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2nd Sunday of the Great Fast - St. Gregory Palamas


by Rev. David Hester, S.S


Father Hester is a Sulpician priest on the formation faculty at Theological College at Catholic University in Wash., D.C. He is completing a doctoral degree in church his­tory.


Throughout the year, there is no season that takes on as much significance as that of our preparation for the feast of feasts, Pascha. We know that each of the Sundays of Great Lent is so celebrated as to serve as a reminder to us of the necessary attitudes of faith and repentance that accompany our preparation. The question arises, however, with each Sunday being so dedicated, why is it that the second Sunday of Great Lent is sacred to the memory of the fourteenth century Archbishop, St. Gregory Palamas? We will offer an answer to this question in the form of a brief study of the life of St. Gregory and his special place in the controversy over hesychasrn, the spiritual practice of the Byzantine monks through which they, by silence (hesychia), separation, asceticism and the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) synchronized with their breathing, obtained mystical union with God. When this practice came under attack after 1338, St. Gregory staunchly defended it and was ever after considered to be one of the great defenders of Orthodoxy.


Palamas’ Early Life


Gregory Palamas was born in 1296. His parents were of noble birth, originally from Asia Minor, but, driven out by the Turkish invasions, they fled to Constantinople. Gregory grew up at the court of Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus, his father being a member of the Byzantine senate. Andronicus was one of the most religious of the late Byzantine rulers. Gregory’s father was also rather religious. Gregory’s biographer, in fact, tells us that Gregory’s father was so religious that, once when the Emperor went to speak to him in the senate, he was absorbed in “intellectual prayer” and did not hear him. The Emperor so respected him that he would not disturb him.’


In 1316 when he was twenty years old Gregory decided to become a monk, being inspired by contact with eminent monks in Constantinople, particularly Theoleptus of Philadelphia, who had explicitly invited him to hesychastic “pure prayer.” The Emperor had promised him a career in the imperial service, but Gregory was so convinced of the value of the monastic vocation that he himself and, at his urging, his mother (his father had already died), two sisters, two brothers and a large number of the family servants also entered monasteries.


Gregory lived about ten years on Mount Athos which was the center of all Orthodox monasticism of the time. He received there not only a spiritual training, but also had an opportunity to gain a very wide knowledge of patristic literature and profound experience of the various problems of monastic life. Gregory lived a semi-communal form of life there. This was a rule of life in which a few monks would group around a spiritual master, practicing asceticism and prayer together, going on Saturdays and Sundays to the monastic community on which they were dependent to participate in the liturgy and receive the sacraments.


This type of life greatly influenced Gregory and helped him to realize the danger of exaggerated hesychasm, which often had a contempt for liturgical life.


Around 1326, Gregory left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Mount Sinai. He got as far as Thessalonika where he stayed for several years. There he joined a kind of spiritual circle under the leadership of Isidore, the future Patriarch of Constantinople. This circle was very active among various social groups, for Gregory and Isidore sought to spread the practice of the Jesus Prayer outside the cloisters, “for to them it was the preeminent means of making the grace of Baptism real and efficacious.”


Gregory was ordained priest at Thessalonika when he was thirty years old. He then founded a hermitage near Berrhoea which he governed and where he practiced rigorous asceticism for five years. However, about 1331, he returned to Athos because Serbian raids were constantly disturbing the area of Berrhoea. 


On Athos Gregory decided to live in the hermitage of Saint Sabas, still continuing the way of life he adopted at Berrhoea, keeping the balance between personal spiritual life and communal prayer and liturgy. After 1338, Gregory’s life was greatly changed. He became involved in the controversy created by Barlaam of Calabria over hesychasm. 

The Hesychast Controversy

Barlaam. a Calabrian Greek, went to Constantinople in 1338 and quickly won fame there as a scholar and philosopher. John Cantacuzenos. the Grand Domestic of the Emperor Andronicus III, appointed him to a chair at the imperial university, where he com­mented for his students on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. In 1339 he was entrusted with a mission to Pope Benedict XII at Avignon. The Byzantine government was fully convinced of his orthodoxy, since his “love of true piety” had led him to leave Italy and come to Constantinople.

Barlaam. however, soon found himself in difficulties when he began making theological innovations. He had grown up in Italy where the spirit of the Renaissance was beginning to ferment and was greatly influenced by the philosophies of Neoplatonism and Nominalism, and by the spirituality of Pseudo-Dionysius. He had a “dualistic conception of man, according to which he considered the spiritual life as a dis-incarnation and an intellectual contempla­tion.”5 His understanding was based on two postulates:


1.    & #160;    The Aristotelian postulate that all knowledge, including knowledge of God, is derived from perception of sense “experience.”


2.    & #160;    A Neoplatonic postulate, based also on Christian writers, espe­cially the Pseudo-Dionysius, according to which God is beyond sense experience and therefore unknowable.6


Barlaam held that all knowledge of God must be indirect, passing always “through beings,” perceptible to sense. Therefore, mystical knowledge itself can have only a symbolic reality.


Barlaam was shocked by the hesychast claims that the human body could itself participate in prayer, that it could feel the action of divine grace and that saints could have a real vision of God. He called the hesychasts omphalopsychoi (one-with-the-soul-in-the -navel) and wrote of them:


I have been initiated by them in monstrosities and in absurd doctrines that a man with any intelligence, or even a little sense, cannot lower himself to describe, products of erroneous belief and rash imagina­tion. They taught me about marvelous separations and reunions of mind and soul, between red and white lights, the intelligible entrances and exits produced by the nostrils while breathing, the shields around the navel and, finally, the vision of Our Lord with the soul that is produced within the navel in a perceptible manner with full certitude of heart.


Barlaam then accused the hesychasts of the heresy of Messa­lianism. The Messalians were a sect that originated in the fourth century and held that, as a result of original sin, every person had a soul divided “into a spiritual and ‘angelic’ part, and a ‘material, incurably demoniacal part.”’8 For the Messalians, the only possible means for salvation was perpetual prayer, with the aim of eliminat­ing all passion and desire. Those who became perfect in this way claimed to experience in a knowing and feeling way the grace of God and to see God Himself.


Barlaam held that any direct vision of God was impossible. If any monk claimed to see God, he was in error. He wrote of this:


If they agree to say that the intelligible and immaterial light of which they speak is the superessential God himself and if they continue at the same time to acknowledge that he is absolutely invisible and inaccessible to the senses, they must face a choice: if they claim to see this light, they must consider it to be either an angel or the essence of the mind itself, when, purified, of passion and of ignorance, the spirit sees itself and in itself sees God in his own image.... But if they say that this light is neither the superessential essence, nor an angelic essence, nor the mind itself, but that the mind contemplates it as another hypostasis, for my part, I do not know what that light is, but I do know that it does not exist.


Defender of the Hesychasts


It is in opposition to these accusations of Barlaam that Gregory Palamas wrote the Hagiorite Tome, which was signed in 1340-1341 by the abbots and monks of Mount Athos, gathered in assembly at the Protaton of Karyes, and the Triads for the Defense of the Ho/v Hesychasts. In the Hagiorite Tome, Gregory was recognized as the authorized spokesperson for Athonite monasticism. This document states: Such is the teaching of Scripture; such is the tradition of the Fathers; such is our own humble experience. As we here learned that the most venerable hieromonk, our brother the Lord Gregory Palamas, had written this in defense of the holy hesychasts, we declare that his writings all rigorously conform to the tradition of the saints.


In the Triads for the Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, Gregory gave an answer to each of Barlaam’s accusations and, in so doing, pre­sented a unified theology of hesychasm.


First of all, Gregory, in opposition to any dualistic conception of humanity, defended the close link that exists among all of the components of a human being. He said: 


The soul has by nature such a link of love with its body that it never wants to leave it. . . . What pain or joy or movement of the body is there which is not shared by soul and body.... In the same way as the Divinity of the Word Incarnate is common to soul and body. . . so, in spirit ual men, is the grace of the Spirit transmitted to the body by the soul as intermediary and this gives it to experience of divine things and allows it to feel the same passion as the soul. . . . Spiritual joy, coming from the spirit into the body, is in no way corrupted by communion with the body, but transforms that body and makes it spiritual because it rejects the evil appetites of the flesh.’ 


It was with this understanding of the unity that should be found in each human that Palamas attacked the accusation of Messalian­ism, which holds that evil always co-exists in the soul. He states that this is not true by emphasizing the fact that a person is totally renewed by Baptism, and that his or her only need is to live out this renewal, as Meyendorff writes:


The fight against the “distractions of the mind,” “sensations,” and external images” is not for him a mystique of disincarnation, but a means to keep safe the renewal given to the Christian at baptism.’


Evil does not co-exist in the soul; rather each person is called to live out and protect the renewal received in Baptism.


Following upon this, Palamas then presents the hesychast approach to the passions and natural desires. He states that these are not to be eliminated but rather integrated with the spirit:


Our passionate life must be offered to God, living and active.... How can our living body be offered as a sacrifice pleasing to God? When our glance is meek . . . when our ears are attentive to the divine teaching.., when our tongue, our hands and our feet, all serve the divine will. Is not this observance of God’s commandments an activity common to soul and body. How then could it be true that all activities common to soul and body darken and blind the soul.


Once Gregory defended the common activity of the soul and body, he then presented his understanding of perpetual, hesychastic prayer. “The positive element in his spirituality,” according to Meyendorff, “is based on the uninterrupted ‘monological prayer.’ This is a ‘memory of God’ . . . a conscious activity of the human being.”’5 Palamas himself writes of the Jesus Prayer:


We supplicate with this continual supplication not to convince God, for he acts always spontaneously, nor to draw him to us, for he is everywhere, but to lift ourselves up towards him.’


It is with this need for giving full attention in prayer that Gregory also defended the psycho-physical techniques connected with the Jesus Prayer These were certain controversial methods of posture, breath control and concentration, that developed as aids in prayer. Palamas did not see these techniques of breathing and posture as simply mechanical ways of obtaining peace, as some thought, but rather as a “practical way for beginners to avoid distraction and the wanderings of the mind.”’


Inner Illumination


Gregory knew that it was of great importance to avoid distrac­tions and to become as internally unified as possible during prayer, for, as. was the belief of the hesychasts, he held that those who persevered in prayer could receive divine illumination. It was this aspect of hesychasm that had been most under attack by Barlaam. For Palamas this was not simply an “intellectual illumination” but an illumination of the whole person. The hesychasts believed that


It took some time for Gregory’s position to be vindicated. The Hagiorite Tome, signed by the monks of Athos, however, was to have a great influence, particularly when one considers the influence of the monks in the Byzantine world. On July 10, 1341, a council held under the presidency of the Emperor Andronicus III gave Palamas a clear victory. When, however, four days later, the Emperor died, Barlaam renewed his attack, joined by George Akin­dynus from the Slav city of Prilep, who had at first tried to mediate between the two opponents and then turned against the Palamite doctrine. A second council was held in the presence of the Grand Domestic, John Cantacuzenus, in August, 1341, in which both Barlaam and Akindynus were condemned. (Barlaam then left Con­stantinople and returned to Italy. He was named Bishop of Gerace and spent his old age giving Petrarch lessons in Greek.22)


Political Intrigues


The issue, however, was not settled, for, as George Ostrogorsky notes, yet even in Byzantium hesychasm was only accepted after a long struggle, for in the Byzantine Church itself there was at first keen opposition to the new teaching, even though it had such strong links with the older tradition.23


The Patriarch John Calecas, an avowed opponent of Palamas, adopted an increasingly anti-hesychast position. In August 1341, after the death of And ronicus III, who died with his son John V still a minor, and his wife, Anne of Savoy, as regent, the Patriarch and the Megas Dux, Alexis Apocaucus, removed Cantacuzenus from his post. Cantacuzenus then revolted against the court and for more than five years waged civil war against Anne’s government. This war finally brought him to the imperial throne in February 1347.


Palamas openly condemned the coup d’etat, while supporting the Empress Anne. The Patriarch Galecas had Gregory arrested in the spring of 1343 and accused him of heresy. In 1344 Calecas excommunicated Palamas and all his followers and ordained Akin­dynus priest. The hesychast controversy became more and more involved in the political strife of the time. 


John Cantacuzenus gradually regained power, and, when he returned to Constantinople on February 3, 1347, he presided over a series of councils favorable to Palamas, who had been only recently released from prison. In May, 1347, Gregory was consecrated Archbishop of Thessalonika.


The hesychast controversy, however, still did not die. The learned philosopher, Nicephorus Gregoras, who had earlier chal­lenged Barlaam in a public debate, came forward as the leader of the anti-hesychasts. In July, 1351 another council was held, this time in the Blachernae Palace, in’ which the orthodoxy of the hesychasts was solemnly recognized, and Barlaam and Akindynus were excommunicated. The controversy continued, but the hesychast doctrine of Palamas was recognized as the official doctrine of the Orthodox Church.




Gregory Palamas finished his life as the Archbishop of Thessa­lonika. For many years, the city of Thessalonika had undergone great social upheaval. In 1342, the city was taken over by the party of Zealots who established their own government and expelled the governor. The aristocracy had to flee and their possessions were confiscated. In addition to this, the Zealots, who were regarded in conservative ecclesiastical circles as disciples of Barlaam and Akin­dynus, were also violently opposed to the hesychasts, who sup­ported Cantacuze nus.24.


The Zealots’ power in Thessalonika finally collapsed in 1349. Towards the end of the year, John Cantacuzenus made a triumphal entry into the city and Gregory Palamas, who had been appointed Archbishop of the city, but was refused entry by the Zealots, was now received as Archbishop of the city. 


Thessalonika was not overly enthusiastic in welcoming an Archbishop appointed by the central power in Constantinople; however, as John Meyendorff notes, Palamas acted with remarkable pastoral zeal in most varied domains. His homilies are the best testimony to this. His sermons against social injustice are often very strong, for that was the true cause of disaffec­tion in Thessalonika.25


Gregory’s last years were marked by an unexpected event. During a sea voyage from Thessalonika to Constantinople, the ship on which he was travelling was captured by some Turks. The passengers were forced to stay nearly a year in Asia Minor. Pala­mas’ letters, written during this captivity, are noteworthy in the way that they show the tolerant attitude of the Turks to Christians. Gregory even held disputations with the son of the Emir Orkhan, hoping that “a day will soon come when we will be able to under­stand each other.”26


Gregory died in Thessalonika on November 27, 1359 and was canonized a saint nine years later by his former disciple and friend, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheus.


His influence was so great that the second Sunday of Great Lent was dedicated to his honor and this troparion was composed, and is still sung in his honor by Orthodox Churches:


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 Thessalonika and preacher of grace!

Always intercede before the Lord that our souls

may be saved!27


It is for his courageous efforts in defending orthodox spiritual practice that his memory is so sacred in the time of Great Lent. It is in his defense of hesychasm and the reality of our union with the Trinity that St. Gregory Palamas reminds all of us of the call of Great Lent to be prepared for the bright light of the Resurrection.





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