Hesychasm: Contemplative Christianity


Fiercely Interdependent
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In a farmhouse, on a farm. With goats.
I've been reading Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade; in this book there is mention of a contemplative or "mystical" sect of Christianity called Hesychasm. Basically, this was an order of Christian monks who secluded themselves either on a mountain or in the desert and practiced something akin to pranayama (stilling of restless mind through the extreme breath control, the objective of which is samadhi, or the expansion of consciosness into infinity) while repeating the "Jesus Prayer:" "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." From a comparative religion standpoint, it is very similar to mantra meditation--these monks would sit in a certain, rigid posture while repeating their prayer and doing the breath practices.

I had never heard of this particular group and find it very interesting. Anyone know more about it?

Here are some links to info I found:

http://www.geocities.com/evangelical_orthodox/Hesychasm.html <--This one looks particularly interesting as it is from a modern Catholic perspective; apparently there is some controversy about Hesychasm. I haven't read this in-depth yet, but the sense I get is that they are sometimes seen as heretics because of their practices. ::shrug:: On the other hand, the fordham.edu link ties them closely to the Orthodox Catholic church.

i don't know if i'd call it "controversial". it's just not catholic! hesychasm is a perspective/technique/doctrine developed by mystics of the [eastern/greek/russian] orthodox church. it's their *approach* to mysticism, not a group per se.


Monks' and nuns' tales

I did one semester of Catholic spirituality in college.

Every Christian is called to evangelical perfection by the imitation of Christ through the observance of the three counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience, in accordance with the life status one has chosen.

The first choice is marriage or celibacy.

In celibacy there is further the choice between the clerical life or the religious life, or a combination of both clerical and religious. Example of religious life is that led by members of a society like the Franciscans, the Dominican, the Jesuits.

Among those embracing the religious life there are several levels of excellence, depending upon how far you keep away from fellow men and the secular world and the needs of the flesh.

Thus monks and nuns are the most excellent among members living in a religious community, because they distance themselves from fellow men and the mundane cares of life. An aside:

What do monks do the whole day in the monastery? Monkey business.

What do nuns talk about the whole day in the nunnery? Nonsense.

Among monks there are several kinds, each higher level getting to be more and more abstemious as regards the human needs for fellow human companionship and the use of one’s human faculties.

Trappist monks I remember take a vow not to use their faculty of speech, i.e., the normal one of lips and tongue. But observers tell us that they can conduct interminable conversations with sign language, which is how they communicate. Yes, they do use their lips and tongue in chanting and in singing the divine praise, which occupy many of their hours everyday.

These monks are called Trappists not because they have trapped themselves but, if I remember correctly, because their first community was established in a place in France with the name of La Trappe. (Now, what does that name mean…)

The Carthusians are even more austere than the Trappists, they don’t even have any contacts with humans from the outside world. Trappists still produce good wines and also baked products which they sell to the outside world. And they run retreat seminars for outsiders. Carthusians, they don’t do nothing involving any contact whatever with the outside world.

There are also other groups which you might never hear of unless you take a course in Catholic spirituality where you are introduced to the ascetical and mystical vocations in the Catholic Church.

Mystical life, that’s where contemplation comes in. Ascetical life, that’s the preparatory phase to the mystical life. Asceticism consists in a lot of deprivations, doing without the needs of the flesh, like food and sleep.

That’s why when I read about meditation practices and soul quests of Hindus and Buddhists from the Far East, I am reminded of what I learned in Catholic spirituality.

Catholic ascetics and mystics seem to have also experimented and dabbled in all manners of ways and means to squeeze the spirit out of their bodies, in order to merge with the transcendental Ultimate.

Sometimes they really go bizarre and the Vatican has to step in and knock some sense into their heads. The only mantra they are allowed are ejaculations* like “Jesus, mercy”, or “Mary, pray for us”, or the longer one of reciting the Rosary.

If you ask me, I think it is very possible to arrive at what they are striving after by a systematic methodology of thinking logically and rationally, without all those semantic acrobatics of asceticism and mysticism to arrive at contemplation and end up with ecstasy.

Susma Rio Sep

*Ejaculations -- Short invocations or prayers, like throwing spears of pleas for help, toward heaven, addressed to God or His saints.
Read,"The Way of the Pilgrim" you probably new that or Padre Pio a very intresting catholic mystic.St. Anthony of Padua also falls in the same catagory.Any Stigmata, my dad met a woman in Germany before going to Korea who bore the wounds of Christ I cant remember her name she had a great impact on his life.
Circus and real service

SJR writes:

Read,"The Way of the Pilgrim" you probably new that or Padre Pio a very intresting catholic mystic.St. Anthony of Padua also falls in the same catagory.Any Stigmata, my dad met a woman in Germany before going to Korea who bore the wounds of Christ I cant remember her name she had a great impact on his life.

Stigmata and wounds are all very good for wonderment, essentially amusement stuffs.

What I like to see people favored by God to be signs of His goodness and vouchers of Christ's salvation work, is that they do some genuine service to the poor and disenfranchised of the world. Education is a very relevant ministry among these people. Start with training for personal hygiene and community sanitation.

I used to have a great admiration for Mother Teresa of Calcuta, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. She and her confreres take care of the rejects of humanity: abandoned aged sickly men and women, unwanted children, the diseased poor living in squalor.

But in more recent times I have become disillusioned with her; because she collected so much money but her asylums for the dregs of society are very abjectly maintained and operated -- as though she was just keeping these people alive long enough to get them ready to enter heaven.

Does anyone know of any serious accounting by good accountant establishments of all the funds she collected from very well-meaning peoples, even non-Catholics?

Susma Rio Sep
Thanks for the replies, everyone. Susma, your post about Catholic monks and nuns is informative. I knew about Trappist monks, but was not familiar with Carthusians before I read your post. As for stigmata, I tend to agree with you about that; certainly service would be a better indicator of a person's Godliness or Christ-likeness.

I don't know about mother Teresa, though. I know the journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote some nasty things about her, for some reason, so you might try to look that up. That's getting away from the gist of this thread though, which was intended to be about Hesychasm. I do think a thread on Mother Teresa pros and cons would be interesting... perhaps you could start one? :)