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The fall of Constantinople in 1452/3 was preceded by the Council of Florence-Ferrara when the Eastern Church - desperate for Western support against the Muslim advance - came near to accepting the authority of the papacy. That in turn was preceded by a major politico-theological controversy - the 'hesychast' controversy - within Constantinople. I believe this - the formal adoption of hesychasm - is the moment when the fundamental difference in character between the two traditions - despite all that they have in common and beyond the proximate causes of their quarrelling - begins to emerge clearly. (13)

(13)  A standard English language account is John Meyendorff: A Study of Gregory Palamas, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980. Meyendorff has also produced a more popular account in St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir's Seminary Press,1998. Meyendorff's understanding is sharply criticised by John Romanides in 'Notes on the Palamite Controversy and related topics', The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Volume VI, Number 2, Winter, 1960-61. Accessible at

The hesychasts were a tendency which developed among monks on Mount Athos, though on the basis of a practise that was continuous since the earliest days of the Church. The word 'hesychasm' is based on the Greek 'hesychia' meaning 'silence' or 'stillness'. The hesychasts believed that it was possible in this present life to achieve 'deification' - the union of God and man - that this was the purpose of the ascetic life (the Greek word 'askesis' means 'exercise' and can refer to the exercises of athletes - or of people learning Greek) and that only the deified Saints have authority to pronounce on theological matters - 'If you are a theologian you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian' to quote Evagrius the Solitary (On Prayer §61). 

Theology, then, is a matter of experience, not of intellectual/philosophical speculation. The Saints are men and women who have achieved the union of God and Man - made possible through the union of God and Man in Jesus - and this is symbolised by the halo. Through the veneration of the saints, through a very much lighter participation in their ascetic life (there are around 200 fast - meaning for most people simply vegan - days in the year), through participation in the life of the Church, above all, of course, communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, the faithful constitute one body with the Saints and therefore share to a lesser degree in their union with God. It is this union with God that is eternal life. Everything is destined to finish in union with God - 'that God may be all in all' (1. Cor 15:28) but those who are ill-prepared for it, who still live under the power of the various earthly passions, will experience that Glory, that Light, as Fire. (14)

(14)  See e.g. Alexander Kalomiros: The River of Fire. The text can be found in the 'Politics and Theology' section of my website,  A similar argument - that Hell is an inability to assume the glory of Heaven - is developed rather prettily in C.S. Lewis's book The Great Divorce

The opposition to the hesychasts in Constantinople came from a more intellectual, more philosophically minded tendency which argued that such direct union with God was impossible in this life, that God was essentially beyond human experience. The conflict had a political dimension, the dynastic conflict between John VI Cantacuzenus, who supported the hesychasts and John V Palaeologus who opposed them. Very crudely we can say that it was the intellectual/philosophical tendency that decamped to Rome after the fall of Constantinople leaving the hesychasts in possession of the field. Hesychasm was a powerful idea under the circumstances of the Muslim domination which did not allow the development of an independent Christian intellectual culture but did tolerate the continued devotional life of the monasteries. It might also be said to have suited the politically unfavourable circumstances of the Russian Church.

The great text of the hesychast tradition is the compilation of ascetic writings known as The Philokalia (Love of the Good, or of the Beautiful) put together in the seventeenth century by St Nikodimos of the Holy Montain (Athos) and made available in Russian by St Paisius (Velichkovsky) in the eighteenth century. 

What is initially striking about The Philokalia is that though it covers over 1,000 years starting with the fifth century the format and content changes very little. It consists of advice as to how to wage spiritual warfare, which is to say war against all the largely psychological forces that obstruct the longed for union with God. The Old Testament - especially the Psalms - is quoted abundantly but always treated not as a history book but as a guide to this spiritual war. Although the end aimed for is experience of the Presence of God, that experience is never, or hardly ever described. It is not in any obvious sense a 'mystical' book, there is nothing in it that resembles, for example, the mystical poetry of St John of the Cross. Visions and heavenly voices are also treated with extreme suspicion and there is nothing of the personal anguish and emotional intensity that is so characteristic of Western Christian writing, both Catholic and Protestant. 

Here is an example taken more or less at random (from the 'Second Century of Various texts' by the 7th century St Maximos the Confessor, who had his tongue pulled out and his right hand cut off for his opposition to the - at the time imperially sponsored - Monothelite heresy):

'61. Scripture refers to the higher form of the spiritual contemplation of nature as "hill country" (Deut. 11:11). Its cultivators are those who have rejected the images derived from sensible objects and have advanced to the perception of the noetic essences of these objects through the acquisition of the virtues.

'62. So long as the intellect continually remembers God, it seeks the Lord through contemplation, not superficially but in the fear of the Lord, that is, by practising the commandments. For he who seeks Him through contemplation without practising the commandments does not find Him: he has not sought Him in the fear of the Lord and so the Lord does not guide him to success. The Lord guides to success all who combine the practice of the virtues with spiritual knowledge: He teaches them the qualities of the commandments and reveals to them the true essences of created things. 

'63. Sublime knowledge about God stands in the soul like a tower, fortified with the practice of the commandments. That is the meaning of the text, "Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem" (2 Chr 26:9). A man builds towers in Jerusalem when he is blessed with success in his search for the Lord through contemplation accompanied by the requisite fear, that is, by observing the commandments; for he then establishes the principles of divine knowledge in the undivided and tranquil state of his soul.

'64. When the inner principles of particulars combine with those of universals, they bring about the union of what is divided. This is because the more universal a principle is, the greater the degree to which it embraces and unifies the more particular principles. Particulars have a natural affinity with universals. But there is also a certain spiritual principle which relates the intellect to the senses, heaven to earth, sensibles to intelligibles, and nature to the principle of natures, uniting them one with another.

'65. If you have been able to free your senses from the passions and have separated your soul from its attachment to the senses, you will have succeeded in barring the devil from entering the intellect by means of the senses. It is to this end that you should build safe towers in the desert (cf 2 Chr 26:10). By 'desert' is meant natural contemplation; by "safe towers" a true understanding of the nature of created beings. If you take refuge in these towers, you will not fear the demons who raid the desert - that is, who insinuate themselves into the nature of visible things, deceiving the intellect through the senses and dragging it off into the darkness of ignorance. If you acquire a true understanding of each thing, you will not be afraid of the demons who deceive men by means of the external appearance of sensible objects.

'66. Every intellect that has the power to contemplate is a true cultivator: so long as it has the remembrance of God to sustain it, it keeps the seeds of divine goodness clear of tares through its own diligence and solicitude. For it is said: "And with fear of the Lord he sought God in the days of Zechariah" (2 Chr 26.5 LXX [LXX refers to the septuagint, the Greek Bible which differs in some respect from the Hebrew 'Masoretic' Bible - PB]). "Zechariah" means "remembrance of God." So let us always pray to God to keep this saving remembrance alive in us lest what our intellect has achieved corrupts our soul, filling it with pride and encouraging it to aspire presumptuously, like Uzziah, to what is above nature (cf 2 Chr 26:16).

'67. Only a soul which has been delivered from the passions can without error contemplate created beings. Because its virtue is perfect, and because its knowledge is spiritual and free from materiality, such a soul is called 'Jerusalem'. This state is attained through exclusion not only of the passions but also of sensible images.' (15)

(15)  St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth (eds): The Philokalia Vol 2, London, Faber and Faber, 1990, pp.200-201. The reference to universals and the suspicion of sensory appearance may seem to suggest Plato's theory of ideas, but there is no suggestion here that the universal is more real than the particular. What is aimed at is a cleansing of the experience of the particular from passionate attachment.