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Praying with the body: the hesychast method and non-Christian parallels

Jule, 11
Metropolitan Kallistos addresses the question of whether there are parallels between the hesychastic method of prayer and other apparently similar techniques of prayer in Hinduism and Islam. Looking at the origins of hesychasm and the teachings of figures such as St Gregory Palamas, St Gregory of Sinai and Nikiphoros the Hesychast, Metropolitan Kallistos addresses the question: is the Jesus Prayer an essential and authentically Christian practice, or is it unnecessary and perhaps even harmful?

Remember God more often than you breathe.

St Gregory of Nazianzos

A ghost in a machine?

‘Glorify God in your body’, says St Paul (1 Cor. 6:19). But how in practice is this to be done? How can we make our human physicality an active participant in the work of prayer? This is something to which as Christians we need to give particular thought at this present time. For we are living in an age when, alike in philosophy, in physics and in psychology, it is proving less and less helpful to posit a dichotomy between spirit and matter, between soul and body. The statement of C.G. Jung is typical: ‘Spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body is the outer manifestation of the living spirit — the two beings really one.’[1] If writers on Chris ­tian spirituality continue to assume a sharp contrast between body and soul — as they have frequently done in the past — their words will seem increasingly irrele­vant to their secular contemporaries.

In reality a body-soul division of a Platonic type has no place within Christian tradition. The Bible sees the human person in holistic terms, and despite the heavy influence of platonism this unitary standpoint has been repeatedly reaffirmed in Greek Christianity. ‘Is the soul by itself the person?’ asks a text attributed to Justin Martyr (d. c. 165). ‘No, it is simply the person’s soul. Do we call the body the person? No, we call it the person’s body. So the person is neither of these things on its own, but it is the single whole formed together from them both.’[2] The contemporary Greek theologian Christos Yannaras insists in similar terms that the body is to be regarded not as a ‘part’ or ‘component’ of the person, but as the total person’s ‘mode of existence’, as the manifestation to the outside world of the energies of our human nature in its completeness.[3] I am not a ‘ghost in a machine’ but an undivided unity. My body is not something that I have but something that I am.

It is not enough, however, simply to assert this holistic anthropology in theory. We need to give it concrete and practical expression in our theology of the sacraments, especially the sacraments of the eucharist and of marriage, and equally in our theology of prayer. All too often in Christian teaching this has not been done. In a famous definition, Evagrios of Pontus (d. 399) describes prayer as ‘the communion of the intellect [nous] with God’; it is ‘the highest intellection of the intellect [. . .] the activity that best accords with the intellect’s dignity [...]. Draw near to the Immaterial in a non-material way.’[4] This leaves us wondering: What place, then, has the body in the venture of prayer? In fact Evagrios is less anti-physical than these words suggest, for he assigns an important function in prayer to such bodily experiences as the gift of tears.[5] But the definition that he gives of prayer certainly conveys the unfortunate impression of marginalising the body.

One of the most thoroughgoing attempts in the history of Christian spirituality to ascribe a positive and dynamic role to the body during prayer was made by the fourteenth-century hesychasts. As an accompaniment to the recitation of the Jesus prayer they proposed a physical technique that has obvious parallels in yoga and among the sufis of Islam. This psychosomatic method of the hesychasts has often been severely criticised, as by the Polish steward in The Way of a Pilgrim:

‘Ah’, said he, ‘that’s The Philokalia. I’ve seen the book before at our priest’s when I lived at Vilna. They tell me, however, that it contains odd sorts of schemes and tricks for prayer written down by the Greek monks. It’s like those fanatics in India and Bokhara who sit down and blow themselves out trying to get a sort of tickling in their hearts, and in their stupidity take this bodily feeling for prayer, and look upon it as a gift of God. All that is necessary to fulfil one’s duty to God is to pray simply, to stand and say the Our Father as Christ taught us. That puts you right for the whole day; but not to go on over and over again to the same tune. That, if I may say so, is enough to drive you mad. Besides, it’s bad for your heart.’

The Pilgrim responds with a pained protest:

‘Don’t think in that way about this holy book, sir’, I answered. ‘It was not written by simple Greek monks, but by great and very holy men of old time, men whom your Church honours also [. . .]. It was from them that the monks of India and Bokhara took over the “heart method” of interior prayer, only they quite spoilt and garbled it in doing so.’[6]

Which of the two is right, the Polish steward or the Russian pilgrim? Is the ‘heart method’ of the hesychasts authentically Christian, a true way of fulfilling the in ­ junction, ‘Glorify God in your body?’ Or is it confused and even potentially harmful?

‘How easy it is to say with every breath. . . ’

The Jesus prayer as such — the repeated invocation of the Holy Name — appears to be considerably more ancient than the physical technique designed to accompany it.[7] Already among the monks of fourth-century Egypt it was the custom to use ‘arrow prayers’, short and fervent invocations frequently repeated, as an aid in preserving the continual ‘remembrance of God*. This practice came to be known as ‘monologic prayer’, prayer of a single logos, a single word or phrase. While the name of Jesus sometimes appears in these ‘arrow prayers’ of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, it enjoys no special prominence.

The real beginnings of a distinctive spirituality of the Holy Name come only with St Diadochos of Photiki (second half of the fifth century), who speaks regularly of the ‘remembrance' or ‘invocation’ of Jesus. This invocation eliminates distractions, empties the mind of images, and so helps us to attain an inner stillness. Half a century after Diadochos, the two Old Men of Gaza, St Barsanouphios and St John (early sixth century) recommend a variety of short prayers that include the name of Jesus. Around the same time or slightly later, the Life of Abba Philimon contains for the first time what came afterwards to be regarded as the standard form of the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ The addition of the words ‘the sinner’ at the end is not found before the fourteenth century.

None of these early writers hints at the employment of any physical technique. At a somewhat later date, however, there are possible allusions to a co-ordination between the rhythm of breathing and the invocation of the Holy Name in three Sinaite authors, St John Klimakos (seventh century), St Hesychios of Batos (?eighth-ninth century), and St Philotheos (?ninth-tenth century). ‘Let the remembrance of Jesus be united with your breathing’, says Klimakos. In Hesychios the phrasing is slightly more specific: ‘Let the Jesus prayer cleave to your breathing.’ Philotheos simply states, ‘We must always breathe God.’[8]

How much should we read into statements of this kind? Perhaps the three are referring to a definite method for regulating the tempo of respiration so as to coincide with the words of prayer. Their vagueness and failure to supply explicit directions may in that case be deliberate. They may have felt — as many modern Orthodox teachers certainly feel — that instruction on such techniques is best communicated orally, rather than being committed to writing; an experienced spiritual guide in direct contact with his or her disciples can warn them against dangers which may not be apparent to the readers of a book. On the other hand the words of Klimakos, Hesychios and Philotheos may well be no more than metaphorical. Like St Gregory of Nazianzos (329-89) when he says that we are to remember God more often than we breathe,[9] they may mean simply that prayer should be as constant and spontaneous — as much a part of our instinctive existence — as the act of respiration. In that case, the references to our breathing in Sinaite writers are just a way of vividly restating St Paul’s precept, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17).

We move on to firmer ground when we turn to Egypt and examine the Coptic Macarian cycle.[10] The material is hard to date with exactness, but seems to come from the seventh or eighth centuries. Here we read: ‘How easy it is to say with every breath: “My Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! I bless you, my Lord Jesus Christ: help me!”’ As we breathe out and then breathe in once more, so the invocation of Jesus flows out from our lips and then is drawn back again: ‘Be attentive to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ with a contrite heart; make it flow from your lips and draw it back to you.’ None of this is very precise, but it seems to involve more than mere metaphor. A definite connection is being asserted between our respiration and the invocation of Jesus. What was later to become a central point in the physical technique of the hesychasts is plainly affirmed: Jesus is to be invoked with every breath.

It is necessary to wait for several centuries before anything as explicit as this is encountered in the Greek sources. The earliest detailed descriptions of a physical technique occur in two texts, the first dating from the late thirteenth century, the second in all probability more or less contemporary with it.

Thus Nikiphoros the Hesychast concludes his short work On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart[11] by suggesting a bodily method to help the beginner to attain ‘attentiveness’. According to St Gregory Palamas, our main source concerning his life, Nikiphoros came originally from Italy, and was apparently a Latin brought up in the Western rite, not a Greek from Calabria. Becoming convinced that the West had fallen into ‘kakodoxy’ he travelled to the Byzantine empire and joined the Orthodox Church. He became a monk on the Holy Mountain of Athos, living there in ‘quietness and stillness’, according to Palamas, and eventually withdrawing to the ‘most isolated regions’ on the Mountain. Nikiphoros himself has left a description of the persecution that he underwent because of his opposition to the unionist policy of Emperor Michael VIII. He was arrested in 1276, taken to Constantinople and then to Acre, where he was tried before a Latin judge and exiled to Cyprus, although he was released in the following year. Probably he died before 1300. Palamas mentions the work On Watchfulness, stating: ‘Because he saw that many beginners were incapable of controlling the instability of their intellect, even to a limited degree, he proposed a method whereby they could restrain to some extent the wanderings of the imagination.’[12] Nikiphoros is sometimes termed the ‘inventor’ of this bodily method, but Palamas does not actually say this. Perhaps Nikiphoros did no more than provide the first written description of a technique that had long been traditional on Athos, and had been handed down orally from teacher to disciple.

A largely similar technique is outlined in a treatise attributed to St Symeon the New Theologian (959-1022), Method of Holy Prayer and Attentiveness, also entitled On the Three Methods of Prayer.[13] Palamas seems to accept the ascription of this work to Symeon, but it is today generally agreed that the New Theologian cannot be the true author. Fr Irénée Hausherr, in his edition of the Greek text of the Method, suggests that it may have been written by Nikiphoros himself, but con ­ clusive proof is lacking. Whoever the author may be, the text cannot have been written much after the year 1300, and perhaps belongs also to the late thirteenth century.

The physical technique is next mentioned by an influential writer slightly later in date than Nikiphoros, St Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346), who lived on Athos during the early years of the fourteenth century.[14] Probably he learnt about the technique on the Holy Mountain, although he may have been initiated into it while in Crete, before going to Athos. Gregory nowhere refers to Nikiphoros, and makes no direct citations from the treatise On Watchfulness; likewise he nowhere explicitly quotes the Method attributed to Symeon. While he may well have been familiar with these two works, it is possible that he acquired his knowledge of the physical technique from oral tradition rather than from written texts.

Shortly after Gregory of Sinai had finally left Athos around 1335, the physical technique became suddenly and unexpectedly the subject of violent invective. Along with the entire hesychast tradition of prayer, it was called in question by a learned Greek from South Italy, Barlaam the Calabrian, who had come to Constantinople around 1330. In 1335-6 a conflict arose between Barlaam and St Gregory Palamas, who was at that time living in seclusion on Mount Athos. At first the point at issue was the procession of the Holy Spirit. But by 1337 the Calabrian had enlarged the scope of the debate by attacking the claim made by the hesychasts to see the divine and uncreated light of Tabor, and also their use of the psychosomatic method during prayer. Barlaam had read the work of Nikiphoros On Watchfulness, and he had also met certain hesychast monks in Thessalonica. Some of these seem to have been persons of genuine spiritual stature, but others were apparently ignorant and ill-educated, and their description of the physical technique left Barlaam gravely perturbed. As he puts it:

I was initiated by them into certain monstrosities and absurd doctrines [. . .], the product of an erroneous belief and a rash fantasy. They told me about their teachings concerning marvellous separations and reunions of the intellect with the soul, about the fusion of the demons with the soul, about the different sorts of red and white lights, about certain noetic entries and exits through the nostrils in conjunction with the respiration, about some kind of palpitations which occur around the navel, and finally about the union of our Lord with the soul which comes to pass within the navel in a manner perceived by the senses with full certitude of heart.[15]

In ridicule Barlaam labelled the hesychasts ‘navel-psychics’ (omphalopsychoi), people who locate the soul in the navel.[16]

Palamas countered Barlaam’s polemic in his massive treatise Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts. Here Palamas’ main concern is not in fact with the physical technique as such — to this he devotes only one relatively short section of the Triads (I. ii. 1-12) — but with the much more fundamental doctrinal questions involved in the controversy: the uncreated character of the divine light and the distinction between God's essence and his energies. But, while not attaching central significance to the bodily method, Palamas none the less believed that it was theologically defensible. It was based, as he saw it, on a sound biblical theology of the human person, and he considered that, used with discretion, it could prove of practical help.

There is one last text from the fourteenth century which speaks in some detail about the physical technique, and that is the Exact method and rule concerning those who choose to live in stillness and in monastic solitude by St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos (written in a hundred chapters, this is often cited as the Century)[17] It was written in the last decades of the fourteenth century, more than a generation after the impassioned conflict between Barlaam and Palamas. Composed in a serene and eirenic spirit, totally devoid of all polemic, this is a particularly attractive presentation of the hesychast way of prayer: ‘a work of rare spiritual beauty’, as Fr Lev Gillet rightly terms it.[18]

Entering the place of the heart

What, then, do we find in these witnesses from the late thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, Nikiphoros, pseudo-Symeon, Gregory of Sinai, Gregory Palamas, and the Xanthopouloi? The psychosomatic technique which they describe, and which Barlaam the Calabrian impugned, contains three main points. A particular bodily posture is to be adopted; the rhythm of the breathing is to be controlled; and the hesychast is instructed to explore his inner self so as to discover the place of the heart.

BODILY POSTURE

First of all, the hesychast is told to sit while reciting the Jesus prayer. ‘Seat yourself, then, and concentrate your intellect’, says Nikiphoros.[19] ‘Sit down in a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself’, states pseudo-Symeon.[20] Gregory of Sinai is more precise: ‘Sit on a seat one span high’, that is, about nine inches in height.[21] Evidently what the Sinaite has in view is not a normal chair but a low, backless stool. He adds that, if exhausted, one may occasionally say the Jesus prayer sitting or lying down on a mattress, but this is seen as something exceptional.[22]

When Nikiphoros, pseudo-Symeon and Gregory of Sinai suggest that the hesychast should sit while praying, this is surely to be seen as an innovation. Such advice would have appeared much more unusual to a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century reader than it does to us today. In ancient times the normal attitude for Christian prayer was definitely to stand. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, for example, St Antony of Egypt sees his guardian angel ‘sitting down and working, then standing up from his work and praying, then sitting down again and making a plait of palm leaves, and then rising once more again for prayer’.[23] When St Arsenios kept an all-night vigil, he stood in prayer for the whole time.[24] A monk might repeat verses from the Psalms as he sat at manual labour, and he might also sit while meditating; but when specifically engaged in prayer, to the exclusion of handiwork, he would nor ­ mally stand up.[25]

The low height of the stool recommended by Gregory of Sinai means that the hesychast will be in a crouching and almost foetal position: ‘Bend down laboriously’, he insists.[26] Although Nikiphoros makes no allusion to crouching down, pseudo-Symeon states explicitly: ‘Rest your beard on your chest, and focus your physical gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the centre of your belly or your navel.’[27] Doubtless it was this posture that inspired Barlaam’s gibe about ‘navel-psychics’. But in fact the navel plays no special part in the somatopsychic symbolism of the hesychasts; their aim is to concentrate upon the heart rather than upon the region below it. It is significant that Palamas, when answering Barlaam, speaks more generally of the ‘chest or navel’: the spiritual aspirant ‘should not let his gaze flit hither and thither, but should fix it upon his chest (stethos) or navel as upon a point of support’.[28] Later writers, who usually drop all reference to the navel, speak rather of fixing the gaze on the place of the heart; and this is surely more prudent.

Palamas offers both a biblical precedent for this crouching position during prayer, and also a theological explanation. The biblical precedent is that of Elijah on Mount Carmel: ‘Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; there he bowed himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees’ (1 Kings 18:42).[29] In his theological explanation Palamas refers to the two types of movement mentioned by St Dionysios the Areopagite (c. 500): the ‘direct’ movement in a straight line, whereby the intellect apprehends objects outside itself, and the ‘circular’ movement, whereby it ‘returns to itself’ and becomes aware of its own inner world. It is this second or circular movement, says Palamas, that constitutes ‘the intellect’s highest and most befitting activity’. He then goes on to affirm a basic principle of fundamental importance, to which we shall be returning shortly: ‘After the Fall our inner being naturally adapts itself to outward forms.’ The hesychast is applying this principle when he adopts the crouching posture in prayer: by ‘outwardly curling himself — so far as is possible — into the form of a circle’, he renders it easier to establish within himself the circular movement of the intellect, and so he is enabled more effectively to ‘return to himself’.[30]

Gregory of Sinai acknowledges that this crouching position will quickly prove uncomfortable, but he urges the hesychast to persevere undeterred. ‘You will suf ­ fer severe pain in your chest, shoulders and neck’, he warns, but in spite of this one should continue to ‘cry out persistently’. Elsewhere he writes, ‘Do not grow discouraged and quickly rise up again because of the persistent pain [. . .]. Should you feel pain in your shoulders or in your head — as you often will — endure it patiently and fervently, seeking the Lord in your heart.’[31] Modern teachers, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, commonly suggest that the body during prayer should be in a comfortable and relaxed position, so that as far as possible we are entirely unaware of it. Gregory of Sinai’s approach is markedly different. Doubtless he considered that an invocation such as the Jesus prayer which expresses penthos, grief and penitence, may appropriately be accompanied by physical pain rather than by feelings of ease, comfort and relaxation.

CONTROL OF THE BREATHING

Nikiphoros says nothing about any alteration in the rhythm of respiration, but merely observes: ‘Concentrate your intellect and lead it into the respiratory passage through which the breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart.’[32] Pseudo-Symeon is more specific, stating that the tempo of breathing is to be deliberately slowed down: ‘Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily.’[33] Both Nikiphoros and pseudo-Symeon are speaking about what is to hap ­ pen before the hesychast has actually begun to say the Jesus prayer. The control of the breathing is not intended to accompany the recitation of the prayer, but is a preliminary exercise that precedes it.

Gregory of Sinai agrees with pseudo-Symeon in advocating a deliberate slowing down of respiration. The act of breathing out, says Gregory, produces a dissipa ­ tion of our attentiveness, and so we should try to hold back our breath for as long as we reasonably can: ‘Restrain your breathing, so as not to breathe unimpededly; for when you exhale, the air that rises from the heart beclouds the intellect and ruffles your thinking, keeping the intellect away from the heart.’ Unlike pseudo-Symeon and Nikiphoros, however, Gregory implies that this control of the breathing is not to precede the recitation of the Jesus prayer but to be simultaneous with it: ‘Restraining the expulsion of your breath as much as possible and enclosing your intellect in your heart, invoke the Lord Jesus continuously and diligently.’[34] This is an important development. No longer is the breathing-control merely a preliminary exercise, but it is directly combined with the actual invocation.

At the same time Gregory does not indicate exactly how the rhythm of the respiration and the words of the prayer are to be co-ordinated. His directions remain vague — perhaps intentionally so. In modern practice it is common to say the first half of the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’, while breathing in, and the second half, ‘have mercy on me, [the sinner]’, while breathing out. This is the technique recommended, for example, in The Way of a Pilgrim,[35] but it is nowhere proposed in Gregory’s writings. On the contrary his words, ‘Restraining the expulsion of your breath [. . .] invoke the Lord Jesus’, seem to mean that the entire Jesus prayer is to be said while holding back the breath, that is to say, between inhalation and exhalation. This is certainly the discipline advocated by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809): ‘Hold your breath a little until your inner consciousness has a chance to say the prayer once.’[36]

In Gregory of Sinai’s opinion, control of the breathing, although helpful, possesses no more than a limited value: ‘The holding-back of the breath, with the mouth tightly closed, stabilises the intellect, but only temporarily, for after a little it lapses again into distraction.’ What we need to control is our inner attention, not just our breathing: ‘Gently pressing your lips together when you pray, control the respiration of the intellect, but not that of the nose, as the ignorant do.’ The real discipline has to be inward, not outward; a physical technique may assist us in concentrating, but it can never be a substitute for the interior vigilance of the intellect. Any regulation of the breathing, Gregory adds, should be moderate, not violent: ‘Do not harm yourself by building up pressure.’[37]

Gregory Palamas for his part tells us nothing in detail about the control of the breathing, beyond stating that its rhythm is to be slowed down. ‘Nor is it out of place’, he writes, ‘to teach beginners in particular to look within themselves and to bring their intellect within themselves by means of their breathing. ’ The human mind is highly volatile, and ‘continually darts away again as soon as it has been concentrated’. A slowing-down of the respiration can help here: ‘That is why some teachers recommend beginners to pay attention to the constant exhalation and inhalation of their breath, and to restrain it a little, so that while they are watching it the intellect, too, may be held in check. This they should do until they advance with God’s help to a higher stage.’[38] This corresponds to Gregory of Sinai’s injunctions: the tempo of the breathing is to be decelerated. But, unlike the Sinaite, Palamas does not specify that this control of the breathing should accompany the recitation of the prayer. Perhaps, in common with pseudo-Symeon, he sees the breathing-control as a preliminary exercise that precedes the invocation.

Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, on the other hand, follow Gregory of Sinai in regarding the control of the breathing as a direct accompaniment to the actual saying of the Jesus prayer. They propound, however, a somewhat different method for combining the two. While Gregory of Sinai apparently intends the prayer to be said while holding back the breath, the Xanthopouloi seem to envisage the recitation of the prayer in its entirety while breathing in: ‘As you draw in your breath, introduce at the same time the words of the prayer, uniting them in some way with your breathing.’[39] The vagueness implicit in the phrase ‘in some way’ (pos) is perhaps deliberate; like Gregory of Sinai, Kallistos and Ignatios may have felt it inappropriate to give full instructions in writing. Yet, despite the lack of details, both Gregory of Sinai and the Xanthopouloi are clear on one basic point: the rhythm of the prayer and the rhythm of respiration are to be somehow merged and harmonised, so that the natural and instinctive action of breathing enhances our remembrance of God and renders it unceasing.

In The Way of a Pilgrim the Jesus prayer is also linked to the beating of the heart:

Then picture to yourself your heart in just the same way; turn your eyes to it just as though you were looking at it through your breast, and picture it as clearly as you can. And with your ears listen closely to its beating, beat by beat. When you have got into the way of doing this, begin to fit the words of the prayer to the beats of the heart one after another, looking at it all the time. Thus, with the first beat, say or think ‘Lord’, with the second, ‘Jesus’, with the third, ‘Christ’, with the fourth, ‘have mercy’, and with the fifth, ‘on me’. And do it over and over again. This will come easily to you. [40]

In none of the fourteenth-century sources have I been able to find any evidence of such a ‘heart-beat technique’, nor (so far as I am aware) is it recommended by Orthodox spiritual guides today, although it is used — as we shall see — by the sufis.

INNER EXPLORATION

In pseudo-Symeon the control of the breathing is closely connected with an inward quest for the place of the heart:

Restrain the drawing in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practise this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space [literally air] within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discernment. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ.[41]

From this it is evident that the inner exploration, like the control of the breathing, is a preparatory exercise, preceding the Jesus prayer rather than accompanying it.

Nikiphoros offers a somewhat fuller rationale of this inner exploration:

You know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, this is for the heart’s sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, so that by discharging some of its heat when the air is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature.

As our breath passes through the nostrils, down the lungs and into the heart, we are to make our intellect descend with it:

Concentrate your intellect and lead it into the respiratory passage through which the breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart. Once it has entered there [. . .] train it not to leave your heart quickly, for at first it is strongly disinclined to remain constrained and circumscribed in this way. But once it becomes accustomed to remaining there, it no longer desires to wander outside. For the kingdom of heaven is within us (Luke 17:21).

The experience of entering the heart resembles a joyful homecoming after a long absence:

Just as a man, after being far away from home, on his return is overjoyed at be ­ ing with his wife and children again, so the intellect, once it is united with the soul, is filled with indescribable delight.

Having found the place of the heart, the hesychast may then commence the invocation of Jesus:

When your intellect is firmly established in your heart, it must not remain there silent and idle; it should constantly repeat and meditate on the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and should never stop doing this.[42]

As in the text of pseudo-Symeon, it is clear that the invocation of Jesus occurs at the end of the process, not at the beginning. The search for the place of the heart comes first, the recitation of the Jesus prayer afterwards.

The two Gregories are much more cursory in their references to this process of inner exploration. Gregory of Sinai says briefly, ‘Compel your intellect to descend from your head [or brain] into your heart [. . .]. Gather your intellect into your heart, provided it has been opened.’[43] Gregory Palamas is equally imprecise: we are to ‘install or hold the intellect within ourselves’, to ‘send into the heart the power of the intellect that is outwardly disposed’.[44] Neither of the Gregorys follows Nikiphoros in suggesting that we should mentally picture the movement of the breath as it passes through the nostrils and down the lungs. Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, on the other hand, quote in full the passage from Nikiphoros about inner exploration, although without adding anything new of their own.[45]

When Orthodox writers speak in this way about ‘descending from the head into the heart’, ‘finding the place of the heart’, or ‘remaining firmly established in the heart’, what sense are they attaching to the word ‘heart’ (kardia)? This is crucial for any proper assessment of the bodily method of the hesychasts. Already in the fifth century Diadochos of Photiki had insisted that the remembrance of the name of Jesus should take place ‘in the depth of the heart’.[46] Diadochos, however, and likewise the fourteenth-century Greek hesychasts, do not mean by ‘heart’ merely or primarily the affections and emotions, as in our modern usage of the word. For them the heart signifies, as in the Bible, the centre of the human person in its totality. The heart, that is to say, has a connotation both physical and spiritual, both literal and symbolical. It means first of all the bodily organ situated on the left side of the chest, and as such it is the controlling element in our physical structure, ‘the source of life and warmth for the body’ (Nikiphoros). But it is also the spiritual centre of our personhood, the place ‘where all the powers of the soul reside’ (pseudo-Symeon).

As the spiritual centre, then, the heart is the seat not just of the emotions and feelings but of thought, intelligence and wisdom. It is the determinant of our moral action, the place where the conscience expresses itself and where voluntary choice is exercised. It signifies likewise the point of encounter between the human and divine, the inner shrine where we experience God’s grace and become aware of ourselves as created in his image, ‘the place of our origin [. . .] in which the soul is, as it were, coming from the hands of God and waking up to itself’.[47] In this way the heart is the meeting-point within ourselves between the unconscious and the conscious, between soul and spirit, between our created human personhood and the uncreated love of God.[48]

Palamas makes it abundantly plain that, when speaking of the physical method, he is using the word ‘heart’ in this all-embracing Semitic and scriptural sense. He speaks of ‘that innermost body within the body that we term the heart’, and he calls it ‘the ruling organ, the throne of grace’. He quotes the Homilies of Macarius (?late fourth century): ‘The heart rules over the whole bodily organism, and when grace takes possession of the pastures of the heart, it reigns over all a person’s thoughts and members. For the intellect and all the thoughts of the soul are located there.’ Developing the point, Palamas continues:

Our heart is, therefore, the shrine of the intelligence and the chief intellectual organ of the body. When, therefore, we strive to scrutinise and to amend our intelligence through rigorous watchfulness, how could we do this if we did not collect our intellect, outwardly dispersed through the senses, and bring it back within ourselves - back to the heart itself, the shrine of the thoughts?[49]

When, therefore, pseudo-Symeon and other hesychast texts speak of ‘finding the place of the heart’, they mean in the first instance that we are to concentrate our attention upon the region of the physical heart. But, since the heart is at the same time the spiritual centre of the total human being, through this concentration upon our physical heart we are enabled to enter into relationship with our deep self and so to discover the true dimensions of our personhood in God. To make the intellect ‘descend from the head into the heart’ is thus to achieve integration, to realise oneself as a unified whole formed in the divine image. The outer concentration upon the movement of the breath through the nostrils, down the lungs and into the heart, is an effective symbol, a sacramental sign, of our inner journey from dispersal and fragmentation to simplicity and primal singleness in God.

Let us conclude our description of the physical technique of the hesychasts by mentioning one final point. None of our authors makes any reference to the employment of a komvoschoinion, a prayer-rope or chaplet, while saying the Jesus prayer. The basic principle of the komvoschoinion can in fact be found at least a millennium earlier than this. The monk Paul of Pherme, in fourth-century Egypt, whose custom it was to recite three hundred set prayers each day, used to put three hundred pebbles in his lap, throwing out one pebble at each prayer.[50] Paul had only to string his pebbles together to make a primitive prayer-rope, but it remains unclear precisely when such prayer-ropes first appeared in the Christian East. Here is an interesting subject for further research. Unfortunately the book of Eithne Wilkins, The Rose-Garden Game: the symbolic background to the European prayer-beads (London 1969), sheds little light on the matter.

‘Analogy-Participation’

What are we to make of this psychosomatic technique? Some modern critics find it crude and naive, while Hausherr even dismisses it as a ‘déformation’ due to L’humaine bêtise’.[51] Others, drawing attention to the Hindu parallels, conclude that the Jesus prayer is a ‘Christian mantra’ and classify the hesychasts as ‘Byzantine yogis’.

The first point to note is that none of our five authorities states that the physical method is indispensable and compulsory, and none of them claims that it constitutes the essence of inner prayer. Nikiphoros in particular is entirely clear about this. Having described the technique of inner exploration, at once he adds that, if someone tries this out and finds after a time that it does not help him, then he may simply stop using the technique; it is sufficient to repeat the Jesus prayer attentively, without troubling oneself at all about the movement of the breath down into the heart.[52] The psychosomatic technique, in other words, should not be described as ‘the hesychast method of prayer’, for it is no more than an optional accessory, useful to some but not obligatory upon anyone. What matters is that we invoke the name of Jesus with inner concentration and living faith. That alone is the essence of the Jesus prayer; the manner of sitting and breathing, along with the fixing of our attention on different psychosomatic centres, are purely secondary.

This brings us to a second restriction as regards the bodily method. As well as being no more than optional, it is designed, according to Palamas, not for experienced hesychasts but for ‘beginners’. Once they ‘advance with God’s help to a higher stage’, they may discontinue the exercise of breathing control.[53] More recent Orthodox teachers, such as St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain,[54] and, in our own day, Archimandrite Sophrony of Tolleshunt Knights,[55] likewise regard the physical technique as especially suited for the ‘beginner’.

In the third place, and as a counter-balance to our second point, almost all modern Orthodox authorities emphasise the potential dangers of the psychosomatic method, and insist that it should never be used — to quote Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh — ‘without strict guidance by a spiritual father’.[56] Somewhat surprisingly, however, Nikiphoros himself takes the opposite view, and recommends the bodily technique specifically to those who lack a spiritual guide:

Most if not all of those who attain this greatest of gifts [attentiveness, prosochē ] do so chiefly through being taught. To be sure, a few without being taught receive it directly from God through the ardour of their endeavour and the fervour of their faith; but what is rare does not constitute the norm. That is why we should search for an unerring guide, so that under his instruction we may learn how to deal with the shortcomings and exaggerations suggested to us by the devil whenever we deviate left or right from the axis of attentiveness. Since such a guide will himself have been tested through what he has suffered, he will be able to make these things clear to us and will unambiguously disclose the spiritual path to us so that we can follow it easily. If you have no such guide you must search diligently for one. And if no such guide is to be found, you must renounce worldly attachments, call on God with a contrite spirit and with tears, and do what I tell you.[57]

After which Nikiphoros goes on to describe the physical technique. His own preference is not in doubt: much the best course is to learn directly from a living teacher. He considers, however, that the bodily method may none the less be safely used by those who lack such personal guidance.

Here most Orthodox writers in the last two hundred years disagree sharply with Nikiphoros. St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, it is true, recommends the bodily method without expressing any reservations about its possible dangers. Russian teachers in the nineteenth century, on the other hand, such as St Ignatii Brian ­ chaninov (1807-67) and St Theophan the Recluse (1815-94), issue severe warnings against potential misuse of the method, and insist that it should be practised only under the immediate supervision of an experienced starets or elder. Referring to the texts of Nikiphoros, pseudo-Symeon and the Xanthopouloi from which we have been quoting, Ignatii observes:

The reader will find in The Philokalia [. . .] instruction on the art of leading the intellect into the heart with the help of natural breathing, or in other words a mechanism or technique which assists the acquisition of inner prayer. This teaching of the Fathers has caused and continues to cause difficulty to many readers, though there is really no difficulty in it. We advise our beloved brethren not to try to discover this mechanism within them, if it does not reveal itself of its own accord. Many wishing to learn it by experience have damaged their lungs and gained nothing. The essence of the matter consists in the union of the intellect with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time, determined by God. The above mechanism is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the prayer, by a short rest or pause after each prayer, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the intellect in the words of the prayer.[58]

Here Ignatii makes it absolutely clear that the bodily technique is not ‘the essence of the matter’. The same standpoint is adopted by Theophan who, in his Russian translation of The Philokalia, drastically abbreviated the descriptions of the technique provided by Nikiphoros and pseudo-Symeon. In a footnote Theophan explains:

Here St Symeon describes certain exterior methods which scandalise some and lead them to abandon all practice of the prayer, while in the case of others such methods bring about a distortion in their actual use of the prayer. Since, owing to scarcity of instructors, these methods may lead to evil effects, while in themselves they are nothing more than external predispositions for inner work and have no essential value, we omit them. The essential thing is to acquire the habit of making the intellect stand on guard in the heart — in the physical heart, but not in a physical way.[59]

Some may be inclined to discount these warnings by Ignatii and Theophan as exaggerated and unduly alarmist. Yet we are never to forget that the mechanism of our breathing and of the beating of our heart is delicately balanced. Injudicious interference in natural bodily functions can have startling consequences. It is as with a person running upstairs two steps at a time: all goes well if he moves instinctively, but if he starts thinking where next to place his foot he stumbles and falls. A friend of mine who used a form of breathing-control with the Jesus prayer once told me how one day he felt that he was suffocating. Suddenly it seemed to him that he had altogether forgotten the technique of respiration and had not the slightest idea how to draw the next breath. The experience lasted only for a second, but he never forgot the horror of that moment. It is still more dangerous to interfere with one’s heartbeats. Did not the Polish steward have a point when he said, ‘Besides, it’s bad for your heart’? In Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny’s boyfriend was right to be sceptical: ‘All this synchronisation business and mumbo jumbo. You get heart trouble.’[60] There is perhaps no harm, even without expert guidance, in using a very simple breathing technique, as recommended in The Way of a Pilgrim: to say the first half of the prayer when breathing in, and the second half when breathing out. But for anything more elaborate than this, we need the counsel of a spiritual father or mother.

Fr Lev Gillet offers a balanced summing-up:

Today, indeed, when one of the faithful after reading texts from the past is tempted to adopt the hesychast technique, the general practice of Orthodox spiritual directors is to dissuade him or her from doing so. For most people such attempts would be useless and dangerous, even though, in certain cases under the guidance of experienced spiritual directors, they might bear fruit. The Christian attracted by the Jesus prayer and starting out on this particular spiritual way would therefore do well to disregard the psycho-physiological methods recommended by the monks of the past. Let him say to himself quite simply that these things, which may be excellent in a certain milieu and in specific circumstances, have not been written for him. The path of the psychosomatic methods is not closed to those who would set out on it with necessary prudence and under reliable guidance. But every Christian can attain to the summits of the Jesus prayer with no other ‘technique’ except that of love and obedience. It is the inner attitude that is here all-important. The Jesus prayer confers upon us freedom from everything except Jesus himself.[61]

There is, in the fourth place, a particular confusion which could arise in the minds of those using the bodily method. They might be misled into equating the natural effect of certain physical exercises with the God-given grace of inner prayer. This is a danger to which Archimandrite Sophrony draws attention.[62] It is true that Orthodox theology refuses to acknowledge any basic separation between the levels of nature and grace; for nature presupposes grace, and grace in its turn builds upon nature. Yet there are nevertheless vital distinctions which need to be made.

Psychosomatic exercises have certain more or less automatic results on the natural level, but there is no ascetic technique that can automatically guarantee union with God. The meeting between the Creator and the human subject is a free mutual gift. God entrusts himself to us unconstrained and in voluntary love; he is not taken captive by any human mechanism or artifice. A device for concentration is not in itself an act of worship, and unification of the self is not the same as union with the divine. Living prayer, as a personal dialogue between God and the human person, is far beyond and above every artificial method and exercise. Now it has to be admitted that Nikiphoros and pseudo-Symeon do in fact fail to distinguish with sufficient clarity between the levels of nature and grace. Such a change, however, does not apply to Gregory of Sinai and Gregory Palamas. Above all Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos are firm and definite on this point. The Jesus prayer, they state, is to be recited not just mechanically but ‘with faith’. We can ‘succeed in such an endeavour only with the help of divine grace [. . .] and not simply through the physical technique’.[63]

Yet, even when full allowance is made for all these reservations about the bodily method — that it is no more than an optional aid suited primarily for beginners, that it is potentially dangerous, that the results which it achieves exist only on the natural level — it still remains true that the method is theologically defensible, resting as it does upon a sound and biblical doctrine of the human person. Gregory Palamas, in words that we have already quoted, concisely states the basic principle that underlies the psychosomatic technique: ‘A great teacher has said that after the Fall our inner being naturally adapts itself to outward forms.’[64]

Developing Palamas’ point, it may be affirmed that, between our physical organism and our inner activities, there prevails a relationship of ‘analogy- participation’, as Jacques-Albert Cuttat puts it, using a phrase borrowed from Vladimir Lossky. Between our physical modalities, that is to say, and our psychic and spiritual modalities there exist, in Cuttat’s words, ‘not merely accidental, miraculous and unintelligible contacts, but an analogical relationship, established by the “divine economy”, an organic connection [. . .] an exact correspondence, a rigorous analogy in the Dionysian sense of “effective participation” (of the lower in the higher orders) and of “reciprocal communion” [. . .]. The hesychast method aims precisely at changing this connection or inner continuity from a potentiality into an actuality.’[65]

There is, in other words, a close correlation between the psychic and physical: every alteration in our physical state affects our psychic activity, and conversely each change in our psychic state has repercussions on the bodily and physical level. When we are angry or emotionally excited, the rhythm of our breathing accelerates, and when we are engaged in deep reflection, it becomes slower. If, then, we can learn to control and regulate physical processes such as our breathing, this can be used to enhance our concentration in prayer.

Stated in this way, the principle underlying the bodily method seems non-controversial, and even self-evident. Anyone who closes his eyes when praying or raises his hands to heaven, who makes the sign of the cross, kneels or prostrates himself, has already admitted the basic axiom on which the physical technique is founded: that the outer or bodily can be used to shape and reinforce the inner and psychic. The question remains, however, how far this principle can be legitimately carried. Have not Nikiphoros and pseudo-Symeon gone too far in their attempt to correlate the physical and the spiritual? When they speak about entering the heart, and when they make use of the movement of the breath through the lungs as a way of achieving this, are they not understanding the spiritual symbolism of the heart in too gross and materialistic a fashion?

Palamas himself concedes that Nikiphoros has written ‘in a simple and unsophisticated manner’.[66] Statements about making the intellect descend into the heart, Palamas insists, are not to be interpreted literally. Although linked to the body, our mental faculties are not located spatially inside the physical heart: ‘We know very well that our intelligence is neither within us as in a container — for it is incorporal — nor yet outside us, for it is united to us.’[67] While Palamas himself expresses a definite preference for the symbolic scheme which regards the heart as the centre of the person and the true home of the intellect, he emphasises that, so far as human physiology is concerned, there are from the Church’s point of view no binding dogmas. This is a matter on which we have no clear revelation from the Spirit, and so all are at liberty to speculate as they wish.[68]

At the same time Palamas is convinced that Barlaam of Calabria’s attacks on the hesychasts are unjustified, and spring from a false understanding of the human person. Barlaam in Palamas’ view, is platonist rather than biblical in his anthropology: the Calabrian envisages the human person as a soul dwelling in a body; and as a result he identifies the true self with the soul, while treating the body as ultimately extrinsic to genuine personhood — at worst an enemy, at best a lump of neutral materiality that is to be so far as possible ignored and forgotten. In answer to this Palamas advances a holistic vision of the person. The body is in itself good: ‘In our view it is evil for the intellect to be caught up in material thoughts, but not for it to be in the body, for the body is not evil.’ St Paul condemns, not the body in itself, but ‘the body of this death’ (Rom. 7:24). For Palamas this is an important distinction: what the apostle rejects is not our physicality as created by God but our fallen manner of thinking which is ‘materialistic and carnal’. It is not the body that is evil, but ‘the sinful impulse that infiltrates into the flesh because of the Fall’. When speaking of the body as such, Paul is not condemnatory but strongly affirmative. Palamas appeals in particular to 1 Corinthians 6:19: ‘Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.’ For the apostle, the body is nothing less than God’s ‘dwelling-place’.[69]

This leads Palamas to affirm a doctrine of total sanctification. He bases this in particular upon the mystery of the incarnation. The Son of God took integral humanity, not only a human soul but a human body, and so he has ‘made the flesh an inexhaustible source of salvation’. It was his will ‘to honour the flesh, yes — even this mortal flesh’, and ‘to make it participate in divine life’.[70] By virtue of this assumption on the Saviour’s part of human nature in its entirety, our human physicality is brought within the realm of redemption. Palamas quotes with approval the statement of St Maximos the Confessor (d. 662): ‘The body is divinised together with the soul, sharing in deification (theosis) in the manner appropriate to itself.’[71] Our Christian hope is salvation, not from the body, but in and with the body: ‘The flesh also is transformed, is exalted with the soul, communes together with the soul in the divine, and itself likewise becomes the possession and dwelling-place of God, no longer harbouring any enmity towards him or any desires that are contrary to the Spirit.’[72]

If the body is in itself good, and if it is to be transformed and sanctified along with the soul, then — so Palamas argues — the body should certainly be assigned a positive and dynamic role in the task of praying. He quotes in this connection the famous definition of the hesychast in the Ladder of St John Klimakos: ‘A hesychast is one who strives to confine what is bodiless within a bodily house.’[73] The hesychast’s aim is not to escape from the body but to involve it in the spiritual venture; and this he can do, among other ways, through using the psychosomatic technique in combination with the Jesus prayer.

Modern readers will of course find the physiology of Nikiphoros obsolete and erroneous, for he was writing, as David Balfour points out, ‘in an age when men had no knowledge of the circulation of the blood and the working of the nervous and respiratory systems’,[74] Yet if we reject the hesychast techniques of prayer simply because of the unsound physiology which they took for granted, we have missed the real point. To explain their meaning, Byzantine writers inevitably made use of the scientific concepts which were current in their time. Today these concepts are seen as outdated. The essential thing, however, is the theology of the human person at prayer which the hesychasts were trying to express through their rudimentary physical descriptions, and this theology still remains valid. So far from being heretical and superstitious, the hesychast techniques are founded on an authentically scriptural view of human nature as an undivided unity of body and soul.

Such, then, is Palamas’ apologia for the bodily method. Clearly the point that he is making has a far wider application. The unity of soul and body and the notion of ‘analogy-participation’, upheld by the hesychasts, are also presupposed by the whole of sacramental theology. At baptism the body is immersed in water to express our mystical death and resurrection in Christ. At the eucharist we do not merely meditate on Jesus Christ with our minds but eat and drink his Body and Blood with our bodies. The anointing of the sick is ‘for the healing of soul and body’, and confers through a single sacramental action both bodily healing — if that is God’s will — and at the same time forgiveness of sins (cf. Jas. 5:25). The same holistic standpoint is affirmed in Christian eschatology. At the Last Day, when the body is raised from the dead and reunited with the soul, the righteous will enter into the age to come with the totality of their personhood, soul and body together. In all these ways it is our human vocation to ‘glorify God in our body’. The psychosomatic technique is important, not just in itself, but because it fits into a far broader pattern of Christian belief.

Byzantine yogis?

Enough has been said to indicate the genuinely Christian and biblical basis of the bodily method. But there still remains the question raised by the Polish steward in The Way of a Pilgrim: what are we to make of the non-Christian parallels?

Needless to say, a parallel is not in itself proof of direct influence. The practice of monologic prayer is to be found in a wide variety of religious bodies, both Chris ­ tian and non-Christian. It is something that could arise spontaneously in separate groups, altogether independently of one another. And it is in no way surprising that many of those who use monologic prayer should find it helpful to link this repetition with the rhythm of their breathing. Such an idea could easily occur to different people without any conscious borrowing from each other. Are the similarities then, between hesychast spirituality and other traditions in fact close enough to imply direct interaction?

Let us begin with a parallel from the Christian West, mentioned by Fr Lev. The invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus was widely practised in the medieval West, not least in England,[75] but there seems to be no evidence of any method for coordinating this invocation with the rhythm of the breathing. A breathing technique is, however, proposed by St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) in his ‘third method of prayer’:

The third method of prayer is that, at each breath or respiration, prayer be made mentally, saying one word of the Lord’s Prayer or of any other prayer that is being recited, so that only one word be said between each breath, and in the length of time between each breath let attention be specially paid to the signification of the word, or to the person to whom the prayer is directed, or to one’s lowness, or to the distance between that person’s great dignity and such great lowness of ours. Then he will proceed in the same way and method through the remaining words of the Lord’s Prayer.[76]

The parallel, as Fr Hausherr points out,[77] is not altogether exact: Ignatius Loyola nowhere mentions invoking the name of Jesus, and he envisages successive words of prayer at each breath, not the repetition of the same phrase. There is no question here of any direct borrowing from the hesychasts. Nevertheless there is genuine similarity: Loyola, like the hesychasts, establishes a link between the words of prayer and the tempo of the respiration.

In the second place, Elijah’s crouching posture in prayer — with the head placed between the knees — was certainly practised within Judaism at least until the first century AD. The Galilean Hasid Hanina ben Dosa, for example, is said to have ‘put his head between his knees and prayed’ for a miracle.[78] Similarities between the Jewish school of Merkabah (‘Chariot’) mysticism and the hesychast tradition deserve to be further explored.

Thirdly, and much more significantly, there are striking parallels between the hesychast practices and Indian yoga. As an aid in meditation, the yogi repeats a mantra or short formula, often employing a chaplet as he does so. His aim is samadhi (stillness, hesychia), and he may experience a vision of light. The need for an experienced guide or guru is emphasised. More specifically we find, as among the fourteenth-century hesychasts:

(1) The recommendation of specific postures (āsanas).

(2) Control of the respiration (prānāyāma). The breathing is to be slowed down and reduced: ‘Restraining the breath [. . .] breathe quietly through the nose.’[79]

3) Concentration of the attention upon particular physiological centres (chakras).

These Indian practices, which date back to the pre-Christian era, are of course much more ancient than the bodily techniques of the hesychasts.

Yet if there are evident similarities, there are also differences. The hesychast crouches with his chin resting on his chest; in the ‘lotus’ posture of yoga the back is upright, (although there are other postures in yoga which involve a crouching position). The breathing techniques in yoga are far more complex and elaborate than anything suggested in the Byzantine tradition; the hesychast method corresponds only to the first and simplest exercises of yoga. In yoga the inner exploration is extended to the regions below the heart, but in the hesychast tradition this is strictly forbidden. In yoga, moreover, there is not only a movement of descent but also a corresponding movement of ascent from the kundalini centre up the vertebral column to the chakra in the forehead between the two eyes (the third ‘eye’), and then to the supreme chakra at the top of the head. There is no equivalent to this in the symbolic imagery of hesychasm; the hesychast, having once descended into the place of the heart, remains there and does not re-ascend. When the physiological terminology of yoga is compared in detail with that of hesychasm, the resemblance turns out to be not very close.

Most important of all, while the Jesus prayer is specifically an invocation to God incarnate, ‘the connection of God with yoga is tangential’, as Abbé Monchanin points out. Yoga is primarily a technique for concentration, using the natural human powers; unlike hesychast prayer, it does not depend at every point upon divine grace. Taking account of all this, we may agree with Monchanin that ‘direct borrowing is certainly unlikely’; the similarities are probably due to independent ‘convergence’.[80] Yet the Indian parallels are still illuminating. Both the yogi and the hesychast affirm that the body has a dynamic role to play in the contemplative quest, and both accept the principle of ‘analogy-participation’ between the bodily and the spiritual.

The fourth and final area of comparison is the most interesting of all: and that is the parallel between hesychast prayer and the practice of dhikr — the memory and invocation of the name of God — in Islam, and more particularly among the sufis.[81] Dhikr is most often performed collectively, whereas the Jesus prayer is usually, although not invariably, recited in solitude. But otherwise the similarities are close, and the arguments for some kind of direct borrowing are much more cogent than in the case of yoga. In dhikr, as in the hesychast tradition, guidance from an experienced master is considered highly desirable, and even essential. The practice of dhikr involves:

       (1) Bodily postures, including the resting of the head upon the chest, and sometimes the placing of the head between the knees (in dhikr, as in yoga, the postures can be highly elaborate — much more so than in hesychasm).

       (2) Breathing control, linking the invocation to the movement of the respiration (once more, the exercises employed by the sufis are much more complex than anything found in hesychasm). At a more advanced stage, the invocation may be co-ordinated with the beating of the heart (this is found, as we have noted, in The Way of the Pilgrim, but not in the Byzantine hesychast sources). A chaplet may be used with the invocation.

       (3) Movement of the prayer from the lips, by way of the breathing, down to the heart; descent from the head to the heart (which is understood, as in hesychasm, to signify the spiritual centre of the total person). Here, due to shared biblical roots, dhikr is far closer to hesychast anthropology than is the case with yoga.

Furthermore, and this is a point of crucial significance, in Islam the invocation is consciously addressed to a transcendent and personal God, even if in some sufi texts the personal character of the divine is somewhat diminished. In dhikr it definitely cannot be said that the connection with God is no more than ‘tangential’.

The similarities are so considerable that it seems at least highly probable that there has been some direct interaction. So far, however, no one has discovered detailed and explicit evidence to prove this. If there was direct influence, in which direction did it occur? Perhaps the Arab and Persian sufis were influenced by Indian yoga, and in turn transmitted this influence to the Byzantine world. But the influence may also have been in the reverse direction. It is thought that the writings of St Isaac of Nineveh (d. c. 700) were studied by ascetic and mystical groups in early Islam. St Isaac himself says nothing about the invocation of the name of Jesus or about any breathing technique in prayer; but there may also have been other Christian ascetics with whom Muslim Arabs were in touch and who transmitted such methods to them. The practices mentioned earlier, which were employed by Coptic Christians in the seventh and eighth centuries, may well have existed likewise among Christians in Syria, and through them may have passed to the sufis.

This is no more than speculative; what is certain, however, is that there were many opportunities for mutual contact. Living as they were side by side, may not Muslims and Christians have spoken with each other sometimes about their respective ways of praying? Christian pilgrims to the holy places could on occasion have talked with sufis. One particular instance of mutual contact in the fourteenth century has a special relevance. In 1354 Gregory Palamas, while travelling from Thessalonica to Constantinople, was captured by the Turks and remained for more than a year in captivity. It is known that during this time he had conversations on religious themes with local Muslims, and so it is at least possible that one of the things which he discussed was the sufi practice of dhikr, even though nothing is said of this in the surviving records.[82]

It is curious, however, to note how hesychasm and sufism have developed during the recent past in opposite directions. Over the last 150 years Orthodox teachers, as we have seen, have usually minimised the role of the bodily techniques, and even discouraged their use altogether. In Muslim confraternities during the present century, on the other hand, the physical exercises have been greatly emphasised. But most Muslim masters agree fully with Orthodox teachers in insisting that there can be no external techniques leading automatically to union with God. For both traditions, what matters is not outer technique but the inner attention of the heart, not the physical exercises but the One invoked; and in both traditions our meeting with the One invoked is a pure gift on his part.

If, however, what matters is not the technique but the One invoked, then it follows that between hesychasm and dhikr there is in fact a profound difference. The Jesus prayer is fundamentally christocentric. We are not simply invoking God, but our words are addressed specifically to Jesus Christ — to God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the second person of the Holy Trinity who was born in Bethlehem, truly crucified on Golgotha, and truly raised from the dead. A religion such as Islam which rejects the incarnation cannot be invoking God in the same way as hesychasm does. When Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos said that the Jesus prayer is to be recited ‘with faith’, they meant faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man. An invocation not addressed to God incarnate is something altogether different from the Jesus prayer. As the Russian Pilgrim claimed, the Jesus prayer contains within itself the whole truth of the Gospel;[83] once divorced from the context of the Gospel, it loses its proper meaning. It is a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, not just one among many possible mantras.

When comparing hesychasm, then, with yoga and with dhikr, we are never to forget that the fundamental point about any tradition of praying is not outer technique but inner content — not how we pray but to whom. Most pictures have frames, and most picture-frames have certain characteristics in common; yet the portraits within the frames may be altogether diverse. The decisive thing is the portrait, not the frame. The bodily method, whatever form it takes, is no more than a ‘frame’ for the Jesus prayer, while it is the invocation of the Lord Jesus ‘with faith’ that constitutes the actual portrait.[84] Despite the resemblances between the ‘frame’ of the Jesus prayer and certain non-Christian ‘frames’, we should never underestimate the uniqueness of the portrait within the ‘frame’. Techniques are subsidiary; it is our encounter face to face, through the prayer, with the living person of Jesus that alone has primary value. Yet, having said that, we should add that the value attributed to the body in the three traditions — hesychasm, yoga and sufism — deserves our close attention. A deeper understanding of the somatopsychic symbolism in all three will help us to appreciate more fully what it means to ‘glorify God in your body’.

Let us leave the last word with St Theophan the Recluse:

The prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, is an oral prayer like any other. There is nothing special about it in itself, but it receives all its power from the state of mind in which it is made. The various methods described by the Fathers [. . .] are not suitable for everyone: indeed, without a personal director they are actually dangerous. It is better not to try them. There is just one method which is obligatory for all: to stand with the attention in the heart. All other things are beside the point [...].

Every effort that you make in prayer must be directed towards this. Pray to the Lord that he may give you this blessing: it is the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl beyond price.[85]



[1] Modern Man in Search of a Soul (London 1984), p.253.

[2] Fragments on the Resurrection 8 (PG 6:1585B; ed. Karl Holl, Texte und Untersuchungen XX, ii, pp.45-6).

[3] Cf. The Freedom of Morality (New York 1984), p.11.

[4] On prayer 3, 34a (missing in Migne, but included in The Philokalia), 84, 66 (PG 79: 1168C, 1185B, 1181A).

[5] On prayer 5-7 (PG 1168D-1169A).

[6] The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim continues his Way, tr. R.M. French (London 1954), p.60.

[7] On the historical development of the Jesus prayer, see A Monk of the Eastern Church [Archimandrite Lev Gillet], The Jesus Prayer (New York 1987) (with full bibliography). The early evidence is briefly summarised by Kallistos Ware in Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright and Edward Yarnold, ed., The Study of Spirituality (London 1986), pp.175-84.

[8] For detailed references to the sources, see Ware in The Study of Spirituality, pp.182-3.

[9] Oration 27:4 (Theological Oration 1:4) (PG 36:16B).

[10] See Antoine Guillaumont, ‘The Jesus Prayer among the Monks of Egypt’, Eastern Churches Review 6:1 (1974), pp.66-71.

[11] Greek text in PG 147:945-66; also in Ph. [= Philokalia ton Ieron Niptikon (Athens 1957-63), vol. iv], pp. 18-28. ET in E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London 1951), pp.22-34, using the Russian version of St Theophan the Recluse. A new English version — based directly on the Greek — of the text of Nikiphoros and also of pseudo-Symeon, of Gregory of Sinai, and of Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, is to appear in volumes iv and v (forthcoming) of The Philokalia: the Complete Text, translated by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware.

[12] Palamas, Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts I, ii, 12; II, ii, 2-3: ed. Jean Meyendorff (Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense 30-31: Louvain 1959), pp.99, 321-3; Nikiphoros, Dialexis, ed. V. Laurent and J. Darrouzes in: Dossier grec de l’union de Lyon (1273-1277) (Archives de l'Orient chrétien 16: Paris 1976), pp.486-507. Cf. John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas (London 1964), pp.139-56; Daniel Stiernon, in Dictionnaire de spiritualité xi (1981), cols. 198-203.

[13] Greek text in Irénée Hausherr, La méthode d’oraison hésychaste (Orientalia Christiana ix, 2 [36]: Rome 1927), pp.150-72; ET in Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings, pp.152-61. Cf. Palamas, Triads I, ii, 12 (Meyendorff, p.99).

[14] Greek text in PG 150:1240-1345; Ph., pp.31-88; ET in Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings, pp.37-94. Cf. Kallistos Ware, ‘The Jesus Prayer in St Gregory of Sinai’, Eastern Churches Review 4:1 (1972), pp.3-22; David Balfour, Saint Gregory the Sinaïte: Discourse on the Transfiguration (reprint from the periodical Theologia: Athens 1983), esp. pp.139-58.

[15] Barlaam, Letter 5: ed. Giuseppe Schirò, Barlaam Calabro. Epistolegreche iprimordiepisodici e dottrinari delle lotte esicaste (Istituto Siciliano di Studi Bizantine e Neogreci, Testi 1: Palermo 1954), pp.323-4. Cf. Meyendorff’s introduction to Palamas, Triads, pp.xv-xviii; Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, pp.42-7; R.E. Sinkewicz, ‘The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God in the Early Writings of Barlaam the Calabrian’, Medieval Studies 44 (1982), pp. 181-242, esp. pp. 184-7, 228, 234-7.

[16] Cf. Palamas, Triads I, ii, 10 (p.95).

[17] Greek text in PG 147:636-812; Ph., pp. 197-295; ET in Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings, pp.164-270.

[18] The Jesus Prayer, p. 61.

[19] PG 147: 963B; Ph., p.27.

[20] Hausherr, p. 164.

[21] On stillness 2 (PG 150:1316A; Ph., p.71).

[22] How the Hesychast should sit 1 (PG 150:1329A; Ph., p.80).

[23] Apophthegmata, Antony 1 (PG 65:76B).

[24] Apophthegmata, Arsenios 30 (PG 65:97C).

[25] Cf. Apophthegmata, Evagrios 1 (PG 65:173A): ‘When sitting in your cell, concentrate your thought; remember the day of your death and picture the corruption of the body [. . .].' This is similar to what Nikiphoros says: ‘Seat yourself, then, and concentrate your intellect. ’ But what Evagrios has in view is meditation in the broader sense, while Nikiphoros intends his reader explicitly to invoke God in prayer.

[26] On stillness 2 (PG 150:1316A; Ph., p.71).

[27] Hausherr, p. 164.

[28] Triads I, ii, 8 (p.91).

[29] Cf. Triads I, ii, 10 (p.95).

[30] Triads I, ii, 5 and 8 (pp.85, 91). Cf. Dionysios, On the Divine Names iv, 9 (PG 3:705AB).

[31] On stillness 2 (PG 150:1316A; Ph., p.71); How the hesychast should sit 1 (PG 150:1329A; Ph., p. 80).

[32] PG 147:963B-964A; Ph., p.27.

[33] Hausherr, p. 164.

[34] On stillness 2 (PG 150:1316B; Ph., p.72).

[35] The Way of a Pilgrim, p. 102.

[36] A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, tr. Peter A. Chamberas (New York 1989), p.160.

[37] How the hesychast should sit 3, 7 (PG 150:1332B, 1344B; Ph., pp.81, 87.

[38] Triads I, ii, 7 (pp.87-9).

[39] Century 25 (PG 147-684D; Ph., p.224).

[40] Hausherr, pp.164-5.

[41] Hausherr, pp.164-5.

[42] PG 147:963A-964B; Ph., p.27.

[43] On stillness 2 (PG 150:1316A; Ph., p.71); How the hesychast should sit 1 (PG 150:1329A; Ph., p.80).

[44] Triads I, ii, 7, 8, (pp.87, 91).

[45] Century 19 (PG 147:679A-D; Ph., pp.221-2).

[46] Century 59, ed. E. des Places: Sources chrétiennes 5 bis (Paris 1955), p.119.

[47] Abhishiktananda (Henri le Saux OSB), Prayer (London 1974), p.54.

[48] Cf. André Guillaumont, ‘Les sens des noms du coeur dans l’antiquité' in Le coeur (Etudes Carmélitaines 29: Paris 1950), pp.41-81; idem, in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ii (1953), cols. 2281-8.

[49] Triads I, ii, 3, (p.81), quoting Macarius, Homily 15:20, Collection II (H), ed. H. Dörries, E. Klostermann and M. Kroeger (Berlin 1964), p.139.

[50] Palladius, The Lausiac History 20:1.

[51] La méthode d'oraison hésychaste, pp. 142, 146.

[52] PG 147:965A-966A; Ph., pp.27, 28.

[53] Triads I, ii, 7 (pp.87-9) (cf. n.38). Elsewhere, however, Palamas suggests that the crouching position in prayer may be used even by the ‘more perfect’ (Letter 2 to Barlaam; P.K. Christou and J. Meyendorff, ed., Grigoriou tou Palamou Syngrammata, vol. i [Thessalonica 1962], p.288).

[54] A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, p. 161.

[55] His Life is Mine (London 1977), p.113.

[56] Living Prayer (London 1966), p.88. But in his earlier writings he places much greater emphasis on the physical technique: see ‘Contemplation et ascèse: contribution orthodoxe’, in Technique et contemplation (Études Carmélitaines 28, Paris 1949), pp.49-67; ‘L’hésychasme: Yoga chrétien?’, in Jacques Masui, ed., Yoga: science de l‘homme intégral (Paris 1953), pp. 177-95; Asceticism (Somatopsychic techniques) (The Guild of Pastoral Psychology, Guild Lecture 95) (London 1957).

[57] PG 147:962B-963A; Ph., pp.26, 27.

[58] The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore), (Madras 1970), p.84 (translation modified).

[59] Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings, p. 158, n.33 (translation modified).

[60] J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (Harmondsworth 1964), p.36.

[61] The Jesus Prayer, p.74.

[62] His Life is Mine, pp. 115-16.

[63] Century 8, 9, 24 (PG 147:644D, 645A, 684BC; Ph., pp.202, 224).

[64] Triads I, ii, 8 (p.91) (cf. n,30). The ‘great teacher’ is probably John Klimakos: see Ladder 25 (PG 88:1001A) and 28 (1133B), but the quotation is not exact. Palamas does not give special consideration to the phrase ‘after the Fall’, nor does he explain at this point in what ways our present condition is different from that before the Fall.

[65] J.-A. Cuttat, The Encounter of Religions: A dialogue between the West and the Orient, with an Essay on the Prayer of Jesus (New York/Toumai 1960), pp.92-3.

[66] Triads II, ii, 3 (p.323).

[67] Triads I, ii, 3 (pp.79-81).

[68] Triads II, ii, 30 (p.381).

[69] Triads I, ii, 1 (pp.75-7).

[70] Homily 16 (PG 150:193B, 204A). Whereas Paul distinguishes between sarx (‘flesh’) and soma (‘body’), Palamas is here using the two words as equivalent.           

[71] Maximos, Centuries on Theology ii, 88 (PG 90:1168), quoted in Palamas, Triads 1, iii, 37 (p. 191).

[72] Triads I, ii, 9 (p.93).

[73] Ladder 27 (PG 88:1097B), quoted in Palamas, Triads i, ii, 6 (p.87).

[74] Saint Gregory the Sinaïte: Discourse on the Transfiguration, p. 141.

[75] Cf. Kallistos Ware, ‘The Holy Name of Jesus in East and West: the Hesychasts and Richard Rolle’, Sobornost/ECR 4:2 (1982), pp.163-84.

[76] The Text of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, ed. Henry Keane (London 1952), p.90; cf. A Monk of the Eastern Church, The Jesus Prayer, p. 107.

[77] I. Hausherr, ‘Les Exercises Spirituels de Saint Ignace et la méthode d’oraison hésychastique’, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 20 (1954), pp.7-26; reprinted in Hausherr, Hésychasme et prière (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 176: Rome 1966), pp.134-53.

[78] See Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London 1973), p.74; Balfour, Saint Gregory the Sinaïte: Discourse on the Transfiguration, p.141, n.218.

[79] Svetasvatara Unpanishad ii, 9.

[80] Jules Monchanin, ‘Yoga and Hesychasm’, Cistercian Studies 10:2 (1975), pp.85-92. For an attempt to adapt the techniques of yoga to Christian use, see J.M. Déchanet, Christian Yoga (New York 1972); this has a useful appendix on the Jesus prayer by Jean Gouillard (pp.217-30).

[81] See Louis Gardet, ‘Un probleme de mystique comparee: la mention du nom divin (dhikr) dans la mystique musulmane’, Revue Thomiste 52 (1952), pp.642-79; 53 (1953), pp.197-216; reprinted in G.-C. Anawati and L. Gardet, Mystique musulmane: aspects et tendances — éxperiences et techniques (Paris 1961), pp.187-256. Gardet draws attention also to parallels in the Buddhist practice of nembutsu.

[82] For the source material, see Anna Philippidis-Braat, ‘La captivité de Palamas chez les Turcs; dossier et commentaire’, Travaux et Mémoires 7 (1979), pp. 109-222; Daniel J. Sahas, ‘Captivity and Dialogue: Gregory Palamas (1296-1360) and the Muslims’, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 25 (1980), pp.409-36. Cf. Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, pp. 103-7.

[83] The Way of a Pilgrim, p.29.

[84] Cf. Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name: the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality (Fairacres Publication 43) (Oxford 1986), pp.23-4.

[85] Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer (London 1966), pp.98, 198.

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