Notes on Hesychasm - Introduction - by J.Y. Leloup

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When a young philosopher reached Mount Athos, he had already read several treaties upon orthodox spirituality and he knew very well “The Heart Prayer’s Small Filocalie (selection of Christian-orthodox saint parents’ writings – translator’s note)” and “The Russian Pilgrim’s Stories”. Furthermore, he had been seduced by all these but not yet convinced. During a vacation in Greece, he assisted to a profoundly emotional Mass that spontaneously inspired him to spend a couple of days on Mount Athos, in order to find out new details about Heart’s Prayer and about hesychasts’ inner listening method. Hesychasts are completely silent and isolated from the world, looking for “Hesycha” or inner profound peace that reveals God.

In order to better understand the following, we will tell you, with all necessary details, about this young philosopher’s meeting with Father Seraphim, who lived alone in a hermitage nearby Saint Pantelimon, on Mount Athos. We will add our young philosopher was at that time a little disappointed as he did not find the monks on Mount Athos at the “height” he expected. It is important to add that, even though he had read enough books on Christian meditation and prayer, he had never really prayed or done a certain form of meditation. This is why, as he was travelling on Mount Athos, his greatest desire was not an additional speech upon prayer and meditation, but a real and vivid initiation that would allow him to better understand, from the “inside”, through personal and direct experience.

Father Seraphim, who was a hesychast anchorite, had a bizarre reputation among the monks around him. Some often accused him of spontaneously levitation, others sustained he used to scream and others considered him a common illiterate peasant who had hysterical episodes; still, many people worshiped him as a true abbot inspired by God’s Holy Ghost, who was capable of giving the most wise advice. Moreover, Father Seraphim could read people’s souls that came to him like an open book.

Many of those who came to the door of his hermitage had the unpleasant surprise of being examined in the most indecent manner, to the bottom of their souls, by Father Seraphim: he would examine them with a weird gimlet attention, from head to toes, without saying any words, for five minutes. Those who calmly resisted to this examination, without running away, could hear the severe diagnosis of the spiritual X-ray in the end: “As I noticed, He went in you lower than your chin”. “He has not even entered you”. “Oh, what a miracle! It is amazing…I can see He went down to your knees in you!”

In all these situations, Father Seraphim obviously spoke about God’s Holy Ghost and the more or less profound level where He (God’s Holy Ghost) touches the area of the head, but not the one of the heart or of the belly…His essential criteria of evaluating people was always the incarnation level (complete coverage of certain parts of the physical body and being) of the Holy Ghost in the man situated in front of him. The perfect man (in other words entirely transfigured by the Holy Ghost) was for him only the one whose body was entirely filled, from head to toes, with the godly presence of the Holy Ghost. “I have not seen this miracle but in a man only, Abbot Siluan” he said. “He is fully God’s man indeed, filled with grandness and humility at the same time”.

The young philosopher did not find himself at all in this high position and in his case, God’s Holy Ghost was “down to the chin”. When he asked Father Seraphim to tell him about the secret of Heart’s Prayer and hesychast inner listening, the latter almost started to scream. The former was not intimidated or discouraged by the situation. Later on, as he humbly insisted, Father Seraphim told him: “Before I tell you about the secret of Heart’s Prayer, you must learn to meditate like a mountain” and after that he showed him a nearby high mountain top. “Starting today, ask him how it prays. When you know how he does it, come back to me.”