06 July 2012

Hesychasts & Books

I have tried to keep this post brief, as I had a number of other things I wanted to do this afternoon, but I did want to try to post something. Maybe this will have to be a two-parter. In his Byzantine Theology, as elsewhere, Fr John Meyendorff contrasts the teachings and figures of the hesychast movement of the 14th century with so-called Byzantine ‘humanists’. Having listed and discussed a number of representatives of the latter category, he writes, ‘For all these intellectuals imbued with “Greek wisdom”, Palamism [1] symbolized a rejection of secular humanism.’ [2] Of course, Fr Meyendorff’s characterisation of the hesychast controversy as essentially a conflict between Byzantine humanists and anti-humanists has been, I think rightly, challenged by a number of Orthodox theologians. But I accept that hesychast teaching did indeed conflict with a certain type of humanism, and that this might have been part of the problem for some of those involved on the anti-hesychast side.

I note this comment of Fr Meyendorff’s, however, because I reread this passage while in the course of doing a little blog-related research that led me to an apparently very contradictory statement. In Thomas Butler’s fantastic anthology of texts and translations, Monumenta Bulgarica, he introduces a piece by one of the prominent hesychastic figures of the Slavic world, Gregory Camblak, with the following observations: ‘Gregory received his early education at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Turnovo. He was taught the reading and close analysis of Greek and Church Slavonic texts, an approach to learning similar to that used by Latin humanists of the time.’ [3]

Now, ‘humanism’ is a notoriously slippery word, [4] and it is obvious that there are two slightly different, if not entirely unrelated, definitions of ‘humanism’ being employed here. The distinctive mark of ‘humanism’ in Fr Meyendorff’s sense seems to be ‘considering Greek philosophy as a criterion of theological thought’. [5] In other words, humanism is primarily philosophical. Butler, on the other hand, is talking about the study of texts. 

But that study of texts is a normal part of the understanding of ‘humanism’ in the West, and it is quite pronounced among the hesychasts. In fact, for a movement said to be opposed to ‘humanism’ even in such a particular sense as it seems to bear for Fr Meyendorff, the hesychasts appear to place an extraordinary emphasis on education and textual study. The Slavic hesychasts, in particular, were well-educated, ‘knew Greek and worked intensively on translations of Greek texts.’ Anthony-Emil Tachiaos goes on to say: 

These were men of a high spiritual and cultural level who, having gone beyond the limits of a broad general education, plunged into the prevailing theological and ideological currents in Byzantine society. Their direct or indirect contact with Gregory Palamas and Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos and their knowledge of these two men’s profound theological work, in which a high level of thought and subtle analysis were expressed through complex theological and philosophical terminology, compelled them to master this terminology so that they might better follow the discussions which were going on around them. [6] 

The content of hesychastic teaching depended on language, and therefore on texts. Butler’s comment on Gregory Camblak presupposes this, as does an interesting footnote of J.M.E. Featherstone on a passage from the Schemamonk Mytrofan’s biography of St Paisius Velichkovsky. Fr Mytrofan writes, ‘I was once in his cell when there was a conversation about books, for it was my obedience to copy books of the fathers according to the rules of grammatical orthography.’ [7] Featherstone gives the Slavonic—which I transliterate, po khudozhestvu gramaticheskago pravopisaniia—and then comments, ‘The technical term for the systematic correction of Slavonic manuscripts, which had been one of the favorite activites [sic] of fourteenth-century hesychasts in Bulgaria.’ [8] In other words, not only was detailed literary activity one of the favorite activities of the hesychasts, they had a standard, ‘technical’ term for this activity. 

St Paisius is of course a much later figure than the original hesychast movement, but he is the heir and disciple of this movement in more ways than one. The biography is very much preoccupied with books. St Paisius is said to have ‘such a gift for copying books as is rarely found anywhere in the world.’ [9] He is said to have read ‘holy Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, Chrysostom’s book, the Pearl, about the unfathomable mysteries of theology, the books of Ephrem and Dorotheus and others’ at the age of ten. [10] Books even become part of the physical setting of the biography. Fr Mytrofan writes, ‘The bed upon which he rested was strewn all about with books: innumerable lexica, the Greek Bible, the Slavonic Bible, Greek and Slavonic grammars, the book from which he was translating, and in the midst of all of them, a candle.’ [11] But none of this is surprising in the light of St Paisius’s teaching about books. In a passage from the Optina edition of the biography, a letter of the great hesychast is quoted as saying: 

I beg you, Father, abandon your empty and vain idea of not reading the patristic books. I praise your way of life and reverence your ascetic labors and receive benefit from your being (on the Holy Mountain). But to all your ascetic labors it is necessary to add understanding and discernment, lest all your labor be in vain. Wherefore, if you wish to be saved yourself and show your disciples the royal path, the doing of Christ’s commandments, which lead to the Kingdom of Heaven, then cling with all your soul to the reading of books. [12] 

Interestingly, in Fr Mytrofan’s portrait of his master, the following of this path leads to a passage that points us once again to the whole issue of philosophy and the life of prayer and asceticism. 

When we looked upon his face, we kept our ears always near his mouth, even as the Athenian philosophers of old did. For whenever they saw someone who excelled in wisdom, they desired to talk with him, and the eyes and ears of all were fixed upon him in their desire to hear some new bit of wisdom. How much more were our eyes fixed upon our blessed philosopher! [13] 

Besides its preoccupation with texts, hesychast humanism also reappropriates the idea of St Nilus’s ‘philosopher’, which I discussed here. Indeed, as I have suggested, the two are closely connected. In Tachiaos’s words: 

The most notable exponents of this movement were Gregory Sinaites, Gregory Palamas, and Philotheos Kokkinos, who, with their followers, engaged in wide-ranging literary activity. These men, and particularly Palamas and Kokkinos, were deeply versed in theological literature, and with their knowledge of classical philosophers and writers made extensive use of the classical language to express ideas which clearly opposed undogmatic liberal humanism. To them humanism was a sterile retrogression, which ignored the hard road the Empire had traveled for centuries in its efforts to guard the faith against the distractions of rationalism and Oriental mysticism. The Hesychast movement, represented by the most brilliant and spiritually dynamic Byzantine personalities, successfully prevailed in the spiritual life of the Byzantine Empire and breathed a new vitality into its final century. [14] 

This may seem rather obscure, but Tachiaos is pointing out that the hesychasts opposed the particular strand of ‘humanism’ in question because it compromised the faith—in St Nilus’s words, we could say that it tries ‘to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both His life and His teaching.’ [15] For St Gregory of Sinai, the primary transmitter of hesychasm to the Slavs, ‘A divine philosopher is he who through ascetic purification and noetic contemplation has achieved a direct union with God, and is a true friend of God, in that he esteems and loves the supreme, creative and true wisdom above every other love, wisdom and knowledge.’ [246.] 

[1] I don’t like this term, by the way. I prefer simply ‘hesychasm’. 

 [2] Fr John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes (NY: Fordham, 1979), p. 106. 

 [3] Thomas Butler, Monumenta Bulgarica: A Bilingual Anthology of Bulgarian Texts from the 9th to the 19th Centuries (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic, 2004), p. 261. 

 [4] Note that today it can mean anything from a Renaissance intellectual who imitates Cicero’s Latin to an atheist who wants to eliminate Christianity from the public square. 

 [5] Fr Meyendorff, p. 105. 

 [6] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 139. 

 [7] J.M.E. Featherstone, tr., The Life of Paisij Velyckovs’kyj (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1989), p. 141.

 [8] Ibid., p. 141. 

 [9] Ibid., p. 141. 

 [10] Ibid., p. 139. 

 [11] Ibid., p. 137. 

 [12] Schema-monk Metrophanes, Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky: The Man Behind the Philokalia, tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Paisius-St Herman, 1994), p. 88. 

[13] Featherstone, p. 148. 

 [14] Tachiaos, p. 138. 

 [15] St Nilus the Ascetic, ‘Ascetic Discourse’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1983), p. 201. 

 [16] St Gregory of Sinai, ‘On Commandments & Doctrines, Warnings & Promises; on Thoughts, Passions & Virtues, & also on Stillness & Prayer: One Hundred & Thirty-Seven Texts’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1995), p. 201.

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