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November 14, 2020

An Interview with Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos on the Relevance of Saint Gregory Palamas Today


Question: In your book Saint Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite you write that Saint Gregory is a saint who can help modern man a lot. What could we, who live in a world very different from the world of the fourteenth century, learn from St. Gregory?

Answer: Beyond what you say, in my book I write that our time is parallel to the time in which Saint Gregory Palamas lived, that is, there are the same movements and the same traditions. That is, in the 14th century in the Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantium, there was a living Orthodox Tradition, expressed by St. Gregory, but at the same time there were many humanistic elements, which means that humanists relied heavily on the human factor. Thus, there were Christians who lived a mystical and ascetic life, but at the same time there were Christians who were influenced by other traditions and in fact were humanists, that is, they relied on the human factor.

St. Gregory Palamas faced two temptations, one coming from the West with the teaching of Barlaam which was clearly a secularized Christianity, and the other temptation coming from the East expressed by the Ottomans, who at one time he had discussions with. And we Orthodox today are facing challenges from both the secularized Christian West and the anthropocentric religiosity - Islam - of the East.

Thus, in the time of St. Gregory Palamas, there was scholasticism centered on reason and moralism centered on emotion and external behavior. In this case, St. Gregory emphasized Orthodox hesychasm which is a confutation of both scholasticism and moralism. Also, at that time there were two traditions, one emphasizing the Mysteries to the detriment of prayer, as Barlaam taught, and the other emphasizing prayer to the detriment of the Mysteries, as the Messalians believed.

We see, then, that our time is parallel to the time of the 14th century, where the same traditions and the same influences from the East and the West prevail, but also from internal inherent humanist traditions. It is an anthropocentrism, a self-love and eudaimonic happiness that is contrary to the ecclesiastical tradition. This means that we should know very well the Orthodox Tradition, as expressed by our saints old and new who have the spirit of prayer, worship, Holy Communion, philanthropy and love for God. To learn to distinguish what is and what is not Orthodox, what is and what is not ecclesiastical. Because, the main danger is syncretism, that is, to consider that all traditions are the same and all religions speak for the same God.

Question: I am thinking of Constantine, the father of St. Gregory Palamas, in that he lived as a saint, even though he was in the world and held a responsible position - because of which he was probably deprived of peace, since he was also a courtier - do you think that we as modern people, could we live a similar life in the turmoil of the world in these not at all quiet times? What is the purpose of such a life?

Answer: Indeed, the father of St. Gregory Palamas, although he was a senator, lived within the Orthodox Tradition, had absolute faith in the providence of God and prayed noetically during senatorial meetings. Everyone considered him a saint, which is why when they met his children, like Gregory, they said "the children of the saint". And when he was on the verge of death, at the request of his wife to ask the emperor to take his children under his protection, he replied that he was leaving them to the Panagia, the Mother of Christ. This shows the great faith of that man.

The Christian life, as given to us by Christ and lived by the saints through the ages, can be experienced by all people, in all times and places. Christ did not give one Gospel for the monastics and another Gospel for the married, not another Gospel for the Christians of the early Church and another for the later ones. We must all observe the same evangelical life. This means that we should go to church regularly, participate in the Mysteries of Confession and the Eucharist, pray the regular but also other hours of the day, use the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me" wherever we are, and keep the commandments of Christ.

The epilogue of a letter sent by Saint Gregory Palamas to the Christians of Thessaloniki, when he was a prisoner of the Ottomans, is very characteristic. He tells them that we Christians have a living and true God and we must have a living and true faith which will be expressed through works, because he who has dead faith and lacks good works is dead and does not live according to God. He also instructs them on how they will become sons of God. When man turns away from evil, remains in the land of virtue, engages in the works of repentance and waits on God, he will not only receive the perfection of human virtue, but will also acquire the supernatural divine virtues, through union with the divine Spirit. And he concludes: "This is how man is deified". This is what Saint Gregory Palamas offers to those of us who want to be his disciples.

And something else. Saint Gregory Palamas, as a monk on Mount Athos, prayed with the cry: "Illuminate my darkness, illuminate my darkness". If we feel that our nous - not reason, but noetic energy - is darkened, let us pray to God to illuminate it, to see life through another perspective, through our pure heart.

Question: What is the heart, according to Patristic theology? How can we know God with our heart, not our mind, so that we do not fall into the error of Barlaam?

Answer: According to the biblical patristic tradition, the heart is the center of human existence, it is the space which is discovered through asceticism in Christ, unceasing prayer and in which space God is revealed. This is called the spiritual heart and it is at the depth of the physical heart, and it is certainly not the emotion. Christ Himself said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8).

In the Patristic Tradition it seems that when the Fathers speak of the heart, they mean mainly the passive part of the soul, which consists of anger and desire. Therefore, heart is the power of love and the power of anger. Through love we desire to be united with Christ and anger is the force that activates this desire. Unfortunately, we offer this desire and anger to creation and passions develope, but when we bring it back to God, then the heart is purified. Thus the heart works against nature with the passions and for supernatural nature with the Grace of God and prayer.

In addition to the heart, there is in man the so-called accounting of the soul, which acts on the brain. With reason we gain knowledge of the world around us, we study books, we form thoughts about the way we live, but with our hearts we love God and people. Thus there is the rational energy that is active in the brain and there is the noetic energy, which in its normal state is activated in the space of the heart, what the Fathers call the deep heart or spiritual heart.

How we know God by the heart and not by reason is the essence of the spiritual life. Usually, when we are in pain from a shocking event, then we live with the heart. Thus, when we repent and a pain develops because we have turned away from God, we learn to live with the heart. This will be shown to us by the course of our spiritual life. The fact is that when we connect with a person who lives with the heart, whose nous is freed from reason, we can learn to behave heartily. This is done with all the sciences, since without a guide, without a teacher, it is difficult to learn the secrets of a science. The same is true of spiritual matters.

I must recall the path of the two Disciples on the way to Emmaus after the resurrection of Christ, as described by the Evangelist Luke. The disciples were possessed by many thoughts of despair and doubt because Christ had been crucified, while they hoped that He would be the Messiah who would deliver them from Roman rule. Then Christ approached them and began to interpret the Scriptures, which spoke of how things should be accomplished. And little by little, their hearts began to burn, as they themselves confessed: "Did not our hearts burn within us, as we were on the road, and as He opened to us the scriptures?" (Lk. 24:32).

This means that the thoughts that work in the brain create fear, despair and doubt, while the word of God that works in the heart creates love, faith, and desire for Christ. And the issue is how to get rid of the thoughts of despair and hopelessness, how to burn in our hearts with love for Christ. This happens when we have a guide in Christ or a friend of Christ and we will learn how to live ecclesiastically.

Question: From the perspective of Palamite teaching, could you tell us, in a nutshell, what the essence of the Orthodox faith is?

Answer: The basis of the theology of St. Gregory Palamas is that God is Light. The first-formed lived in Paradise in the Light, with sin they turned away from the Light and their nous was darkened. When the saints see God, they see Him in the Light. The body of Christ with His incarnation became a source of uncreated Light. People in Christ must reach such a state that they see Christ as Light, as the three Disciples on Mount Tabor. With Baptism and Chrismation we purify the heart and illumine the nous and with the divine Communion we receive Light, that is why we chant "We have seen the true light ...". This Light of God is His uncreated energy, which means that it has no beginning and no end, it has not been created, so the sharing in this Light is the deification of man. This is the purpose of the spiritual life.

Then St. Gregory Palamas teaches about the value of Orthodox hesychasm and neptic life. In this context he spoke about prayer, watchfulness, purification of the heart, love for God and people, repentance, etc. It is very important to read the discourses of St. Gregory Palamas that he made to his flock in Thessaloniki. In them the great theologian is combined with the great Father, the God-seeing teacher with the hesychast monk, the anti-heretical theologian with the spiritual guide, etc. In fact with these discourses St. Gregory Palamas conveyed the entire theological and pious life.

Of course, this is not his own teaching, so it is not just "Palamite" teaching, but it is the teaching of Christ, as expressed by Himself, through the Prophets, the Apostles and the saints through the ages. This teaching is found in Holy Scripture, the texts of the Fathers, the prayers of the Mysteries, and the decisions of the Ecumenical Synods. Thus the lex credendi (law of faith) and the lex orandi (law of prayer) are clearly connected. That is, doctrine is connected with prayer.

The important thing is to understand that Christ is the true God, that the Church is the Body of Christ, that the purpose of our life is to be united with Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, that the time of our life is very short and in Him we must be healed in order to see God as Light, and that the future life is eternal and we must in the short time we live enter the path of repentance. We must strive to live as Christians, as the Gospel recommends, and if we cannot live perfectly as Christians, at least die as Christians, with repentance and the hope of eternal life.
Source: An interview for the Romanian magazine "Familia Orthodoxa" in 2014 with Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.