The following excerpt was found in the thesis 'Authority and Tradition in Contemporary Understandings of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer' by Christopher David Leonard Johnson
Another example of a group that has put the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm to use is the so - called ‘Perennialist’ or ‘Traditionalist’ school. The primary proponents of this school of thought include René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswami, Julius Evola and Frijthof Schuon, among others. There are also ‘soft’ Perennialists, or those who have tendencies towards the idea that there is an essential unity of religious traditions in the realm of metaphysics or mysticism but are not explicit members of the Perennialist school. Many can be included in this category, including well-known scholars, such as Mircea Eliade, Huston Smith and Carl Gustav Jung. For the most part, Orthodox Christianity does not figure as prominently as Sufism and Hinduism in the writings of the first wave ‘core’ Perennialists, such as Guénon, but in some later authors it has become a more central concern.
Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century is one of the few studies of Traditionalism or Perennialism as a movement (Sedgwick 2004). In this movement, which could best be thought of as a diffuse school of thought, individuals identify themselves with one particular tradition but claim that all genuine traditions are univocally true when it comes to their esoteric or transcendental dimension, rather than their exoteric and outward religious aspect. Common to this worldview is the notion that, despite this fundamental inner unity, one must live in a single tradition and make use of its countless dimensions, which function together as an indivisible whole aimed at direct knowledge of the divine.
In Sedgwick’s discussion of Fr. Seraphim (Eugene) Rose, he speaks of the initial and lasting influence of Traditionalist thought on Fr. Seraphim. Regarding Rose’s opinion of popular scholar, speaker and spokesman Alan Watts, “The ‘Buddhism’ he espoused as a remedy for the spiritual malaise of the West was thus an unauthentic, synthesized expression of that tradition, streamlined to cater to the modern mentality of self-worship” (208). Rose thought Guénon and Schuon’s understanding of Eastern traditions was more authentic, not simply “digestible for westerners,” (208) and, initially, he embraced this view and attempted to do for Taoism what Guénon did for Hinduism (209). After becoming interested in Orthodox Christianity through Schuon, Rose began to visit Russian Orthodox churches in San Francisco and soon had an epiphany about the certainty of Christ’s divinity (209). Later, he came to admit that “each tradition possesses truth, beyond doubt, but in varying measures,” claiming “the ‘equality’ and ‘transcendent unity’ of religions is a notion from the modernist ‘simplistic’ mentality” (209). Even after the writings of the Traditionalists, for Rose, the troubling state of modernity had not appeared to change, eventually leading him to the realisation that “Christ requires us not to ‘understand,’ but to suffer, die, and arise to Life in Him” (Christensen 1993: 125-6).
Realising the influence Traditionalism had in his own path to conversion into the Orthodox Church, “Rose did not, however, reject Traditionalism entirely. It remained part of his personal philosophy in the 1970s, when he replied to a Traditionalist who had written to him: ‘I only pray that you will take what is good from him [Guénon] and not let his limitations chain you” (Christensen 1993: 651). Christensen claims that “What Rose kept for himself from Traditionalism was a devotion to ‘traditional’ esoteric practice as well as firm opposition to the modern world and to ‘counterinitiation,’ [...] attacking the new religious movements of the time” (637-44). Sedgwick calls Rose “the classic example of how Traditionalism became for many a ‘stepping-stone’-not a destination in itself in the way that it was for previous Traditionalists” (Sedgwick 2004: 209). The author adds that, in many cases, it is difficult to track the influence of Traditionalism on the thought of those who later moved on to embrace a particular tradition without emphasising the influence of philosophia perennis(210). This is due to both the unorganised nature of the movement and to the desire of some converts to cover their tracks, since Traditionalist thought is often not accepted as orthodox teaching and viewed suspiciously by religious authorities (210, 271).
Sedgwick mentions several other Traditionalists who identified with the Orthodox Church, such as the young Swiss Jean -Francois Mayer in the mid-nineteen-seventies and Alexander Dugin, who is currently politically active in Russia (209-10, 221). Dugin attempts to correct Guénon’s dismissal or neglect of the Orthodox tradition, arguing “the Christianity that Guenon rejected was Western Catholicism. Guenon was right in rejecting Catholicism but wrong in rejecting Eastern Orthodoxy, of which he knew little” (225-6). In The Metaphysics of the Gospel(1996), Dugin claims that “Orthodoxy, unlike Catholicism, had never lost its initiatic validity and so remained a valid tradition to which a Traditionalist might turn” (225-6). Dugin also attempts to translate much of the Traditionalist philosophy into Orthodox terms (226). Even though “Schuon’s universalism claimed to encompass Christianity, as it did all religions [...] Traditionalism has not usually claimed to be compatible with Christianity” (271). As the exception, “Dugin’s Traditionalism led not to Sufism as the esoteric practice of Islam, but to Russian Orthodoxy as both an esoteric and an exoteric practice” (226). In her article “Aleksandr Dugin: A Russian Version of the European Radical Right?” Marlene Laruelle paraphrases Dugin’s argument that Guénon’s description of Christianity becoming exoteric after the Ecumenical Councils refers only to the Western confessions of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the East having “retained its initiatic character and esoteric foundations to this day” (Laruelle 2006: 10). In regards to the Traditionalist ideas that inspired him, the author says “[h]e hopes to ‘Russify’ the doctrines that inspire him, and to adapt them to what he calls the traditional concepts of the Russian world” (10). To accomplish this, “Dugin links an esoteric account of the world to Orthodoxy, which he sees as having preserved an initiatic character, a ritualism where each gesture has a symbolic meaning” (11). In Laruelle’s description of Dugin’s understanding of new religious movements, she says:
Dugin fully agrees with the Traditionalist criticism of spiritualism. Guénon already considered spiritualism to be a “counter-initiation,” a reconstruction of pseudo-traditions actually born of modernity, which must be condemned for wanting to usurp the real Tradition. For Dugin too, theosophism, cosmism and the New Age religions are a spiritualist version of post-industrial modernity and a veiled cult of technology. He condemns their populism and lack of coherent spiritual conceptions, whereas he sees Traditionalism as intended for a restricted elite, which is alone able to understand its requirements.
Another author influenced by Traditionalism and Orthodox Christianity not given much attention by Sedgwick is Phillip Sherrard. With the help of co-Traditionalists Kathleen Raine, Keith Critchlow and Brian Keegle, and with the sponsorship and aid of Prince Charles, Duke of Edinburgh, Sherrard established and ran the Temenos Academy and the journal Temenos: A Review of the Arts of the Imagination, both inspired by the Traditionalist worldview (Sedgwick 214). In her short biography on Sherrard, close friend and fellow poet Kathleen Raine admits that Sherrard was the first to introduce her to the idea of a “universal and unanimous wisdom underlying all sacred traditions which have nourished and sustained civilization” (Raine 1996: 5, 13). In spite of her acceptance of this opinion, after half a lifetime of correspondence, Sherrard never convinced Raine of the truth of “the traditionalist belief that we must choose and commit ourselves to one religion, or [...] relinquishing my faith in the authority within” (15). She points out the post-war context of many of the Traditionalist authors, saying that in post-war London “we knew the difference between the authentic and the commercial” (5). Sherrard helped translate the only English translation of the Philokalia, along with Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Gerald E. H. Palmer, and Raine claims that even while working on the Philokalia, “he continued to participate in the work of the traditionalist school of René Guénon and A. K. Coomaraswamy” (13). Raine makes an interesting point that “Among members of this group Philip was alone in embracing Orthodox Christianity” (14). She says that, at the time of her writing the biography, the scope of his wide correspondence is unknown (19).
In The Transcendental Unity of Religions, prominent perennialist Frithjof Schuon often mentions topics such as hesychasm, the hesychastic vision of the divine uncreated light, the essence/energy distinction, Mount Athos, The Way of a Pilgrim, the prayer of Jesus, and hesychia or inner silence (Schuon 1953: 66, 157, 170-2, 176-83). Schuon makes several noteworthy points about these topics. He refers to hesychasm as the most pure, unadulterated form inherited from “primitive Christian spirituality” and Christian initiation, noting its survival “among certain monks of Hesychast lineage on Mount Athos or among other spiritual descendents of the same family” until modern times (170). Later, Schuon again calls hesychasm “the most direct and untouched branch of Christian initiation” and specifies that this is due to its esoteric nature, especially seen in its apophatic theology and essence/energy distinction (176-7). In a footnote, Schuon further develops this point: Hesychasm, which is too often looked upon as a philosophico-mystical ‘curiosity’ of purely historical interest, has its roots in Christianity as such, and [...] it is not merely a rather special development of Christian spirituality, but its purest and deepest expression” (176-7 f.). For Schuon, hesychasm can be clearly distinguished “from the methods of ordinary religious piety, linking it to the methods used in Yoga and Sufism and all other analogous ways” (178). “[T]he Hesychast doctrine is in perfect accord with the teaching of every other initiatory tradition” when it comes to its conception of the heart as the spiritual center of the person (180).
The Jesus Prayer is described as “in principle reserved for an elite, thus proving its extra-religious character” as“the means of perfecting the natural participation of the human microcosm in the divine Metacosm, that is to say the transmutation of this participation into supernatural participation and finally into union and identity” (180). According to Schuon:
It is only by means of this ‘prayer’ that the creature can be really united with his Creator; the goal of this ‘prayer’ is consequently the ‘supreme’ spiritual state, in which man becomes detached from everything pertaining to the creature and, being directly united with the Divinity, is illuminated by the Divine Light. This supreme state is the ‘Holy Silence’ (hesychia) (180).
Schuon says “The ‘prayer of Jesus,’ like every other initiatory rite, but unlike religious rites [...], is strictly methodical: that is to say it is subject to technical ordinances” such as control of breathing which Schuon relates to the yogic practice of pranayama (181). Schuon goes on to acknowledge that the virtues are the ‘conditio sine qua non’ for the efficacy of ‘spiritual prayer’ (181).
The ‘silence’ of hesychasm is considered identical to Hindu and Buddhist nirvana and Sufic fana(181 f.) and the invocation of the name of Jesus is seen as an example of the same “fundamental and truly universal significance of the invocation of the Divine Name” (182) that is behind the practice of Islamic Dhikr and Buddhist nembutsu(182-3 f.). Similarly, the word work is used to refer to the invocation of the prayer of Jesus, while for Sufi dervishes, the invocation is also called shoghl, or occupation(182-3 f.). In his introduction to The Essential Frithjof Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes of the references to hesychasm and Orthodox Christian spirituality in Schuon’s writings:
There are also many pages devoted by Schuon to Orthodox theology and spirituality, especially works such as the Philokalia concerned with quintessential prayer. There is something of the ‘Oriental’ doctrine of the saving grace of beauty, of the mystery of icons, of the Hesychast prayer of the heart, of the apophatic theology of a St. Gregory of Palamas and of the luminous skies above Mt. Athos in the writings of Schuon (1991: 20)
Nasr also notes that “Many have, in fact, been led to the discovery of Orthodoxy through his works” (20). Traditionalist Buddhist Marco Pallis’s article Discovering the Interior Life considers the plausibility of adapting various spiritual practices in the West (1968). He believes elaborate practices such as tantric meditation “would not easily be realizable in a Western framework, save by exception” (89-90). For Pallis:
in a time of growing alienation and disbelief apparatus of a very complex kind hardly fits the need, which calls for a discipline that is at once ‘central,’ that is to say expressive of the most central truths of the tradition, and at the same time extremely concise as to the instruments it sets in motion, thus allowing of their methodic exercise under all kinds of circumstances, be it even the most unfavourable (90).
With this consideration, Pallis comes to the conclusion that the use of the Jesus Prayer would seem to best fit this criteria:
[A]ll the great traditions are agreed in saying that this way of concentrating attention and pervading a person’s whole being with continual reminders of God is a spiritual means particularly suited to thneeds of the Dark Age, when religion is at a low ebb and the forces of godless subversion seem to be a mounting tide (90)
Commenting on the widespread presence of the invocation of the divine name in many traditions, Pallis contends “it could scarcely be otherwise, since such a way corresponds to a basic human need, outside all questions of religious form” (91). He considers hesychasm a “form of Christian yoga” (91) that “is accessible and appropriate to every baptised person as such” (92).
“Seeing that the Jesus Prayer belongs historically to Eastern Christianity,” he says “it may be asked by some whether its transplantation to the West at this late hour would be entirely appropriate, using it of course in its Latin translation of Domine Jesu Christe Fili Dei miserere nobis” and whether the rosary could fill the same function (92). Pallis gives no clear answer to this question. He notes that “a number of Catholics known to the writer have long been using the Jesus Prayer and there is no reason why others should not follow their example, if so minded” (92-3). Pallis notes that in the use of the divine name, the name begins as the object of invocation but eventually becomes the subject of invocation when the state of “spontaneous perpetual prayer” is reached and the subject/object distinction collapses (93). Pallis writes:
As in the case of those following one of the Indian forms of yoga, an intending Hesychast disciple is warned of dangers that might arise from an unguided use of a spiritual instrument of such great inherent potency, for instance though the development of unusual psychic powers whereby attention might be diverted from ‘the one needful thing’ to the ego of the person himself (93).
In his book The Way and the Mountain, Pallis also mentions the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm as exemplified in the The Way of a Pilgrim as “strictly analogous, as regards its principles and even its details, to what is to be found in the lands further East, a case of spiritual coincidence, not of borrowing in either direction” (Pallis 1991: 121).
The well-known scholar of religion, Huston Smith, wrote an article entitled “The Jesus Prayer” for Christian Century in 1973 that has as its subtitle “In these curious times, when magic and divination are being practiced on every major campus in our land, is it possible that the Jesus Prayer might come into its own?” (Smith 1973: 363). Smith asks, “Why have we become such a fertile field for alien faiths [of the East]? Partly because our own religions did not deter us from what we have done in southeast [sic] Asia, but also, I suspect, because Judaism and Christianity have not been very explicit about method” (364). He states his belief that,
What people today seem to want is not morals and belief, not even new morals and a new belief. They want a practical discipline that will transform them. They seek an experience that will enable them to lead their lives on a different basis, from a new center. They want a new consciousness and a method for obtaining it; an enlargement of awareness to the point that God is encountered not as a postulate but as an experienced fact (363-364).
Since “[t]o many Christians the whole idea of an interior transformation deliberately undertaken seems faintly suspect, [...] Mainline Christianity seems to have been of the opinion that illumination, if it comes at all, comes as a supernatural grace, a gift; there is little, if anything, we can validly do to bring it about in ourselves” (364). Smith claims to “know of no Asian tradition that would have given that answer” (364). In contrast, “It is the unanimous testament of Hindu, Buddhist and Sufi alike that there are positive steps proper to man. But then there are such testaments in Christendom too, minority reports though they be” (364). Smith claims one such Christian testament is the Jesus Prayer. He goes on to speak of the monks of Mount Athos, kenosis, hesychasm, the Philokalia and the story of the Russian pilgrim, comparing the Pilgrim’s experiential solving of the incessant prayer paradox to a koan (364-5). Smith calls the Jesus Prayer “a Western mantra if I ever heard one,” and describes it as “the uninterrupted calling upon the name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, and in the heart, while forming a picture of his presence and imploring his grace during every occupation” (365).
A collection devoted entirely to comparing ‘Sufism and the Christian East’ has been published by World Wisdom, a publishing company “dedicated to the exposition of the timeless Truth underlying the diverse traditions” (Cutsinger 2002: i). This volume, Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East, was compiled from the contributions of nearly a dozen scholars at a conference of the same name at the University of South Carolina in 2001. Among the several articles contained in the book that relate to the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm is one entitled ‘Hesychia: An Orthodox Opening to Esoteric Ecumenism’ by James S. Cutsinger. The title points to what Dr. Cutsinger calls in his foreward to the book “a form of interfaith dialogue which, while fully respecting the integrity of traditional dogmas and rites, ‘calls into play the wisdom which can discern the one sole Truth under the veil of different forms.’” (ix). Cutsinger comments on the typical interfaith gathering as spawning dialogue that is “confined to the outward or exoteric level of doctrines and practices, and at this level, given the considerable differences among the teachings of the world’s religions, contradiction or compromise often appear as the only alternatives” (vii). Those “who limit their approach to the dogmatic letter of their religions will find their perspectives mutually exclusive, and their ‘dialogue’ [...] will be reduced to two parallel monologues”(vii). Since each tradition is not simply a system of exoteric beliefs but has “a spiritual heart, in which the deeper meaning of those beliefs and practices comes alive, [...] the spiritual pilgrim may discover, beyond the level of contradictory forms, an inner commonality with those who follow other paths” (vii). Cutsinger claims that “one finds their [Christians and Muslims] mystical traditions, especially in the Christian East and in Sufism, have for centuries shared many of the same spiritual methods and goals” and that masters from one of these traditions have occasionally taken seekers from the other tradition for instruction (viii). Still, the author recognises “historically that most masters in the Christian East and in Sufi Islam would nonetheless stop short of embracing so explicitly universalist a point of view, insisting instead on the superiority of their own religions” (viii). Cutsinger admits that “this same insistence was by no means absent from our conference,” especially with several of the Christian contributors, adding that “[t]he conference was therefore not without its controversial moments” (viii).