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Why We Celebrate Saint Gregory Palamas

Saint Gregory Palamas lived in the 14th century. Born in Asia Minor, he was raised in the imperial court of Constantinople and later left to enter the monastic life on Mount Athos. He subjected himself to extreme asceticism so severe that he was forced to travel to Thessalonica for medical treatment.

In 1341, Saint Gregory was present at a council that was convened against Barlaam of Calabria. Saint Gregory had previously held discussions with Barlaam about the Orthodox theology of Hesychasm — the practice of gaining stillness through contemplative prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.

The Council upheld the Orthodox teachings, and a second council in 1351 reiterated them against the attacks of Acindynus, who taught that God's grace is created, rather than being God himself. But indeed, if God's actions in the world are creations rather than God himself, we cannot truly know God himself, nor can we have genuine communion with him.

Saint Gregory, who had become Metropolitan of Thessalonica in 1347, reposed in 1359, and he was glorified as a Saint of the Church nine years later. His feast was established on the Second Sunday of Lent to remind us that right works without right faith are meaningless. So we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy the week before, and the defender of Orthodox teachings this week.

What did Saint Gregory teach?

It is important to note that no Council of the Church ever establishes new doctrines. Rather, the Councils defend the ancient Orthodox teachings and clarify them in order to reject errors and false teachings. Saint Gregory did not invent the things he taught, but he most eloquently defended them in his writings. The most important points are these:

  • In God there are two things which cannot be separated: his Essence (God's inner self, which cannot be known by any created being) and his Energies (God's actions, which can be known by created beings). Both of these are uncreated and exist from eternity.
  • The difference between Essence and Energies does not destroy God's simplicity, as the Saints and the Church teach.
  • The light of Tabor (the "Uncreated Light") that shone at the Lord's Transfiguration was neither a created effect of God, nor was it his divine Essence. Rather, it was the uncreated and natural grace and illumination poured out eternally and inseparably from the divine Essence of God. This light is the eternal glory of Christ, the kingdom of heaven promised to the saints, and the splendor in which he shall appear on the last day to judge the living and the dead.

While this may seem like esoteric theology that has no practical relevance to our lives, in truth this speaks to the very heart of the Christian life.

The ultimate purpose of the Christian life is union with God (theosis). This is the reason why God created human beings in the first place. Union with God is only possible though becoming like him, by human cooperation with him. This cooperation is only possible through God's grace, which is one of God's Energies, and is therefore cooperation with God himself. Not just agreeing to God's goals for the world, or aligning with God's outlook on life, but true personal cooperation with and submission to God's actions in one's own life.

God is transcendent and unknowable (in his Essence), but God's Energies allow God to be known by us, and are the means by which he reveals himself to us. God's love, his grace, his mercy, and everything he does in the world allows us to know him. Through his Energies, God becomes known to us and makes us partakers in his own divine life. This is what salvation is.

The Truth is not a set of facts, he is a Person: Jesus Christ. So the Christian must experience the Truth as a Person. We come to know human persons through spending time with them and experiencing their words and actions in the world (Energies), though we can never know for ourselves what is going on inside a person's head. So it is with God.

The practice of Hesychasm was part of Saint Gregory's personal formation and his defense of Orthodox theology. This is an ancient traditional practice of prayer, meant to engender stillness.

In Matthew's Gospel, the Lord teaches us to "go into your closet and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (6:6). This shows the way to quiet, unceasing, contemplative prayer that leads to watchfulness and ultimately inner stillness and the knowledge of God.

As we travel through Lent, let us use this time not just to attend more church services and do good deeds—both of which are good and necessary. Let us also retreat to the inner rooms of our homes and of our hearts, and practice the prayer of stillness and contemplation that leads to communion with and knowledge of our God, and ultimately salvation.

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