Origins of Eastern Christian Mysticism

AD 330-1022

by Theodore Sabo (Author)
©2019 Monographs VIII, 252 Pages


Origins of Eastern Christian Mysticism asserts that the thinkers between Basil of Caesarea and Symeon the New Theologian were important mainly for their role in the formation of Hesychasm, a fourteenth-century mystical movement in the Eastern church. The book surveys previous research on Proto-Hesychasm and sets forth eight Hesychastic trends in its practitioners: monasticism, dark and light mysticism, and an emphasis on the heart, theōsis, the humanity of Christ, penthos, and unceasing prayer.
Theodore Sabo integrates detailed and carefully researched accounts of the lives and thought of the foundational figures of Hesychasm into a compelling narrative of the movement’s origins. The Cappadocian fathers established monasticism as the predominant milieu of Proto-Hesychasm and emphasized both theōsis and dark mysticism. Dark mysticism would come into conflict with the light mysticism of their contemporary Pseudo-Macarius, but both currents would be passed on to the Hesychasts. Macarius was a seminal figure within Proto-Hesychasm, responsible for its stress on light mysticism and heart mysticism. Hesychasm itself, the author contends, emerged from two main Proto-Hesychast fonts, the philosophical (represented by such figures as Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor) and the ascetic (the realm of figures like John Climacus and Isaac of Nineveh). The former school transmitted to Hesychasm a virtually unacknowledged Platonism; the latter contributed to Hesychasm’s preoccupation with theōsis, penthos, and unceasing prayer, albeit from a solely monastic perspective. Finally, Symeon the New Theologian emerged as the redoubtable successor to these schools, unifying their distinct traditions in his philosophical approach.
While previous scholarship has documented the connections between Proto-Hesychasm and Hesychasm, Origins of Eastern Christian Mysticism is unique in its treatment of the Proto-Hesychasts as a distinguishable group, and as direct instigators of Hesychasm. This provocative study should be of interest to students and scholars of the late antique history of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as to contemporary theologians steeped in the Eastern mystical tradition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The Hesychasts: Beginning at the End
  • Chapter 3. Basil the Great
  • Chapter 4. Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Chapter 5. Gregory of Nyssa: The Divine Darkness
  • Chapter 6. Pseudo-Macarius: Towards the Hesychastic Light
  • Chapter 7. Macarius’ Epigones
  • Chapter 8. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite
  • Chapter 9. Maximus the Confessor
  • Chapter 10. Isaiah of Scetis
  • Chapter 11. The School of Gaza
  • Chapter 12. John Climacus
  • Chapter 13. Isaac of Nineveh
  • Chapter 14. The Circle of John Climacus
  • Chapter 15. Symeon the New Theologian
  • Chapter 16. Symeon’s Circle
  • Chapter 17. Conclusion
  • Appendix A: Chronology
  • Appendix B: Glossary of Semitic Words

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Western Christianity today is characterized by a fascination with Eastern Christianity, a characteristic to which I am not immune and which helped form the genesis of this book. In its original form it was my doctoral thesis in church and dogma history at the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University in South Africa, and portions of it first appeared in the Journal of Early Christian History. A more accurate title for the book would be Origins of the Eastern Christian Mysticism That Is Hesychasm. As I wrote it I found myself engaged in much rereading, especially Mark the Monk’s writings and Symeon the New Theologian’s Discourses. For their help with various aspects of this study I would like to thank my promoters Dan Lioy and Rikus Fick as well as John Dillon, Peg Evans, Tuomo Lankila, Liam McLean, Jackie Pavlovic, Stuart Rochester, Roger Schlesinger, Meagan Simpson, and Chris Woodall. I am indebted to Herrie van Rooy of North-West University for kindly looking over and correcting my Semitic transliterations.

2019 ← vii | viii →

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The Eastern Orthodox mystics from Basil the Great to Symeon the New Theologian, in other words from the Arian crisis to the dawn of Hesychasm, have something nebulous and indistinct about them. Campenhausen’s statement about Gregory of Nyssa is true not only for Gregory but for the thinkers of this entire period. Despite Gregory’s cleverness, according to Campenhausen, he remained in the second rank, and in consequence his theology possesses “a veiled, remote, and sometimes ambiguous quality.”1 None of the mystics of this period wrote an almagest, a summa, or, with the possible exception of Pseudo-Dionysius, a ktēma es aei. This is not to deny that they are great; rather they occupy an intermediate stage between such late antique figures as Origen and Athanasius on the one hand and the Hesychasts on the other. They might almost be compared to the thinkers of the Western Middle Ages, posed between the flamboyant philosophizing of the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance humanists.

Even Orthodox scholars neglect to look at these figures from a thoroughly Orthodox perspective as would have been salutary. They view Basil the Great and Maximus the Confessor, for instance, as important for their role in Christianity rather than for their position in Eastern Orthodoxy. They fail to notice that seemingly irrelevant aspects of these thinkers, such as Basil’s preoccupation with monasticism and Maximus’ concern with the humanity of Christ,2 are in ← 1 | 2 → fact closely related to the succeeding Hesychastic age. This does not mean that nothing has been written on the subject of the interrelationship between these individuals and their influence on one another and on Hesychasm, only that the relevant scholars3 have refrained from considering this period as a period and have therefore never asked certain important questions.

The aim of this study is to ascertain whether the mystics from Basil the Great to Symeon the New Theologian are important primarily as precursors of Hesychasm. Its objectives are to identify the significant contributions of previous students of Proto-Hesychasm, to establish the tendencies of fourteenth-century Hesychasm, and to verify a Proto-Hesychastic mentality in the Cappadocians, Pseudo-Macarius, the Eastern Christian philosophers, the Eastern Christian ascetics, and Symeon the New Theologian. Its central argument is that the main contribution of the mystics from Basil the Great to Symeon the New Theologian was to prepare the way for Hesychasm which represented the culmination of Eastern Orthodox mysticism.

Early Research on Proto-Hesychasm

Much has been written about Proto-Hesychasm in the past fifty or so years,4 but few of these writings have attempted to link the Proto-Hesychasts to one another or to the ensuing Hesychastic age. Those that have feature studies primarily of the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor, the ascetics of the Palestinian school, John Climacus, Symeon the New Theologian, and the eleventh-century author of The Three Methods of Prayer.

Writing in 1933 Georges Florovsky remarked the impact of John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent on its immediate successors John of Raithu, Elias of Crete, and Photius. He noted its translation into such languages as Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, and Slavonic and, more importantly, its effect on Symeon the New Theologian, the Hesychasts, and the Slavic Neo-Hesychasts. Interestingly for an Orthodox scholar he did not neglect to observe the mark John made on Catholic theologians, especially Dionysius the Carthusian, called Doctor Ecstaticus on account of his mystical visions. Florovsky attributed John’s influence on the Hesychasts to the stress he laid on hēsychia (quietude or tranquillity) and the remembrance of Jesus in prayer.5 His proof text was John’s famous definition of hēsychia in which he connected the unceasing worship of God and waiting on Him to the remembrance of Jesus. The remembrance of Jesus was to be present with the mystic’s every breath; this continual remembrance would yield an appropriate appreciation of the value of hēsychia.6 ← 2 | 3 →

It was logical to draw such a deduction from the Ladder’s use of the word hēsychia and its rudimentary Jesus prayer, both concepts of which were put to the service of Hesychasm. John’s impression on Symeon was seen by Florovsky as noteworthy, and in fact Symeon has sometimes been viewed, understandably but wrongly, as the first Hesychast. John’s emphasis was more on the heart than on the mind. Florovsky incautiously employs these terms as they were understood by Plato rather than by the Proto-Hesychasts,7 but he is not unaware that John’s advice was fortified by psychological analysis. The Ladder is for him almost obsessive-compulsive: John explains every demand he makes and continually has the logic of his ordering system before his mind. Florovsky claims his instructions were only for monks, and it cannot be stressed often enough that monasticism was the milieu of both Proto-Hesychasm and Hesychasm, although, in the latter case especially, all Christians were seen as capable of participation in the mystic quest.

In his book The Fathers of the Greek Church, published in 1955, Hans von Campenhausen, an individual of uncanny insight, devoted three chapters to the Cappadocian fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Although he did not deign to link these figures to their Proto-Hesychast successors his portrait of Gregory of Nyssa rings true for all the mystics of the period. Gregory was the younger brother of the formidable Basil, and as a result he was forced to struggle for his personality, position, and manner of life. In addition to this he was the successor of a great generation. A show of humility came easily for his brother Basil because of his inward confidence, and Basil’s complete surrender of himself to God gave a harmony to his character which Gregory lacked. Gregory was certainly clever, but during his lifetime he continually found himself in the second rank and there was therefore “a veiled, remote, and sometimes ambiguous quality” about his theology, even in the face of its outstanding originality.8

Campenhausen’s study was not on the Proto-Hesychasts but on the Greek fathers from Justin Martyr to Cyril of Alexandria, and his concern in the immediate context was to contrast Gregory with his brother Basil. Nonetheless had he inquired into the Cappadocians more closely he would have observed the veiled and remote quality of which he spoke in all of them. This trait, common to the Proto-Hesychasts in general, can be attributed to their following so closely on the heels of the great Nicene and ante-Nicene fathers—men such as Origen, Eusebius, and Athanasius—and their feelings of inferiority resulted in the production of few works of magisterial importance by them. On the positive side Campenhausen distinguishes in both Gregory ← 3 | 4 → and Basil a determination to develop their intellectual and spiritual personalities to the full, a characteristic which subsequent Proto-Hesychasts possessed while eschewing, in monkish humility, the need for independence and the conscious, contemptuous pride he discerns in the brothers.

It was Alexander Schmemann who drew the closest parallel between the Proto-Hesychasts and their successors.9 He claimed, against Western and specifically Catholic scholars, that Hesychasm was not a novel departure “expressing all the extremes and peculiarities of Eastern mysticism” but the fulfillment of a previously existing trend.10 To be sure the Hesychasts of Mount Athos garnered intense controversy with the patriarchal school of Constantinople thanks to their emphasis on theōsis and the “gathering of the mind” associated with the contemplation of the divine or Taboric Light. More accurately than did Florovsky, Schmemann distinguished not between a mind and heart theology but between an official theology and a theology of experience. For the Constantinopolitan theologians the Hesychasts’ doctrine of theōsis equated God with the universe and was therefore pantheistic. But the greatest of the Hesychasts, Gregory Palamas, lived in the tradition that came before him and held his predecessors in as high a regard as did his opponents.11 In Hesychasm the essential teachings of the Proto-Hesychasts were revived. The Hesychasts were not pantheistic because the world was not seen by them as merging with God on the level of essence, but on the level of energies it was capable of communion with Him, of having Him within itself, and of growing nearer to Him.

In the earliest research on Proto-Hesychasm are encountered such salient observations as the impact of John Climacus on the Hesychasts, and the assertion of a veiled and remote quality in one of the Proto-Hesychasts which was attributed to his following a great generation. The latter observation separates at least the earliest Proto-Hesychasts from the period that came before them and tends to establish a mindset for Proto-Hesychasm in general. Most useful of all was Schmemann’s contention that Hesychasm was the fulfillment of a previously existing trend. In none of this research, however, were the Proto-Hesychasts seen as a specific entity living at a specific time nor were they regarded as the main instigators of fourteenth-century Hesychasm.

Recent Research on Proto-Hesychasm

George Maloney selected seven Proto-Hesychasts—Mark the Monk, Diadochus of Photike, John Climacus, Elias Ecdicos, Philotheus of Sinai, Ephrem the Syrian, and Isaac of Nineveh—and termed them the “hesychastic fathers,”12 ← 4 | 5 → a phrase which has the tendency to reveal their noteworthy position in the formulation of Hesychasm. Maloney differentiates between them and their predecessors such as the two Gregories, Pseudo-Macarius, and Evagrius on the one hand, and Western characters like St. Augustine on the other. It is regrettable that he does not consider the mystics in the former category hesychastic fathers which is certainly their due, but his contrast between the writings of all these figures with the intensely personal writings of the last of the Proto-Hesychasts, Symeon the New Theologian, is astute: Symeon’s literary productions mirror the man more fully even than do Augustine’s and lay bare his interior experience of Jesus and the Trinity as few writings have. Maloney’s selection of hesychastic fathers reveals that there were many such mystics, notably Ephrem the Syrian and Evagrius, who cannot be included in the present study for reasons of space.

Following in the footsteps of Florovsky, Kallistos Ware perceives the influence of John Climacus on subsequent Proto-Hesychasts and Hesychasts.13 As does Florovsky he enumerates the languages the Ladder of Divine Ascent was translated into during the ancient and early medieval periods, adding only Georgian.14 Hesychius the Priest and Philotheus of Sinai were the first to carry John’s torch. The former duly observed his allusions to the remembrance of Jesus in prayer and made it his dominant theme. Ware expresses forgivable surprise that the Ladder was not cited in the eleventh-century Orthodox anthology the Euergetinos, but such neglect was not to last for long. Before he became a monk, and while he was setting his affairs in order, Symeon the New Theologian read his family’s copy of the Ladder. According to his biographer he became closely familiar with it and “like good earth he accepted the seed of the word in his heart.”15

Ware states that Symeon was especially taken by the Ladder’s instructions on penthos, despondency, and the spiritual father, but he fails to mention that the book impelled him to pray at the tombs which is urged in the Ladder’s eighteenth step, on insensitivity.16 In the twelfth century Peter of Damascus quoted John thirteen times, and John was also heavily relied on by the Hesychasts, especially for his pronouncements on hēsychia and the invocation of Jesus’ name. Gregory of Sinai quoted from him more than any other writer and named him first in his list of monastic readings. Ware closes his discussion of the Ladder’s influence by noting its absorption by the Russian monks Nil Sorsky and Joseph Volotsky, the former of whom can properly be regarded as a Neo-Hesychast. Unlike Florovsky, Ware refrains from mentioning the Catholic mystic Dionysius the Carthusian, but he includes the Latin translation he read.17 ← 5 | 6 →

Without drawing explicit attention to the Hesychasts, Jaroslav Pelikan writes about Maximus the Confessor in a way that would not be inappropriate in a discussion of Hesychasm, particularly its stress on the humanity of Christ and how this relates to the idea of theōsis,18 an idea that first surfaced in 2 Peter and which runs somewhat counter to the current of Western Augustinian thought. According to Maximus theōsis was possible only through the incarnation and bodily resurrection of Christ. In Pelikan’s mind Protestant theologians in particular disdain this as a purely physical understanding of salvation. Maximus held that although it is impossible for man to deify himself, God in Christ can be said to deify man “insofar as man has deified himself.” It is unfortunate that Pelikan does not connect Maximus’ interest in the humanity of Christ with what Hill understands as the Hesychasts’ non-Origenist habit of viewing human nature in an integrated way, a way that does not radically separate body and soul.19

In his study of Symeon the New Theologian, H. J. M. Turner claims, as did Schmemann about Gregory Palamas, that Symeon’s roots were deep within the tradition that came before him.20 Claudio Moreschini, writing in 1996 on the subject of Basil the Great’s asceticism, refers to the Basiliad, a group of buildings that included a hospital, a guesthouse, craftsmen’s shops, a church, a bishop’s residence, and a monastery.21 This complex, which ideally should be contrasted with Plotinus’ elitist and aborted Platonopolis,22 prefigured Byzantine medieval society at the time of Hesychasm for which monasticism was the dominant milieu. Moreschini states that Basil’s type of monasticism became fundamental in medieval religious culture in both the Christian West and, more significantly, the Christian East.23 It is not to his purpose to draw a connection between the Basiliad and monasticism during the age of the Comneni, in other words during the final years of Proto-Hesychasm, but this can be inferred from comparing his remarks with Angold’s study of the monasteries of the later period which aimed at sustaining the poor, the sick, and the elderly.24

Jonathan Hill deems Symeon the New Theologian responsible for Hesychasm’s stress on “a self-hypnotic state of heightened awareness in which the mystic could hope to see God” as well as its breathing exercises, short prayers, and yoga-like bodily positions.25 He goes further and avers that Gregory Palamas was the Orthodox Thomas Aquinas; in other words he was not a creative theologian but a restater of Proto-Hesychastic doctrines, albeit “in a newly integrated and relevant way.”26 He finds little in Gregory that cannot be found in some way in the Proto-Hesychasts and praises his work as a distillation of all previous Orthodox theology, an accolade that has variously been given to Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus. ← 6 | 7 →

Hannah Hunt discloses the influence of the great Egyptian and Syrian ascetics on the New Theologian,27 and Marcus Plested traces the spirit of Pseudo-Macarius on the Eastern Christian mystics of the fifth through the seventh centuries.28 John Chryssavgis approaches the Palestinian school of asceticism from the viewpoint of its reception of the teachings of Basil the Great, Origen, Didymus the Blind, Evagrius, and Isaiah of Scetis.29 The school was particularly indebted to Basil’s stress on obedience and Isaiah’s strictures on eating and drinking, and it passed these down to Theodore the Studite, Symeon, and the Hesychasts Gregory of Sinai and Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopouli. John Climacus, and the circle that was drawn up about his legacy, developed the Palestinian concepts of being untroubled and discerning. One-tenth of the letters of Barsanuphius and John the Prophet found its way into the eleventh-century anthology the Euergetinos, though with modifications, and Dorotheus of Gaza and John figured prominently in the contemporaneous Pandektes.30

Finally Dirk Krausmüller takes in hand the minor figure of Pseudo-Symeon, author of The Three Methods of Prayer, and detects an agonistic relationship between him and the Sinaitic school of asceticism, but a relationship nonetheless.31 Krausmüller’s stimulating chapter deserves to be better known, but it is extreme and, in the eyes of the present writer, misguided. His hypothesis that Gregory Palamas was not a true inheritor of Proto-Hesychasm is controversial, and his identification of Pseudo-Symeon as a Hesychast is overconfident in view of the fact that he was not much removed from the New Theologian in time, which is not the case with Nicephorus the Monk whom he also discusses.32

The most recent research on Proto-Hesychasm has contributed such insights as the labeling of certain Proto-Hesychasts as “hesychastic fathers,” the confirmation of Florovsky’s opinion that John Climacus directly influenced Hesychasm, and a portrait of one Proto-Hesychast that is strongly Hesychastic in nature.33 A comparison of two studies reveals how Basil the Great, one of the first Proto-Hesychasts, affected monasticism during the last years of Proto-Hesychasm.34 Recent research has also established that Symeon the New Theologian was partly responsible for the Hesychasts’ bodily postures during prayer, that the Palestinian school of asceticism impacted the Hesychasts, and that the Sinaitic school of asceticism made an impression on a figure shortly preceding the age of the Hesychasts. Nonetheless a clear view of the Proto-Hesychasts as an entity existing at a specific time is lacking in these writings as is a cognizance of their major role in the rise of Hesychasm. It could even be argued that recent research constitutes a retrogression since it does not follow up on Schmemann’s contention that Hesychasm was the fulfillment of a previously existing trend. In fact one scholar denies this position altogether.35 ← 7 | 8 →


It was the aim of this chapter to identify previous scholarly contributions to the study of Proto-Hesychasm, hoping to find therein the linking of Proto-Hesychast to Proto-Hesychast in order to establish a certain group existing at a certain time, and to determine whether this group was a prime mover on fourteenth-century Hesychasm. The chapter has found that despite excellent research on the connections between the Hesychasts and the Proto-Hesychasts, especially by the Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann, no study has clearly regarded the Proto-Hesychasts as a distinguishable group and, more importantly, none has addressed them in terms of their culmination in Hesychasm.

Yet although the relevant scholars refrain from viewing the Proto-Hesychasts as an entity this does not mean they refuse to do so. It is more accurate to assert that they do not explicitly notice the issue. The same can be said of their failure to see the Proto-Hesychasts as direct instigators of Hesychasm. This is somewhat regrettable, especially if one is looking at the situation from an Orthodox perspective rather than a more ecumenical one, but it helps to establish a rationale for this study of Proto-Hesychasm. Before examining the Proto-Hesychasts themselves it would be fitting to briefly address the Hesychastic paideia since it is an objective of this book to contemplate Hesychastic traits in the forerunners of Hesychasm.


1. Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Church, 116.

2. Moreschini and Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, 2:99–103; Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings, 11.

3. E.g., Plested, The Macarian Legacy.

4. E.g., Krivocheine, In the Light of Christ; Elm, Virgins of God; Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian; Chryssavgis, John Climacus; Hevelone-Harper, Disciples of the Desert.

5. Florovsky, The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, 242.

6. Sc. Par. 27; John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 269–270.

7. Chryssavgis, John Climacus, 79.

8. Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Church, 115–116.

9. Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, 234–235.

10. Ibid, 234.

11. Ibid, 235.

12. In Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, 13.

13. In John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 67–68. ← 8 | 9 →

14. Ibid, 68.

15. Nicetas Stethatos, Vit. Sym. 6; John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 67.


VIII, 252
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. VIII, 252 pp.

Biographical notes

Theodore Sabo (Author)

Theodore Sabo is a resident of Washington State and an extraordinary lecturer at North-West University of South Africa. He has published in Acta Classica and the Journal of Early Christian History.


Title: Origins of Eastern Christian Mysticism