Hesychasm and the Book of Job
Bill Long 2/4/05
This and the next mini-essay are attempts to explore comparative spirituality. By spirituality I mean an approach to God or a means by which one thinks s/he can reach God. In this essay I am "comparing" the spirituality of one of the most ancient and well-respected traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hesychasm, with the approach to God presented in the Book of Job. Even though the Book of Job is not often considered a classic of the spiritual life, I think that the mode of searching represented in that book gives valuable insight into the human quest for God's presence.
A Primer on Hesychasm
Central to understanding Eastern Christian spirituality in the Hesychast tradition, a tradition that goes back to the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century and was systematized and developed by Gregory Palamas and Barlaam in the 14th centuries, is the notion that it is a journey of the soul to God through a three-step process. This process will be similar to the five-stage mystical process articulated by many Western mystics--awakening, purgation, illumunation, dark night of the soul, and union with God-- but it uses different vocabulary. But if you understand what the process is designed to accomplish, the exact vocabulary is not that essential. The first step is to detach ourselves from the passions and emotions with which we are preoccupied by virtue of our normal life in the world. This is harder that you might think, and the Hesychasts recognize this, but is an essential part of the transformation (Greek "metanoia") from an "ego-centered" to an "ego-transcendent" life. They have what are called "outer" and "inner" practices to enable a person to do this.
The second step is to "be quiet" (the word Hesychasm comes from the Greek verb "to be quiet"). What this means is not so much that one is speechless, but that one begins to orient oneself to a new reality. Once the sounds of our passions and mind have stopped making insistent demands on us, we are ready to be quiet. We are not yet fully ready for the fulness of the new spiritual reality (you've got to wait for step three for this), but you have to learn to be quiet for a while. One guide says that this is the stage which requires detachment from "the discursive intellect and the imagination" but I think those words actually confuse the issue. What the "stillness" stage is about is really learning how to orient yourself to the new and transcendent reality of God's presence. A secular illustration of this might help.
I made a major life transition in 2003 when I left legal practice. From 2000-2003 I lived my life focused on the needs of clients and the rigors of litigation practice. But I knew that I wanted something different, where I didn't feel that my day was determined by the insistent cries of clients or the demands of a court schedule. When I left my work at the end of January 2003, however, I realized that I was not nearly ready to enter the next stage of my life. Indeed, I was not sure what that next step exactly would entail. There was too much "momentum" still from my previous work. Despite the fact that I knew I needed time to sort out some basic life issues, I tried, however, to "plunge back in" right away. I set up new work schedules and assigned projects to myself.
Gradually I began to realize that in order to hear the inner voices telling me where the next step was I needed to stop everything and just be quiet. I needed to take time, goalless time, so to speak, time in which I simply "read around" or "talked aimlessly" or broke the routine in order to make sure that the former life was completely out of my system before I could intelligently face the future. It took almost a year before I felt that I was onto a new path that "fit" me. Several times I tried to rush the process, since I am an achievement and goal-oriented person. But, finally, I realized it was best to listen to the full scope of my heart's longings and try to honor them, if possible, rather than simply to rush into something that "looks good." Though I did not practice the spiritual disciplines which Hesychasts would no doubt have suggested for the time of quiet, I believe that in that time of quiet my "secular" methods of listening to myself were probably equivalent to what the Hesychasts would recommend for the stage of quiet.
The third step, what we are all working for in Hesychasm, is union with God. The Greek word (theosis) suggests also a kind of "sharing in divinity," "God-likeness," or even "deification." The Western and Eastern tradition usually part company on this one, since the Western tradition in spirituality has such a commitment to the continuing reality of human sin (thanks to Augustine for this) that it cannot contemplate people becoming deified or "godlike." Many people in the West, especially men, feel that they are divinities already, or at least that they are worthy of worship, even without pursuing a course in spirituality. But I am not referring to these guys.
Probably the most important tool of the Hesychasts in working through these levels of spiritual awareness is what is called the "Jesus Prayer." The one aspiring to theosis is to say repeatedly "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." Some also would add the words "a sinner" at the end, though the closer you get to God in the process of theosis the less you probably want to emphasize that. The Jesus Prayer is not simply a Western "mantra," however, at least as they explain it. It is to be said with feeling and understanding. It is the resource that fuels the journey.
With this brief and chatty introduction to a great spiritual tradition, let's consider how Job would approach the spiritual life.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long