Hesychasm, Greek: ἡσυχασμός, contemporary Byzantine Greek pronunciation: [isixaˈzmos], derives from the Greek Hesychia (ἡσυχία, Greek pronunciation: [isiˈçia]), "stillness, rest, quiet, silence" and ἡσυχάζω Greek pronunciation: [isiˈxazo]: "to keep stillness."
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a scholar of Eastern Orthodox theology, distinguishes five distinct usages of the term "hesychasm":
- "solitary life", a sense, equivalent to "eremitical life", in which the term is used since the 4th century;
- "the practice of inner prayer, aiming at union with God on a level beyond images, concepts and language", a sense in which the term is found in Evagrius Ponticus (345–399), Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – 662), and Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022);
- "the quest for such union through the Jesus Prayer", the earliest reference to which is in Diadochos of Photiki (c. 450);
- "a particular psychosomatic technique in combination with the Jesus Prayer", use of which technique can be traced back at least to the 13th century;
- "the theology of St. Gregory Palamas", on which see Palamism.
History of the term
The origin of the term hesychasmos, and of the related terms hesychastes, hesychia and hesychazo, is not entirely certain. According to the entries in Lampe's A Patristic Greek Lexicon, the basic terms hesychia and hesychazo appear as early as the 4th century in such fathers as St John Chrysostom and the Cappadocians. The terms also appear in the same period in Evagrius Pontikos (c. 345 – 399), who although he is writing in Egypt is out of the circle of the Cappadocians, and in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
The term hesychast is used sparingly in Christian ascetical writings emanating from Egypt from the 4th century on, although the writings of Evagrius and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers do attest to it. In Egypt, the terms more often used are anchoretism (Gr. ἀναχώρησις, "withdrawal, retreat"), and anchorite (Gr. ἀναχωρητής, "one who withdraws or retreats, i.e. a hermit").
The term hesychast was used in the 6th century in Palestine in the Lives of Cyril of Scythopolis, many of which lives treat of hesychasts who were contemporaries of Cyril. Several of the saints about whom Cyril was writing, especially Euthymios and Savas, were in fact from Cappadocia. The laws (novellae) of the emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) treat hesychast and anchorite as synonyms, making them interchangeable terms.
The terms hesychia and hesychast are used quite systematically in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai (523–603) and in Pros Theodoulon by St Hesychios (c. 750?), who is ordinarily also considered to be of the School of Sinai. It is not known where either St John of Sinai or St Hesychios were born, nor where they received their monastic formation.
It appears that the particularity of the term hesychast has to do with the integration of the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer into the practices of mental ascesis that were already used by hermits in Egypt. Hesychasm itself is not recorded in Lampe's Lexicon, which indicates that it is a later usage, and the term Jesus Prayer is not found in any of the fathers of the church. Saint John Cassian (c. 360 – 435) presents as the formula used in Egypt for repetitive prayer, not the Jesus Prayer, but "O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me."
By the 14th century, however, on Mount Athos the terms hesychasm and hesychast refer to the practice and to the practitioner of a method of mental ascesis that involves the use of the Jesus Prayer assisted by certain psychophysical techniques. Most likely, the rise of the term hesychasm reflects the coming to the fore of this practice as something concrete and specific that can be discussed.
Books used by the hesychast include the Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer and solitary mental ascesis written from the 4th to the 15th centuries, which exists in a number of independent redactions; the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the collected works of St Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022); and the works of St Isaac the Syrian (7th century), as they were selected and translated into Greek at the Monastery of St Savas near Jerusalem about the 10th century.