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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • Byzantium: The Great Schism
      • Two attempts at reunion; the hesychast controversy
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Two attempts at reunion; the hesychast controversy

  In 1204 the Crusaders set up a short-lived Latin kingdom at Constantinople, which came to

an end in 1261 when the Greeks recovered their capital. Byzantium survived for two centuries

more, and these years proved a time of great cultural, artistic, and religious revival. But politi-

cally and economically the restored Byzantine Empire was in a precarious state, and found itself

more and more helpless in the face of the Turkish armies which pressed upon it from the east.

  Two important attempts were made to secure reunion between the Christian east and west,

the first in the thirteenth and the second in the fifteenth century. The moving spirit behind the


first attempt was Michael VIII (reigned 1259-1282), the Emperor who recovered Constantinople.

While doubtless sincerely desiring Christian unity on religious grounds, his motive was also po-

litical: threatened by attacks from Charles of Anjou, sovereign of Sicily, he desperately needed

the support and protection of the Papacy,  which could best be secured through  a union of the

Churches. A reunion Council was held at Lyons in 1274. The Orthodox delegates who attended

agreed to  recognize the  Papal claims  and to  recite the Creed with the  filioque. But the union

proved no more than an agreement on paper, since it was fiercely rejected by the overwhelming

majority of clergy and laity in the Byzantine Church, as well as by Bulgaria and the other Ortho-

dox countries. The general reaction to the Council of Lyons was summed up in words attributed

to the Emperor.s sister: .Better that my brother.s Empire should perish,  than the purity of the

Orthodox faith.. The union of Lyons was formally repudiated by Michael.s successor, and Mi-

chael himself, for his .apostasy,. was deprived of Christian burial.

  Meanwhile  east  and  west  continued  to  grow  further  apart  in  their  theology  and  in  their

whole manner of understanding the Christian life. Byzantium continued to live in a Patristic at-

mosphere, using the ideas and language of the Greek Fathers of the fourth century. But in west-

ern Europe the tradition of the Fathers was replaced by Scholasticism . that great synthesis of

philosophy and theology worked out in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Western theologians

now came to employ new categories of thought, a new theological method, and a new terminol-

ogy which the east did not understand. To an ever-increasing extent the two sides were losing a

common .universe of discourse..

  Byzantium on its side also contributed to this process: here too there were theological de-

velopments in which the west had neither part nor share, although there was nothing so radical as

the Scholastic revolution. These theological developments were connected chiefly with the He-

sychast Controversy, a dispute which arose at Byzantium in the middle of the fourteenth century,

and which involved the doctrine of God.s nature and the methods of prayer used in the Orthodox


  To understand the Hesychast Controversy, we must turn back for the moment to the earlier

history of eastern mystical theology. The main features of this mystical theology were worked

out by Clement (died 215) and by Origen of Alexandria (died 253-254), whose ideas were devel-

oped in the fourth century by the Cappadocians, especially Gregory of Nyssa, and by their disci-

ple Evagrius of Pontus (died 399), a monk in the Egyptian desert. There are two trends in this

mystical theology, not exactly opposed, but certainly at first sight inconsistent: the .way of nega-

tion. and the .way of union.. The way of negation . apophatic theology, as it is often called .

speaks of God in negative terms. God cannot be properly apprehended by man.s mind; human

language, when applied to Him, is always inexact. It is therefore less misleading to use negative

language about God rather than positive . to refuse to say what God is, and to state simply what

He is not. As Gregory of Nyssa put it: .The true knowledge and vision of God consist in this .

in seeing that He is invisible, because  what we  seek lies beyond  all knowledge, being wholly

separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility. (The Life of Moses, 2, 163 [77A]).

  Negative theology reaches its classic expression in the so-called .Dionysian. writings. For

many centuries these books were thought to be  the work of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite,

Paul.s convert at Athens (Acts 17:34); but they are in fact by an unknown author, who probably

lived towards the end of the fifth century  and  belonged to circles sympathetic to the Mono-

physites. Saint Maximus the Confessor (died 662) composed commentaries on the Dionysian

writings, and so ensured for them a permanent place in Orthodox theology. Dionysius has also

had a great influence on the west: it has been reckoned that he is quoted 1,760 times by Thomas


Aquinas in the Summa, while a fourteenth-century English chronicler records that the Mystical

Theology of Dionysius .ran through England like the wild deer.. The  apophatic language of

Dionysius was repeated by many others. .God is infinite and incomprehensible,. wrote John of

Damascus, .and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility..

God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is

above all existing things, nay even above existence itself (On the Orthodox Faith 1, 4 [P.G. xciv, 800B]).

  This emphasis on God.s transcendence would seem at first sight to exclude any direct ex-

perience of God. But in fact many of those who made greatest use of negative theology . Greg-

ory of Nyssa, for example, or Dionysius, or Maximus . also believed in the possibility of a true

mystical union with God; they combined the .way of negation. with the .way of union,. with

the tradition of the mystics or hesychasts. (The name hesychast is derived from the Greek word

hesychia, meaning .quiet.. A hesychast is one who in silence devotes himself to inner recollec-

tion and secret prayer). While using the apophatic language of negative theology, these writers

claimed an immediate experience of the unknowable God, a personal union with Him who is un-

approachable. How were the two .ways. to be reconciled? How can God be both knowable and

unknowable at once?

  This was one of the questions which was posed in an acute form in the fourteenth century.

Connected with it was another, the question of the body and its place in prayer. Evagrius, like

Origen,  sometimes  borrowed  too  heavily  from  Platonism:  he  wrote  of  prayer  in  intellectual

terms, as an activity of the mind rather than of the whole man, and he seemed to allow no posi-

tive role to man.s body  in the process of redemption and deification.  But the balance between

mind and body is redressed in another ascetic writing, the Macarian Homilies. (These were tradi-

tionally  attributed to Saint Macarius of Egypt [300?-390], but it is now thought that they were

written in Syria during the late fourth or the beginning of the fifth century). The Macarian Homi-

lies revert to a more Biblical idea of man . not a soul imprisoned in a body (as in Greek

thought), but a single and united whole, soul and body together. Where Evagrius speaks of the

mind, Macarius uses the Hebraic idea of the heart. The change of emphasis is significant, for the

heart includes the whole man . not only intellect, but will, emotions, and even body.

  Using .heart. in this Macarian sense, Orthodox often talk about .Prayer of the Heart.. What

does the phrase mean? When a man begins to  pray, at  first he prays with the lips, and has to

make  a  conscious  intellectual  effort  in  order  to  realize  the meaning  of what  he  says.  But  if  he

perseveres, praying continually  with recollection, his intellect and his heart become united; he

.finds the place of the heart,. his spirit acquires the power of .dwelling in the heart,. and so his

prayer  becomes  .prayer  of  the  heart..  It  becomes  something  not  merely  said  by  the  lips,  not

merely thought by the intellect, but offered spontaneously by the whole being of man . lips,

intellect, emotions, will, and body. The prayer fills the entire consciousness, and no longer has to

be forced out, but says itself. This Prayer of the Heart cannot be attained simply through our own

efforts, but is a gift conferred by the grace of God.

  When Orthodox writers use the term .Prayer of the Heart,. they usually have in mind one

particular prayer, the Jesus Prayer. Among Greek spiritual writers,  first Diadochus of Photice

(mid-fifth century) and later Saint John Climacus of Mount Sinai (579?-649?) recommended, as

a specially valuable form of prayer, the constant repetition or remembrance of the name .Jesus..

In course of time the Invocation of the Name became crystallized into a short sentence, known as

the Jesus Prayer: .Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. (In modern Orthodox practice

the Prayer sometimes ends, ..have mercy on me a sinner.). By the thirteenth century (if not before), the

recitation of the Jesus Prayer had become linked to certain physical exercises, designed to assist


concentration. Breathing was carefully regulated in time with the Prayer, and a particular bodily

posture was recommended: head bowed, chin resting on the chest, eyes fixed on the place of the

heart. (There are interesting parallels between the Hesychast .method. and Hindu Yoga or Mohammedan Dhikr;

but  the  points  of  similarity must  not  be  pressed  too  far).  This is often called  .the Hesychast method of

prayer,. but it should not be thought that for the Hesychasts these exercises constituted the es-

sence of prayer. They were regarded, not as an end in themselves, but as a help to concentration

. as an accessory useful to some, but not obligatory upon all. The Hesychasts knew that there

can be no mechanical means of acquiring God.s grace, and no techniques leading automatically

to the mystical state.

  For the Hesychasts of Byzantium, the culmination of mystical experience was the vision of

Divine and Uncreated Light. The works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), the

greatest of the Byzantine mystics, are full of this .Light mysticism.. When he writes of his own

experiences, he speaks again and again of the Divine Light: .fire truly divine,. he calls it, .fire

uncreated and invisible, without beginning and immaterial.. The Hesychasts believed that this

light which  they  experienced was  identical  with  the Uncreated Light  which  the  three  disciples

saw surrounding Jesus at His Transfiguration on Mount Thabor. But how was this vision of Di-

vine Light to be reconciled with the apophatic doctrine of God the transcendent and unapproach-


  All these questions concerning the transcendence of God, the role of the body in prayer, and

the Divine Light came to a head in the middle of the fourteenth century. The Hesychasts were

violently attacked by a learned Greek from Italy, Barlaam the Calabrian, who stated the doctrine

of God.s .otherness. and unknowability in an extreme form. It is sometimes suggested that Bar-

laam was influenced here by the Nominalist philosophy that was current in the west at this date;

but more probably he derived his teaching from Greek sources. Starting from a one-sided exege-

sis of Dionysius, he  argued that God can only  be known  indirectlyHesychasm  (so  he main-

tained) was wrong to speak of an immediate experience of God, for any such experience is im-

possible. Seizing on the bodily exercises which the Hesychasts employed, Barlaam accused them

of holding a grossly materialistic conception of prayer. He was also scandalized by their claim to

attain a vision of the Divine and Uncreated Light: here again he charged them with falling into a

gross materialism. How can a man see God.s essence with his bodily eyes? The light which the

Hesychasts beheld, in his view, was not the eternal light of the Divinity, but a temporary and cre-

ated light.

  The defense of the Hesychasts was taken up by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Arch-

bishop of Thessalonica. He upheld a doctrine of man which allowed for the use of bodily exer-

cises in prayer, and he argued, against Barlaam,  that the Hesychasts did indeed experience the

Divine and Uncreated Light of Thabor. To explain how this was possible, Gregory developed the

distinction between the  essence and the energies of God.  It was Gregory.s achievement to set

Hesychasm on a firm dogmatic basis, by integrating it into Orthodox theology as a whole, and by

showing how the Hesychast vision of Divine Light in no way undermined the apophatic doctrine

of God. His teaching was confirmed by two councils held at Constantinople in 1341 and 1351,

which, although local and not Ecumenical, yet possess a doctrinal authority in Orthodox theol-

ogy scarcely inferior to  the Seven General Councils themselves. But western Christendom has

never officially recognized these two councils, although many western Christians personally ac-

cept the theology of Palamas.

  Gregory began by reaffirming the Biblical doctrine of man and of the Incarnation. Man is a

single, united whole: not only man.s mind but the whole man was created in the image of God


(P.G. cl, 1361C). Man.s body is not an enemy, but partner and collaborator with his soul. Christ, by

taking a human body at the Incarnation, has .made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctifi-

cation. (Homily 16 [P.G. cli, 193B]). Here Gregory took up and developed the ideas implicit in earlier

writings, such as the Macarian Homilies; the same emphasis on man.s body, as we have seen,

lies behind the Orthodox doctrine of icons. Gregory went on to apply this doctrine of man to the

Hesychast methods of prayer: the Hesychasts, so he argued, in placing such emphasis on the part

of the body in prayer, are not guilty of a gross materialism but are simply remaining faithful to

the Biblical doctrine of man as a unity. Christ took human flesh and saved the whole man; there-

fore it is the whole man . body and soul together . that prays to God.

  From this Gregory turned to the main problem: how to combine the two affirmations, that

man knows God and that God is by nature unknowable. Gregory answered: we know the ener-

gies of God, but not His essence. This distinction between God.s essence (ousia) and His ener-

gies goes back to the Cappadocian Fathers. .We know our God from His energies,. wrote Saint

Basil, .but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence. For His energies come down to

us, but His essence remains unapproachable. (Letter 234, 1). Gregory accepted this distinction. He

affirmed, as emphatically as any exponent of negative theology, that God is in essence absolutely

unknowable. .God is not a nature,. he wrote, .for He is above all nature; He is not a being, for

He is  above  all beings.. No single thing of  all that is created has or  ever will have even the

slightest communion with the supreme nature, or nearness to it. (P.G. cl, 1176C). But however re-

mote from us in His essence, yet in His energies God has revealed Himself to men. These ener-

gies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon men: they

are  God  Himself  in  His  action  and  revelation  to  the  worldGod  exists  complete  and  entire  in

each of His divine energies. The  world, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, is charged with the

grandeur of God; all creation is a gigantic Burning Bush, permeated but not consumed by the

ineffable and wondrous fire of God.s energies. (Compare Maximus, Ambigua, P.G. xci, 1148D).

  It  is  through  these  energies  that God enters  into  a  direct  and immediate  relationship  with

mankind.  In relation to man, the divine energy  is in fact nothing else than the  grace of God;

grace is not just a .gift. of God, not just an object which God bestows on men, but a direct mani-

festation of the living  God Himself, a personal confrontation between creature and Creator.

.Grace signifies all the abundance of the divine nature, in so far as it is communicated to men.

(V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 162). When we say that the saints have been

transformed or .deified. by the grace of God, what we mean is that they have a direct experience

of God Himself. They know God . that is to say, God in His energies, not in His essence.

  God is Light, and therefore the experience of God.s energies takes the form of Light. The

vision which the Hesychasts receive is (so Palamas argued) not a vision of some created light,

but of the Light of the Godhead Itself . the same Light of the Godhead which surrounded Christ

on Mount Thabor. This Light is not a sensible or material light, but it can be seen with physical

eyes (as by the disciples at the Transfiguration), since when a man is deified, his bodily faculties

as well as his soul are transformed. The Hesychasts. vision of Light is therefore a true vision of

God in His divine energies; and they are quite correct in identifying it with the Uncreated Light

of Thabor.

  Palamas, therefore, preserved God.s transcendence and avoided the pantheism to which an

unguarded mysticism easily leads; yet he allowed for God.s immanence, for His continual pres-

ence in the world. God  remains .the Wholly  Other,.  and  yet through His energies  (which  are

God Himself) He enters into an immediate relationship with the world. God is a living God, the

God of history, the God of the Bible, who became Incarnate in Christ. Barlaam, in excluding all


direct knowledge of God and in asserting that the Divine Light is something created, set too wide

a gulf between God and man. Gregory.s fundamental concern in opposing Barlaam was therefore

the same as that of Athanasius and the General Councils: to safeguard man.s direct approach to

God, to uphold man.s  full deification and  entire redemption. That same doctrine of salvation

which underlay the disputes about the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and the Holy Icons, lies also

at the heart of the Hesychast controversy.

  .Into the closed world of Byzantium,. wrote Dom Gregory Dix, .no really fresh impulse

ever came after the sixth century. Sleep began. in the ninth century, perhaps even earlier, in

the sixth.  (The  Shape  of  the  LiturgyLondon1945p548). The Byzantine  controversies of the  four-

teenth century amply demonstrate the falsity of  such an assertion. Certainly Gregory Palamas

was no revolutionary innovator, but firmly rooted in the tradition of the past; yet he was a crea-

tive theologian of the first rank, and his work shows that Orthodox theology did not cease to be

active after the eighth century and the seventh Ecumenical Council.

  Among the contemporaries of Gregory Palamas was the lay theologian Nicholas Cabasilas,

who was sympathetic to the Hesychasts, although not closely involved in the controversy. Ca-

basilas is the author of a Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, which has become the classic Or-

thodox work on this subject; he also wrote a treatise on the sacraments entitled The Life in Jesus

Christ. The writings of Cabasilas are marked by two things in particular: a vivid sense of the per-

son of Christ .the Saviour,. who, as he puts it, .is closer to us than our own soul. (P.G. cl, 712A);

and a  constant emphasis upon the sacraments. For him the mystical life  is essentially  a life in

Christ and a life in the sacraments. There is a danger that mysticism may become speculative and

individualist . divorced from the historical revelation in Christ and from the corporate life of

the Church with its sacraments; but the mysticism of Cabasilas is always Christocentric, sacra-

mental, ecclesial. His work shows how closely mysticism and the sacramental life were linked

together in Byzantine theology. Palamas and his circle did not regard mystical prayer as a means

of bypassing the normal institutional life of the Church.


  A second reunion Council was held at Florence in 1438-1439. The Emperor John VIII

(reigned 1425-1448) attended in person, together with the Patriarch of Constantinople and a large

delegation from the Byzantine Church, as well as representatives from the other Orthodox

Churches. There were prolonged discussions, and a genuine attempt was made by both sides to

reach  a true agreement on the great points of dispute. At the same time it was difficult for the

Greeks  to  discuss  theology  dispassionately,  for  they  knew  that  the  political  situation  had  now

become desperate: the only hope of defeating the Turks lay in help from the west. Eventually a

formula of union was drawn up, covering the filioque, Purgatory, azymes, and the Papal claims;

and this was signed by all the Orthodox present at the Council except one . Mark, Archbishop

of Ephesus, later canonized by the Orthodox Church. The Florentine Union was based on a two-

fold principle: unanimity in matters of doctrine, respect for the legitimate rites and traditions pe-

culiar to each Church. Thus in matters of doctrine, the Orthodox accepted the Papal claims (al-

though here the wording of the formula of union was vague and ambiguous); they accepted the

filioque; they accepted the Roman teaching on Purgatory (as a point of dispute between east and

west, this only came into the open in the thirteenth century). But so far as .azymes. were con-

cerned, no uniformity was demanded: Greeks were allowed to use leavened bread, while Latins

were to continue to employ unleavened.

  But the Union of Florence, though celebrated throughout western Europe . bells were rung

in all the parish churches of England . proved no more of a reality in the east than its predeces-


sor at Lyons. John VIII and his successor Constantine XI, the last Emperor of Byzantium and the

eightieth in succession since Constantine the Great, both remained loyal to the union; but they

were powerless to enforce it on their subjects, and did not even dare to proclaim it publicly  at

Constantinople until 1452. Many of those who signed at Florence revoked their signatures when

they reached home. The decrees of the Council were never accepted by more than a minute frac-

tion of the Byzantine clergy and people. The Grand Duke Lucas Notaras, echoing the words of

the Emperor.s sister after Lyons, remarked: .I would rather see the Moslem turban in the midst

of the city than the Latin miter..

  John and Constantine had hoped that the Union of Florence would secure them military help

from the west, but small indeed was the help which they actually received. On 7 April 1453 the

Turks began to attack Constantinople by land and sea. Outnumbered by more than twenty to one,

the Byzantines maintained a brilliant but hopeless defense for seven long weeks.  In the early

hours of 29 May the last Christian service was held in the great Church of the Holy Wisdom. It

was a united service of Orthodox and Roman Catholics, for at this moment of crisis the support-

ers and opponents of the Florentine Union forgot their differences. The Emperor went out after

receiving  communion, and died fighting on the  walls.  Later the same day  the  city  fell to the

Turks, and the most glorious church in Christendom became a mosque.

  It  was  the  end  of  the  Byzantine  Empire.  But  it  was  not  the  end  of  the  Patriarchate  of

Constantinople, far less the end of Orthodoxy.


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