The basis of Hesychasm (from hesychia, meaning tranquillity or stillness) derives from centuries of monastic experience of contemplative ecstasy, rooted in the continual recitation of the Jesus prayer, but it became more of a formal concept in the fourteenth century. The Hesychast is typically one who has renounced the world and family ties, devoting his or her life to God with complete obedience and simplicity. Superficially, this is the mode of living of all religious; Justinian's Novella 5.3 states that hesychia is the goal of the solitary. The Hesychast, however, additionally experiences a direct encounter with the living God, in a vision of the uncreated light. Traditionally this experience is associated with that of Mount Tabor in the New Testament story of the Transfiguration of Christ. Certain physical postures are suggested to maximise the ability to focus on the heart, and some of these are discussed by Gregory Palamas in his Triads. Other proponents of this type of religious experience include Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory of Sinai (1255-1346).

With Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who became Archbishop of Thessaloniki (1347-59), the Hesychast issue evolved into political confrontation. Palamas' Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts explain this Athonite spiritual practice in terms of an engagement with the knowable energies of God, which are distinguished from his unknowable essence. His apophatic approach failed to appease Barlaam the Calabrian (c.1290-1348), who accused Palamas of Messalianism (a heresy that maintained prayer alone was sufficient for salvation), asserting that it was impossible to divide the indivisible godhead in this manner. Other critics of Palamas' distinction between the essence and energies underlying Hesychasm included Gregory Akindynos and John Kyparissiotes. The theological position of Palamas was vindicated by two synods meeting in Constantinople; as a result Palamite thought became the basis of Hesychast spirituality in the late Byzantine period. It is only recently that scholars have begun to appreciate and understand the true significance of Palamas' teaching and its impact on the Orthodox world.

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