November 14, 2013

Saint Gregory Palamas as a Model for our Lives

St. Gregory Palamas (Feast Day - November 14)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, lived in the fourteenth century, and was born in Constantinople. He came from a noble and pious family. His father Constantine was a member of the imperial senate, a teacher of the grandson of the Emperor as well as of the Emperor himself. He was most pious and had uninterrupted noetic prayer. He associated with holy people, ascetics and monks and connected with them and their children. The whole family confessed to the same spiritual father. He left this temporary life when Gregory was just seven years old. As he was dying, his wife asked him to ask the emperor to place under him the care of their children, but he replied that he would ask the Queen of Heaven to place them under her protection. Indeed, the Panagia protected Saint Gregory throughout his life. Her protection was at such a level, that the Saint, before he would begin studying, would kneel three times before her icon and would say a prayer. When he did this, he could retain what he read. However, if he ever forgot to say his prayer, then he couldn't remember nor recite what he had studied. His mother had a similar life to that of her husband.

Saint Gregory excelled in his education, which made the emperor recommend an important place in the palace. Yet, he had a desire for a higher spiritual life and at the age of eighteen he left for the Holy Mountain. He loved quiet and lived ascetically at the Sacred Monastery of Great Lavra. Constantly he would pray, saying: "Lord Jesus Christ, illumine my darkness. Most-Holy Theotokos, illumine my darkness." He supplicated that his nous be illumined, and in fact he reached illumination and theosis. This is why his theology is empirical, and when given the occasion he delivered it.

At that time the heretic Barlaam taught that the energies of God are created and that man is unable to see God, because the essence of God is incommunicable; that the Divine is comprehended by reason, which is why the philosophers are greater than the prophets. He dishonorably mocked the monks who practiced noetic prayer. Saint Gregory Palamas refuted these heretical teachings and indicated the true path to know God. The existence at that time of a God-seeing Theologian of the spiritual stature of Saint Gregory Palamas was a great blessing, for because of him the faith was not altered. And we know very well, that when the faith is altered, then the correct way of healing people is lost and it puts our salvation at stake.

Highlights of his written teachings are as follows:

First, the energies of God are uncreated, as well as His essence. Created man cannot partake in God's essence, but he can partake in His energies, that is, we can know God and see His uncreated Light.

Second, Orthodox Theology is not cerebral, but empirical, and it cannot be acquired through study alone. Books certainly help, but the true knowledge of God is existential. God reveals Himself as Light to the purified, and "through the Holy Spirit they know God and are able to speak of Him". Philosophers speak reflectively through reason and imagination, which is why it is not possible for them to be higher than the prophets, who see God and speak of Him through the Holy Spirit.

Third, a person reaches theosis, which is the theoria (vision) of God, after having purified their heart of the passions and their mind has been illumined. The way of life through which one reaches purification and illumination is called hesychasm (quietude). The terms quietude and hesychastic life do not simply mean for one to live in a quiet place. One could live in the most quiet place and still not find quiet, because the passions rage inside and mental images drive them crazy. Hesychasm is primarily an internal state and is called by the Holy Fathers the science of logismoi (thoughts with mental images). The hesychastic life is in fact the evangelical life, and with the guidance of a discerning spiritual father all could experience it. "Only through quietude can one acquire the knowledge of God and become an Orthodox theologian. This is the difference between Orthodox theology and scholastic theology" (His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Orthodoxy Monasticism).

In our time, which is very similar to that of Saint Gregory, the winds of anti-hesychasm are blowing, which is why the teaching of the hesychastic way of life is even more timely today. Through quietude a person acquires self-knowledge, which leads them to repentance, humility and the knowledge of God. Contemporary people stubbornly refuse to confront themselves. Quietude terrifies them, which is why when they are found to be alone even for a short time, they turn on the radio or television craving human companionship. Without the presence of uncreated Divine Grace, which creates inner fullness and brings meaning to life, a person feels unbearable loneliness, even if surrounded by thousands of people.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΑΓΙΟΣ ΓΡΗΓΟΡΙΟΣ Ο ΠΑΛΑΜΑΣ", November 2002. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.