UPDATE August, 2010: Readers coming here from the Byzantine Catholic Forum should go to this post and to this second post for our discussion of the comments on that thread.
We have been asked by an interested party to comment on the practice of Hesychasm in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. We are reluctant to do so since this web log was never, repeat never, intended for ecclesiastical controversy, even as a means to attain notoriety. However, the practice of the Jesus Prayer (or, Hesychasm) in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches does fall within the scope of this web log. So we will speak to this spiritual matter, since from our discussion our readers might be able to grasp something of the nature of the Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm.
The Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, in a few words, came about in this way. When the Orthodox Church and the Western branch of it came to go their separate ways, the papacy developed a theoretical dynamic (theology) of reunion with the papacy: this is intrinsic to the self-understanding of Roman Catholicism. This dynamic took many forms. After the Fourth Crusade there was an attempt through the Council of Lyons (13th Century) to unite ecclesiastically with the papacy a
Byzantine Empire recently conquered by the armies of nations under the jurisdiction of the papacy. That failed. There was another attempt at ecclesiastical union with the independent but failing Byzantine Empire in the Council of Florence (15th Century). This failed. However, in the 15th Century, originally in what is now the Western Ukraine, there was a movement towards union that took another route: through the agency of the Jesuit order, certain Orthodox prelates were induced to sign accords of union with the Roman Pontiff. The treaties spelled out certain rights and obligations for members of the dioceses that were to be united with in this way. Thus were born the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. We are not historians and we may have some details in the above sketch wrong. Rome
Now what interests us is the spirituality practised in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. It can very easily be verified that as a historical fact these Churches, especially the Eastern Rite Churches that arose in the present-day
Western Ukraine, are very heavily Westernized in their everyday spirituality. Some of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, for example the Melkite Churches, are less Westernized in their spirituality. An honest Eastern Rite Catholic cannot deny these things. For verification, one need only visit an Eastern Rite church, look around and talk to a parishioner. However, there is always the question: was this intrinsic to the dynamic of union, or a historical accident?
So that what we are saying makes sense, let us give a few examples. The Basilian Order in the Ukrainian Catholic Church was constructed by the Jesuits out of what they found. Hence, the structure of the Basilian Order is essentially Western. The Order of Studites (monks) in the Ukrainian Catholic Church founded by the Schiptitsky brothers before World War II in the present-day Western Ukraine (please forgive our lack of historical precision; we do not have the sources immediately available) has a rule which is essentially Western. At a house of that order the spirituality was mainly a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, perhaps, the reading of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. All of this, of course, in the context of the celebration in the Byzantine Eastern Rite Catholic Churches of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom with a change that shows the influence of Roman Catholic theology: the Epiclesis is transposed to before the words of institution, because, contrary to the Orthodox teaching, the Roman Catholic Church believes that the consecration takes place at the words of institution, not at the Epiclesis (Invocation of the Holy Spirit). Moreover, although the articles of union permitted the Orthodox practice of a married secular clergy, in the West this was abrogated so as not to cause scandal. (We understand that a married clergy is now permitted in the West in at least some cases.)
Now the devout Eastern Rite Catholic can argue that these are all historical accidents. Indeed, now that the extant Byzantine foundational typikons have all been published, it is to be expected that a new Eastern Rite Catholic monastic foundation would include elements of those typikons. However, is it so simple? Or does Roman Catholic theology (not to mention a historical tendency to a theoretical Latinism that treats the Eastern Rite as a transitional dispensation to be gradually replaced by full Latinization) play a role?
Let us turn to the issue that we want to address, treating all of the above merely as a necessary historical introduction. There are serious differences of opinion between Roman Catholic theology and Orthodox theology concerning the nature of God, the knowability of God, the nature of grace and the nature of man. These are the presuppositions of any mystical psychology. The Orthodox theology has very deep roots, going back even to St Basil the Great and his brother St Gregory of Nyssa (4th Century). The Roman Catholic theology concerning these things was largely formed in the scholastic period, especially by the work of St Thomas Aquinas. Thomism has had a pervasive influence on Roman Catholic theology ever since its formal acceptance by
. True, since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has made an effort to return to its patristic sources. However, the men and women who are going back to those patristic sources have had their mentality, their outlook, formed by centuries of scholastic, primarily Thomist, theology. Rome
As concerns the practice of the Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm, the differences between Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology came to a head in the Hesychast controversy of the 14th Century, in the disputes between St Gregory Palamas and Barlaam, and later Akyndinos. The theology of St Gregory Palamas was vindicated in the Orthodox Church, and his opponent, the originally Orthodox Barlaam, imbued with Western scholastic theology, ended up a Catholic bishop in
. To this day, the Roman Catholic Church has been uneasy with the theology of St Gregory Palamas. In any hypothetical union, it is doubtful whether the Roman Catholic Church would accept to have St Gregory on the church calendar as a saint, even as a local Orthodox saint. Hence, it is extremely doubtful that an Eastern Rite Catholic is ‘on track’ if he accepts Palamite theology. That is, as a member of the Catholic Church, he is obliged to accept the teachings of the Roman Pontiff. However, it is extremely doubtful if that allows him to accept Palamite theology. Italy
The fellow who asked us to comment directed us to this quotation from Pope John Paul II:
The hesychast controversy marked another distinctive moment in Eastern theology. In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquillity of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus. There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method, that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of “theosis”, “divinization”.
This indicates to us that Pope John Paul II did not accept Palamite theology: ‘There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method,…’ When a Roman Catholic speaks of admitting the good intentions of someone, he wants to say that the fellow was wrong, but at least he meant well. We concede that a Roman Pontiff has never pronounced infallibly, so a member of an
might be able to claim that he is not bound in conscience, but that is his own affair with his own conscience. In our view, a member of an Eastern Rite Catholic Church has to clarify within himself just what his theology is, and how it is to be constrained by the principles of Roman Catholic theology. Otherwise he is in danger of a ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ of the right: a picking and choosing without regard to consistency with his own basic principle of allegiance to the Pope. Hence, just how consistent is it for an Eastern Rite Catholic to quote the Abbot of an Athonite monastery? And, indeed, when the Abbot is himself quoting St Gregory Palamas? Are we not just fooling ourselves? Eastern Rite Church
Let us get to the heart of the matter: the role of these theological difference in the practice of the Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm.
Let us first point out that the serious practice of the Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm is a rather isolated event in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. By the ‘serious practice’, we mean, the way that it is practised, say, on Mt Athos by Hesychasts. We recognize that some people pray the Jesus Prayer for an hour a day, either vocally or silently, as a devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus or because of high blood pressure, or even to ask mercy from the Lord.
The first problem is the interpretation of the expression ‘bringing the mind into the heart’. A study of Roman Catholic theology will make it clear that this expression has no meaning in Thomist psychology. It is an absurdity. It can at best, in Thomist psychology, be treated as a metaphor for praying with feeling or intention—for praying with the sentiment—or as a description of a somatic practice. The Orthodox do not mean ‘praying with the sentiment’ when they speak of bringing the mind into the heart, and they do not treat the Jesus Prayer as a somatic practice. There is much more to Hesychasm, and the Orthodox monk means that his mind descends to the physical region of his heart. How is the Eastern Rite Catholic who is being consistent with his own theological principles going to bring his mind into his heart? Is he not just picking and choosing what he wants to hear?
We find this description of Hesychasm in the above remark of Pope John Paul II, who was a neo-Thomist: ‘In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquillity of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus.’ Let us concede that Pope John Paul II was speaking to a general audience and that he might have had a much deeper knowledge of Hesychasm. While the invocation of the name of Jesus (which taken in and of itself is a well-known Roman Catholic practice) is part of the Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm, there is much more to the Orthodox practice than that. The practice of Hesychasm involves a very delicate mental ascesis in conditions of isolation based on refusing tempting thoughts, the result of which mental ascesis is a purity of soul identified by St Hesychios, for example, with the ‘purity of heart’ of the Gospel. Moreover, the reason we bring the mind into the heart is to engage in this mental ascesis in the heart, with our consciousness centred in the heart. This mental ascesis is combined with the uninterrupted repetition of the Jesus Prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When in this way the Hesychast has attained to a practice of the Jesus Prayer in the heart without images—recall that he is through mental ascesis refusing tempting (indeed, all) thoughts—then he is said by St Hesychios to be engaged in the ‘guard of the mind’. It is from the ‘guard of the mind’ that the Hesychast is raised to contemplation. But these concepts simply do not make sense in the context of Roman Catholic mystical psychology. What is the Eastern Rite Catholic to do?
Finally, Pope John Paul II finishes his remark by saying: ‘…that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of “theosis”, “divinization”.’ Now as far as it goes, that is the meaning of theosis or divinization. But there is a problem. In Roman Catholic theology, grace is created. In Orthodox theology, grace is uncreated. Moreover, there are serious issues between Roman Catholic theology and Orthodox theology concerning the nature of the union with God given in mystical experience. Hence, there is implicit in Pope John Paul II’s remark a reinterpretation of the Orthodox concept of divinization into Roman Catholic theological terms. What is the Eastern Rite Catholic going to do?
Basically, the Eastern Rite Catholic has these three options open to him: He can pursue Hesychasm and the full form of the Jesus Prayer in an Orthodox way, at the cost of a deep tension between his spiritual practice and his Catholic identity. Or, he can attempt to reinterpret the Jesus Prayer in a Catholic way—most likely by turning it into a Catholic devotion, since reinterpreting the full Orthodox form of Hesychasm in a Catholic way would require very great theological talent. Or he can drop the Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm, and turn to an essentially Western Catholic spirituality. Historically, very few people have chosen the first alternative; more have chosen the second; and most have chosen the third.
For these reasons, and others, we think that the reason that the Eastern Rite Catholic churches manifest such a Westernized spirituality is not merely historical accident, but an inner dynamic of conformity to Roman Catholic theology and practice.