IN MANY PARISHES, the Great Fast means an increase in activity: added services, Lenten Dinners, missions and other programs. It is ironic that we celebrate today a saint identified with the spirituality of stillness. St Gregory Palamas’ main contribution to the life of the Church is his articulate and definitive presentation of Hesychasm, what he called “Sacred Quietude,” the monastic ideal of withdrawal and silence in order to focus on union with God.
Who Is St Gregory Palamas?
This future saint was born in Constantinople in 1296 into a family of some standing at the imperial court. Despite the emperor’s attempt to groom him for imperial service, Gregory went to Mount Athos and became a monk. After spending ten years on the Holy Mountain, Gregory and the other monks of his skete withdrew to Thessaloniki, because of the threat of Turkish invasion. He continued in his monastic calling there and in Berea before returning to Athos in the 1330s.
It was upon his return to Mount Athos that Gregory first encountered Barlaam of Calabria, an Italo-Greek monk and humanist who was head of the Monastery of Our Savior in Constantinople. Barlaam was involved in several diplomatic missions for the emperor as well as in discussions with the legates of Pope John XXII aimed at the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches.
Barlaam had written 21 treatises critical of Latin theology, particularly the Filioque and the doctrine of papal primacy which came to the attention of Gregory Palamas. While Barlaam had upheld the traditional Byzantine thinking on these issues, Palamas criticized him for teaching that the Filioque was wrong because it is impossible to determine from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds, since God is ultimately unknowable. Thus began a rivalry that would affect the Church in both East and West until our own day.
What Is Hesychasm?
The Filioque controversy was simply the preliminary. The “Main Event” concerned the practice of Hesychasm, a style of contemplative prayer observed in many Greek monasteries of the day. Inspired by the Lord’s words, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6), Eastern monastics had long seen the heart as the “inner chamber” to which we must go for prayer. Communion with God becomes possible when the mind, with its memories, concerns and plans for the future, is subjected to the heart that loves God above all. The Jesus Prayer had become the means for silencing the mind and thus entering this inner chamber of the heart. To this the Hesychasts added certain psycho-physical techniques such as rhythmic breathing and a particular way of sitting. Barlaam objected to these methods, calling the Hesychast monks he met “navel gazers.”
The heads of the Athonite monasteries asked Gregory Palamas to respond to Barlaam’s critique, which he did in a series of treatises. The controversy soon centered on the theological basis of Hesychasm, the possibility of experiencing the Uncreated Light of God as the apostles did at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ. Hesychasts believed that through ever deepening prayer the monk could experience this Light which they believed to be a divine energy. Barlaam, an intellectual trained in Aristotelian scholasticism, attacked this teaching as heretical and the entire Hesychast method as anti-intellectual, holding that philosophy was the true means of attaining the knowledge of God.
The controversy so affected the Byzantine Church that several local councils were held in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351 to discuss the issues raised by Barlaam and Gregory. They ultimately affirmed the teachings of St Gregory Palamas, namely that:
1. The light which shone at Tabor, during the Transfiguration of the Savior, is declared to be neither a creature nor the essence of God, but His energy: the uncreated and natural grace springing eternally from the divine essence itself;
2. There are in God two inseparable things: His essence and the natural and substantial energies flowing from His essence in line with the relationship of cause and effect. We cannot enter into His essence but we can participate in His energies. Both the one and the other are uncreated and eternal;
3. This real distinction between essence and energies or operations does not destroy the simplicity of God…;
4.The word θεότης (godly) does not apply solely to the divine essence, but is said also of its operation…;
5.The light of Tabor is the ineffable and eternal glory of the Son of God, the kingdom of heaven promised to the saints, the splendor in which He shall appear on the last day to judge all mankind.
After the Councils
The patriarchs of Constantinople spent the rest of the fourteenth century sharing this teaching with the other patriarchs and local Churches, securing their assent. Gregory Palamas became archbishop of Thessalonika where he died in 1359. He was glorified as a saint in 1368 by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople, who composed the service for his feast.
Barlaam left Constantinople in 1341 after the council which condemned his teaching. He was received by the Pope of Rome at Avignon and was consecrated bishop of Gerace, a Greek diocese in Calabria. He died in 1348.
Hesychasm and the West
Palamas’ teaching was long considered suspect, if not heretical, in the West, which had embraced Aristotelian scholasticism as adapted by St Thomas Aquinas as its official theology. It was only in the twentieth century that St Gregory’s teaching was seen positively by Western Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. In the 1930s Danielou wrote how excited he was to read of Palamas’ “vision of humanity transfigured by the divine energies”.
In 1996 Pope John Paul II commented positively about the underlying doctrine behind Hesychasm: the possibility of theosis. He wrote, “In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquility of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus. There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method, that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of ‘theosis’ (‘divinization’).
“Precisely in this regard Eastern spirituality has amassed a very rich experience which was vigorously presented in the famous collection of texts significantly entitled Philokalia (‘love of beauty’) and gathered by Nicodemus the Hagiorite at the end of the 18th century. …
“How many things we have in common! It is time for Catholics and Orthodox to make an extra effort to understand each other better and to recognize with the renewed wonder of brotherhood what the Spirit is accomplishing in their respective traditions towards a new Christian springtime” (John Paul II, Eastern Theology Has Enriched the Whole Church).