March 15, 2020

Saint Gregory Palamas and the Black Death

By John Sanidopoulos

In the year 1349 Saint Gregory Palamas was sent to the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea to bring calm to the people who resisted Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos. While the Saint was on the island, the Black Death was spreading throughout the Roman Empire, and it came to Lemnos itself. The Black Death was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague.

This plague had visited Constantinople in the spring of 1347 and decimated the capital. One western chronicle reports that eight out of every nine of the capital's populace perished, while another said two thirds of the city died. Though it is debated whether this number is exaggerated, nonetheless the number of victims was extraordinarily high in the Queen City. It was through Constantinople that the Black Death spread into Europe, where it killed an estimated 25 million people. As one chronicler wrote of this plague: "So incurable was the evil, that neither any regularity of life, nor any bodily strength could resist it."

When the plague ravaged Lemnos in 1349, the Saint formed a procession with all the people that they may entreat God to put an end to the death toll. Without hesitation, Palamas would visit those areas highly infected where many feared to tread. After fervent prayer and entreaty, the following day the epidemic ceased on the island.

Even before this, it is believed that Saint Gregory was in Constantinople in 1348, when the plague was still ravaging the city. There he probably preached his Homily 31 in August of 1348. In this homily he talks about the origin of death and sickness being in the devil and sin. He further said: "The Fathers teach us that anyone who falls ill should not resort to spells and sorcerers but to God, to the intercession of His saints, and to the petitions, entreaties, and prayers on our behalf of those who have consecrated and dedicated their whole life to Him."

Another homily delivered by Saint Gregory during the Black Death was Homily 39. It was delivered during the supplicatory procession held on account of the widespread deadly plague at that time, probably in either Constantinople or Lemnos. In this homily he preached against vice, warning from examples of Holy Scripture how vice brings harm to people. As he states: "It is on account of behavior such as this that we are being punished and shall be again... Do you want to find out how evil covetousness is? It can be discerned from the plague from which we are suffering now. As you can observe, when the blood, one of the elements of the body, becomes excessive, it brings death to the victims. Just as this excess within the body destroys the body, so greed in the soul destroys the soul and kills it, banishing from it that holier life, which is the grace of God. Such a death of the soul is always a precursor of the bodily death, which results from being abandoned by God." And he concludes:

"The Lord says, 'I will remember your sins no more.' Provided, of course, we either flee away from [sin] never to return, or else we propitiate God through confession and works of repentance equivalent to our iniquities, reconciling Him to ourselves through active humility. Then, if God's love for us will consent to make up for what we lack, we shall be delivered now from this manifestation of divine anger, from widespread premature death and the universal destruction it causes, and in the age to come we shall obtain everlasting life, to the glory of Christ."