Gregory Palamas

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GREGORY PALAMAS (12961359) was the most important Orthodox theologian of the fourteenth century and one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Orthodox church. Raised in the Byzantine imperial court, he later became a monk and wrote important theological works that refer primarily to the experience of communion with God. He was elected archbishop of Thessalonica and immediately following his death was recognized as a saint of the Orthodox church. Gregory's memory is celebrated twice per year: on November 14, the day of his death, and on the second Sunday of Lent. This second celebration, which serves in effect as an extension of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, reveals the special importance the Orthodox church attaches to his person and teachings.

The works of Gregory Palamas summarize the entire earlier patristic tradition, offering it in a new synthesis that has as its central theme the theōsis (deification) of humanity. This theōsis is realized through the participation of humankind in the uncreated energies of God. For this reason, the rejection of the uncreated energies of God, which has as a consequence the rejection of the possibility for humankind to achieve theōsis, was not considered by Palamas to be merely another typical Christian heresy but rather the summarization of all heresies, and, ultimately, the negation of the God who is revealed in the scriptures and the church.

Gregory was born in 1296 in Constantinople. When he was seven years old he lost his father, Constantine, but he continued to reside in the imperial court in Constantinople under the protection of the emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus. He received a rich education there, particularly in philosophy. Even though the emperor had destined him for high public office, the young Gregory had become increasingly occupied with ascetic practices and noetic prayer, and he eventually chose to enter the monastic life. At the age of twenty, he left with his two younger brothers for the monastic center of Mount Athos. He remained there first with a hesychast in the vicinity of Vatopediou Monastery, then as a member of the koinobion (brotherhood) of the great monastery of the Lavra, and finally in the hermitage of Glossia.

In 1325, Turkish incursions compelled him and other monks to leave the Holy Mountain. While on a visit to Thessalonica, he was ordained a priest; he left soon after for Beroea, where he lived for five years at a hermitage outside the city, under even more austere conditions of asceticism. In 1331, Serbian raids became a serious threat, and he was forced to abandon Beroea and return to Mount Athos. Resuming again the hesychast life, he resided for the most part at the hermitage of Saint Sabbas, near the great monastery of the Lavra, except for one year, during which he served as abbot of the monastery of Esphigmenou.

It was at Saint Sabbas that Gregory first was exposed to the antihesychast opinions of Barlaam of Calabria, a monk and philosopher of Greek ancestry from southern Italy. While representing the Orthodox church during preparatory discussions with papal legates on the question of church union during the years 13331334, Barlaam had refuted the filioque by invoking the unapproachability and unknowability of God. The agnostic character of Barlaam's theology disturbed many Orthodox theologians, including Gregory. He composed his Apodictic Treatises concerning the Procession of the Holy Spirit (1335) without, however, ever referring to Barlaam by name. It was the attack of Barlaam against the ascetic method of the hesychasts that eventually provoked an open rift between him and Gregory. Relying on simplistic and incomplete information concerning the psychosomatic method of prayer used by the hesychasts, Barlaam assailed them in the most severe terms, characterizing them as omphalopsuchoi ("men with their souls in their navels") and as Massalians, a heretical group that claimed salvation is obtained only through the power of prayer and not through the sacraments of the church. The defense of the hesychasts was undertaken by Gregory. It was for this purpose that he wrote his famous work Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts (c. 1338). The positions taken by Gregory were approved from the beginning by the church. They were sanctioned as well by various synodal decisions, which have a special importance for Orthodoxy.

The first official recognition of Gregory's teachings, with a parallel condemnation of the views of Barlaam, came about through the approval of the Hagioretic Tome, which Gregory himself wrote in 1340 and which was signed by representatives of the monasteries of Mount Athos. In June 1341, a council was convened in Constantinople that condemned the positions taken by Barlaam, who confessed his error and finally was compelled to return to the West.

The definitive resolution of the debate was delayed, however, by the untimely death of the emperor, Andronicus III Palaeologus, which occurred immediately following the conclusion of the work of the council and before he had had a chance to sign its decisions. The situation was complicated by the political controversy that soon arose over the question of the imperial succession and that led to a civil war. Thus, a new period of struggle began for Gregory, a struggle that lasted until 1347. His new opponent was Gregory Akindynos. During this period, when the strong man in Constantinople was Patriarch John Calecas, Gregory was banished, imprisoned, and excommunicated from the church (1344), while his adversary Akindynos, who had already been condemned by the church for his views (August 1341), was gradually restored to prominence and even ordained a priest. Calecas's tactic, however, eventually undermined his position. Anne of Savoy, mother of the underaged emperor John V Palaeologus, had set Gregory free. A new council, convened at the beginning of 1347, condemned Patriarch Calecas at the same time that the victorious John VI Cantacuzenus was entering the city as coemperor. The patriarchal throne was assumed by the hesychast Isidore, and Gregory was elected archbishop of Thessalonica. However, the zealots, who were occupying Thessalonica and who refused to recognize the legitimacy of Cantacuzenus, prevented the new bishop from entering his see. Thus, Gregory only formally undertook his pastoral responsibilities at the beginning of 1350, after Cantacuzenus had captured that city as well.

Gregory's first act as archbishop of Thessalonica was to reestablish peace within his flock. In the meantime, he had to contend with a new attack against the hesychasts, this time from the Byzantine humanist Nikephoros Gregoras. A new council, called in Constantinople in 1351, decided once again in favor of Gregory and reconfirmed his teachings, especially those having to do with the distinction between essence and energy in God. In 1354, while traveling to Constantinople, Gregory was captured by the Turks and remained their prisoner for approximately one year in Turkish-occupied areas of Asia Minor. There he had the opportunity to come into contact with local Christian communities, as well as to converse with Muslim theologians. After the payment of a ransom, he was set free by the Turks. While passing through Constantinople, he held public debates with Nikephoros Gregoras, against whom he also composed several new treatises. In 1355 he returned to Thessalonica, where he continued his pastoral work. He died on November 14, 1359.

Gregory left numerous writings, which are preserved in many manuscript codices. For the most part, these have been published. His dogmatic and apologetic writings include the Apodictic Treatises, in which Gregory propounds his compromise with the Latin teaching on the filioque by stating that the Holy Spirit, who proceeds eternally from the Father, is poured out on the faithful also from the Son. In his Triads he discusses the value of secular studies, various aspects of prayer (including the participation of the human body in prayer and the vision of the uncreated light), and the impossibility of participation in the imparticipable essence of God. Finally, the Hagioretic Tome presents God's unfolding revelation and the need for obedience to the saints who have had the experience of the mystical energies of the Holy Spirit.

Gregory's writings on the spiritual life include The Life of Peter the Athonite (1334); One Hundred and Fifty Physical, Theological, Moral and Practical Chapters (1347), in which basic dogmatic, anthropological, moral, and ascetic themes are presented; To Xeni (1345), which analyzes the anthropological and theological presuppositions of the spiritual life; and Exposition of the Decalogue, a synopsis of Christian morality. Most of the sixty-three homilies of Gregory that have survived were preached during his tenure as archbishop of Thessalonica. These sermons help to reveal the multifaceted personality of Gregoryhis lively interest in the spiritual uplifting of his flock, as well as his concern for peace, social justice, and the everyday problems of the faithful. Some of these homilies, such as the sixteenth and the fifty-third, are complete theological treatises. Most of his letters have been preserved, as well as numerous other theological treatises.

The theology of Gregory has an empirical character. The prophets, the apostles, and the fathers of the church based their theology on the experience of the revelation of God within history. However, true theology is also organically combined with the vision of God; it is the fruit and expression of this vision.

The vision of God is possible because God, who is unapproachable and imparticipable according to his essence, becomes accessible to human beings through his uncreated grace or energy. To have the vision of God, a person must cleanse his or her heart from the stain of sin. Before the incarnation of Christ, the uncreated grace of God illumined the just from without. After the incarnation, God is united to humankind through the sacrament of the Eucharist and is manifested as light within one's inner beingprovided that the person has tried, through prayerful contemplation, to collect his or her Nous (intellect), which is usually distracted by the things of this world, and to cleanse it from sin. This interpretation of the theory of the uncreated light can be found not only among the hesychast monks, but, more generally, in the teaching of the Orthodox church regarding the renewal and theōsis (deification) of humanity. By participating in the uncreated grace or energy of God, humankind becomes itself a god by grace. The experience of theōsis begins already in this life and is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Christ, who is the Son of God become man and who came into the world as the brother of all human beings, is at the same time also the father of all in the faith, who leads them into the eternal and everlasting glory of the kingdom of God: "for in the glory of the Father, Christ is come, and in the glory of their Father Christ, the righteous shine as the sun and will become light and see light, the pleasing and all-holy vision which is only accessible to the purified heart" (Christou, ed., vol. 1, p. 599).

The influence of the theology of Gregory on Eastern Orthodoxy remains historically important. His tradition of theology served as the best source of counsel for the life of the Orthodox during the dark period of Turkish domination. His teaching, as well as the hesychast tradition, was propagated not only within the bounds of the Byzantine Empire but also throughout the entire Orthodox world, giving new inspiration to ascetic and ecclesiastical life. The basic principles of Palamite theology, revived in the early twentieth century by the publication of more of his works as well as numerous studies, has become the starting point for the renewal of Orthodox theology and spiritual life, which, during recent centuries, has sustained intense influence from the West.


Primary Sources

Christou, Panagiotis, ed. Gregoriou tou Palama suggrammata. 3 vols. Thessaloniki, 19621970.

Gregorius Palamas: Opera Omnia. In Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vol. 150, pp. 771ff., and vol. 151, pp. 1550. Paris, 1865.

Meyendorff, John, ed. Gregory Palamas, The Triads. New York, 1983.

Oikonomos, Sophokles, ed. Gregoriou archiepiskopou Thessalonikes tou Palama, Homiliai KB. Athens, 1861. Contains twenty-two sermons.

Secondary Sources

Mantzaridis, Georgios I. Palamika. Thessaloniki, 1973.

Mantzaridis, Georgios I. The Deification of Man. Crestwood, N.Y., 1984.

Meyendorff, John. A Study of Gregory Palamas. London, 1964.

Meyendorff, John. Saint Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. Crestwood, N.Y., 1974.

Stiernon, Daniel. "Bulletin sur le palamisme." Revue des études byzantines 30 (1972): 231341.

Georgios I. Mantzaridis (1987)

Translated from Greek by Christopher H. Bender