Byzantine mystical theologian, defender of hesychasm, bishop and saint in the Orthodox Church; b. Constantinople, c. 1296; d. Thessalonica, Nov. 14, 1359. Of a well-to-do family from Asia Minor, Gregory received a liberal education at the imperial university, came under the influence of the mystically minded metropolitan of Philadelphia, Theolytus, and at 22 entered a monastery on Mt. Athos with his two younger brothers. When the Turkish invasions of 1325 threatened the monastic life there, Palamas migrated to Thessalonica, where in 1326 he was ordained a priest and with ten companions retired to a hermitage on a mountain near Beroea. For five years he lived the life of the Hesychastic monk: five days of solitude and silence; then, on Saturday and Sunday, meeting with the others to celebrate the Eucharist and engage in spiritual conversation. He returned to Mt. Athos in 1331, fleeing Serbian incursions, and lived in the hermitage of St. Sabas, where he followed the same regime as at Beroea. In 1335 or 1336 he was appointed hegumen (abbot) of the Grand Laura, but he returned after a short while to St. Sabas.
Controversy with Barlaam. At St. Sabas Palamas became acquainted with the theology of barlaam, a Greek Orthodox monk from Calabria who was employing the syllogistic method in his attempt to refute the doctrine of the Latin Church regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit. Palamas wrote two letters to Barlaam (1332–33) in which he defended the position that apodictic arguments were possible in theology and rejected the agnosticism implied in the extreme apophatic, or negative, theology of Barlaam.
Barlaam, meanwhile, had begun to criticize the Hesychastic monks. He sarcastically impugned their psychophysical prayer practices, calling the monks omphalopsychoi (men-with-their-soul-in-their-navel) because of the prayer posture adopted by the monk, who was to focus his eyes on a spot below his chest for concentration (see jesus prayer). Barlaam attacked in particular the explanation of the monks' goal of meditative contemplation (hesychia ). The Hesychasts claimed that the saints as "the pure of heart" have the vision of God promised them in this life (Mt 5.8). They can see within themselves the working of the Holy Spirit as an uncreated grace. The Spirit is seen as a white light, the same light that shone about the Lord during the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. Barlaam accused the monks of Messalianism, a fourth-century dualistic heresy apparently adopted by the paulicians in their claim that God was visible to human eyes. Barlaam prepared a work against this Hesychastic doctrine; but before its publication, Isidore, the future Patriarch of Constantinople, called Palamas from Mt. Athos to aid in the refutation of Barlaam's charges (1338). Palamas prepared a threefold work (Triad) on the Hesychasts. He followed this with a second Triad, in which he described his famous distinction between God's being and His energy or operation. This became a distinctive characteristic of his theology. Later he defended the bodily prayer practices of the monks by insisting on the unity of the engraced man and rejected an extreme Platonic division of body and soul that would not see grace influencing and elevating the body of man to actual participation in the divine life of grace.
Elaboration of Palamas's Theology. In defending the presence of the Holy Spirit as uncreated grace within the saints, Palamas rejected Western explanations based on the idea of grace as created and supernatural. Such a concept of grace, Palamas argued, did not sufficiently explain the deification of the engraced man. A created entity is not the divinity, and man must somehow be deified by grace and thus participate in the very divinity. Only uncreated grace, the Spirit of God, can truly elevate the Christian to the divine life.
Palamas further sought to justify the Athonite monks and maintained that the action of God within the soul is a visible light, although not visible in the Messalian, heretical way, but visible to eyes elevated by grace. This light is the same as the light of the Transfiguration, which was not, as Barlaam claimed, a material light, but rather the divinity of the Lord, a divine energy. However, Palamas admitted that the Apostles did not see the essence or the nature of the divinity, which is invisible and incomprehensible, but rather this divine "energy" or activity. So too the saint sees a divine energy and not the essence of the Godhead. Even in the eternal life the blessed will not see the essence of God, which is incomprehensible, but rather the divine energy. The Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the saint, is seen as an uncreated divine energy present in the saint and deifying him. Barlaam rejected Palamas' explanations as unsatisfactory because they divided the Godhead into nature and energies. In 1341 Palamas accepted the theology of the Hagiorite Tome of philotheus coccinus which became a fundamental manual for the monks of Mt. Athos.
Continued Controversy and Last Years. At a synod held in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (June 10, 1341) his position was examined; but despite Barlaam's representations, the theological question was left open, and both monks were forbidden to engage in further polemic. A former student of Palamas, gregorius akindynos (d. 1349), led an opposition party of anti-Palamites who unsuccessfully attempted to have the Tome of 1341 repudiated. In August, however, a second synod was held without the patriarch; and john vi cantacuzenus, who was eventually to seize the imperial throne, upheld the Palamite theology. However, Palamas was banished to Heraclea a short while later. In 1344 the anti-Palamite party led by Akindynos had Palamas condemned and excommunicated; but this action was colored by a mixture of motives that were both political and ecclesiastical in nature.
In 1347 Cantacuzenus overthrew the Emperor and selected the former monk Isidore as patriarch. He set about the vindication of Palamas, who was named archbishop of Thessalonica but could not take possession of his see until 1350 when the city came under the control of the new emperor. In July 1351 at a new synod in Constantinople Palamas's doctrines were declared orthodox, while Akindynos and Barlaam were condemned and Nicephorus Gregoras was banished. The Tome published by this synod was signed by the Patriarch Callistus, and the actions of the synod established Palamas as a teacher of orthodoxy. In a journey between Constantinople and Thessalonica, Palamas was captured by the Turks and was released only after several years upon the payment of a ransom. Meanwhile, in 1354 John V Palaeologus had regained the throne. He arranged a confrontation between Palamas and Nicephorus Gregoras, but was so badly impressed by the two disputants that he lost all interest in their quarrel. Palamas spent his last years as archbishop of Thessalonica, engaged mainly in refuting the charges of Gregoras and composing mystical treatises. He died of an intestinal paralysis, and was canonized in 1368 by the synod under the Patriarch Philotheus Coccinus of Constantinople. He has a special commemoration on the second Sunday in Lent.
Critical Evaluation. Several Western theologians, such as D. Pétau, M. Jugie, and E. Candal, have regarded the teachings of Palamas as at variance with the doctrines of the Western Church, particularly his distinction between the divine nature and the divine operation, which they maintain destroys the simplicity of God's nature. The teaching of Palamas that the blessed in heaven do not see the divine nature but a divine energy seems to be in contradiction with the teaching of Pope benedict xii (Denz 1000) that the blessed enjoy a face-to-face vision of the divine essence.
Palamite doctrine on the divine nature of the light of Mt. Tabor and the visible presence of uncreated grace in the pure of heart has been an obstacle for Western theologians in accepting Palamas as a teacher of orthodoxy. On the other hand, Palamas's insistence that the whole man is engraced, body and soul, and the stress that he placed on the role of the body in prayer has been adopted in the West by theologians such as I. Hausherr.
The majority of Palamas's literary productions were devoted to defending his Hesychast doctrine by using a combination of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy as foundation. Besides nine tracts in defense of the Hesychasm of the monks, ten treatises against Akindynos and five against Gregoras, he wrote small tracts, letters, and a poem of 618 iambic verses. He published six writings against the Latin theology, two of which (in 1355 and 1356) were directed against a papal legation in Constantinople, and a third against john xi beccus. He also wrote apologetic tracts on his captivity in Islam; 150 chapters on spiritual practices, ethics, and theology; prayers; sermons, of which a homiliarium with 63 pieces was published soon after his death; and a commentary on the Ten Commandments.
Bibliography: j. p. migne ed. Patrologia Graeca v. 150–151. h. g. beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich (Munich 1959) 364–368, 712–715. j. meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, tr. g. lawrence (London 1964); θεολογία 25 (1954) 602–613; ed. and tr., Défense de saints hésychastes, 2 v. (Spicilegium sacrum Lovaniense 1959). r. janin, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, 10 v. 4:1214. m. jugie, a. vacant, et al., ed. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 11.2:1735–76. i. hausherr, "L'Hésychasme," Orientalia Christiana periodica 22 (1956) 5–40, 241–285. b. krivoshein, The Eastern Churches Quarterly 3 (1938–39) 26–33, 71–84, 138–156, 193–214. v. lossky, The Vision of God, tr. a. moorhouse (London 1963). g. g. arnakis, Speculum 26 (1951) 104–118; Byzantion 22 (1952) 305–312. p. wittek, ibid. 21 (1951) 421–423.
[h. d. hunter]
"Palamas, Gregory." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/palamas-gregory
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