texts have been known in Muslim circles? Unfortunately, in all this we can do no more than guess; firm evidence is lacking.

It is, however, beyond question that there existed many possibilities for mutual contact. The Byzantines were often at war with the Arabs and the Turks, but there were also opportunities for friendly relations. Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, for instance, might sometimes have talked with Muslims about their respective ways of prayer. It is interesting to note that in 1354 the Hesychast theologian Gregory Palamas, on his way from Thessalonica to Constantinople, was captured by the Turks and remained for one year in custody before he could be ransomed. During this time he had conversations, in a courteous and reasonably constructive spirit, with local Muslim religious leaders. It is at least possible that they spoke to each other about the Sufi use of dhikr , even though the surviving records say nothing of this.[50]

Hesychasm and Sufism have in fact evolved in opposite directions during the recent past. Over the last 150 years Russian Orthodox teachers such as St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatii Brianchaninov (1807–1867) have minimised the role of the bodily techniques, and even discouraged their use altogether.[51] On the other hand, in Muslim confraternities during the twentieth century the physical exercises have been greatly emphasized. Muslim masters, however, agree with their Orthodox counterparts that there can be no external techniques leading automatically to union with God. For both traditions, the essence of the spiritual way consists not in physical exercises but in the inner attentiveness of the heart. For both, union with God is entirely a free gift of grace.

At this point, however, despite all the similarities between Hesychasm and dhikr , we are confronted with a definite divergence. In both traditions, as we have just said, what matters is not bodily techniques but the encounter with God. Yet is this personal encounter the same in Hesychasm and in Sufism? One who prays the Jesus Prayer is not simply invoking God, but he or she is specifically addressing Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. A religion such as Islam, which rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and the Godhead of Jesus Christ, cannot be invoking the deity in the same way as Hesychasm does. The Jesus Prayer is not just one among a number of possible mantras , but it is an explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour.

The decisive criterion, that is to say, is not just outer technique but inner content, not just how we pray but to whom. Most pictures have frames, and all picture frames have features in common. What matters is not the frames but the portraits within the frames; and the latter may be altogether diverse. Physical techniques are no more than a frame for our prayer; it is the One invoked who is the portrait. Despite the striking resemblances between the frame of the Hesychast Jesus Prayer and the frame in Sufi dhikr , full weight needs to be given to the uniqueness, from a Christian standpoint, of the portrait within the frame.

Notwithstanding this important reservation, it still remains true that there is a remarkable affinity between Hesychasm and Sufism, and likewise, albeit to a lesser degree, between Hesychasm and yoga. Divergence in theology is counterbalanced by convergence in spirituality. Dialogue does indeed coexist with opposition.“How necessary it is for me,” says Nicholas of Cusa, “to enter into the darkness and to admit the coincidence of opposites.… This is the wall of Paradise, and it is there in Paradise that You, O God, reside.” [52] Though spoken in a different context, his words have a definite relevance to our present theme. Hesychasm, yoga, and Sufism are not exactly “opposites,” but they are certainly distinct and in their formal expression of doctrine at variance with one another; yet there is between them a genuine “coincidence,” not indeed complete, yet certainly far-reaching. What all three share is not only a recognition of the value of the body in prayer and contemplation, but also a detailed concurrence about the way in which we may in practice glorify God in and with our body.


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———. 1956. “L’hésychasme. Étude de spiritualité.” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 22:5–40, 247–285. Reprinted in Hausherr 1966:163–237.

———. 1960. “Noms du Christ et voies d’oraison.” Orientalia Christiana Analecta 157. Rome. Trans. C. Cummings, 1978. “The Name of Jesus.” Cistercian Studies Series 44. Kalamazoo, MI.

———. 1966. “Hésychasme et prière.” Orientalia Christiana Analecta 176. Rome.

Hodges, H. A. 1952. “Introduction.” In Nikodimos 1952:13–67.

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———. 1959b. “Introduction à l’étude de Grégoire Palamas.” Patristica Sorbonensia 3. Paris. Trans. G. Lawrence, 1964. A Study of Gregory Palamas. Leighton Buzzard, UK.

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———. 1995. A Fourteenth-Century Manual of Hesychast Prayer : The Century of St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos. Canadian Institute of Balkan Studies. Toronto.

———. 1999. “Prayer in Evagrius of Pontus and the Macarian Homilies.” In Waller and Ward 1999:14–31.

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Note 3
As regards the reception of converts, there was at this time a curious discrepancy in practice between Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. In the early seventeenth century the Russian Church rebaptized Roman Catholics, but in 1666–1667 it stopped doing so, under Greek pressure, and only required converts to be received through anointing with the Holy Chrism. Then from 1757, at the very time when the Greeks had begun to practise rebaptism, the Russian Church ceased to use even chrismation at the reception of Roman Catholics, and admitted them simply through profession of faith and absolution. This marked divergence between the Churches of Constantinople and Russia does not seem to have greatly disturbed either party: such was the mutual isolation in which the various Orthodox Churches existed at that time (and more recently). In the second half of the nineteenth century the Greeks began to suspend the application of the 1755 Definition, and in 1888 the Holy Synod at Constantinople laid down as a general rule that in future the rebaptism of converts should no longer be required: “Let economy be used” (see Ware 1964:101, 106). Rebaptism of converts, however, is still sometimes practised today, in particular on the Holy Mountain of Athos.

Note 4
On the different, and often conflicting, ways in which “economy” is understood, see Thomson 1965; Psarev 2007.

Note 5
Agapios and Nikodimos 1864:56–57; Agapius and Nicodemus 1957:73-74. I have made my own translation from the Greek. Although the name of Agapios appears on the title page of the Pidalion, the editor of the book is in fact exclusively Nikodimos: see Marnellos 2002:69–70.

Note 6
Ioannou 1962:31. Cf. 2 Corinthians 6:15. The Apostolic Canons, Syrian in provenance, date from the late fourth century.

Note 7
Agapios and Nikodimos 1864:55; Agapius and Nicodemus 1957:72. It should be noted that many Orthodox canonists today disagree with the way in which Nikodimos applies the principle of “economy” to the reception of converts: see Erickson 1991:115–132.

Note 8
On the use made by Nikodimos of spiritual works by Roman Catholics, see Viller 1924; Citterio 1987:112–136; Bobrinskoy 1989; Citterio 2002:943–955. It was once thought that Nikodimos had himself translated the works in question, but doubts have now been expressed about his knowledge of Italian; he may have used existing translations made by Emmanuel Romanitis of Patmos. See Phrangiskos 2001.

Note 9
On the changes made by Nikodimos and Theophan, see Hodges 1952:47–56, 60–67.

Note 10
The title page of the first edition of Unseen Warfare (Venice, 1796) is reproduced in Ladas and Chatzidimou 1973:16.

Note 11
Gillet 1952:586.

Note 12
Hodges 1952:67.

Note 13
See Hausherr 1956; Ware 2000:89–110.

Note 14
See Hausherr 1960; Ware 2003; Alfeyev 2007.

Note 15
On the physical technique of the Hesychasts and its non-Christian parallels, see Hausherr 1927; Gardet 1952; Cuttat 1960:85–159; Monchanin 1975; Ware 1992.

Note 16
Cf. John 16:23–24; Acts 4:10–12; Philippians 2:10.

Note 17
Century ( Directions to Hesychasts ) 63. The English translation (Nikodimos 1951:234) omits this sentence.

Note 18
See Ware 1992:9–10.

Note 23
Nikodimos 1995:72.

Note 24
1 Kings 18:42. For an illustration of this, see MS Vaticanus Graecus 1754, in Ware 1992:11.

Note 25
Nikodimos 1995:72.

Note 26
Nikodimos 1995:264.

Note 27
Nikodimos 1995:285.

Note 28
Nikodimos 1995:277.

Note 29
Nikodimos 1995:264.

Note 30
Nikodimos 1989:60.

Note 31
Nikodimos 1951:196; translation altered.

Note 32
Pentkovsky 1999:126.

Note 33
Pentkovsky 1999:126.

Note 34
Salinger 1964:36.

Note 35
Nikodimos 1995:72–73.

Note 36
Nikodimos 1995:205.

Note 37
Nikodimos 1951:158n33 (translation modified). Cf. Ware 1992:22–24.

Note 38
On the meaning of the terms nous and kardia , see Ware 1999:16–22.

Note 39
Genesis 1:26–27.

Note 40
Gregory Palamas, Triads 1.2.3, quoting Makarios, Homilies 15.20. In Meyendorff 1959a:80–81.

Note 41
Hausherr 1927:142, 146.

Note 42
1 Corinthians 6:19–20 and Romans 12:1, respectively.

Note 43
Quoted by Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), in Allchin 1967:41. I have modified the translation.

Note 44
Triads 1.2.1: in Meyendorff 1959a:76–77. Palamas, referring to Romans 7:24, actually says “this death of the body.”

Note 45
Triads 1.2.8: in Meyendorff 1959a:90–91.

Note 46
Cuttat 1960:92–93.

Note 47
Triads 1.2.7: in Meyendorff 1959a:86–89. Cf. Ware 1992:21.

Note 49
Monchanin 1975:85–92.

Note 50
See Meyendorff 1959b:157–62; Philippidis-Braat 1979; Sahas 1980.

Note 51
See Ware 1992:22–24.

Note 52
The Vision of God X (36–37): in Nicholas of Cusa 1997:252–252 (translation altered).