In the Byzantine churches, today is the Sunday of Holy Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki in the fourteenth century. Among many things, Palamas is often seen as the guy who centered for the Byzantine churches the practice of hesychasm, the stilling of the heart as the intellect (Greek nous) enters into the heart through the negative repetition of the Jesus Prayer to meet with G-d there. Popularly speaking, what seems to mark a conventional conception of hesychasm is that it’s a negative tradition – you’re trying to say no to images that might appear in your mind, no to any concepts of God that might get in the way of the heart actually piercing through the haze of the intellect to union with G-d, no even to any good and positive thoughts that might come in to bring comfort and pleasure because this is all a distraction from mystical unity with the divine.
Because Palamas centered hesychasm as one of the primary ways that Byzantine Christians do theology, hesychasm is often thought of as some mystical Eastern practice where all of this negation is oh-so-romantic. We Western Christians, you might say if you’re a Latin or a Protestant (which technically just makes you a Latin discontent), are so obsessed with our affirmative positive concepts of God, and you Easterners are really where it’s at in terms of plunging yourselves into the all-so-mysterious mystery. In such a way, hesychasm often gets mistaken as just another one of those ‘Eastern religions’ that ranks as #2 in terms of ‘stuff white people like’ – ‘religions that their parents don’t belong to’ – most notably in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey where Zooey Glass literally goes crazy after spending her life submerged in a mentally toxic cocktail of Buddhist traditions read as hesychasm (I won’t spoil more of it for you, as everyone who is interested in hesychasm should probably read that book). Thankfully, there have been brilliant scholarly rebuttals to this kind of hesychastic orientalism, not least from Robert Taft SJ in his classic piece on ‘Eastern presuppositions’ and Western liturgical renewal (where Taft straight-up cites Edward Said, a point not lost on Peter Leithart) as well as Greek Orthodox theologian John Panteleimon Manoussakis showing that Palamas’s understanding of theophany is perfectly compatible with Augustine’s, especially via the one Latin theologian whose influence I still can’t shake to this day, Hans Urs von Balthasar (and after reading Manoussakis, Balthasar ain’t going anywhere from me now).
I confess that I myself, a teacher in the field of Asian American religions, fall into this trap all the time in practice. It’s because it’s so easy when conceiving of hesychasm as a negative tradition to get a little bit crazy with the negations and start deluding myself into thinking that my life just revolves around my mind, my intellect, my heart. It’s especially tempting since I work in academia to do this; my career, after all, depends on my curriculum vitae, which is a list of writings, speeches, and other intellectual activities that I have produced in many arenas, which technically all come out of my mind, my intellect, my nous.
When I fall into this trap, I find myself going for the Holy Mystery of Repentance, otherwise known as ‘confession.’ Some confessors are really nice about what I tell them and want me to focus on my spiritual life, what’s going on in my mind and in my heart. But the confessors who know me well are not one bit fooled by my pretensions. Every time after I confess my sins, which are many and frequent, they have taken to asking me not about the state of my intellect or of my heart, but the state of my body. Am I eating? Am I sleeping? Am I exercising? Am I taking care of my physical state? And most especially: am I getting enough rest? It may sound controversial to the easily offended that I am hinting at what has been said in the confessional, though I am not breaking any seal on my end, but I might point out that the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted that if you want to understand the origins of the fields of moral theology and Christian ethics, the best place to look is what is said in the penitential guides for confessors, the earlier in the history of the church, the better. It seems like the good confessors and spiritual directors these days are being trained to make their directees and penitent think about the body, and I have nothing but good things to say about this because it keeps me grounded on the receiving end of their counsel.
In this sense, I am the walking stereotype of the academic who is always tired, which is why it seems to me that some academics who are more senior than me are giving me some sound advice about the embodied work that goes on in what we do. Once asked about how to be a great scholar, Taft (the liturgist I quoted above on liturgical orientalism) said that the most important thing is to go to bed every night at the same time and to get up at the same time every morning. In another instance, here at Northwestern there is a senior scholar that I regularly consult about my career, but our conversations never start out with intellectual discussion: they have to do with cooking, family life, kids, marriage, friendships, and more food, before eventually weaving into the conversation my teaching and my research, as well as hers. In fact, as far as the academics whom I respect go, I have probably had more conversations with them about food and family than about the romanticism of the life of the mind. Intellectual work is embodied; academia is not really the life of the mind, but the work of the body. This is why, by the way, I adore that video of the children walking in on the political scientist being interviewed by the BBC about the recent political upheavals in Korea; it reminds me of how present our embodied lives are to the intellectual work that we do in the academy, which is the main feature of what academics actually say to each other when we really start talking.
Perhaps, then, what people like me need to do is to go beyond our imagination of what hesychasm is and what Palamas might have said about it to what Palamas actually says about it. For one, early on in his masterpiece The Triads, he denies that hesychasm is only about negativity: ‘Let no one think that these great men are referring to here to the ascent through the negative way,’ he writes of the hesychastic masters Dionysius the Areopagite and Holy Maximus the Confessor who have gone before in the tradition. ‘For the latter lies within the powers of whoever desires it; and it does not transform the soul so as to bestow on it the angelic dignity.’ In other words, anybody can be negative, even without the energies of G-d, so that is not the point of a hesychastic stilling of the heart. What is the point, he says, is the ‘purity of the passionate part of the soul’ so that the nous is united ‘through prayer to the grace of the Spirit; and through this grace the mind comes to enjoy the divine effulgence, and acquires an angelic and godlike form’ (Triads I.iii.20).
This kind of hesychasm, Palamas goes on to explain, makes no sense without the body. The body, Palamas reminds us, is what the Holy Apostle Paul called the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ – it is the temple in which the nous goes into the heart to meet G-d. With a magnificent image, Palamas even says that if the Holy Apostle Paul says that the body is ‘sold to sin,’ then ‘he who is sold is not a slave by nature.’ The point is not to forsake the body through hesychasm; it is to free it (Triads I.ii.1).
This means that the body is of paramount importance to the hesychast: ‘This is exactly the tradition, and our spiritual Fathers have also handed it down to us, and rightly so’ – and the spiritual father Palamas is referring to is Holy John of the Ladder, whom we will commemorate two weeks from now – ‘For if the hesychast does not circumscribe the mind in his body, how can he make to enter himself the One who has clothed himself in the body, and Who thus penetrates all organised matter, insofar as He is its natural form? For the external aspect and divisibility of matter is not compatible with the essence of the mind, unless matter itself truly begins to live, having acquired a form of life conformable to the union with Christ’ (Triads I.ii.6).
In other words, my regular confessors and my academic mentors are completely correct to always divert me from a pure intellectual life through conversations about everyday life in the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit that is the only site in which hesychastic practice can take place. Am I eating? Am I sleeping? Am I exercising? Am I resting? One Latin priest even asked me during the Great Fast: Are you getting enough protein? reminding me that even if my church has told me to give up meat, I have to make it up with beans and tofu in order to function properly as a human being. Of course, I could write off this priest as a Latin, but if I were to be honest, any Byzantine priest worth their salt would probably say the same thing. Ascesis, the discipline of the body through fasting, is all fine and good, but it cannot be a denial of the body either.
I may have written about ‘intellectual chastity,’ but the emphasis there on the chastity of the nous is only possible through what the Latins define as the point of real chastity, the ‘inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being’ that ‘involves ‘the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 3, Art. 6, II.2337). The intellectual life that flows out of a hesychastic practice is therefore at the end of the day centered around what Michel de Certeau SJ reminded us is the ‘practice of everyday life’ – living and cooking and sleeping. This is why it is often said that the hesychastic state is most clearly manifested when one is praying without ceasing while attending to many other physical tasks at the same time; the whole point of negation, hesychasm, and the possession of the Holy Spirit is that my body can be free to move about in the world as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
And thus we in the temples of the Holy Spirit called our bodies sing penitentially in the words of the kondak hymn for the Second Sunday of the Great Fast, in the fourth tone – the one that does not directly reference Palamas, but is in keeping with spirit of bodily emphasis: The time for action is now revealed; the Judge is at the door. Let us rise then and keep the fast, offering tears of contrition with alms and crying aloud: Our sins are more numerous than the sands of the sea, but forgive us, O Maker of all, that we may receive incorruptible crowns.