A journey into the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Hesychia
Imagine a woman walking down a leafy Essex lane near an Orthodox monastery. A monk comes out of his caravan hermitage, and the woman sensing his presence turns around and lifts her arm to wave a greeting. The monk smiles and lifts his arm, but instead of waving places it on his heart and bows his head. The woman encountering a moment of prayer bows her head too, and then respecting his silence and solitude, turns around and continues her walk. The monk, Father Sophrony, was the abbot of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist – and the woman? I will leave you to guess.
When someone encounters spiritual stillness and silence in another, it can be nourishing and sometimes life changing. The ability to recognize it means that the person is already aware of this spiritual path, which in Orthodoxy is called Hesychasm (from the Greek hesychia meaning stillness). For me, the ground had been prepared by years of interest in Taoism and Buddhism. I had meditated with a Tibetan Buddhist group, but acknowledging my belief in a personal God had prevented me from taking Refuge.
The first steps towards a clearly defined Hesychast path were taken by 4th and 5th Century Christian monks and nuns who went to live a life of solitude, silence, simplicity and stillness in the Egyptian desert. Some lived in total solitude, but most would live in silence during the week and meet others on Saturday and Sunday to share in the celebration of the Liturgy, a communal meal and listening to words of guidance from their Elder. They would then return to their hermitage and, alongside manual work, would pray by repeating a short phrase such as ‘Lord have mercy’, often keeping vigil into the silence of the starry night. The life of solitary contemplative prayer has always been lived within liturgical life and community of the church.
My first steps into Christianity were made when I bought a small book by Thomas Merton called ‘Wisdom of the Desert Fathers’. With some help from others, I found my way to the Orthodox church where I experienced many practices that seemed familiar from my Buddhist experience. I learnt about sacrament, ritual, chanting, prostration, confession, fasting and feasting, and using a prayer-rope to practice the single-phrased, repetitive prayer called the Jesus Prayer.
The news of the practice of the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers spread northwards to Palestine and Greece and later to Europe and Russia. The tradition was preserved and developed in the monasteries, notably the monasteries of the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos in Greece and the forest hermitages of Russia. Pilgrims continue to travel to monasteries to learn about the Prayer of the Heart. Now we can also read important texts as they have been translated into English; books such as ‘The Philokalia’, ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’, ‘The Syriac Fathers on Prayer’, ‘The Letters of Barsanuphius and John’, and ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’. These teachings not only give advice about theology but also practical details such as posture while praying and how much food and sleep we should have. Although the teachings were written for monastics, the hesychast path can be followed by anyone; its not necessary to live in a remote hermitage. I also learnt from my Spiritual Father, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, who is a monk and theologian. He has said about monastic life on Mount Athos,
‘Stillness, silence….silence not just as an emptiness but as a Presence. Silence not just as the absence of speech, but as an attitude of listening….for the monk prayer is not just an activity among others, prayer is to be a dimension that enters into everything else you do. And the hope is that you will not be just a person who says prayers from time to time, but a person who is prayer all the time. So everything else that goes on in the monastery as well as the services is seen in relation to prayer.’
Prayer of the Heart
In the Orthodox tradition the heart is understood not simply as the physical organ, or the seat of the emotions, but as the spiritual centre of our being made in the image and likeness of God. It is our deepest and truest self and our inner shrine. Similarly, the intellect or nous is not understood as our faculty of reason which is called dianoia, but our highest faculty through which (provided it is purified) we can know God. In order to meet God deep within our being we first have to purify ourselves in order to allow the mind to descend into the heart. We try to purify ourselves through prayer, repentance and watchfulness….moving away from the disturbing noise of the vices and towards the peaceful silence of the virtues. There are many teachings about this ascetic path which begins with the body and moves inward to the intellect and soul. If, through the grace of God, our mind descends to the heart, our prayer will become self-activating; it is the Holy Spirit who prays within us. We not only encounter God but can become the image and likeness of God; we become our fullest potential – the person we were always meant to be. There is no longer any need for words or action, but rather the silence of listening and dwelling in God.
Spiritual Father or Mother
This journey towards union with God is full of danger, and just as we would be foolish to go out into an unknown land without a guide, so we would be foolish to attempt Prayer of the Heart without a guide. The work of purifying the passions involves facing long held destructive patterns which may involve passions whose source is in the subconscious. Some people experience misleading illusions and fantasies. The Orthodox believe in exterior evil forces that will attempt to prevent any movement towards God. Some people have told of physical attacks by these demons. We need a guide, an experienced Spiritual Father or Mother, who can help us discern what is happening; what to accept and what to ignore; when to act and when to remain still. We need a guide to help us follow the Middle Way which leads between extremes towards a state of dispassion beyond dichotomy.
Influence of Buddhism?
There is current academic speculation about early influence of Buddhism in Christianity. The Indian emperor Ashoka the Great (304-232BC) sent Buddhist missionaries to Greece, Egypt and Italy. During the life of Christ, Buddhist missionaries lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and historians believe that Egyptian 4th Century monasticism developed in a similar way to Buddhist monasticism of the same period. As well as many middle eastern merchants travelling to the far east, early Syriac Christian missionaries settled in India, while those of the Eastern church settled in China. Some academics think that there are Buddhist concepts within the Gospel of Saint John and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. I was struck by the similarity of stories about the asceticism of Buddha and Saint Anthony of Egypt. While practicing extreme asceticism Siddhartha realised the wisdom of the Middle Way by hearing a musician saying that if you tighten the string of an instrument too much it will snap, and if you leave it too slack it wont play. When Saint Anthony of Egypt was criticised for slackening his asceticism by relaxing with his disciples he said that if you tighten the string of a bow too tight it will snap and if it is too loose you can’t shoot an arrow.
Prayer for others
Is it selfish to concentrate on our own individual salvation? What about Christ’s second commandment to ‘love your neighbough as yourself’? Is there any equivalent of the Buddhist Bodhisattva vow? There are many teachings within the Hesychast tradition about the value of love above sacrifice or ascetic acts. The more our intellect becomes purified, the more we recognise the essence beyond the exterior and feel united to all. The more we feel united, the more we feel loving concern and responsibility. The most solitary hermit will hold the world in their prayer. There are many examples of people praying to saints whose prayer to God continues to generate healing long after their death. I have been told of some saints who wished, if it were God’s Will, that they would not enter Heaven until all others had been able to enter. One of my favourite sayings is that of the Russian hermit, Saint Seraphim of Sarov,
‘Gain peace in your heart and thousands will be saved.’
What happened to the woman walking down the leafy Essex lane? After nearly thirty years, some of which were spent visiting deserts and monasteries around the world, she finds herself settled as a solitary monastic on an island off the north coast of Britain. Saint Sunniva Skete, where I live, is on a small Shetland Isle of around fifty inhabitants. Unlike the Essex lane there are no trees in sight here, which is due more to de-forestation than severe winter gales. Although there has been quite a contrast in my exterior life, it is a blessing that little has changed in my interior life…it has just grown and matured a bit over the years.