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St Gregory Palamas: In Defense of Those who Devoutly Practice a Life of Stillness

A Question Posed to Him

You have done well, father, to quote the words of the saints regarding the subject of my query. For as I heard you resolve my difficulties, I marveled at the clarity of the truth; but it also entered my mind that since - as you yourself said - every word fights with another word, there may be grounds for contradicting what you have said. Yet because I recognize that only by their fruits can we know things unquestionably, and because I have heard the saints saying exactly the same as you, I am no longer anxious on this score. Indeed, how can a man who is not convinced by the saints be worthy of credence? And how will such a person not reject also the God of the saints? For it is God who said with respect to the apostles and, through them, to the saints who succeeded them, 'He who rejects you, rejects Me' (Luke 10:16), which is to say that he rejects Truth itself. How, then, can the enemy of truth be accepted by those who seek the truth? Hence I entreat you, father, to listen as I recount each of the other points that I heard from those who pass their life in the pursuit of profane learning, and I beg you to tell me some of your thoughts on these matters, adding also what the saints say about them. For they maintain that we are wrong in striving to enclose our intellect within our body. Rather, they say, we should alienate it by any means possible from the body. They actively mock some of those among us, writing against us on the grounds that we counsel those newly embarked on the spiritual path to direct their gaze upon themselves and to draw their intellect into themselves by means of their breathing. Our critics claim that the intellect is not separate from the soul; and since it is not separate, they say, but included in the soul, how is it possible to reintroduce it into oneself? Further, they report us as saying that we intromit divine grace through the nostrils. As I have never heard any of those among us say this, I know that we are being misrepresented; and this has made me realize that their other charges are also malicious. People who fabricate false charges can also deal falsely with realities. Yet, father, I would ask you to teach me why we devote such care to inducing our intellect to come back into ourselves and do not think it wrong to enclose it within the body.


That it is not wrong for those who have chosen a life of self-attentiveness and stillness to strive to keep their intellect within their body.

1. Brother, do you not recall St Paul's statements, 'Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within us' (cf . I Cor. 6:19), and, 'We are the house of God' (cf. Heb. 3:6), as God Himself confirms when He says, 'I will dwell in them and walk in them, and I will be their God' (Lev. 26:12; 2 Cor. 6:16)? Since, then, the body is God's dwelling-place, what sane person would object to his intellect dwelling in it? And how was it that God established the intellect in the body to start with? Did He do so wrongly? These are the things we should say to the heretics, to those who declare that the body is evil and created by the devil. But we regard it as evil for the intellect to be caught up in material thoughts, not for it to be in the body, for the body is not evil. Hence everyone who devotes his life to God calls to Him as David did: 'My soul has thirsted for Thee, how often has my flesh longed for Thee' (Ps. 63:1), and: 'My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God' (Ps. 84:2. LXX); and he says with Isaiah: 'My belly shall sound as a harp and my inward parts as a brazen wall that Thou hast restored' (cf. Isa. 16:11. LXX), and: 'Out of awe for Thee, Lord, we are pregnant with the Spirit of Thy salvation' (Isa. 26:18. LXX). Filled with courage by this Spirit, we will not fall; but it is those who speak in a materialistic way, and who pretend that celestial words and citizenship are materialistic, that will fall.

Although St Paul called the body 'death' when he said, 'Who will deliver me from the body 'of this death?' (Rom. 7 ; 24), this is simply because the materialistic, carnal mentality is body-like, and so he rightly called it a body when comparing it to the spiritual and divine mind. Further, he did not say simply 'body' but 'death of the body'. Shortly before this he clarifies his meaning when he says that the flesh is not at fault, but the sinful impulse that infiltrates into the flesh because of the fall. 'I am sold', he says, 'into slavery under sin' (Rom. 7:14); but he who is sold is not a slave by nature. And again he says, 'I know that in me - that is, in my flesh - there dwells nothing good' (Rom. 7:18). Note that he does not say the flesh is evil, but that which dwells therein. Thus it is evil for this 'law that is in our bodily members, warring against the law of the intellect' (cf. Rom. 7:23) - to dwell in the body, not for the intellect to dwell there.

2. That is why we grapple with this 'law of sin' (Rom. 8 : 2) and expel it from our body, establishing in its place the surveillance of the intellect. Through this surveillance we prescribe what is fitting for every faculty of the soul and every member of the body. For the senses we prescribe what they should take into account and to what extent they should do so, and this exercise of the spiritual law is called self-control. To the aspect of the soul that is accessible to passion we impart the best of all dispositions, that of love; and we also raise the level of the intelligence by repelling whatever impedes the mind in its ascent towards God: this aspect of the law we call watchfulness. When through self-control we have purified our body, and when through divine love we have made our incensive power and our desire incentives for virtue, and when we offer to God an intellect cleansed by prayer, then we will possess and see within ourselves the grace promised to the pure in heart (cf. Matt. 5:8). Then, too, we will be able to affirm with St Paul: 'The God who said, 'Out of darkness let light shine', has made this light shine in our hearts, to give us the illumination of the knowledge of God's glory in the Person of Jesus Christ' (2 Cor. 4:6). 'But we have', he says, 'this treasure in earthen vessels' (2 Cor. 4:7). Since, therefore, we carry as in earthen vessels - that is to say, in our bodies - the Father's Light in the Person of Jesus Christ, and so can experience the glory of the Holy Spirit, are we doing anything unworthy of the intellect's nobility if we retain it within our body? What person of spiritual insight - and, indeed, what person endowed with human intelligence, even though bereft of divine grace - would say such a thing? 3. Since our soul is a single entity possessing many powers, it utilizes as an organ the body that by nature lives in conjunction with it. What organs, then, does the power of the soul that we call 'intellect' make use of when it is active? No one has ever supposed that the mind resides in the finger-nails or the eye-lashes, the nostrils or the lips. But we all agree that it resides within us, even though we may not all agree as to which of our inner organs it chiefly makes use of. For some locate it in the head, as though in a sort of acropolis; others consider that its vehicle is the centermost part of the heart, that aspect of the heart that has been purified from natural life. We know very well that our intelligence is neither within us as in a container - for it is incorporeal - nor yet outside us, for it is united to us; but it is located in the heart as in its own organ. And we-know this because we are taught it not by men but by the Creator of man Himself when He says, 'It is not that which goes into man's mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of it' (Matt. 15:11), adding, 'for thoughts come out of the heart' (Matt. 15:19). St Makarios the Great says the same: 'The heart rules over the whole human organism, and when grace takes possession of the pastures of the heart, it reigns over all a man's thoughts and members. For the intellect and all the thoughts of the soul are located there.'

Our heart is, therefore, the shrine of the intelligence and the chief intellectual organ of the body. When, therefore, we strive to scrutinize and to amend our intelligence through rigorous watchfulness, how could we do this if we did not collect our intellect, outwardly dispersed through the senses, and bring it back within ourselves - back to the heart itself, the shrine of the thoughts? It is for this reason that St Makarios - rightly called blessed - directly after what he says above, adds: 'So it is there that we must look to see whether grace has inscribed the laws of the Spirit.' Where? In the ruling organ, in the throne of grace, where the intellect and all the thoughts of the soul reside, that is to say, in the heart. Do you see, then, how greatly necessary it is for those who have chosen a life of self- attentiveness and stillness to bring their intellect back and to enclose it within their body, and particularly within that innermost body within the body that we call the heart?

4. If, as the Psalmist says, 'AH the glory of the king's daughter is within' (Ps. 45: 13. LXX), how shall we seek it somewhere without? And if, as St Paul says, 'God has sent forth His Spirit into our hearts, crying: 'Abba Father' ' (cf. Gal. 4:6). how shall we not pray in union with the Spirit that is in our hearts? And if, as the Lord of the prophets and the apostles says, 'The kingdom of heaven is within us' (cf. Luke 17:21), how shall we not find ourselves outside the kingdom of heaven if we strive to alienate our intellect from what lies within us? 'An upright heart', says Solomon, 'seeks conscious awareness' (cf. Prov. 27:21. LXX), the awareness or perception which he elsewhere calls noetic and divine (cf. Prov. 2:5. LXX). It is to such awareness that the fathers urge all of us when they say: 'A noetic intellect assuredly acquires noetic awareness. Let us never cease from seeking for this, which is both in us and not in us.' Do you not see that whether we wish to withstand sin, or to acquire virtue, or to gain the reward of the contest for virtue or, rather, the noetic awareness which is the pledge of the reward for virtue, we have to bring our intellect back into our body and into ourselves? On the other hand, to extract the intellect not from a materialistic manner of thought but from the body itself, in the hope that there, outside the body, it may attain noetic visions, is the worst of profane delusions, the root and source of every heresy, an invention of demons, a doctrine engendering folly and itself the result of dementedness. It is for this reason that those who speak by the inspiration of the demons are out of their wits and do not even comprehend what they say. But we, on the contrary, install our intellect not only within the body and the heart, but also within itself.

5. Those who claim that the intellect is never separate from the soul, but is always within it, assert consequently that it is not possible to reinstall it in this way. They are ignorant, it seems, that the essence of the intellect is one thing and its energy is another. Or, rather, although they know this, they deliberately side with the deceivers, making play with verbal equivocations. 'By not accepting the simplicity of spiritual teaching,' says St Basil the Great, 'these people whose wits are sharpened for disputation by dialectic pervert the power of the truth with the counter- arguments of spurious knowledge (cf. I Tim. 6:20) and with sophistic plausibilities. ' Such inevitably is the character of those who, without being spiritual, think themselves competent to judge and give instruction in spiritual matters (cf I Cor. 2:14-15). It should not have escaped them that the intellect is not like the eye which sees other visible things but does not see itself. On the contrary the intellect functions, first, by observing things other than itself, so far as this is necessary; and this is what St Dionysios the Great calls the intellect's 'direct movement'. Secondly, it returns to itself and operates within itself, and so beholds itself; and this is called by St Dionysios the intellect's 'circular movement'. This is the intellect's highest and most befitting activity and, through it, it even transcends itself and is united with God. 'For the intellect,' writes St Basil, 'when not dispersed outwardly' - note that it does go out from itself; and so, having gone out, it must find a way to return inwards - 'returns to itself, and through itself ascends to God' in a way that is free from delusion. St Dionysios, the unerring beholder of noetic things, also says that this circular movement of the intellect is not subject to delusion.

6. The father of error, ever desirous of seducing man from this ascent and of leading him to that form of action which permits the devil to insinuate his delusions, has not found until now, so far as we know, a helper who with fair-sounding words would aid and abet him in achieving this. But now, if what you tell me is correct, it seems that he has discovered collaborators who write treatises which lead to this very thing and who endeavor to persuade people, including those who have embraced the sublime life of stillness, that during prayer it is better to keep the intellect outside the body. They do not respect even the definitive and unambiguous statement of St John Klimakos, who with his words constructed the ladder leading to heaven: 'A hesychast is one who tries to enshrine what is bodiless within his body.' And our spiritual fathers have rightly taught us things in harmony with this. For if the hesychast does not enclose his intellect within his body, how can he possess within himself the One who is invested with the body and who as its natural form penetrates all structurally organized matter? The determined exterior aspect of this matter - the material body - cannot enshrine the essence of the intellect until the material body itself truly lives by adopting a form of life appropriate to union with the intellect.

7. Do you see, brother, how St John has shown, not simply from the spiritual but even from a human point of view, how vital it is /or those who seek to be true masters of themselves, and to be monks according to their inner self, to install or possess the intellect within the body? Nor is it out of place to teach beginners in particular to look within themselves and to bring their mtellect within themselves by means of their breathing. For no one of sound judgment would prevent a person who has not yet achieved a true knowledge of himself from concentrating his intellect within himself with the aid of certain methods. Since the intellect of those recently embarked on the spiritual path continually darts away again as soon as it has been concentrated, they must continually bring it back once more; for in their inexperience they are unaware that of all things it is the most difficult to observe and the most mobile. That is why some teachers recommend them to pay attention to the exhalation and inhalation of their breath, and to restrain it a little, so that while they are watching it the intellect, too, may be held in check. This they should do until they advance with God's help to a higher stage and are able to prevent their intellect from going out to external things, to keep it uncompounded, and to gather it into what St Dionysios calls a state of 'unified concentration'. This control of the breathing may, indeed, be regarded as a spontaneous consequence', of paying attention to the intellect; for the breath is always quietly inhaled and exhaled at moments of intense concentration, especially in the case of those who practice stillness both bodily and mentally. Such people keep the Sabbath in a spiritual fashion and, so far as is possible, they rest from all personal activities; they strip their soul's powers free from every transient, fleeting and compound form of [knowledge, from every type of sense -perception and, in general, from every bodily act that is under our sway, and, so far as they can, even from those not entirely under our sway, such as breathing.

8. In those who have made progress in stillness all these things come to pass without toil and anxious care, few of necessity they spontaneously follow upon the soul's perfect entry into itself. But where beginners are concerned none of them can be achieved without effort. Patient endurance is the fruit of love, for 'love patiently accepts all things' (1 Cor. 13:7), and teaches us to achieve such endurance by forcing ourselves so that through patience we may attain love; and this is a case in point. But what need is there to say anything more about this? Everyone possessing experience can but laugh when contradicted by those who lack experience; for such a person is taught not by argument but by the exertions he makes and the experience that comes from these exertions. It is from experience that we reap what is profitable, and it is experience that refutes the fruitless arguments of contentious braggarts.

A great teacher has said that after the fall our inner being naturally adapts itself to outward forms. When, then, someone is striving to concentrate his intellect in himself so that it functions, not according to the direct form of movement but according to the circular, delusion-free form, how could he not gain mimensely if. instead of letting his gaze flit hither and thither, he fixes it upon his chest or his navel as upon a point of support? Outwardly curling himself- so far as is possible - into the form of a circle, in conformity with the mode of action that he tries to establish in his intellect, he also, through this same position of his body, sends into his heart the power of the intellect that is dispersed outwardly when his gaze is turned outward. If the power of the noetic demon resides in the navel of the belly, since there the law of sin exercises its dominion and provides him with fodder, why should we not establish there also the law of the intellect that, armed with prayer, contends against that dominion (cf. Rom. 7:23)? Then the evil spirit expelled through our baptism - 'the water of regeneration' (Tit. 3:5) - will not return with seven other spirits more wicked than himself and again take up residence in us, so that 'the last state is worse than the first' (Luke 11:26).

9. 'Be attentive to yourself,' says Moses (Deut. 15:9. LXX) - that is, to the whole of yourself, not to a few things that pertain to you, neglecting the rest. By what means? With the intellect assuredly, for nothing else can pay attention to the whole of yourself. Set this guard, therefore, over your soul and body, for thereby you will readily free yourself from the evil passions of body and soul. Take yourself in hand, then, be attentive to yourself, scrutinize yourself; or, rather, guard, watch over and test yourself, for in this manner you will subdue your rebellious unregenerate self to the Spirit and there will never again be 'some secret iniquity in your heart' (Deut. 15:9). If, says, the Preacher, the spirit that-rules over the evil demons and passions rises up against you, do not desert your place (cf, Eccles. 10:4) - that is to say, do not leave any part of your soul or body unwatched. In this way you will master the evil spirits that assail you and you will boldly present yourself to Him who examines hearts and minds (cf. Ps. 7:9); and He will not scrutinize you, for you will have already scrutinized yourself. As St Paul says, 'If we judged ourselves we would not be judged' (1 Cor. 11:31).

Then you will experience the blessing that David experienced, and you will say to God, 'Darkness will not be darkness with Thee and night shall be bright as day for me, for Thou hast taken possession of my mind' (cf. Ps. 139:12-13). It is as if David were saying that not only has God become the sole object of his soul's desire, but also that any spark of this desire in his body has returned to the soul that produced it, and through the soul has risen to God, hangs upon Him and cleaves to Him. For just as those who cleave to the perishable pleasures of the senses expend all the soul's desire in satisfying their fleshly proclivities and become so entirely materialistic that the Spirit of God cannot abide in them (cf. Gen. 6:3), so in the case of those who have elevated their intellect to God, and who through divine longing have attached their soul to Him, the flesh is also transformed, is exalted with the soul, communes together with the soul in the Divine, and itself likewise becomes the possession and dwellmg-place of God, no longer harboring any enmity towards Him or any desires that are contrary to the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5: 17).

10. Which is the place - the flesh or the intellect - most expedient for the spirit of evil that rises up against us from below? Is it not the flesh, in which St Paul says that there is nothing good (cf. Rom. 7:18) until the law of life makes its habitation there? It is on account of this especially that the flesh must never escape our attention. How can it become our own? How can we avoid abandoning it? How can we repulse the devil's assault upon it - especially we who do not yet know how to contend spiritually with the spiritual forces of wickedness - unless we train ourselves to pay attention to ourselves also with respect to the outward positioning of the body? But why do I speak of those newly engaged in spiritual warfare when there are more perfect people, not only after Christ's incarnation but also before it, who during prayer have adopted this outward positioning of the body and to whom the Deity readily hearkened? Elijah himself, pre-eminent among spiritual visionaries, leaned his head upon his knees, and having in this manner assiduously gathered his intellect into itself and into God he put an end to the drought that had lasted many years (cf. I Kgs. 18:42-45). But it seems to me, brother, that these men from whom you say you heard such slanders suffer from the illness of the Pharisees: they refuse to examine and cleanse the inside of the cup - that is to say, their heart - and not being grounded in the traditions of the fathers they try to assume precedence over everyone, as new teachers of the law (Matt. 23:25-26). They disdain the form of prayer that God vindicated in the case of the publican, and they exhort others who pray not to adopt it. For the Lord says in the Gospel that the publican 'would not even lift his eyes to heaven' (Luke 18:13). Those who when praying turn their gaze on themselves are trying to imitate the publican; yet their critics call them 'navel-psychics', with the clear intention of slandering them. For who among the people who pray in this way has ever said that the soul is located in the navel?

11. These critics, then, are evident calumniators; indeed, so far from healing those in error, they revile those who should be praised. They write not for the sake of truth and the life of stillness, but out of self -flattery ; not in order to lead men towards spiritual watchfulness, but in order to draw them away from it. For they do all they can to discredit both the practice of hesychasm and those who engage in it in the appropriate manner. They would readily describe as belly-psychics those who said: 'The law of God is in the centre of my belly' (cf. Ps. 40:8. LXX), and: 'My belly shall sound as a harp and my inward parts as a brazen wall that Thou hast restored' (cf. Isa. 16:11. LXX). In general they slander all those who use corporeal symbols to represent, name and search out things noetic, divine and spiritual. Yet in spite of this they will inflict no injury on those whom they misrepresent or, rather, because of their attacks the saints will receive more blessings and still greater rewards in heaven, while then' opponents will remain outside the sacred veils, unable to gaze upon even the shadows of the truth. It is, indeed, greatly to be feared that they will be punished eternally, for not only have they separated themselves from the saints, but they have also inveighed against them by their words. 12. You know the life of Symeon the New Theologian, and how it was all virtually a miracle, glorified by God through supernatural miracles. You know also his writings, which without exaggeration one can call writings of life. In addition, you know of St Nikiphoros, how he passed many years in quietness and stillness and how he subsequently withdrew into the most isolated parts of the Holy Mountain of Athos and devoted himself to gathering texts of the holy fathers concerned with the practice of watchfulness, thus passing this practice on to us. These two saints clearly teach those who have chosen this way of life the practices which, you report, are now under attack. But why do I refer to saints of past times? For shortly before our own day men of attested sanctity, recognized as endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit, have transmitted these things to us by their own mouths. You have heard of Theoliptos, whose name signifies 'inspired by God' and who is recognized in our days as an authentic theologian and a trustworthy visionary of the truth of God's mysteries - the bishop of Philadelphia or, rather, he who from Philadelphia as from a lampstand illumined the world. You have heard also of Athanasios, who for not a few years adorned the patriarchal throne and whose tomb God has honored: and of Neilos of Italy, the emulator of the great Neilos; of Seliotis and Ilias, who were in no wise inferior to Neilos; and of Gabriel and Athanasios, who were endowed with the gift of prophecy. You have certainly heard of all these men and of many others who lived before them, with them and after them, all of whom exhort and encourage those wishing to embrace this tradition - this tradition which the new doctors of hesychia, who have no idea of the life of stillness and who instruct not from experience but through spurious argument, try to repudiate, deform and disparage, all to no profit for their hearers. We, however, have spoken in person with some of these saints and they have been our teachers. Are we, then, to count as nothing these people who have been taught by experience and grace, and to submit ourselves to those who assume the role of teachers out of conceit and in a spirit of contention? This we will never, never do. And you, too, should turn away from them, wisely repeating to yourself the words of David, 'Bless the Lord, my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name' (Ps. 103;1). Guided by the fathers, take note how they urge us always to bring our intellect back into ourselves.

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