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If the fourteenth century saw the end of Constantinople as a political and military power, it also saw the emergence of a religious movement that did much to preserve the self confidence and integrity of Orthodoxy through the long nightmare it was about to undergo. Although the hesychast movement - the name come from the Greek word for silence - is continuous with Eastern Christianity since the earliest days its emergence could be said to have finally established, or revealed, the depth of the gulf that separates Orthodoxy from Western Christianity. In its state of weakness there was a strong temptation in Constantinople to turn to the West. Michael VIII Palaiologos, who had taken Constantinople back from the Latins, argued for union with Rome and supported the Council of Lyons of 1274, when the Greek clergy present accepted the Latin addition of the filioque to the Creed and acknowledged papal headship of the Church. The union however was rejected by the clergy in Constantinople in spite of brutal attempts to enforce it and was formally repudiated after the death of Michael VIII in 1282 by the Council of Blachernae, held under his son and successor, Andronicus II, in 1285. Western influence continued however with considerable interest in the writings of the Latins, Augustine of Hippo and the near contemporary Thomas Aquinas.

The hesychast movement had developed outside Constantinople mainly associated with St Gregory of Sinai (c1285-1346) and his disciples, spreading in the late thirteenth/early fourteenth centuries through Mount Athos, Bulgaria and Serbia. 

Where the fashion in Constantinople was for philosophy the emphasis of the hesychasts was on experience. They insisted that, through ascetic struggle, a real experience of union with God was possible this side of the grave. To quote St Gregory:

'By working with all its zeal and battling with humility for the acquisition of the active virtues, the soul overturns all the passions and subjects them to itself. The natural virtues then surround it, as the soul follows the body, and by degrees lead it up the spiritual ladder until it reaches a state which is beyond nature. When the intellect (nous) is thus lifted above itself and illumined by the radiance of the Holy Spirit in the measure of the grace received, it sees more clearly the nature of beings, not after the manner of the wise of this world, but in their essential relation with the Creator. Progressing in contemplation and straining forward unceasingly, forgetting those things which are behind (Phil 3:13), the soul abandons all its natural thoughts and attains to an inexpressible relationship with God, stripped of all form and concept. Enlightened by Infinite Light, it no longer feels anything of this material and earthly body but finds itself transported towards God alone, in an irresistible surging of love. Arriving at such a high spiritual stature, by the assiduous practice of inner prayer, such human beings, restored to the glorious liberty of the children of God, can see the resurrection of their soul before the General Resurrection.'

The authoritative textbook of the hesychast tradition is the five-volume Philokalia, compiled in the seventeenth century but including writings that go back to the fourth century. There is a remarkable consistency throughout this period of over a thousand years, a remarkable contrast to the West. We are used to a process of action and reaction, a 'dialectic' like the thesis, antithesis, synthesis of Hegel, in which we come to expect each generation to challenge the priorities and preoccupations of its predecessor. There is nothing like that in the Philokalia. What is being said in the sixteenth century is much the same as what was said in the sixth century. The emphasis is practical, reading at times almost like a technical manual. There is very little of what we might call 'mysticism' in the sense of conveying any actual subjective experience. The emphasis is on the discipline by which such experiences could be had. The central notion, that a real union with God could be achieved through ascetic discipline, became a matter of controversy in Constantinople through the writings of the at the time highly regarded monk, Barlaam, originally from Calabria, the very Greek orientated area of Southern Italy, part of the Eastern Empire until the eleventh century when it was taken over by the Norman Roger I of Sicily.

Barlaam rather ironically was writing in opposition to Thomas Aquinas and his view that although direct sensory knowledge of God was impossible this side of the grave, the saints would enjoy a direct 'beatific vision' after their death. Barlaam, following his understanding of the 'negative theology' of St Dionysius the Areopagite, argued that direct knowledge of God was impossible under any circumstances, here or hereafter, and in the course of making the case he ridiculed the pretensions of the hesychast movement to possessing a technique by which the experience of God could be had even in this present life.

The defence of the hesychasts was taken up by another Gregory, St Gregory Palamas.

Agreeing that God was unknowable in His essence, Palamas argued that He could be known, and wished to be known, in His energies, as, though we cannot bear direct contact with the Sun, we are bathed in the sunlight. And the sunlight IS of the nature of the Sun. Barlaam's teaching was condemned in a church council held in 1341 and he returned to Italy where he became tutor in the Greek language to the poet Petrarch who had all his life longed to read Homer in the original Greek. Palamas's teaching was accepted definitively in Constantinople in 1351.

Among the practises recommended in the hesychast tradition was a particular physical posture, curling up in a ball with a view to cultivating prayer within the heart, conceived of as the physical heart. Because of this Barlaam called the hesychasts 'omphaloscopoi' - navel gazers - a term which was to catch on in the West. We are back to Gibbon's 'iota of a difference'. A practise regarded in Eastern Christianity as one of the highest human activities is characterised in the West as among the most futile.