An Urban Hesychast

The English-speaking Christian world has lost one of its most respected theological voices. Metropolitan Kallistos fell asleep in the Lord yesterday morning and, for many of us, his passing has caused us to give thanks for decades of his gentle teaching and thorough scholarship, bringing the texts and insights of the Philokalic tradition and of Byzantine liturgy to a wide audience. As for many others, my first encounter with his writings was his ‘The Orthodox Way’ (my copy is dated 1988) with its superb selection of apt quotations at the end of each chapter which offered a tantalising introductory taste of teachers as diverse as Isaac the Syrian, St Symeon the New Theologian, Paul Evdokimov and Mother Maria of Paris.

It is Metropolitan Kallistos’s teaching on the prayer of the heart that I still find most compelling. In an essay on hesychia originally published in 1973 but updated in his collection, The Inner Kingdom, in 2000, he gave a wide-ranging analysis on the meaning of this rich word. He reminded us that, although the outward context of our quest for inner stillness may be important – indeed, many monastic writers stress the vital importance of the cell in their practice – true stillness may be practised even by those whose lives are lived in the context where much speech and little solitude may be possible: ‘what matters is not our spatial position but our spiritual state.’ He thought that ‘the vocation of an urban hesychast was by no means an impossibility.’ Indeed, he may well have embodied that vocation himself as an academic living in a busy city who was drawn to the prayer of the heart.

I would go further and take his endorsement of such a vocation as an indication of its necessity in our cities. What greater gift could we give to our busy, noisy, challenging urban environments than the gift of the pursuit of true prayer? The rest, fulfillment, inner balance and spacious openness to the Father that is the fruit of the prayer of the heart is nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Kallistos quotes Met. Anthony: ‘At that moment, the eschatalogical moment is realized and, in the words of St. Paul, ‘God is all in all.’ The one who practises hesychia ‘can appreciate the value of each thing because he sees each in God and God in each.’ There is much more to say about the spiritual legacy of this great Father in God, but for now, I thank him for his insight into the urgent vocation of seeking God in the stillness of the heart, especially in the unstill heart of our cities.

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