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Saint Gregory Palamas: The Trumpet of Theology

On the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent the Orthodox Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. This day is also known as the 2nd Triumph of Orthodoxy. Last Sunday was the Triumph of Orthodoxy remembering the restoration of the Holy Icons and official end of the Iconoclast controversy. Today we also commemorate the triumph over a heresy. This heresy took place in the 14th Century and pertained to the energies and essences of God. Barlaam, a renowned orator from Calabria, Italy claimed that it was impossible to know the essence of God and gave the example of the light at Mount Tabor where Christ was Transfigured. He claimed the light that surrounded Christ and dazzled the Apostles who were with Him was created. This erroneous belief was contested by St Gregory Palamas, a monk from Mount Athos who later became Archbishop of Thessaloniki. He disputed Barlaam’s theology, rightly discerning that it is in God’s energies that we are able to experience His divine essence.  Essence (ουσία) is an Aristotelean term which means: τό τί ήν είναι (the what it was to be). It is the set of properties that make an entity what it fundamentally is. The energies (ενέργειες) of God enable us to experience His divinity. St John Damascus said: all that we say positively of God manifests not his nature but the things about his nature
 
The light experienced by the Apostles at Mount Tabor was uncreated. The uncreated energies of God are poured forth through creation. If God’s energies were created it would be impossible for man to have genuine communion with God Who is uncreated. The energies of God is God in Action. Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature… (2 Peter:1:4) His creation is sustained and united by His energies, while He is fully transcendent in His essence. The Grace of God is identified with His uncreated energies. We cannot possibly comprehend God’s essence, for as we hear in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, intoned by the priest: for You, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. Whatever knowledge we obtain of God is only possible by what is revealed to us through His energies.
 
The heresy of Barlaam was anathematized at the Constantinople Council of 1341 which was held at Hagia Sophia. The works of Palamas at this Council were known as the Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts or the Hagiorite Tome. However, just like with the heresy of Iconoclasm, this heresy did not end with just one council. It took another ten years for the heresy of Barlaam to officially end at the Council of Blachernae in 1351. At this council, Palamas’ teachings were upheld and Barlaam’s were condemned. 
 
As we heard this morning at matins: As a herald of mysteries, you appeared on earth plainly, proclaiming things divine unto mortals. Endowed with a human mind and flesh, and yet speaking in the tongue of the bodiless, you amazed us and convinced us to cry out to you, O godly rhetor: Rejoice, through whom the darkness was banished; Rejoice, through whom the light did supplant it. Rejoice, uncreated Divinity's messenger; Rejoice, the confuter of one created and nonsensical. Rejoice, you who called God's nature an inaccessible height; Rejoice, you who called His energy a depth difficult to sight. Rejoice, for you correctly have discoursed on God's glory; Rejoice, for you have spoken against the views of the wicked. Rejoice, O star that made the Sun evident; Rejoice, the bowl imparting the sweet nectar. Rejoice, through whom the truth shines refulgent; Rejoice, through whom was falsehood extinguished. Rejoice, O herald of grace (Festal Oikos). 
 
The term Hesychasts is mentioned above. It is someone who practices Hesychasm, a style of praying. St. Gregory Palamas practiced this type of praying. Hesychasm is from the Greek word ησυχία which means quietness or calmness. It is the experienced use of mental prayer or the prayer of the heart which requires solitude and quietness. This type of praying developed over centuries. Its roots go back to the 4th Century with the Desert Fathers, like St Macarius of Egypt. In the 11th Century, St Simeon the New Theologian provided more detailed instruction for monks on mental prayer. One of his writings, A Treatise on the Three Methods of Prayer is found in Volume IV of the English version of the Philokalia. The ascetics of Mount Athos, St Gregory Palamas included, put the detailed instruction of St Simeon into practice; this became known as Hesychasm. Stillness and solitude are essential for prayer. As it says in Psalm 46: Be still and know I am God. We may communicate to God reciting prayers or chanting hymns but when He communicates to us, how can we hear Him if we are not silent? How can we if we are not still? Stillness does not necessarily mean a lack of bodily motion. Our mind needs to be still and free of temptations and distractions. If there is motion in our mind how can we truly absorb anything? Observing five to ten minutes a day of utter silence seems easy but is very challenging. It involves not only remaining silent but clearing our mind that we are not thinking of anything. We are clearing our mind so that we may hear only God speak to us. This is difficult to be achieved if we are preoccupied with worldly thoughts. Psalm 46 is a very useful tool in our prayer life, especially during Great Lent and certainly in conjunction with St Ephraim’s prayer. We can all greatly benefit spiritually observing five to ten minutes of silence daily, if possible, twice daily.
 
This day is indeed the 2nd Triumph of Orthodoxy because of the tremendous impact the teachings of St Gregory Palamas have on the Orthodox Church. Just like with the period of Iconoclasm, the years of the heresy of Barlaam were a contentious and critical period in the history of the Orthodox Church. Imagine for a moment had the Iconoclasts prevailed and there were no icons for us to venerate anymore or Barlaam’s erroneous theology was upheld? Yet, by the grace of God the Orthodox Church prevailed and both heresies were overcome. Both the energies of God and the Holy Icons provide a way for the created (humanity) to have access to the Uncreated (God).
 
Are there any worthy songs of praise so that we might sing them to the Hierarch? For he is the trumpet of theology, and he is the fire-breathing mouth of grace, the distinguished vessel of the Spirit; the pillar of the Church, indeed unshakable; the great joy and exultation of the universe; the flowing river of wisdom, and the lamp of divine light, the resplendently shining star that illumines creation brilliantly (Festal Sticheron from Triodion).
 

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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