Hesychia – “the rest which flows from unceasing prayer”

I previously posted an extract from Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue on “hesuchia” – the rest that follows striving. I came across this from Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart

The literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” The Greek word for rest is hesychia, and hesychasm is the term which refers to the spirituality of the desert. A hesychast is a man or a woman who seeks solitude and silence as the ways to unceasing prayer. The prayer of the hesychasts is a prayer of rest. This rest, however, has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle. Abba Anthony even says to a fellow monk that it belongs “to the great work of a man . . . to expect temptations to his last breath.” Hesychia, the rest which flows from unceasing prayer, needs to be sought at all costs, even when the flesh is itchy, the world alluring, and the demons noisy. Mother Theodora, one of the Desert Mothers, makes this very clear: “. . . you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie [sense of boredom], faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away


“The secret mimeticism beneath the surface of the assertion of autonomy”

From “God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love” by Gil Bailie, here is a passage on “the cul-de-sac of autonomous individualism.” I have been reading a lot of and about Rene Girard lately, and while there are aspects of the mimetic theory that seem simply too wide ranging (reminding me of Karl Popper’s objection to Marxism and Freudianism that they both explained too much, rather than too little), there is a power to this analysis of the superficiality of autonomy and the sheer power of mimetic envy:

The liberationist cast of modern thought has driven moderns and postmoderns into the cul-de-sac of autonomous individualism, where, as Manent asserts: “Men do not have any natural connections.” But there is more, and here the French philosopher is especially percipient: “Just as for Kierkegaard, to be a Christian is to become a Christian, for the modern man conscious of himself, to be an individual means to become an individual, and to become more and more an individual.”

This incessant demand that one become an individual requires not only that he eschew all affiliations or any associations that might limit his spontaneity, but also that he ceaselessly distinguish himself from other individuals whose examples he might otherwise be accused of mimicking. The unremitting pressure to demonstrate one’s independence from the social influence of others causes the self-styled individual to resort to more and more idiosyncratic social gestures in appearance and behavior, all of which will be traceable to a model who is being emulated but whose influence is unacknowledged or camouflaged to prevent both the imitator himself and his observers from recognizing the mimicry underlying his labored pantomime.

The secret mimeticism beneath the surface of the assertion of autonomy drives the process toward ever more desperate gesticulations of authenticity which in fact amount to an open declaration of its opposite. On the social level, the end result is a spiritual alienation from oneself and from a healthy social matrix, an alienation from which relief is often enough sought in crude and ultimately violent forms of social solidarity.

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism


From a lengthy review of Rod Dreher’s new book “The Benedict Option.” I used to occasionally read Dreher’s blog, and tried his “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”, but drifted away for reasons I probably could not articulate nearly as well as deVille. In particular the sweeping, dogmatic, pseudo-eagles-eye-of-the-history-of-Christianity is offputting. I found “The Little Way” a strange book, a exercise in trying too hard at transcendence. More positive takes on “The Benedict Option” are out there. For me, it is one of those books that if I had world enough and time I would read but to be honest an awful lot of books (by Alasdair McIntyre, for one, and other authors Adam de Ville cites) stand ahead of it.


Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard “orthodox Christianity” is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial–whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over “monasticism” and “tradition” in psychologically suspect ways, running after their “spiritual fathers” for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for “new forms of community” with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in–as MacIntyre says–“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.


Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion–and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher’s fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

–get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);

–while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;

–after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;

–always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)….

–do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;

–read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly…;

–be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. 

wp-image-1166588415jpg.jpgReal monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking “church talk” or promoting “options” but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher’s fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her “monastery” without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris–not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.
The description of Dreher’s approach reminds me of Aedh, the Culdee in “Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision – Seven Centuries on Skellig Michael” by Geoffrey Moorhouse whose need to spiritually outdo the other monks (on what was already surely the most extreme monastic site going) led to a literal and metaphorical downfall.
It is easy, too, to romanticise monasticism, and indeed I have posted fragments here that, in isolation, could be accused of such romanticisation. The risk of a form of spiritual pride and arrogance is apparent, and Adam deVille’s piece is a corrective to this risk.


Hesuchia – “we strive in order to be at rest”

My last few posts raised the risk that this blog would turn into a series of quotes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” (a book I am well aware has many critics) – so now I am going to feature a brief quote from the chapter “The Virtues at Athens”  following on from a discussion of opposing virtues

Hésuchia appears in Pindar (Pythian Odes 8.1) as the name of a goddess; she represents that peacefulness of spirit to which the victor in a contest in entitled when he is at rest afterwards. Respect for her is bound up with the notion that we strive in order to be at rest, rather than in order to struggle ceaselessly from goal to goal, from desire to desire.

The idea that “we strive in order to be at rest” is at odds with much of the spirit of the present day, for which the maxim from Goethe’s Faust “he who unceasingly strives upwards, him alone we can save” could be designed.

Much of the online resources I can find for approaching ancient Greek terms is rooted in Bible study – for hesuchia see here and here and here. The word is evidently translated very often as “silence” and is used in the context of meekness or acceptance in these translations, rather than the “rest that follows striving” MacIntyre discusses.

One of my interests is a sort of typology of silences – we are familiar with terms like “comfortable silence”, “uncomfortable silence”, “awkward silence”, “rich silence”, “eerie silence” and so on. Silence is more than an absence of sound (itself increasingly impossible to find in the modern world)  but is defined by circumstances and context. A silent meadow will strike us as sinister – where is the birdsong? A silent mountain may strike us as awesome or peaceful or perhaps sinister. And so on.

On Sophocles and conflicting virtues: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

On Sophocles and conflicting virtues: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

The ancestor of one of these sets of answers is Plato, for whom as we have seen the virtues are not merely compatible with each other, but the presence of each requires the presence of all. This strong thesis concerning the unity of the virtues is reiterated both by Aristotle and Aquinas, even though they differ from Plato – and each other – in a number of important ways. The presupposition which all three share is that there exists a cosmic order which dictates the place of each virtue in a total harmonious scheme of human life. Truth in the moral sphere consists in the conformity of moral judgment to the order of this scheme.

There is a sharply contrasting modern tradition which holds that the variety and heterogeneity of human goods is such that their pursuit cannot be reconciled in any single moral order and that consequently any social order which either attempts such a reconciliation or  which enforces the hegemony of one set of goods over all other is bound to turn into a strait-jacket and very probably a totalitarian straitjacket for the human condition. This is a view which Sir Isaiah Berlin has urged upon us strenuously, and its ancestry, as we noted earlier, is in Weber’s writings. I take it that this view entails a heterogeneity of the virtues as well as of goods in general and that choice between rival claims in respect of the virtues has the same central place in the moral life for such theories that choice between goods in general does. And where judgments express choices of this kind, we cannot characterise them as either true or false.

antigone and ismene

The interest of Sophocles lies in his presentation of a view equally difficult for a Platonist or a Weberian to accept. There are indeed crucial conflicts in which different virtues appear as making rival and incompatible claims upon us. But our solution is tragic in that we have to recognise the authority of both claims. There is an objective moral order, but our perceptions of it are such that we cannot bring rival moral truths into complete harmony with each other and yet the acknowledgement of the moral order and of moral truth makes the kind of choice which a Weber or a Berlin urges upon us out of the question. For to choose does not exempt me from the authority of the claim which  I choose to go against.


  • After Virtue, Duckworth Second Edition, pp 142-3

On virtues of the heroic ages: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

The exercise of the heroic virtues thus requires both a particular kind of human being and a particular kind of social structure. Just because this is so, an inspection of the heroic virtues may at first sight appear irrelevant to any general enquiry into moral theory and practice. If the heroic virtues require for their exercise the presence of a kind of social structure which now irrevocably lost – as they do – what relevance can they possess for us? Nobody now can be a Hector or a Gisli.


The answer is that perhaps what we have to learn from heroic societies is twofold: first that all morality is to some degree tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion, and secondly that there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors in which series heroic societies hold first place. If this is so, the contrast between the freedom of choice of values of which modernity prides itself and the absence of such choice in heroic culture would look very different. For freedom of choice of values would from the standpoint of a tradition ultimately rooted in heroic societies appear more like the freedom of ghosts – of those whose human substance approached vanishing point – than of men. – After Virtue, Duckworth Second Edition, pp. 126-7

On Nietzschean irrationalism in bureaucratic society: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre


Reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” – about two thirds of the way through. Whatever the virtues of the central arguments, there are an awful lot of thought-provoking quotes some of which I will collect on this blog.

In another way too Nietzsche is the moral philosopher of the present age. For I have already argued that the present age is in its presentation of itself dominantly Weberian, and I have also noticed that Nietzsche’s central thesis was presupposed by Weber’s central categories of thought. Hence Nietzsche’s prophetic irrationalism – irrationalism because Nietzsche’s problems remain unresolved and his solutions defy reason – remains immanent in the Weberian managerial forms of our culture. Whenever those immersed in the bureaucratic culture of the age try to think their way through to the moral foundations of what they are and what they do, they will discover suppressed Nietzschean premises. And consequently it is possible to predict with confidence that in the apparently quite unlikely contexts of bureaucratically managed modern societies there will periodically emerge social movements informed by just that kind of prophetic irrationalism of which Nietzsche’s thought is the ancestor. Indeed just because and insofar contemporary Marxism is Weberian in substance we can expect prophetic irrationalisms of the left as well as of the Right. So it was was with  much student radicalism of the sixties. (p 114, Duckworth Second Edition)