Historical Reformer: Saint Gregory Palamas

By Kevin Walthall
Nov 13, 2019

“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.’”

 

On the first Sunday of Lent, Orthodox Christians celebrate that the Invisible One became visible, that Perfection entered the world of matter. On the Second Sunday of Lent, they celebrate Perfection entering the human soul: the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas. 

Saint Gregory Palamas used a vigorous understanding of philosophy to assert that one didn’t have to be a philosopher to know God intimately. He was an aristocrat who rejected wealth, an intellectual who valued experience, a monk who found a path forward into the ancient heart of Christianity.

Palamas was a steadying hand in one of the most turbulent periods of Church history, facing decadence within, military invasion without, religious elitism, and civil war. He is known for championing the individual experience of God, for preserving and articulating the mystical practices of Eastern Christianity, and providing it with the spiritual tools to withstand Muslim conquest.

Palamas was born into a terminally-ill Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 1296, growing up in the hollowed-out shell of Constantinople. The city had only been recaptured in 1261 after Latin Crusaders despoiled it for half a century, melting down priceless sculptures for building materials, pawning relics and artistic masterpieces to pay off debts, and diminishing the population from 400,000 to 30,000 inhabitants. What remained of the empire was a splintered amalgamation of polities enriched by trade, indebted to mercenaries, and entrenched in fading memories of Roman glory. Turks were constantly encroaching from the south as were Serbs and Bulgars from the north, while new ideas from the West threatened Orthodoxy’s long-held notions of the knowability of God.

Palamas’s father was both pious and well-connected, and when he died prematurely, the Emperor himself oversaw the boy’s education. What he discovered was an extremely bright student who devoured every educational resource Byzantium had to offer, mastering Aristotle under the guidance of Byzantium’s finest instructors.

Moving Toward the Heart of Monasticism 

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Christ revealed a glimpse into his reality. Standing there with him, Moses (representing the Law, earthly power, reason) and Elijah (representing the Prophets, spiritual power, revelation) were alive, redeemed, and in harmony. The voice of God was audible. The sun returned its borrowed radiance to Christ. 

In the 14th century, similarities between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism were few and far between, but if each hemisphere had a geographic heart, the West had the Vatican, and the East had Mount Athos: a mountainous complex in Greece of 20 monasteries speaking half a dozen languages. While the Vatican issued Papal decrees and other directives, Athos issued holy men who were known for lives of prayer, preaching, and miracles. It was a place of practices, not policies.

Throughout the Christian East, people of all backgrounds prayed the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is considered the root and summary of all prayer and of the Christian faith itself. Lessons taught by the Holy Spirit had been remembered through the ages on Mount Athos, where monks dedicated themselves to perfection.

“He was an aristocrat who rejected wealth, an intellectual who valued experience, a monk who found a path forward into the ancient heart of Christianity.”

In Palamas’ time, a practice known as Hesychasm (active spiritual stillness) became the predominant discipline, in which practitioners could purify their inner being (katharsis), set Christ as the “Guard of the Mind” (theoria), and glimpse the “Uncreated Light” of God revealed in the Transfiguration (theosis). Saint Gregory believed the heights of secular philosophy found in the Byzantine court were only useful as preparation for this “true philosophy.”

Going against the wishes of the Emperor, Palamas left the grandeur of the court in 1316 to enter a monastery at Mount Athos. For ten years, he dedicated himself to fasting, silence, and memorization of Scripture. He gained a reputation for integrity, asceticism, and wisdom on Athos, training under spiritual masters and rising in authority himself. In the twilight years of a dying empire, many monasteries at Athos and elsewhere had grown wealthy and distracted. Palamas, however, became a lay priest and tended to the people of Thessaloniki. He later established his own hermitage, returning to the disciplines of self-denial that were the foundation of monasticism.

At Athos, he led a cadre of future leaders in renouncing material indulgence, preaching in Thessaloniki’s churches and street corners against corruption. He became known for a rare mix of authenticity, intelligence, and humility—the traits Orthodoxy would be in dire need of in coming years.

The Hesychast Controversy

As Eastern Christians struggled through the centuries to find balance between individual mystical life in Christ and life in community, Hesychasm offered the best of both. For nearly a thousand years, contemplative Hesychast practices developed organically through trial, error, and the oversight of elders. They had never been systematically rationalized, and for good reason: Orthodox dogmas are decided through laboriously democratic ecumenical councils requiring representatives spanning from Egypt to Russia. These diverse cultures with diverse traditions generally agreed to disagree, finding common ground in action, not articulation. So long as a practice affirmed the basic tenets of the Nicene Creed and proved beneficial to its practitioners, there was freedom. 

For centuries the Eastern prayer life had been proven through sanctification, not rhetorical defense—until the very foundation of that life came suddenly under attack.

A theologian from the West named Barlaam was scandalized by what he saw on Mount Athos: monks sitting with their faces directed toward their hearts or between their knees in the style of Elijah, praying the Jesus Prayer rhythmically with their breathing. To his Western mind, this contemplative prayer was superstitious “navel-gazing,” and the claim to experience God was heresy. His Western school of thought asserted that God was only knowable through intellectual knowledge and study.

“The voice of God was audible. The sun returned its borrowed radiance to Christ.”

What Barlaam ultimately attacked was not just Hesychasm, but the entire belief that all Christians can commune with God, putting knowledge of God solely in the hands of an educated elite. As Barlaam attacked the very root of prayer, Athos called on its most capable theologian: Palamas.

Through writings and teachings, Palamas argued that God’s fullness dwells in Christ, impossibly offered to all people beyond the boundaries of our powers of perception, intellect, or knowledge. Christ faithfully leads the human soul to the Uncreated One, where we find union in uncreated terms: a light like Paul saw on the road to Damascus, which blinds the senses and heals the soul. This union is for all people, regardless of theological knowledge or the privileges of education.

The debate about God’s knowability raged for the better part of a decade—four years of which Palamas spent in prison. Though the debate was carried out in complex terms, it was the prayers of the farmer that were at stake—and it was these prayers that Palamas defended. In the end, Palamas’ articulation of God’s knowability was confirmed by representatives across the Eastern world, gaining the weight of an Ecumenical Council.

“Christ faithfully leads the human soul to the Uncreated One, where we find union in uncreated terms: a light like Paul saw on the road to Damascus, which blinds the senses and heals the soul.”

Turkish Captivity

Through the Byzantine Civil War of 1341-1347, Palamas was a bipartisan critic of each side’s excesses. His moderation and genuine compassion for the civilians caught up in conflict made him well-suited for a new role: Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

In 1352, the very court that had imprisoned Palamas during the Hesychast controversy called upon him to mediate between rival factions in Constantinople as the Empire hurtled toward yet another bloody civil war. While sailing to the capital, unfavorable winds forced him into Gallipoli, which the Turks had just occupied. He was immediately taken prisoner, beaten, and led into the heart of Anatolia—Greek and Armenian territories conquered by the Turks.

Palamas saw divine providence in this. It afforded him the ability to observe the life of Christians under Turkish rule, and minister to Greeks and Turks. It confirmed what he and others were thinking: Christianity did not need state sponsorship to thrive. As Palamas toured the country, he ministered to Muslim and Christian alike with love and respect.

Palamas’s captors were deeply impressed with his ability to articulate traditional stumbling blocks like the Trinity. They began bringing experts to debate Palamas for the Sultan’s edification. Palamas was overwhelmingly successful, leaving the Sultan impressed with Christian teaching. Once, upon observing a Muslim burial, Palamas struck up a friendly conversation with the Mullah in a mixed crowd of Christians and Muslims, which afforded him the opportunity to preach the Gospel to all present. At its conclusion, one Muslim declared, “The time is coming when we will understand each other, and I am glad, and will pray that time come soon.” It was an important event between two religious groups that understood very little of each other.

More than half a millenia after his time, Palamas’ impact still reverberates. Pope John Paul II was an admirer of Palamas’ work, and the monk’s influence can be seen in Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. Czech reformer Jan Huss’s last words were the Jesus Prayer, the prayer that Palamas fought for the rights of all people to pray. 

Yet for this enduring influence, Palamas’ true legacy is the affirmation of the still small voice in every soul that dares to defy the sum of human powers. He preached a knowledge of God that is not argued, but absorbed. While the first Adam consumed the Tree of Knowledge, the Second Adam assumed for us the Tree of Life. Where there is knowledge of God’s Anointed One, there is enough knowledge for a life lived in Him—and that life is not bound by our capacities for dead languages or dialectic formula.

After a year in captivity, Palamas’ ransom was paid. He lived the last three years of his life in Thessaloniki and passed away in 1357 or 1359. His final words: “To the heights!”

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