Source: Mystagogy Resource Center
By Protopresbyter George Metallinos
Hesychasm1 is the quintessence of the Orthodox tradition, identified with what it encompasses and expresses, the term ORTHODOXY. Outside of the hesychast tradition Orthodoxy is non-existent and inconceivable. The practice of hesychasm, moreover, is the “touchstone” for the recognition of authentic Christianity. Through “fasting, vigils, prayer” – with the practice of hesychasm, the heavenly gifts are acquired, according to the Orthodox patristic tradition. It should be made clear from the outset that Hesychasm means mainly the path to theosis and the experience of theosis, and secondarily examining and recording this path and experience, which is the academic meaning of the term “theology”.
Hesychasm is the basis and foundation of the dogmatic/theological decisions of the Ecumenical Synods, being the journey in the Holy Spirit along “purification, illumination and theosis,” and not some intellectual-contemplative-scientific process. This is why the knowledge of God as theosis is meant for everyone, literate and illiterate, wise and unwise, and not just for philosophers as maintained by the uniate Barlaam the Calabrian (1290-1359) in the fourteenth century. Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359)2 primarily refuted him, as chief representative and champion of the hesychast tradition, and the greatest Orthodox theologian of his time and a great Father of the Orthodox Church.
Saint Gregory studied Theology in the true Theological School of Orthodoxy, according to 1 Corinthians 12-14 (which constructs the Church through spiritual gifts), namely through asceticism and repentance. In the Cenobitic Monastery Palamas became a Theologian. The source of his Theology was not scholastic or academic, although he received such knowledge to the utmost degree of his time, but it was his life in the Holy Spirit. Thus he became a successor of the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers and a genuine Theologian of this tradition. On the basis of his miracles, which verified that he was a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), he was proclaimed a Saint of Orthodoxy in 1368, according to her hagiological criteria, and not because of his wonderful writings, as the secular spirit thinks.3
Editorial and research contributions have been done by our known academic theologians Panagiotis Chrestou, Fr. John Romanides, Fr. George Florovsky, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Justin Popovich, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, George Mantzaridis, His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, etc. These have made Saint Gregory Palamas widely known in the 20th century.
Church Fathers Against Heretical Errors
Saint Gregory Palamas has been shown to be by the Grace of God the predominant hesychast Theologian, who delineated in critical times the Church Fathers against heretical errors, the arbitrariness and alienation of Western Christendom. The first important insights were given by Photios the Great (820-891) in the area of Theology (Filioque) and Ecclesiology (canonical order), but it was more clearly and deeply determined by Gregory Palamas. Photios and Palamas fashioned the attitude against Western Christianity, which became the tradition of Orthodoxy, on which Saint Mark the Eugenikos (1394-1445) in critical times also followed. Any deviation from this attitude is not possible, as long as the Latin Church remains in its errors, without implications for the Orthodox Faith and her salvific potential.
Saint Gregory Palamas continued the spiritual relay race, which began with Photios the Great when he tackled the errors of the West. Photios the Great perceived the progressive alienation of Western Christianity, as shown in his great theological work “On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit”,4 which since then constitutes the main source for understanding the burden of the heretical teaching of the Filioque. He emerged as a Father of the Eighth Ecumenical Synod (Constantinople, 879/880),5 which condemned the Filioque and its addition into the sacred creed. Palamas, with the expansion of western challenges in his time, even after the tragedy of 1204,6 realized more clearly that there had arisen in the West a Christianity of another type, completely foreign to the spirit of the patristic tradition. Palamas emerged as a Father of the Ninth Ecumenical Synod, namely the Hesychast Synods of the years 1341, 1347 and 1351, especially the last,7 where uncreated divine Grace was proclaimed, defining the faith of our Church with reference to the heretical scholastic teaching on created Grace (gratia creata) formulated by Thomas Aquinas. The argument is false, therefore, which states that there is no Ecumenical Synod that has condemned as heretical the Latin Church. It is expected that the Pan-Orthodox Synod in preparation – for us to be ecumenical – will accept and proclaim the Eighth and Ninth Synods under Photios and Palamas as Ecumenical. If this doesn’t take place, it will be counted, unfortunately, among the Pseudo-Synods of Ephesus (449) and Ferrara/Florence (1438/39).
The Struggle for the Preservation of the Teaching on the Distinction Between Essence and Energy
But what significantly consists of the offering of Saint Gregory Palamas in the area of Theology? His contribution, which is particularly important today because of the ecumenical dialogues, can be summarized in the following key points:
Primarily he struggled to save, in the frame of patristic Theology (eg. Basil the Great), the teaching on the distinction between essence and energies in God and uncreated divine Grace (the energies of the Triune God). According to his teachings, God has essence and energy. The energizer is the person and the energy is the essential movement of the divine nature. Palamas describes this distinction as “God-like and secret”, a basic precondition for the theosis of humanity. If the Grace that radiates from God to the world (creation) is not uncreated, then there is not a possibility for our theosis (salvation) and the sanctification of creation. By accepting uncreated Grace the experience of God’s presence in history survives. Partaking of divine Grace exceeds the rational ascents of scholastic theologizing about God, which insists on the teaching of “actus purus”, namely the identification of essence with energy. Allow me at this point to give a hesychastic example. Western Theology sees God as a solar disk, which is bright in the sky, but its rays do not reach the earth to warm and revive the world. In this case, whether the sun exists or not has no practical significance. Conversely the God of Orthodoxy (and all our Saints) is a Sun whose rays reach the earth and revitalize it. This is why people rush from whatever “underground” of sin and prodigality to climb (= repentance) to the surface, that they may accept the salvific energy of the Sun of righteousness and be saved by Him.
From the western scholastic teaching of the identification of essence and energy in God derives all the other heresies and fallacies of Western Christianity, for example, the Filioque, which is a blasphemy against the Holy Trinity: the Father transmits (without beginning and without end) His essence to the Son, and transmits (supposedly) also to Him the procession of the Holy Spirit. In this way is abolished the personal and incommunicable properties of the divine Persons, the unbegottenness of the Father, the begottenness of the Son, and the procession of the Holy Spirit. At this point one could ask: Perhaps all these things are scholastic questions without salvific importance? However, Saint John of Damascus (680-754) says: “He disclosed to us the knowledge of Himself as that was possible for us.” What we know about God is that which has been disclosed to us. If, then, we refer to the Triune God our own prejudices, then we will fall into idolatry, because a god is made that does not exist.
Other relevant errors are the devaluation of the material world, since it is not sanctified by uncreated Grace; the compulsory celibacy of the clergy; the devaluation of water, as expressed by sprinkling or pouring in the mystery of Baptism; by the theory of the divine incarnation as an atonement of humans rather than as theosis; or the sacrifice on the Cross of Jesus as the satisfaction of divine justice;8 moreover, the assumption of the Pope as Vicarius Christi in terra (“the Vicar of Christ on earth”) who bridges the gap between God and the world. The Orthodoxy of our Saints never needed a human as an intermediary, “for there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), for He is with us “always to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), and is the “Savior of the world, Christ” (Jn. 4:42). The Saints are not our “mediators” before God, like Christ, but they pray for us to Christ.
Moreover, the belief in the communion of the world with God, through created energy, not only leads to heresies as those mentioned above, but also to secularism. Based on this teaching the Mysteries (Sacraments) do not really exist. The Divine Eucharist is not true and salvific, since it doesn’t unite people with the uncreated God, but rather with His created Grace, which is not eternal, since it has a beginning and end. The result of this idolatrous, as stated, reference to God is Western legalism and feudalism, which is the primary expression of the Papal State (after 754). The Papal institution (primacy, infallibility, the Pope as a carrier of political power) was formed on the basis of feudalism. The Pope has the fullness of power (plenituto potestatis) and carries dual power, spiritual and secular.9
Ontological Relationship of God and the World in Orthodoxy
The teaching of created divine Grace, such as in nominalism, is unfortunate for the impact of Christianity in the West, because it leads (since the late 16th cent.) to Deismus: Deus creator, sed non gubernator (“Deism: A God Creator, but not Governor”), which led to the “Theology of the Death of God” (mid-20th cent.). Whether God exists or does not exist of Himself is of no practical salvific significance because His existence has no effect on the life of people and in the course of the world. The obsession of Western Christendom with moral and social problems is the fruit of such a perception. The struggle for theosis is replaced with the effort to moralize humanity. Salvation, however, is through the uncreated energy (Grace) of God which transforms human nature, namely the illumination of people by the uncreated, holy triadic Light, just as iron glows from material fire and acquires its properties. The journey towards theosis forms an Orthodox ethos (Gal. 5:22).
The Orthodox teaching on uncreated Grace inspires optimism. The Orthodox believer knows that God communicates with the world by transmitting to it His life. The relationship between God and the world in Orthodoxy is ontological, direct, energetic and not indirect and moral. In Orthodoxy the world is transformed into a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:47) and whatever this phrase entails. The communion between God and the world, moreover, is an ecclesiastical event, identified by sharing in the mystery of the Church.
The Deified Saints as Authorities of the Church
After these things, Saint Gregory Palamas reaffirms the essence and character of Orthodox Theology. Theology and theologizing are not fruits of a pious or intellectual occupation with the divine, but is a testimony of a change through the Holy Spirit of those who “suffer with the divine”. Speaking of God presupposes knowledge of God, according to Saint Gregory the Theologian, which is followed by and reproduced by Saint Gregory Palamas.10 God is known through the limits of the vision of God and theosis. A Theologian is one who communes with God, a Saint. An Orthodox Theologian, before experiencing theosis, like we Orthodox academic theologians, theologize on the basis of the experiences of the glorified Saints and not some thoughtful-metaphysical individual searches. Literally a Theologian is a “prophet”, by the experience of the vision of God, both in the Old and the New Testaments, a “mouth of God to the world”, who “speaks before God in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17).
In the Old Testament a “Nabi” (Prophet) became a “Roe” (Seer), one who sees God in His uncreated light or energies. By separating also in the East academic theology from experience Christianity became distorted, leading to the secularization and philosophication of the Faith. This was attempted also in the time of Saint Gregory Palamas with Barlaam and his student Akindynos, as well as the Byzantine scholastics. This “Babylonian captivity” of Orthodox theology, which was clearly described by the late Fr. George Florovsky11, was largely exceeded in the 20th century with the reconnection of our academic theology with asceticism and the holy spiritual life, led by our late colleagues Fathers Popovich, Staniloae and Romanides.
Saint Gregory Palamas affirmed the finding of Saint Irenaeus (2nd cent.), that the authorities of the Church are not texts, but the deified, the Saints.12 Moreover, theology, and especially dogmatic teachings, belongs to the space of ecclesiastical pastoral ministry. This is the character of the works of the Holy Fathers. It is not a “lavoro da tavolino”, a work done in the office or classroom. The ascertainment of truth and the guard against heresy go along with the healing of the heart of its passions, comfort, consolation and spiritual edification. The patristic struggle against heresy is not a worldly war, but the pastoral-therapeutic treatment of diseased members of the body, of heretics and those found in error and deceit. The struggle against heresy is the work of love and philanthropy, by liberating from the disease of heresy, since heresy cannot save people and the world. This is why the refutation, by pastoral means, of heretical error is philanthropy and benevolence. This is the attitude of the Fathers, such as Photios the Great, Saint Gregory Palamas and Saint Mark the Eugenikos, whom we could fearlessly characterize as “benefactors of Europe” and its Christianity.13
Divine Wisdom From Above Saves
Moreover, Saint Gregory Palamas renewed the patristic attitude towards education. Like Saint Gregory the Theologian, so also he was an excellent connoisseur of Aristotle, did not reject the use of secular wisdom (“Greek learning”), but only “for educational purposes”. Yet as a spiritual father, he held it below and subjected it to that of the completeness and sufficiency of Orthodoxy in the matter of salvation. The philosophy he rejected, was that which eventually philosophized what “was once for all entrusted to God’s Saints” (Jude 3), the revelation in Christ. In the Triads (1.1.12) he rejects the argument advanced by Barlaam concerning the redemptive character of secular wisdom, distinguishing (cf. Jam. 3:13) between the two forms of knowledge, the divine and the human. Divine (“from above”) wisdom saves, the “earthly” simply educates and illuminates the mind, if not lead to the demonization of man.14
Saint Gregory Palamas also is a model of the struggling Theologian on behalf of the salvific faith and an example of an ecclesiastical man and Theologian who dialogues with heretics and non-Orthodox. His greatness and validity is in the fact that he never puts the genuine ecclesiastical tradition under negotiation. Rather, he considered it an immovable foundation and starting point in encountering heresy. Preserving the ecclesiastical and patristic tradition in its entirety, he reminds us that the hesychastic tradition is the most valuable catalyst for contemporary theology in the East and West, to rediscover its real dynamism in the vortex of current challenges. In his dialogues Saint Gregory Palamas showed that this was the right framework in which to initiate theological dialogue. Outside all secular relevance, its sole purpose is salvation as theosis. Dialogue should aim at repentance, for it to be powerful and salvific. Saint Gregory also enlightens the methodological shortcomings of current theological dialogue. As Professor George Galites has argued: “If this distinction (essence and energies) becomes the basis for discussion, if those who dialogued with us could accept this distinction, many obstacles could be removed and the road to reconciliation would be very easy.”15 This would make errors more obvious, such as Papal primacy, in contrast with those who strive in our time to recognize it as an ecclesiastical teaching.
He Rebuked Rulers as well as Zealots
Saint Gregory is also an indicator for the position and responsibility of Orthodoxy in the modern world, in its entire range, even social reality. Hesychasm is not political inaction (the term “politics” we use in the Aristotelian sense, which was christianized by Saint John of Damascus). This confirms the political intervention of Saint Gregory Palamas in the events of his time. Palamas criticized the political intrigue of Patriarch John Kalekas when he colluded in the coup against John Kantakouzenos (1295-1383), and he also rebuked the Zealots of Thessaloniki for their criminal actions in Thessaloniki, but equally those with the inhumane attitude that bred and promoted violence. The intervention of the Shepherds and even the Bishops is necessary and unswerving in a society that wants to call itself Christian. His theology becomes the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”. Dialogue with the world by Saint Gregory had a missionary character. Never did he call into question the exclusivity and uniqueness of salvation in Christ (cf. Acts. 4:12), as experienced in the tradition of the Holy Fathers.
Not even in the treatment of Barlaam and his circle, nor in his confrontation with Muslims, despite the dangers he faced, did he relativize the faith in a spirit of compromise to achieve even personal benefit. Today also Saint Gregory would call us all to the process of theosis, even if the world rejected such a call, living in the passion of their self-deification.
Saint Gregory Palamas honored and glorified Mount Athos, proving that Athonite Civilization remains Orthodox as long as it remains faithful to the tradition of Saint Gregory, preserving his faith and theology, and his struggle, which was the fruit of his love for Christ. He is particularly a hope-bearer, that Western Theology (M. Jugie) which previously despised Saint Gregory Palamas as a “heretic”, today has made a positive turn towards him. Perhaps the time is coming when his theology will guide Inter-Christian dialogue in an authentic course.
1. See the very informative article by Fr. John Meyendorff in Religious and Moral Encyclopedia, Vol. 6 (Athens 1965) pp. 83-87, with bibliography. The extensive collection of relevant texts are in the Philokalia. The texts in the PG of Migne are ubiquitous. The literature is rich in all the Balkan countries. See for example Fr. John Romanides’ Ρωμαίοι ή Ρωμηοί Πατέρες της Εκκλησίας, τ. Α’, Thessaloniki 1984. George Mantzarides’ Μέθεξις Θεού, Thessaloniki 1979. The same Παλαμικά, Thessaloniki 1983. Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos, Saint Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite, 1992. The same (as Metropolitan) Παλαιά και Νέα Ρώμη – ορθόδοξη και δυτική παράδοση, Levadeia 2009. Monk Theoklitos Dionysiatis’ Ο Άγιος Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς, ο βίος και η θεολογία του, Thessaloniki 1976. Rich and important material for Hesychasm in the time of St. Gregory Palamas is contained in the collective volume Ο Άγιος Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς στην ιστορία και το παρόν (Πρακτικά Διεθνών Επιστημονικών Συνεδρίων Αθηνών και Λεμεσού), Mount Athos 2000.
2. Extensive article by Panagiotis Chrestou in ΘΗΕ, τ. 4 (1964) pp. 775-794. Contains a rich bibliography.
3. As his biographer and the President of the Synod of 1368, Ecumenical Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos (1345-55 – 1364-76) wrote: “I ascribe to him honor as a Saint for his miracles, which after his repose in God his tomb became a source of healings.” PG 151:648/9, 711.
4. PG 102, 263-391.
5. The great theologians of the Orthodox Church unconditionally accept this as the last Ecumenical Synod with the participation of Old Rome before the schism. It has all the features of an Ecumenical Synod. See John N. Karmiris, The Dogmatic and Symbolic Monuments of the Orthodox Catholic Church, Athens I962, p. 261-2.
6. The first fall of New Rome Constantinople by the Franks at the Fourth Crusade.
7. See Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos’ Παλαιά και Νέα Ρώμη, pp. 207-210. Cf. Fr. Demetrios Koutsouris, Σύνοδοι και Θεολογία για τον Ησυχασμό, (doctoral thesis), Athens 1997.
8. It is the teaching of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). See Fr. George Metallinos’ “Η περί ικανοποιήσεως της θείας δικαιοσύνης διδασκαλία και η νεοελληνική κατηχητική και κηρυκτική πράξη”, in Λόγος ως Αντίλογος, Athens 1992, pp. 85-98. Cf. Fr. Vasilios Kalliakmanis’ “Η διδασκαλία περί ικανοποιήσεως της θείας δικαιοσύνης στη νεοελληνική θεολογία”, in the magazine Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς, τ. 71 (τεύχ. 723), 1988, pp. 529-537.
9. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) in the text “Dictatus Papae” (PL 148, 107). It is identified with the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. “The Pope is absolute master of the Church and the State.”
10. For him theology is for those who have been examined and verified in the vision of God, and before this have been purified in body and soul, or in the process of being purified (“First Theological Oration”, PG 36, 13). Cf. Basil the Great, PG 32, 213D.
11. See George Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology.
12. See Stylianos Papadopoulos, Πατρολογία, τ. Α’, Athens 1977, p. 300.
13. See Fr. George Metallinos’ “«Αντιδυτικοί» Πατέρες ευεργέτες της Ευρώπης”, Ιχνηλασία πνευματικής σχοινοβασίας. Katerini 1999, pp. 45-54.
14. “Discourse Regarding the Holy Hesychasts”, 1, 1, 12.
15. “Θεολογία και εμπειρία. Το μήνυμα του Αγίου Γρηγορίου Παλαμά στην εποχή μας”, in Ο Άγιος Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς…, pp. 481-488
About the Author
- George Metallinos, Greek: Γεώργιος Μεταλληνός, is a priest of the Church of Greece and theologian, historian, author, and professor. In 1984, Dr. Metallinos became a Professor at the School of Theology of the University of Athens, where he taught History of Spirituality during the Post-Byzantine Period, History and Theology of Worship, and Byzantine History. In 2004, he was appointed Dean of the School of Theology, a position in which he served until 2007 when he became professor emeritus.