The great contribution of Saint Gregory Palamas
Today, Second Sunday of the Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of St. Gregory Palamas (in addition to the day of his repose, on Nov. 14, 1359). Why did the Church set this Sunday, following Sunday of Orthodoxy, to commemorate his name? Because his name is associated with the triumph of the Church against heresy and the unparalleled witness of the true faith.
The contribution of St. Gregory Palamas to the teachings of the Church is inestimable. St. Gregory Palamas was chosen to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit and His mouthpiece, expounding the Orthodox Faith against the impious attacks of the rationalistic-minded enemies of the Truth. His main teachings are two:
- God is totally inaccessible in His essence, but He makes Himself known through His divine energies (power, love, wisdom, grace, etc.); and
- Knowledge of God is not obtained through study, but through participation of the entire human being in the divine life. Let’s expand briefly on these two teachings.
St. Gregory Palamas, this great Father of the Church, theologized, that is he made known to us things that have been revealed to him from above. What did he tell us? That besides God existing in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and besides the Second person of the Holy Trinity becoming human, he made a crucial and fundamental distinction between God’s essence or substance and His energies. His essence is unknowable and incommunicable, whereas He communicates with His creation through His divine energies, which are known. Thus we know God as Creator, as Giver of life, as Wisdom, as Sanctifier, etc. Without this distinction we fall either into pantheism (God is within the universe) or we are unable to explain how God acts in the world. Of all the religions and philosophies of the world, of all the Christian denominations, none can explain this question that remains for them unsolved, how God can be inaccessible yet communicating with His creation. Only Holy Orthodoxy offers the answer, thanks to the contribution of St. Gregory Palamas.
He also explained another truth that remains a mystery among all the religions, faiths and philosophies of the world: how do we know God. We think we can approach God as if He were another finite reality, that we get to know Him as we learn geography and mathematics, i.e., with our mind, our logic, our study. But how else, you may ask, can we know God? God, as we said, is inaccessible, unknowable, unreachable, incomprehensible, the “totally other,” as St. Augustine called Him. Therefore He cannot be approached intellectually, but spiritually and experiencially. In his debates with the humanists of his day he taught that we get to know God through the spiritual powers of the soul, and with the Holy Spirit that indwells in us and illumines us.
Thus while we know about God through our senses and through our mind, through the study of nature, through the study of the holy scripture and of the writings of the Saints, and through the preaching of the pastors of the Church, when we know God through the grace of the Holy Spirit we acquire a knowledge of God, which is direct and perfect. This superior, more intimate and direct knowledge of God is obtained through the ascetic practices, especially through prayer and quietude (esychia) of body and mind.
In order to reach this level of intimate knowledge and communion with God, effort is required: we must subdue our passions, cultivate the virtues, participate in the holy sacraments (mysteries) of the Church, pray and labor ascetically to obtain the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, by purifying our body, mind, heart and soul we reach catharsis, after which, always with the grace of God, we can attain to theosis, deification, divinization, Christification, vision of the uncreated light, union with God, a stage reached by the Saints. Now we understand a little better the meaning of the Lord’s words, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8).
This then, my dear Christians, is our goal and our struggle in life, particularly in this blessed period of the Great Lent: to subdue our passions with fasting, prayer, almsgiving, by reading the lives of Saints and their inspired writings, by meditating on their words and their lives, by emulating their struggles, by asking incessantly for their intercession with Christ our God, especially for the mediation of the most holy Mother of God and Ever-virgin, Mary.
I would like to append a few facts from St. Gregory’s life, revealing how he attained to the heights of holiness. He came from a holy family. His father was tonsured a monk before his death, when Gregory he was seven. When at the age of twenty he decided to become a monk, his mother, his two brothers, his two sisters and several of their servants followed suit. He practiced rigorous asceticism, living on a piece of bread and water. He went up to three months without sleeping. He had the gift of unceasing tears. His ceaseless prayer was “lighten my darkness!”
He lived alone during the week, and on weekends after celebrating liturgy mingled with his brethren monks instructing them and strengthening them in their struggle. He was condemned as a heretic and was imprisoned for four years. Against his will, at age 51, he was consecrated Archbishop of Thessaloniki. He reposed twelve years later. His face shone like that of St. Stephen. Nine years later he was declared a saint. 1
The writings of St. Gregory Palamas are contained in five volumes in the original Greek. Besides 130 pages of his writings included in the 4th volume of the English edition of the Philokalia, 63 of his extant sermons have been translated and commented by Christopher Veniamin, professor at St. Tikhon’s Seminary. This book is invaluable.
- However, to this day he is not accepted by all Orthodox. Listen what is stated in the book, Byzantine Daily Worship, used by the Byzantine Catholics (which unfortunately bears the blessing of Patriarch Athenagoras): “The theology of Palamas contains some errors that were refuted later by Greek and Russian theologians” (p. 797). (So they decided to replace his feast with the feast of the veneration of the Relics of Saints, a veneration, it is stated, “not having an intrinsic value.” Such is the sad state of affairs.) His theology contains no errors. It is the theology of the Church.
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