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Hesychastic Controversy also known as “Hesychasm, Palamism” Alexopoulos, Lampros


The hesychast controversy which lasted for some two decades started as a theological dispute but evolved into a political matter, relating to the strife between the contenders of the Byzantine throne. Hesychasm was a method of monastic prayer and contemplation practiced in quietude, in “hesychia” in Greek, and thus the name hesychasm. The term designates the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. The term “Hesychasm” was originally used in the 4th century to denote any kind of hermit or anchorite monk. Evagrius Ponticus or Evagrius the Solitary (345-399 AD), a disciple of Basil of Caesarea, was the first to systematize the various contemplative practices into a unified system of prayer. He explained what the act of praying is, and what its effect is on the individual. The goal of monasticism was not to proclaim the Kingdom of God through a particular kind of material existence but to attain the total disembodiment of the mind through prayer. Proper activity of the mind is to detach itself from the body so it can be united to God. Ps. Macarius (a conventional designation of the anonymous author of works falsely attributed to Macarius of Egypt, 300-391 AD) made Evagrius’s ideas more compatible with Orthodox teaching. He shifted the focus of contemplative prayer away from the mind and its detachment from the body and located the Incarnation as the focal point for contemplative prayer. According to Ps. Macarius, the presence of the incarnated God meant that God had become accessible through physical reality. By attaining what Ps. Macarius called “purity of heart,” one can enter into the eschatological reality of Christ’s presence in our mind, body, and spirit. This mystical method was centered around unceasing prayer that opened the monk to the way Christ was present in him. The monastic practices in question became a crucial subject of debate following the reaction towards the teachings of Barlaam of Calabria, or Barlaam of Seminara, who attacked them. Barlaam (1290-1348) was an Orthodox monk on Mount Athos. He was educated in the West, and he was a supporter of humanistic renaissance thinking. He was a faithful proponent of Orthodoxy. In the early 1330s, Barlaam met the monks of Mount Athos and doubted about their hesychastic method of prayer. The monks he met were poorly educated-if not completely illiterate and therefore unable to answer his questions about their practices. After this encounter, Barlaam insistent that their use of the human body in prayer and their direct experience of God was misguided and heretical. He wrote treatises condemning their practices, mocking the bodily positions involved during Hesychastic prayer. He rejected their claim to bodily awareness of the divine presence and their visions of the un-created light. He was concerned that these visions, if they were occurring, were not affecting the monks in ways he thought they should. The reaction to Barlaam’s opinions was headed mainly by the monk – and later bishop of Thessaloniki – Gregory Palamas (1296-1357/9), who became the main representative of hesychasm and the leader of the hesychast party. In 1341 Andronikos III Palaiologos summoned a Council which didn’t reach a conclusion. Following the emperor’s death, a civil war broke out between John Kantakouzinos and the supporters of the underage heir John V, concerning his succession. Kantakouzenos supported Palamas but so did his opponents, Alexios Apokaukos and Anna of Savoy. The aristocrats supported Palamas largely due to their conservative and anti-Western tendencies as well as their links to the Orthodox monasteries. It was not until the triumph of Kantakouzenos in taking Constantinople in 1347 that the Palamists were able to achieve a lasting victory over the anti-Palamists. The Council of 1351, summoned by the usurper John VI Kantakouzinos (reg. 1347–1354), recognised hesychasm as an official doctrine of the Orthodox Church, remaining thus until today.

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