Pseudo Symeon and Nikephoros the Italian

Any discussion of hesychasm must start with the two treatises that set out the specific techniques by which visions might be induced. The first of these treatises, which the manuscripts wrongly attribute to the eleventh-century mystic Symeon the New Theologian, can only tentatively be dated to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.4 By comparison, the author of the second treatise is a well-known historical figure, Nikephoros the Italian, who lived as a monk on Mount Athos during the reign of Emperor Michael VIII (1259-82) to whose pro-western religious policy he was fiercely opposed.5 In the fourteenth century these texts enjoyed enormous success and were widely regarded as

2 In the following the terms hesychasm and hesychast are used exclusively to denote the psychophysical method and its practitioners.

3 Cf.especiallyJ. Meyendorff, Introductionàlétude de GrégoirePàlamos [Patristica Sorbonen-sia 3] (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1959).

4 I. Hausherr(ed.),Lomethoded'oroisonhésychaste[OCA9.2](Rome: Pontificiuminstitutum orientalium studiorum, 1927), 150-72, cf. 111-18 on the identity and date of the anonymous author.

5 Nikephoros the Monk, On sobriety and the guarding of the heart, in PG 147, 945-66. Cf. A. Rigo, 'Niceforo l'esicasta (XIII sec.): alcune considerazioni sulla vita e sull'opera', in i02

authoritative.6 It is not difficult to see why monks who strove for mystical experiences would be drawn to them: Nikephoros presents his teachings as a 'science' or 'method' for beginners, which is easy, fast, efficacious and free from demonic interference.7 However, it must also be asked why he and his readers should have regarded such experiences as central to monastic life. The writings of Symeon the New Theologian suggest a possible answer. Symeon criticised the traditional view that visions were the preserve of a few exceptional individuals and maintained that every monk could and should experience the divine.8 This radical position appears to have become more widespread over time for it resurfaces in later spiritual authors such as the twelfth-century mystic Constantine Chrysomallos.9 However, Symeon, who was a 'natural' himself, had not set out a specific method to achieve this aim.10 It is conceivable that Nikephoros refers to this situation when he states that there are spontaneous visionaries but that the multitude needs to be taught.11 This assessment of the situation defines the rationale of Pseudo-Symeon and Nikephoros: they wished through their teachings to make available such experiences to the average monk.12

How does hesychasm work? Both writers promise their readers that they can attain visions in their hearts similar to the apostles' experience ofthe transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor if they follow a prayer routine that involves a sitting position, control of one's breathing and invocation of the name of Jesus.13 Despite these similarities, however, the texts are not identical. In Pseudo-Symeon practitioners are advised to look intently at the region around their navel until it becomes suffused with light and transparent, and the transfigured heart becomes visible to the gazer. By comparison, breathing and the Jesus Prayer are only mentioned in passing. Nikephoros, on the other hand, makes no reference to navel-gazing and instead focuses on the other two features. He urges his readers to concentrate on the path that the breath takes from the mouth to the heart and to 'send down' the mind into the heart together with

Amore del bello, studi sullaFilocalia. Atti del Simposio Internazionale sullaFilocalia (Magnano: Edizioni Qiqajon, 1991), 79-119.

6 Cf.e.g. the Spiritual Century of Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, in PG 147, 677D.

7 Nikephoros, On sobriety, in PG 147, 945A-946A, and passim.

8 Cf.Syméon le Nouveau Théologien, Catechéses, ed. B. Krivochéine (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1964), ni, 238-68.

9 Cf.J. Gouillard, 'Quatre procès de mystiques a Byzance (vers 960-1143). Inspiration et autorité', REB 36 (1978), 5-81, esp. 31-5.

10 Instead, he recommended tears and contrition. Cf. especially Catéchéses, iii, 194-222.

11 Nikephoros, On sobriety, in PG 147, 962B.

12 This interpretation was first proposed by Hausherr, Méthode d'oraison, 127-9.

13 Nikephoros, On sobriety, in PG 147, 962A; Hausherr, Methode d'oraison, 160.2-4.

the breath. He claims that by holding their breath they can keep their mind inside their heart and prevent it from roaming and becoming distracted by thoughts. Those who have reached this state are then continuously to invoke the name of Jesus Christ in order to keep the mind occupied and to drown out all 'new' thoughts that might arise. Despite these differences it is evident that Pseudo-Symeon and Nikephoros operate within the same framework: both techniques - navel-gazing and control of breathing - give an important role to sense perception and imagination. Moreover, they are closely linked to the body: concentration on the heart is not merely a device to focus one's mind but is believed to involve and to have an effect on the actual organ.14

The success of hesychasm leaves no doubt that these techniques were highly efficacious. However, such efficacy alone does not provide a sufficient explanation for their adoption by monastic communities on Mount Athos and elsewhere. The treatise of Pseudo-Symeon gives an insight into the problems faced by the early hesychasts. It is much more than a simple prayer manual: the description of the 'method' is part of a carefully constructed argument through which the author strives to gain acceptance for it within the monastic discourse of his time. In his preface he announces that he will set out for his readers three different prayer practices so that they can make an informed choice between them. The criteria that he uses are 'attention' (•poaox'n) and 'prayer' (•poasuy^): effective attention should lead to the detection and seizure of sinful thoughts and effective prayer should then eliminate them.15 The central role accorded to 'attention' points to a particular tradition within monasticism, which is first attested in the Heavenly Ladder of John Klimax and is later elaborated in the Spiritual Chapters of Hesychios and Philotheos of Sinai where it becomes the dominant theme.16 Analysis of Pseudo-Symeon's argument reveals a highly complex relationship between hesychasm and 'Sinaitic' spirituality and sheds light on the context in which the hesychastic method originated.

The disposition of the treatise is straightforward: three chapters present the 'properties' and effects of each practice. The followers of the first practice stand upright and direct their inner and their outer eyes upwards to the sky. They then conjure up in their mind the splendour of heaven until it becomes perceptible to the senses ofthe body as light, smell and sound.17 By comparison

14 Cf. especially the physiological excursus in Nikephoros, On sobriety, in PG 147, 963AB.

15 Hausherr, Méthode d'oraison, 150.6-18.

16 Cf. ibid., 134-42. John Klimax is also quoted in Nikephoros, On sobriety, in PG 147, 955A-956A. Cf.J. Kirchmeyer, 'Hésychius le Sinaïte', in Dictionnaire de spiritualite, vu (1971), 408-10.

17 Hausherr, Méthode d'oraison, 151.17-152.12; 152.20-4.

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