Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Somatopsychic techniques in Greek Orthodox Christianity

The Guild of Pastoral Psychology Guild lecture No. 95
February 1957
Theme: Prayer, Spiritual life, The body   Place: Churches, religious bodies   Period: 1956-1960   Genre: Talk


Christians of the Orthodox Church have attached meaning and value to certain techniques which have been found to aid spiritual attainment. For convenience, three principal groups of ascetic exercises may be distinguished.

(a) The first group relate only to the body and affect the soul (psyche) and the spirit (pneuma) only indirectly, in the degree to which the “total” man is modified by them. These are the socalled “mortification” exercises: fasting, vigil, taxing labour, chastity, etc.

(b) The second group habituate the body to certain exigencies which have direct repercussions on the psychic life and indirect on the spiritual. These are scarcely known in the Occident and will form the substance of this article.

(c) The last are ascetic exercises which put man’s psychic powers to work and have bodily repercussions. These essentially consist in meditation and certain forms of prayer, and fall outside the frame of our subject.

  1. Mortificational Ascesis

Man was created from naught: this is the prime verity with which Biblical revelation confronts us. Man has no ontological basis either in himself, or in God. Nothing preceded the cosmos of which man is an integral part; and no genetic bond links man to his Creator. The “chaos” of ancient discourse was only a relative nothingness, that of nullity rather than that of nonbeing. It is a vague and formless “being,” described to us by the second verse of the Book of Genesis: “The earth was formless and void; there was darkness over the surface” (oil, according to Edmond Fleg, “Now the earth was flood and chaos; and dark lay upon the face of the abyss”), for, to antiquity, ordered being alone had existence. Real, absolute nothing­ness, that which precedes the creation of the first creature, exceeds the capabilities of natural thought, for it is not absence, void, or even reduction of being to imperceptibility. It is, on the contrary, the Presence par excellence of the Unique, of the Only Real, Transcendent and Unknown until He wills to reveal Himself. Chaos is vacuity of the created; what precedes the appearance of the creature is plenitude of the Uncreated, which God alone knows and reveals. No common standard exists, no natural filiation between God and man, whose only fulcrum is the divine will. This, if accepted, gives him access to life – which is par­ticipation in God’s life. And it is to the whole man that this life is offered: as body, soul, and spirit he is called to know God, to commune with divine life. For it is the total man who is in the image of God.

To attain his highest end, the created being must then open himself to God, transcend his own limitation, and expand to the limitless dimension of the Uncreated. But besides this ontological task, another has devolved on man ever since his Fall: having become less than man, he must rebecome what he originally was, before he can accomplish his vocation and fully respond to the call of his God.

The harmony of human nature implies a hierarchy of its constituent parts. The body should be subject to the soul (psyche) and the latter to the spirit (pneuma); man’s spirit (nephesh) communes, in turn, with the breath, God’s Spirit in man (rouah), life force and source of his immortality. As long as this hierarchy is not destroyed, man remains “like” God, his “fellow”: he is capable of receiving God and of manifesting Him.

But man is created “sovereign”: he can determine his own destiny. His very contingency insures his independence. No inner need constrained God to call him into existence; superfluous to the plenitude of the divine being, he is set before his Creator. If he fails Him, if he turns aside, it is the integrity of his nature that he risks and endangers. He can cease to be like unto God or can unite with Him. In the former case, anyone wishing to realize his vocation will face, in addition to the ontological task of transcending the created, a new task: recovery of the lost harmony.

Within the limits of the present article, it is neither possible nor desirable to go into all the terms of the Fall, but for the point we are making, it is of interest to note that the Fall was at once sudden and progressive: “and death was implanted little by little” says the Book of Genesis. It was sudden, in that a deep and irremediable change at once took place which we may define as “fragmentation.” God and man found themselves sundered one from the other; God’s Spirit in man (rouah) became not only different from man’s spirit (nephesh), but foreign to it. It ceased to be the life source and man left to himself could only die.

The triple hierarchic harmony of body, soul, and spirit was broken the moment the spirit of man ceased to be the channel through which life poured into the soul and vivified the body. And, cut off from the divine source of eternal life, man had to seek support for his existence in the natural order. We read in the second chapter of Genesis (Verse 16): “Thou mayest eat of all the trees of the garden.” But after the Fall: “The soil shall be cursed because of thee: by labour and trouble shalt thou derive nourishment therefrom all the days of thy life… and thou shalt eat the grass of the fields. “Instead of communing with the life of God, Adam must share in the life of the material world and by this fact integrate himself with it until the day when the earth shall take back that which belongs to it.”… Until thy return to the earth whence thou wert taken: for dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

This is only the first stage, however, in that integration of man with the material from which he was to have disengaged himself – or rather into which he was to have integrated the divine Spirit. “My Spirit shall not remain always in man for man is but flesh… ” (Gen. 6: 3). Once separated from God, man is on the downgrade, driven by the spirit of evil whose slave he has become: “The Eternal saw that the wickedness of men was great upon the earth and that all the thoughts of their heart were directed each day only unto evil” (Gen. 6: 5) and the deluge came. And when only those remained alive who had not been corrupted by evil, but who had nonetheless inherited degeneration from their parents, the Lord “said to Noah and to his sons … you shall be for a fear and a dread to every animal of the earth and to all fish of the sea: they are delivered into your hands; all that moves and has life shall serve you for food; all this I give unto you like as the green grass.”

This right to eat all “that which moves and has life” appears then as the cruel ransom of an increasing forfeiture, not as a dignity conferred on man. Incapable of living by the grace of God, with no intrinsic life, man has since that time depended completely on the created world, upon matter, in which he has become more and more involved. From it he derives his life and his death, a precarious and momentary life whose end is his going back to dust.

To return to life will then mean among other things to break the hold of matter, to become once more “autonomous.” “Alas! I have rendered my flesh lusty and lo, it wages war against the Spirit,” declares an Orthodox hymn. The opposition of the two terms flesh and body is striking and clear: flesh is the body destitute of divine life and maintaining its existence only in the material order; body is the human material permeated by the Spirit of God, restored to harmony and liberated from servitudes familiar to its fallen nature but alien through its vocation.

The struggle against the flesh is then a struggle for the revivification of the body, and the term mortification acquires its true value. What must be killed is servile passion; what must be destroyed is servitude. We belong to the fallen world which succeeded the antediluvian world and must do more than renounce what is for us the source of life in order to acquire a new life. The mortification ascesis makes sense only as associated with a constructive ascesis which fits us to receive the divine life and to “live by the Word of God.” It is possible only if while casting off the material world we are also gaining a foothold in the divine world; and progress in this second direction must precede the work of renunciation or at least advance parallel to it, failing which the “flesh” dies before the “body” has returned to life.

The divers elements of this ascesis – fasting, continence, vigil, work – require no commentary. Each has its special value and they may not be used indiscriminately. If, on the one hand, fasting, carried to the limits of individual abilities, gives the intelligence an acuity and refulgence unknown without it, on the other hand fasting restores man to himself and aids him to make “his psychic being coincide with the limits of his body.” The thirst (?) ascesis is a necessary condition to progress in inner prayer. On the other hand, it is interesting to note and important to know that successful devotion to one ascetic exercise is impossible without simultaneously engaging in the others: to pray without fasting and keeping vigil is impossible, but even more impossible is it to fast and keep vigil unless one be permeated by the spirit of prayers. Here is the reason why lives of Saints calculate spiritual progress in terms (to us so strange) of long vigils, of hardly credible fasts… Here it is surely a matter of “dying to earth” and of living again in God, of drawing oneself up by constant and concerted effort to the height of one’s true nature, by a struggle that straightens and liberates, that kills the germ of death in order that life may be fruitful and may triumph.

II Somatopsychic Techniques

Mortificational ascesis is common to the Christian Occident and the Christian Orient; what I must now describe belongs to the Orthodox Church alone. It was instituted and admirably worked out by masters of the Hesychast tradition.

A religious school or rather tradition, Hesychasm (from nouxia: peace, repose) had its principal flowering between the Eleventh and Fourteenth centuries in the monasteries and the solitudes of Mount Athos. Anyone curious as to its origins and history will profit by reading the two admirable articles of a “Monk of the Eastern Church.”[1] Of the “psychological technique of Byzantine Hesychasm,” a detailed study by Professor Wunderle appeared in 1938.[2] All we need say is that Hesychasm posits inner peace as prime requisite and ultimate realiza­tion of the spiritual life – an intelligible earthly peace, at once bodily and mental, which opens the way to the ineffable peace of the luminous contemplation of God. Hesychast ascesis relates to the whole being, utilizes each of its faculties and unites each to the Spirit of God. The place that peace occupies does not in any sense make it an oriental quietism, as is too frequently supposed: peace is not absence of struggle, but absence of uncertainty and confusion.

The Fall, we have said, submerged man in matter and made him subject to the mechanisms of its laws. Not only did he sink corporeally and become subject to the world that he should have dominated and led, but in his very mentality man linked and incorporated himself with the created and fallen world. He can no longer think or even feel except in the pattern of this material world, this lost world, using the images which it presents. He is power­less to escape from consecution, for thought has become discursive. Even when he tries to get away from it by dint of the mechanisms of abstraction, it is still in the vicious circle of the created and its mechanisms that he moves, in accord with the mode of discourse that has become normative. Return to the true norm will consist then in the establishing of perfect attention beyond the reach of distraction, in the constancy of the single eye.

Let us first note that, in spiritual experience, attention is not only concentration of the intellect’s divergent forces, but focus of the entire being, its summation in a point – a complete withdrawal which frees it from discursive expansion and fixes it in “God’s eternal now” through inner silence, in love and adoration. This point of complete summation is called the “heart.” This is no more the “seat of emotions” than it is the anatomical heart: it is the “centre” of human life, the point where life gushes forth and to which it withdraws in the last resort. To find the “locus of the heart” means then to bring one’s inner life and therefore one’s whole life to perfect equilibrium and a sovereign and immutable independence: and to attain the peace desired.

All bodily ascesis associated with the search for this and with its use is founded on a psychophysiological formula­tion which may seem quite simple to us but whose empirical detection takes genius: namely, that every psychic activity carries its somatic repercussion and inversely that attitudes and movements of the body may favour, even provoke, mental states. The body, perceptibly or imper­ceptibly, takes part in every movement of the soul – whether of feeling, of abstract thought, of volition, or even of transcendent experience.

This bodily response is twofold: the body takes part in the subject’s effort of attention and it adapts itself to the theme. It is generally recognized that the effort of atten­tion is attended by a knitting of the brows and a stiffening of the mask, that anger, joy, and every one of our emotions is betokened by gestures and attitudes. Many have noted that our body as a whole participates in mental activities – the legs of Rodin’s Penseur “think” with the same intensity as his forehead. As to bodily adaptation to the theme of thought, proof already exists. Psychophysiology teaches us that every image has typical kinesthetic sensations, glandular activities, and motor tension to correspond. Furthermore this double process does not evolve at random. If it is true that the entire organism participates in every mental event, it is no less true that in different cases different regions have the dominant interest, so much so that upon occasion such a region may seem to be the only one brought into play and mutually exclusive mechanisms associated with familiar physiological antagonisms may intervene.

Moreover, the same theme activates different centres of summation of the being, of concentration of the attention, according as it is thought or felt, is oriented toward action or remains quiescent, provokes one value judgment or another (and this last trait is of importance in ascetic practice). The “theme beats its own path.”

Only wandering thought, not subtended by a definite thymic state, is without physical locus: it hums in the head and arouses transitory somatic reactions which, upon occasion, may themselves become centres of attraction for the thought that engendered them and may fix it, often in an unexpected fashion. This wandering thought is determined by an intricate mechanism of autogenous associations of ideas, impressions received from outside, and subcon­scious waves set up by chance meditation. This thought is of mediocre value intellectually, but in the ascetic life presents real dangers, too often conducting itself like Goethe’s apprentice sorcerer.

The moment a leading thought or master sentiment appears, all psychic activity unifies about it and acquires greater simplicity, more cohesion; the conscious field narrows and brightens, and simultaneously a locus of concentration of attention defines itself.

The experience of Orthodox ascetics has specified a certain number of these, and the somatopsychic traits which make their identification possible:

  1. Cranial, Cerebro-Frontal Centre

This is located in the interciliary region.[3] It might be wise to specify no farther, since the testimony of our authors provides no basis for more exact localizations. This point corresponds to an abstract thought of the purest intellectuality. It may be highly intense, lucid and penetrating thought, but is complex and unstable, because it is governed by the laws of association. Its unification about a theme requires a tremendous effort of voluntary concentration which interrupts its free anarchic play; eventually fatigue is induced, then the concentration breaks down, exhausted, and the thought is dispersed. This is the thought mode commonly employed when we are trying to solve a problem or endeavouring to resolve a difficulty which requires all our intellectual energy and agility.

  1. Bucco-Laryngeal Centre[4]

Without completely leaving the interciliary region, thought may associate and incorporate itself with the word that denotes it; the latter, instead of being thought, is then evoked, felt, savoured. It acquires proper evocative power through the emotional (thymic) values with which it is charged and the repercussive effect upon thought is greater than in the preceding case. The terms of thought lose their abstractness, are enriched by a certain thymic coloration which they had lacked, and acquire greater representational value. Their dynamism increases proportionately. Yet, essentially discursive, feebly fixed by the thymic element attached to the word, this thought remains largely at the mercy of the play of irrational associations. To maintain itself within self-ordained limits, it must struggle; it remains unstable; in the long run it disperses and dies. This is, however, the commonest form of thought: that of intelligence as expressed in conversation, in correspondence, and in the first stages of prayer. It is at the bottom of ejaculatory prayer. The physical locus corresponding to it is situated in the bucco-laryngeal area. Secondary localizations might be defined.

С. Pectoral Centre

This is situated in the upper medial section of the chest. The suppliant either is still very close to his preceding experience: thoughts and sentiments then vibrate there at the same time that they are being expressed and savoured by the vocal organs (aloud, whispered, or in silence) or else he is progressing toward the centre of perfect unification and concentration, and his prayer remains silent. “The silence of the soul,” said Saint Isaac the Syrian, ” is the mystery of the age to come.” The stability of thought, already manifestly tinged by a thymic element, is much greater than in the preceding cases, but it is still thought defining thymic colouration and being modified by it. It is also rich and varied despite increase of unity. It does not spontaneously give up. If it finally yields this is not through failure of the effort of intellectual attention – which is less, sustained as intelligence is by the emotional charge of thought – but through collapse of thymic tension.

  1. Cardiac Centre

This is situated “in the upper section of the heart, slightly below the left mammilla,” according to the Greek Fathers, “slightly above,” according to Theophanus the Recluse, Bishop Ignatius Briantchaninoff, and others. We shall content ourselves with the approximative terminology in actual use. Greater precision would mean nothing to those who do not know by experience the localities in question and approximation is more than enough for those familiar with these matters.

Attention is fixed “above the heart,” says Theophanus the Recluse, “as upon a watch tower whence the spirit surveys the thoughts and sentiments seeking admittance to the sacred citadel, to the sanctuary of prayer.” It is the physical locus of perfect attention. Its qualities are at once akin to the intellectual (noetic) element and to the feeling (thymic).[5]

Thought concentrated at the heart attains complete cohesion: it is subtended by a thymic element of such intensity that nothing alien to it can be grafted upon thought or pierce through. The force of the emotional charge individually possessed by the theme which engrosses thought is sufficient to repel all alien inference. The whole inner life is “instantaneanized,” i.e., fixed in a permanent present and reduced to unity. Any powerful emotion may be the origin of this mode of concentration. In the secular order, it may be intense joy or great sorrow; in the spiritual order, it is encounter with the Living God, perception of the real Presence and of the reality of the personal Presence of God, the primordial experience in any Christian life.

Intelligence need exert no effort to keep attention from being dispersed. Intelligence plays its true part: it sees and discerns; all its activities are aspirated from the outside in, fixed at this physical locus by an all-powerful attraction and held there by a force alien to them, and yet “closer to the soul than the soul itself” (Nicolas Cabasilas) which brings life to the heart and unity to thought. Freed by this “happy captivity” from the effort that would be necessary to concentrate upon a theme exterior to it, the intelligence persists without fatigue in prayer or meditation. Free of all struggle, of all incertitude, and of all anxiety, it acquires a lucidity, a vigilance, a power, a brilliance hitherto unknown to it. This state will only cease when the reviving grace of the Holy Spirit suspends its action.

Concurrently with these manifestations in the noetic sphere, the concentration of attention at the cardiac centre has thymic repercussions. Sentiment is vital, fervent, supremely pure, divested of all emotion and all passion. It is ardent, incomprehensible, ineffable peace. It is also power, by its exactions and its impact in the practical sphere, and light. Far from clouding and obscur­ing thought as the emotions do, it clears it completely. Intelligence remains fully, intensely conscious and free – for the soul emancipated from its turning in upon itself and from enslavement is never passive, never impelled by an alien force. (The ” impelled ” state is the “passional” state itself.) Free, the soul may realise its true vocation which is to actualize all that God has put into it, to become fully itself, i.e., like God, and to become the temple of the Living God. “The Will of God,” wrote a Russian theologian, “is liberty to the Angels, law to fallen humanity; it is a curse only to demons.”

In this synergy of God who gives Himself and the creature who, to receive and unite with Him, abandons himself, the soul at times preserves full self-mastery and can at will remain silent or raise its prayer; and at other times it sees rising from the depths of its being, which shares the divine life, the pattern of its relation to God, takes cognizance of its true existence in God and lets itself be drawn by the Spirit which calls and leads it. Having perceived the Presence, it forgets the whole world and now sees only God. But in Him it discovers the love which very God bears to His creatures, and, as by ebb tide, finds itself drawn back, full of compassion and love – but with God this time – toward the world which it had just left to be only with Him. And face to face with its Lord once more, it prays for this world created and loved of God, partakes in His charity, and by this participation is once more torn away from the created to be submerged in God. Finally, there are other cases where an ineffable silence is produced in the man freed from self. In complete repose of all the powers of his being he contemplates divine, uncreated light, the mysteries of the world, of his own soul and of his body (St. Isaac the Syrian).

This experience may or may not take place ecstatically. Ecstasy and rapture are indeed the signs of an exaltedly mys­tic life; but far from marking its apogee, they betray man’s incapacity to live in the plenitude of the divine life with­out losing contact with his own fragmentary individual life. “It is the act,” said St. Symeon the New Theologian, “not of the perfect but of novices.” The ideal to attain is a life of perfect union, permanent and unalterable, in which the whole man is integrated – spirit, soul, and body – without shocks or breaches of equilibrium, in the image of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the rarest of states, concerning which St. Isaac could say “barely one in ten thousand can attain unto it.”

All true prayer – i.e., prayer made in perfect humility, in the absence of all self-preoccupation, by a suppliant who has made his peace with God, his consciousness, and the whole cosmos and has forever abandoned himself to God – as well as all meditation pursued under the same conditions, is sooner or later animated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is then that it acquires the above-mentioned thymic and noetic qualities, that it becomes the ferment of every action and serves as its criterion, that it finds, itself to be the whole of life, that it ceases to be an activity to become being itself. Only then does it fix its abode in the cardiac locus, enabling the suppliant to adore God from the depths of his heart and unite with Him. Moreover, and this is fundamental, the techniques which facilitate detection and location of this point artificially are none of them designed to produce prayer, still less to engender somatopsychic emotional complexes as the fallacious object of mystic experience. Their purpose is to teach the novice, for whom they are intended, where this optimum centre of attention is, so that – when the moment arrives – he may recognise this as his prayer’s point of origin and remain there. Then, too, the establishment of attention at this point creates the conditions most favourable to depth and stability of prayer. While it is true that genuine prayer does utilise this physical locus of attention, however, it is also important to remember that attention may be fixed there quite apart from prayer: like any artifice, this can take man only as far as it goes and guarantees him nothing further.

Prayer, on the other hand, originates in an act of faith which confronts us with the Uncreated, the Personal and Living God. It depends on no artifice and can be won neither by ruse nor by force: it is free self-gift on both sides. The body then is not a productive agency but an objective criterion; what is exacted of it, as of discursive thought, is silence and return to unity. It is active, but not creative: like everything in man, it is fertile soil that awaits the sowing. As an integral part of the total man, the body too shall bear its fruits of holiness, being called to trans­figuration, resurrection, and eternal life.

For the master, the body with its every movement is a precious prospector’s instrument, enabling him to discern certain states at a glance even while their psychological con­text is still uncertain or the disciple still unskilled at perceiving the fine points of his inner life. The science of the Fathers in this matter is therefore not instruction as to prayer or even as to the inner life, but an ascesis and a criteriology of attention. It has the importance of a master guiding the beginner both in his inner life and in his bodily exercises, checking one by the other, and keeping the novice from mistaking for effects of grace the natural results of his ascesis.

Any technical or interpretive error may actually have the most woeful consequences, as has been proved by the experience of the fourteenth century monks of Athos and of all the proud and all the unwary who have believed themselves able to use the somatic techniques without guidance.

Immediately below the heart, physical locus of attention in a healthy spiritual life, lies the region of “the kidneys and entrails,” source of all kinesthetic sensations which, when caught and seized upon by a sinful psychism, lead to passional states which disturb heart and intelligence. Fully developed, these states betray themselves by almost un­mistakable manifestations, bodily and mental: uncontrollable desires of flesh and spirit. But to begin with, these sensations approach those described by certain mystics and may mislead the novice. The area which releases them and lets them rise into clear or crepuscular consciousness is a vast one: it takes in the whole region immediately below the mammilla. Ignorant monks, unguided, without experience or discernment, have made bitter discovery of what will be introduced into the inner life by concentration of attention upon these zones. And it is their mistakes and their misadventures that have for centuries kept anti-Hesychast critics supplied with arguments: Barlaam of Seminaria, Gregory Acyndinos, Nicephorus Gregoras, and their better schooled but not more enlightened modern successors, whose erroneous views on Hesychasm and Palamite theology have been transmitted to the Occident. Typical is their charge that the monks of Athos sought to create ecstatic states by contemplation of the umbilicus and by suffocation exercises, that these states were their ultimate goal of attainment!

Passing over the distinctive shadings of divers “secondary points ” in this vast region, one may safely say that fixation of attention upon any of this zone’s centres induces a progressive obscuration of lucid thought and consciousness ending in their complete eclipse. This gives rise to more or less stable and more or less permanent “crepuscular states,” exacerbation of kinesthetic percep­tions; and finally the appearance of uncontrolled passional manifestations both bodily and mental. Feeling, free and lucid, is replaced by emotion, somatopsychic, passive. Peace, the soul’s power in active repose, is replaced by the turbulent fury of irrational desires and appetites. The body’s silence is replaced by the tumult of anarchic passions and impulses; self-mastery by a more or less com­plete errancy of thought and feeling, which thus become incapable of governing the nerves and ruling the body. The whole frequency leads to mental alienation and to physiological disorders.

Use of the bodily exercises thus most absolutely requires a master who is experienced and vigilant. On the disciple’s part are required great simplicity and an active and confident abandon. The novice’s difficulties mount, as do his dangers, with his own psychic complexity and with the disposition fostered by our modern education to “watch oneself live” instead of living.

This ascesis, as we have already reiterated, fashions a mould, and is meaningless apart from the content there encased. It is inevitably associated with a mental ascesis – to which Professor Wunderle’s above-mentioned article will serve as an excellent introduction. We must now provide a description of the techniques themselves:

  1. Direct and fundamental technique. Two masters acquaint us with this in their writings: St. Gregory the Sinaite, who introduced the Jesus Prayer at Mount Athos in the fourteenth century and was its tireless propagator; and St. Symeon the New Theologian, eminent eleventh century master.

St. Gregory the Sinaite: “Seat yourself on a low bench, make your intelligence descend from your head to your heart and keep it there; then, inclining forward until sharp pain is felt in your chest, your shoulders and your neck from the tension of your muscles, cry with heart and soul: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have pity on me!’ While doing this, hold in your breath, breathe not too freely, for this is distracting to thought. If thoughts come to you, pay them no heed, even though they be simple and good, and not merely vain and impure. By withholding respiration as much as you can, by confining your intelligence in your heart, and by patiently multiplying your appeals to the Lord Jesus, you will rapidly crush and destroy these thoughts by the invisible blows that the Divine Name strikes them. Saint John Climacus says: ‘Smite thy adversaries with the Name of Jesus; there is no more powerful weapon upon earth or in the skies.’

“When your thought fails, when your body and your heart have grown sore by dint of frequent implanting in them of the Name of Jesus, so that this occupation shall have ceased to bring them the warmth and the joy necessary to sustain the seal and the patience of him engaged in it, then (and only then) rise, and, alone or with your disciple, psalmodise or exercise your thought upon some passage of the Scriptures, or reflect upon death, or else read or devote yourself to manual labour, or engage in some other occupation which pains your body.”

St. Symeon the New Theologian: “Above all, you must watch out for three things: first to have no care for any thing whatsoever, good or bad; second to have a clear conscience in all things, which reproaches you with nothing; and third to have perfect detachment, such that your thought shall incline to none of the attractions of this world.

“After firmly establishing all these dispositions in your heart, seat yourself in a retired spot, alone, in a corner; close your door, concentrate your intelligence, banish from it any temporal or vain object, press your beard firmly against your chest, restrain your respiration slightly, bring your intelligence down to your heart, meanwhile directing upon it the eyes of your body, and pay attention to what goes on in it; constrain your intelligence to remain attached there and seek through thought to find where your heart is so that your intelligence may fix itself there completely. You will first meet darkness and pain, but afterwards, if you persevere in this exercise of attention night and day, you will have incessant joy of it. The intelligence, by dint of striving, will find the location of the heart, and then it will quickly see things it has never seen and of which it has no notion: it will see itself luminous, full of wisdom and discernment. And thenceforth, wherever any illicit thought may come from, before it can penetrate to the heart and introduce an image there, the intelligence will expel and destroy it by saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have pity upon me!’ From that moment the intelligence will begin to have resentment and hatred of demons, will pursue, smite, and destroy them. About the other things that go with this, you will learn later on, with God’s help, yourself, by your own experience, in such measure as you keep Jesus in your heart, that is, the prayer appointed: Lord Jesus have pity upon me.”

  1. Mediate, accessory technique. St. Nicephorus the Abstinent tells us: “Above all, let your life be free from all agitation, from all care; and be at peace with all. Then, withdraw into your cell, close your door after you; seat yourself in some corner, and do as I shall now tell you. Concentrate your spirit, and to reach your heart have it follow the path that air follows, constrain it to descend to your heart with the air that you breathe… Accustom it to not leaving this place too soon, for at the beginning it will suffer much from remaining thus enclosed and cramped, but when it becomes accustomed thereto it will no longer wish to roam outside.”
  2. Mixed technique. This consists in the synchronizing of a certain number of heartbeats with each of the phases of respiration, and the fitting to each heartbeat of one of the terms of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have pity on me, a sinner.”
  3. Prayer technique. To any who should fail to obtain access to the heart locus by the preceding means, Saint Nicephorus the Abstinent gives this advice: “The faculty of elocution resides in the larynx. Utilise it then to repeat without ceasing the Jesus Prayer. At the beginning the attention will remain alien to it: gradually however the intelligence will give ear to the words, the attention will be fixed upon them; then the heart will be moved by them and the prayer itself, without any effort on your own part, will bring you into its sanctuary.”

This technique is essentially different from the preceding. It often scandalises those who hear of it because there is something of the deliberately mechanical in it. How admit, how accept, even at its outset, the accepted and recognised absence of attention? How can this inattentive prayer be or become a pious act? We here come face to face with the unabashed realism of the Fathers and their extraordinary penetration. To the most incapable they offer a way which will bring them to the most genuine spiritual realizations. The Fathers know how to fight each one of our spiritual enemies with its own weapons: to the automatisms of thought, they oppose an automatism capable of vanquishing its adversaries because it is even simpler than they are; to the anarchic succession conditioned by events in the relational life, they oppose a rhythm at once autonomous, releasing from his environment the one who sets it up, but also personal, since each chooses his own and grafts it upon the deeper rhythms of his physiological and psychological being. Do we not learn from our own experience, poor as it is despite its apparent complexity, that the analytical attention of our intellect often dissipates concentration, breaks its deeper unity by dispersing its effort among a multitude of objects? On the other hand, monotonous, rhythmic, unhurried and unclamant repetition of a single formula, brief but potent, through the mental images attached to it and through the real Presence of God brings silence to the intellect, unifies the attention upon the thymic plane, and in the end realizes its full concentration despite intellectual dispersion and beyond it. It was from this experience that ejaculatory prayer took rise.

  1. Posture technique. Finally, Theophanus the Recluse, in his counsels to anyone wishing to attempt the spiritual life, teaches us that one of the conditions indispensable to success is never to permit bodily slackness: “Be, he says, like a violin string tuned to a precise note. Without slackness or supertension: the body erect, the shoulders back, carriage of the head easy, the tension of all your muscles oriented toward the heart.”

It is particularly interesting to note the judgment passed by this great master of the inner life upon the classic methods of Hesychasm which were the object of such long processes of development. They proceed from, he says in substance, and correspond to a genuine spiritual experience. They have supplied a valuable knowledge of the rules and the ways of the inner life, and have in particular evidenced the importance and the dignity of the body from this life forth in the work of salvation and the life of union. As a general rule, however, they have become superfluous in their classical aspect, and constitute a danger for masterless novices who might let them supplant spiritual work itself and be led to mistake, as charismatic, natural states no longer habitual to us.

The classical techniques, in his judgment, may however be recommended to those whose heart is hard or im­prisoned in the formalism of rites and rules, and who no longer know anything but the lifeless form of religion. Concentration of the attention at the heart, because attended by somatopsychic repercussions, may lead such persons to recover natural emotion and life, and bring them – under secure direction – to the non-passional feelings of the true inner life.

Is it necessary to repeat that all these techniques do not constitute life in God any more than they constitute prayer or meditation? They are part of a rich liberative ascesis which embraces the whole being, and which is by nature negative. Once attention is unified at the locus of perfect concentration and ready to receive grace and raise its prayer, then spiritual work but begins.

By their form and their tenor, prayer and meditation should be factors of cohesion and unity.

Before bringing this exegesis to a close may we say a word about analogies recently pointed out between the Hesychast method and “Autogenes Training.”[6] In an unfortunately too brief article, Dr. Paul Zacharias,[7] of Tuebingen, undertakes to establish a parellelism between the psycho-therapeutic methods of Autogenes Training and those described in this chapter. He finds us confronted by two techniques not only analogous, but almost identical. Only one thing seems to be lacking in Hesychasm: the exercises of muscular resolution and of nervous resolution. We do not feel sure that complete justice is done certain “preliminary conditions,” alike postural and mental; perhaps a broader and deeper analysis of the two terms of comparison would make it possible to narrow down the analogies and to detect certain differences. It seems interest­ing, however, to find a professional psychologist rehabi­litating to its last detail an ascesis which it has been customary to decry in the name of science. [8]

The Prayer of the Name of Jesus

All these techniques, as have already said, constitute not contemplative prayer but a purely negative liberating asceticism which prepares a FORM for it. Once attention is unified and localized at the point of perfect concentration, then the spiritual work only begins. In it prayer itself should be a stabilising factor; should not destroy unity by calling into play only one part of the human being – intellect or feeling or will – but rather in itself make for concentration and unity, and be the means of realising union with God in mind, body and soul.

Man is called to be by nature one with the created world, and to become by grace one with God, uniting the Creator with the creature. This involves not only realising the integrity of man redeemed and renewed in our Lord, not only the standing of the new man face to face with God, but, in the synergic work of God and man, the transfiguration of the human being, making man, as St. Peter expresses it, a “partaker of divine nature,” by not a metaphorical but a real divinization.

Man’s aim, the end and vocation set before him, is that through and beyond his own union with God, he should make this transcendent, ever-present God – who enfolds and penetrates all; “in him we live, move and have our being,” but who remains unknown to the world, unknowable indeed from without – make Him interior and immanent in man, and through man in the world, united with His creature indissolubly, though without confusion, distinct yet not alien, still Himself, still personal, still God – yet closer to the soul than breathing itself.

This tends to be realised and is in fact realised by the Prayer in the Name of Jesus – a content included by the orthodox worshipper in the perfect form of interior silence.

Brief in form, it leads the soul to concentration and sets it face to face with God.

Its tenor is such as will fix and bind into one all the forces of man, spiritual, mental and corporal, in that single act of perfect devotion – loving adoration. It endows the being with absolute stability.

At the same time it strips the soul of all subjectivity, all self-seeking, and sets it in the entire objectivity of the divine. It is both path and culmination of renunciation and self-denial. Theophanes the Recluse teaches that the individual who isolates himself is like a thin shaving curling up around the void of his inner nothingness, cut off alike from the cosmos and from the Creator of all things.

In God only is the individual blotted out, while the human person revives and blossoms out. The antithesis of these two terms, little known in the west, deserves a short explanation. The individual is the only object of our empiric knowledge of man, the only basis of pagan anthropology. In biblical theology he is the last irreducible term of fragmentation, bearing witness to the fall of our first parents. “Behold, Adam is become as one of us.” – (Gen. III). The individual is recognised by contrast, defined by the antithesis of characteristics or common character-group, belonging to the common nature of mankind which individuals divide up and share out piecemeal, believing they appropriate it, and wishing to do so. The person is ineffable, not explicable by contrast, beyond all terms of comparison, unique, as difficult to pin down yet as sure as the touch of a musician, the quality of a voice. His existence and mystery are suggested by the Book of Revelation: “Each one of them receives a new name which only God knows and he who has received it.” The person exists neither by exclusion nor by contrast, but by his refusal to appropriate the common nature, by total self-denial; he exists for and towards the other, after the pattern of the Word of God which was.” (St. John I).

The notion of the person is inseparable from that of nature; one only exists in and by the other. Nature in the pure ontological state, such as it was before the fall of Adam, is as inaccessible to us as is the person, but we have intima­tions of it, as we have of the person, through the individual, just as we can by analogy conceive the spiritual body through and beyond the carnal body.

And as God One in the Most Holy Trinity is one in His nature and three in His persons, so man is one by his nature and multiple in his hypostases. Asceticism and grace combine to bring the individual to nothing, so that they may release out of his confusion pure nature and pure person.

In short, the doctrinal and spiritual wealth of the Jesus Prayer is infinite: it is not only the summary but the whole of the faith whose enigma is solved in Christ. Not only does it speak to us of God, but with its ceaseless invocation, its profound cry of the creature toward his God, it brings about the presence of the Christ it has invoked. He Him­self comes to His creature, at whose request He works the one miracle longed for: He abides with, unites Himself with the creature, so that it is no longer the creature which lives, but Christ who lives in it.

Besides the already stated conditions which define the asceticism of the attention, a certain number of preliminary conditions must be satisfied by the man who wishes to engage in the Jesus Prayer, with God’s help and under the direction of his spiritual Father. First an awareness, clear or confused, of the horror into which is plunged the man who is “outside God,” walled up in the deadly isolation of his ego. Also the notion that life is found in God alone. Then the will for conversion, that is to say for the spiritual volte-face, which makes us essentially and irrevocably strangers in the world sundered from God and sets us on a new plane of existence, that of God Himself and the world in God.

Thus as he embarks on his course, the Christian must make his peace with God, with his own conscience, with men, with things; relinquish all care about himself, firmly purpose to forget himself, not to know himself, to kill in himself all desire, even for spiritual things in order to know nothing but God alone. “Leave as one leaveth a dream, the love of this world and of sweetness; cast away thy cares, strip thyself of vain thoughts, renounce thy body; for prayer is nought else save only to be stranger in the visible world and in the invisible. What is there in the heavens that draweth me? Nothing. And what should I desire of Thee on earth?

Nothing, save that I should cling ever to Thee in undistracted prayer. Some make riches the object of their desires, others glory. For me, I desire nothing save to cling to God and to put in Him only the hope of my soul stripped of passion.” (St. John of the Ladder).

Henceforward the worshipper must free himself from the bondage of the world by unconditional obedience – joy­ful, total, humble and immediate; he must in all simplicity seek God, without hiding any of his wretchedness, without founding any hope on himself, in this active self-abandonment to God which we have called the spirit of watchfulness in humility, in veneration, with a sincere will to be converted, ready to die rather than to give up the search.

II. The Asceticism of Watchfulness

The spirit, confirmed in the sovereign stability of interior silence and peace, becomes, while lifting up its prayer to God, fit to wage spiritual warfare effectively and with knowledge.

Established in the “centre of the heart” as on a watch-tower, it surveys the surrounding and approaches, examining by the light of interior prayer the thoughts and feelings which arise from the depth of the unconscious or are presented from without. It receives some, flees or repels the others. “Smite thine adversary with the Name of Jesus, there is no mightier arm on earth or in heaven,” says St. John of the Ladder, “letting nothing remain in it but what is its own true being, the image and likeness of God.”

III. The Asceticism of Sobriety

This is the asceticism of self-denial, of active abandon­ment. Its first rule is the renunciation and blotting out of spiritual covetousness, sometimes called “Gluttony”, whose existence is a distinguished mark of the being as individual, a state resulting from sin, as defined above; the worshipper must seek neither cross nor conscious affective consolation, only God. The second requirement is the annihilation of any hope based on self, its works or efforts and human possibilities. On one hand the ascetic work has as its goal and result nothing but a recovery, a return to a lost norm, beyond which the spiritual work properly so called begins. On the other hand, no image, no effective stimulus can cast man into the supernatural: God only reveals Himself beyond all representation.

There are two interesting points to clear up in their relationship with this contemplative asceticism – the parts played by action and by dogma. Action for a contemplative, that is to say in general for every Christian, had no intrinsic value; it is either witness to, or school of, spiritual life. Not pious thoughts and feelings, but putting into practice God’s will for our life – this forges, tragically, a Christian soul.

Monastic obedience, which is the royal road, reaches both goals at once: it teaches the monk how to accomplish per­fectly the divine will, and teaches him not to attribute any value to the action itself. When one of his disciples expressed his joy at fulfilling perfectly his Master’s orders, Theophanes the Recluse wrote: “Take care to rejoice less and to fulfil more perfectly my will.”

This is equally the attitude of any Christian conscious of his vocation. The “way of the commandments” is a school of Christian spirituality and humility, for it teaches us to have the thoughts and feelings of Christ; their faithful performance instils these in our flesh and soul, and at the same time teaches us how far we still are ourselves from the full stature of Christ and His indwelling within us, making us measure what painful effort is needed for their fulfil­ment, and realize how we shrink from it.

As for dogma, it is of major importance. The doctrine of the Church, as well as expressing its living knowledge of God and the spiritual life, defines strictly the believer’s attitude towards the divine world. Any error in dogma, however slight it may appear to our clumsy experience of the things of God, reveals some deviation from the spiritual order, just as any wrong path in this realm leads infallibly to dogmatic insensibility and error.

Dogma is thus the touchstone and objective foundation of any life of asceticism and contemplation, of which it is also the school ; assimilated by the patient, humble effort of the whole being, it leads man beyond the realm, vast as it is, of philosophical knowledge, then on from affirmative “cataphatic” theology, to introduce him into the realm of true theology, silent, personal knowledge of God in the fervent silence of the whole created being – the realm of the true apophatic theology, which characterises the Eastern Church.


There is no doubt that the most characteristic feature of hesychasm and the most precious legacy it has left to the Orthodox is this indissoluble union of a physical and mental ascetic technique of minute exactness and extreme strictness in the demands it makes, with a high affirmation of the fundamental worthlessness of all technique and all artificial means in the mystery of the union of the soul with God – the mystery of mutual self’giving in love. That is in the fulness of liberty. Hence it is possible to use all ascetic methods, but with discernment, freedom, boldness; “All is lawful for me, but all is not expedient.” This filial liberty and strict fidelity is the attitude of the Orthodox Church.



“Gebet und Entspannung (Hesychastisch Mystik und Autogenes Training),” Paulus Zacharias, Der Weg zur Seele, Heft I, 1952.

“La Priere de Jesus par un Moine de l’Eglise d’Orient,” Collection “Irenikon,” Vol. XX, No. 3, 1947.

“La Priere de Jesus,” Mme. Behr-Siegel, Dieu Vivant, No. 8, 1947.

On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, by a Monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church (London, S.P.C.K.). Orthodox Spirituality, by a Monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church (London, S.P.C.K., 1945).

“Technique et contemplation: Contribution Orthodoxe,” Etudes Carmelitaines, 1948.

Theologie mystique de l’Eglise d’Orient, V. Lossky (Aubier, 1946).

The Unseen Warfare (Faber & Faber, 1952).

Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, tr. From the Russian (Faber & Faber, 1952).

“Mystik u. Yoga der Ostkirche,” Das Herzgebet.

Otto Wilhelm Barth, Verlag, G.M.B.H., 1955,” Munchen-Planegg.



Published: Asceticism (Somatopsychic Techniques). – The Guild of Pastoral Psychology. Guild Lecture No. 95, October 1957

[1] Published under the title Priere de Jesus, Collection “Irenikon” (Chevetogne, Belgium, 1952).


[2] Etudes Carmelitaines (Paris, 1938).

[3] Interciliary region.

This region is connected anatomically with the thalamus and forms part of the brainstem—the oldest part of the brain. It corresponds to the place which high-cast Indian women adorn with a red mark.

[4] This refers to the organised system of muscles forming the mouth, cheek (bucca) and, together with cartileges, the larynx working in conjunction to produce sounds and words.


[5] The word is connected with the thymic gland, and indicates a state best described as ” feeling ” or German ” Gemet”.

[6] Method of active “concentrated relaxation” developed by Prof. Schultz in Germany between the wars.

[7] “Gebet und Entspannung,” Der Weg zur Seele, Heft I, 1952.

[8] For the techniques of Christian monastic orders, see P. Sorokin, The Ways and Power of Love (Boston, 1954).

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