1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hesychasts

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HESYCHASTS (ἡσυχασταί or ἡσυχάζοντες, from ἥσυχος, quiet, also called ὀμφαλόψυχοι, Umbilicanimi, and sometimes referred to as Euchites, Massalians or Palamites), a quietistic sect which arose, during the later period of the Byzantine empire, among the monks of the Greek church, especially at Mount Athos, then at the height of its fame and influence under the reign of Andronicus the younger and the abbacy of Symeon. Owing to various adventitious circumstances the sect came into great prominence politically and ecclesiastically for a few years about the middle of the 14th century. Their opinion and practice will be best represented in the words of one of their early teachers (quoted by Gibbon, Decline and Fall, c. 63): “When thou art alone in thy cell shut thy door, and seat thyself in a corner; raise thy mind above all things vain and transitory; recline thy beard and chin on thy breast; turn thine eyes and thy thought towards the middle of thy belly, the region of the navel (ὀμφαλός); and search the place of the heart, the seat of the soul. At first all will be dark and comfortless; but if thou persevere day and night, thou wilt feel an ineffable joy; and no sooner has the soul discovered the place of the heart than it is involved in a mystic and ethereal light.” About the year 1337 this hesychasm, which is obviously related to certain well-known forms of Oriental mysticism, attracted the attention of the learned and versatile Barlaam, a Calabrian monk, who at that time held the office of abbot in the Basilian monastery of St Saviour’s in Constantinople, and who had visited the fraternities of Mount Athos on a tour of inspection. Amid much that he disapproved, what he specially took exception to as heretical and blasphemous was the doctrine entertained as to the nature of this divine light, the fruition of which was the supposed reward of hesychastic contemplation. It was maintained to be the pure and perfect essence of God Himself, that eternal light which had been manifested to the disciples on Mount Tabor at the transfiguration. This Barlaam held to be polytheistic, inasmuch as it postulated two eternal substances, a visible and an invisible God. On the hesychastic side the controversy was taken up by Gregory Palamas, afterwards archbishop of Thessalonica, who laboured to establish a distinction between eternal οὐσία and eternal ἐνέργεια. In 1341 the dispute came before a synod held at Constantinople and presided over by the emperor Andronicus; the assembly, influenced by the veneration in which the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius were held in the Eastern Church, overawed Barlaam, who recanted and returned to Calabria, afterwards becoming bishop of Hierace in the Latin communion. One of his friends, Gregory Acindynus, continued the controversy, and three other synods on the subject were held, at the second of which the Barlaamites gained a brief victory. But in 1351 under the presidency of the emperor John Cantacuzenus, the uncreated light of Mount Tabor was established as an article of faith for the Greeks, who ever since have been ready to recognize it as an additional ground of separation from the Roman Church. The contemporary historians Cantacuzenus and Nicephorus Gregoras deal very copiously with this subject, taking the Hesychast and Barlaamite sides respectively. It may be mentioned that in the time of Justinian the word hesychast was applied to monks in general simply as descriptive of the quiet and contemplative character of their pursuits.

See article “Hesychasten” in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (3rd ed., 1900), where further references are given.