Hesychasm in Orthodox Christian Tradition

Venerable John the Anchorite of Egypt

Venerable John the Anchorite of Egypt

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


Hesychasm (Greek ησυχασμός, from ησυχία) is a mystical tradition of prayer in the Orthodox Church. It is described in great deal in the Philokalia, a compilation of what various Saints wrote about prayer and the spiritual life.

Hesychastic Practice

Hesychasm may involve specific body postures, and may be accompanied by deliberate breathing exercises. It involves acquiring an "inner stillness," ignoring the senses. The Hesychasts interpreted Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Saint Matthew to "go into your closet to pray" to mean that they should move beyond the senses and to withdraw inwards to pray. Hesychasm often includes repeating the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me [a sinner]."

Saint Gregory Palamas: Defender of Hesychasm

Hesychasm was defended theologically by Saint Gregory Palamas at about three separate "Hesychast Synods" in Constantinople from 1341 to 1351. Saint Gregory was asked to by his fellow monks on Mt. Athos to defend it from the attacks of Barlaam of Calbria, who advocated a more intellectualist approach to prayer.

by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

It is time to consider a controversial topic, where the teaching of the Byzantine Hesychasts is often misinterpreted--the role of the body in prayer.

The heart, it has been said, is the primary organ of our being, the point of convergence between mind and matter, the center alike of our physical constitution and our psychic and spiritual structure. Since the heart has this twofold aspect, at once visible and invisible, prayer of the heart is prayer of body as well as soul: only if it includes the body can it be truly prayer of the whole person. A human being, in the biblical view, is a psychosomatic totality--not a soul imprisoned in a body and seeking to escape, but an integral unity of the two. The body is not just an obstacle to be overcome, a lump of matter to be ignored, but it has a positive part to play in the spiritual life and it is endowed with energies that can be harnessed for the work of prayer.

If this is true of prayer in general, it is true in a more specific way of the Jesus Prayer, since this is an invocation addressed precisely to God Incarnate, to the Logos/Word made flesh. Christ at His Incarnation took not only a human mind and will but a human body, and so He has made flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification. How can this flesh, which to God-man has made Spirit-bearing, participate in the Invocation of the Name and in the payer of the intellect in the heart?

To assist such participation, and as an aid to concentration the Hesychasts evolved a 'physical technique.' Every psychic activity, they realized, has repercussions on the physical and bodily level; depending on our inner state we grow hot or cold, we breathe faster or more slowly, the rhythm of our heart-beat quickens or decelerates, and so on. Conversely, each alteration in our physical condition reacts adversely or positively on our psychic processes, this can be used to strengthen our inner concentration in prayer. Such is the basic principle underlying the Hesychast 'method'. In detail, the physical technique has three main aspects:

1)     External posture. St. Gregory of Sinai advises sitting on a low stool, about nine inches high; the head and shoulders be bowed, and the eyes fixed on the place of the heart. He recognizes that this will prove exceedingly uncomfortable after time. Some writers recommend a yet more exacting posture, with the head held between the knees, following the example of Elijah on Mount Carmel.

2)     Control of the breathing. The breathing is to be made slower and at the same time coordinated with the rhythm of the Prayer. Often the first part, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God', is said while drawing in the breath, and the second part, 'have mercy on me a sinner', while breathing out. Other methods are possible. The recitation of the Prayer may also be synchronized with the beating of the heart.

3)     Inward exploration. Just as the aspirant in Yoga is taught to concentrate his thought in specific parts of his body, so the Hesychast concentrates his thought in the cardiac center. While inhaling through his nose and propelling his breath down into his lungs, he makes his intellect 'descend' with the breath and he 'searches' inwardly for the place of the heart. Exact instructions concerning this exercise are not committed to writing for fear they should be misunderstood; the details of the process are so delicate that the personal guidance of an experienced master is indispensable. The beginner who, in the absence of such guidance, attempts to search for the cardiac center, is in danger of directing his thought unawares into the area which lies immediately below the heart--into the abdomen, that is an the entrails, the effect on his prayer is disastrous, for this lower region is the source of the carnal thoughts and sensations which pollute the mind and the heart.

For obvious reasons the utmost discretion is necessary when interfering with instinctive bodily activities such as the drawing of breath or the beating of the heart. Misuse of the physical technique can damage someone's health and disturb his mental equilibrium; hence the importance of a reliable master. If no such starets is available, it is best for the beginner to restrict himself simply to the actual recitation of the Jesus Prayer, without troubling at all about the rhythm of his breath or his heart-beats. More often than not he will find that, without any conscious effort on his part, the words of the Invocation adapt themselves spontaneously to the movement of his breathing. If this does not in fact happen, there is no cause for alarm; let him continue quietly with the work of mental invocation.

The physical techniques are in any case no more than an accessory, an aid which has proved helpful to some but which is in no sense obligatory upon all. The Jesus Prayer can be practiced in its fullness without any physical methods at all. Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359 A.D.), while regarding the use of physical techniques as theologically defensible, treated such methods as something secondary and suited mainly for beginners. For him, as for all the Hesychast masters, the essential thing is not the external control of the breathing but the inner and secret invocation of the Lord Jesus.

Orthodox writers in the last 150 years have in general laid little emphasis upon the physical techniques. The counsel given by Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov (1807-67) is typical:

"We advise our beloved brethren not to try to establish this technique 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 mind with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time, determined by God. The breathing technique is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the Prayer, by a short rest or pause at the end, each time it is said, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the mind in the words of the Prayer. By means of these aids we can easily attain to a certain degree of attention."

As regards the speed of recitation, Bishop Ignatii suggests:

To say the Jesus Prayer a hundred times attentively and without haste, about half an hour is needed, but some ascetics require even longer. Do not say the prayers hurriedly, one immediately after another. Make a short pause after each prayer, and so help the mind to concentrate. Saying the Prayer without pauses distracts the mind, breathe with care, gently and slowly.


"One becomes a child of God, born of God in the Church through baptism. One continues as a child of God and does not sin only by continual prayer, the remembrance of God, the abiding in Him, the calling upon His name without ceasing in the soul".

A 7th century Orthodox Saint and mystic Saint Isaac of Syria said that silence is a mystery of the age to come. Hesychasm is opened to the eternity and even in this age it allows us to partake in the sacrament of the "Divine Silence".

"It is the inner chamber where, in secret, the heavenly Father sees us through and through. It is where we attain inner honesty, humility, integration, and purity of heart…"

*Nepsis is the kind of sober-minded vigilance that characterizes the ascetic life of the Fathers. It is usually translated as watchfulness. The adjective is neptic.

*Hesychia means stillness, and the practice of stillness in the presence of God is called Hesychasm.




The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George