Saint Gregory Palamas ... commemorated on the Second Sunday of Lent
Today is the Second Sunday of Lent. This year, the days of Lent and Easter fall on the same dates in the calendars of the Western Church and the Orthodox Church.
Last week, I was discussing how the First Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox tradition celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Second Sunday of Lent follows that theme through by commemorating Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), whose views eventually triumphed in a 14th century theological dispute over ascetic practices on Mount Athos.
Saint Gregory Palamas (Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς), who ended his days as Archbishop of Thessaloniki, was a monk on Mount Athos at the monasteries of Vatopedi and Esphigmenou. His principal feast day is on 14 November.
Saint Gregory Palamas began his monastic life on Mount Athos in the Monastery of Vatopedi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint Gregory was probably born in Constantinople in 1296 into a noble Anatolian family. His father was a courtier of the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328). Gregory was still a small boy when his father died, and the child was raised by the Emperor, who hoped that the gifted Gregory would become a courtier and imperial official. Saint Gregory received his secular philosophical education from Theodore Metochites.
From his youth, he was attracted to the monastic life, and he successfully persuaded his brothers and sisters, along with his widowed mother, to take up the monastic life.
Saint Gregory Palamas was a monk on Mount Athos at both Vatopedi and Esphigmenou (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Around 1318, Gregory and his two brothers went to Mount Athos, and there they learned at first-hand the traditional hesychastic way of contemplative prayer. As advancing Turkish forces moved closer, Gregory fled to Thessaloniki, and he was ordained priest there in 1326.
Eventually he returned to Mount Athos in 1331, and was a monk in both Vatopedi and Esphigmenou. Six years later, he became involved in a controversy on Mount Athos, defending his fellow monks against an attack by Barlaam, a Greek monk from Calabria in Italy. Barlaam valued the philosophers, education and learning more than contemplative prayer. He stated the unknowability of God in an extreme form, and said the monks on Mount Athos were wasting their time in contemplative prayer.
When Saint Gregory criticised Barlaam’s rationalism, Barlaam replied with a vicious attack on the hesychastic life of the Athonite monks. Saint Gregory’s rebuttal, the Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts (ca 1338), was a brilliant work and was affirmed by his fellow Hagiorites, who met in a council in 1340-1341 and issued the Hagioritic Tome, supporting Saint Gregory’s theology.
Contrary to Barlaam, Saint Gregory asserted that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. Addressing the question of how it is possible for us to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God, he drew a distinction between knowing God in his essence (ουσία) and knowing God in his energies (ενέργειαι).
He maintained the Orthodox doctrine that it remains impossible to know God in his essence (God in himself), but possible to know God in his energies (to know what God does, and who he is in relation to the creation and to man), as God reveals himself to humanity. In doing so, he made reference to the Cappadocian Fathers and other early Christian writers.
Saint Gregory further asserted that when the Apostles Peter, James and John witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, that they were in fact seeing the uncreated light of God; and that it is possible for others to be granted to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer, although not in any automatic or mechanistic fashion.
He continually stressed the Biblical vision of the human person as a united whole, both body and soul. Thus, he argued, the physical side of hesychastic prayer was an integral part of the contemplative monastic way, and that the claim by some of the monks of seeing the uncreated light was indeed legitimate. Like Saint Simeon the New Theologian, he also laid great stress in his spiritual teaching on the vision of the divine light.
A synod in Constantinople in 1341 also supported Saint Gregory’s views, condemning Barlaam. Later, in 1344, the opponents of hesychasm secured a condemnation for heresy and excommunication for Gregory. Gregory’s opponents in the Hesychast controversy spread slanderous accusations against him, and in 1344 Patriarch John XIV jailed him for four years. However, when Patriarch Isidore came to the Ecumenical Throne in 1347, Gregory was released from prison and consecrated as the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki.
The saint’s theology was affirmed again and again at two further synods in Constantinople in 1347 and 1351.
Collectively, these three synods in Constantinople are held by many Orthodox Christians and several theologians to constitute the Ninth Ecumenical Council. Between the latter two synods, Saint Gregory wrote the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, a concise exposition of his theology.
In 1347, he was consecrated Archbishop of Thessaloniki, but the political climate made it impossible for him to take up his see until 1350. During a voyage to the Imperial capital, he was captured by the Turks and held in captivity for over a year. He died on 14 November 1359; his dying words were: “To the heights! To the heights!”
He was subsequently proclaimed a saint of the Orthodox Church in 1368 by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople.
Besides the Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts (c. 1338) and the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters (c. 1347-1351), numerous homilies by Saint Gregory also survive. Substantial passages from his writings are also collected in the Philokalia. The bulk of his work has still to be translated.
The Metropolitan Church of Saint Gregory Palamas, Thessaloniki, where the relics of Saint Gregory Palamas are kept
Troparion (Tone 8)
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation,
O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians,
O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessaloniki and preacher of grace,
always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion (Tone 4)
Now has come the time to work:
at the door stands the judge.
Let us arise and fast,
offering with tears of shame,
joined with almsgiving,
as we cry out:
“Our sins are more
than the sands of the sea.
But set us free,
Creator of all,
for imperishable crowns.”
Kontakion (Tone 8)
Holy and divine instrument of wisdom,
joyful trumpet of theology,
together we sing your praises,
O God-inspired Gregory.
Since you now stand before the Original Mind,
guide our minds to him, O Father,
so that we may sing to you:
“Rejoice, preacher of grace.”
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin