Although all the Fathers of the Church – particularly the three great Hierarchs and Luminaries of the World and the Cappadocian Fathers in general – had a major impact on the formulation of Orthodox theology and have continued to influence Orthodox thought and life to this day, those who are especially relevant today are St Maximos the Confessor, St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory Palamas. They are able to speak very clearly to our contemporaries.
By saying this I am not honouring some Fathers more highly than others. I do not believe in the existence of different schools of patristic theology. I believe that the holy Fathers, who are theologians in the highest sense, share a common teaching and a common ecclesiastical life. However, the three most recent Fathers – St Maximos the Confessor, St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory Palamas – respond to current problems that torment people today.
St Gregory Palamas expressed patristic and ecclesiastical life and experience in its entirety in a difficult and troubled time. He condenses the whole of patristic thought, which is essentially the life which the Holy Spirit revealed to the saints, and develops the teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers. It is significant that in the second phase of his struggle against Barlaam he refers to them. In addition, he shares the experience of St Symeon the New Theologian and has a thorough understanding of St Maximos, whose teaching (which is the teaching of the Orthodox Church) he refers to and develops.
It is therefore inconceivable for an Orthodox theologian to be ignorant of the teaching of St Gregory Palamas. As Barlaam’s humanistic and anthropocentric theories are very prevalent in our own time, the teaching of St Gregory Palamas is especially relevant. It can lead us out of the prison where we are confined, and set us free from our Babylonian captivity.
In the following pages I shall set out a few key points from St Gregory’s teaching which relate to current problems of our age. These important issues will be briefly identified, without detailed explanations.
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Action and Hesychasm
The era we live in is pre-eminently one of external action. We are continuously on the move. We indulge all our senses and intensely cultivate our power of reasoning. We think that we will transform society by means of such activity. Society cannot be successfully changed, however, without our own transformation and this cannot be achieved without the hesychastic method, which is an integral part of the Orthodox Tradition.
St Gregory Palamas is first and foremost the defender of hesychasm. By the grace of Christ he fought to safeguard this method of purifying the heart and thoughts, which is an indispensable prerequisite for the knowledge of God and communion with Him. In his homily on the Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God he speaks about the hesychastic life. It is significant that this Saint of the Holy Mountain, speaking from his own experience, presents the All-Holy Virgin as an example of noetic hesychia, because through hesychia she attained to communion with the Triune God in the Holy of Holies.
He writes that we cannot reach God or commune with Him unless we are purified and leave behind everything perceptible to our senses, together with our ability to perceive, and rise above thoughts, reasoning, human knowledge and the mind itself. This is exactly what the Holy Virgin did. Seeking this communion with God, “she found that holy hesychia was her guide: hesychia when the nous and the world stand still, forgetfulness of things below, initiation into heavenly secrets, the laying aside of conceptual images for something better. This is truly something we actively do, a means of approaching theoria or, to state it more aptly, the vision of God, which is the only proof of a soul in good health.” St Gregory Palamas goes on to explain that the virtues are medicines for the soul’s illnesses, the passions, but theoria is “the fruit of a healthy soul, an outcome and a state that deifies.” In other words, the soul is healed by means of the virtues, but once it has been healed it is united with God through theoria, to which it is guided by the hesychastic method. “It is through theoria that a person is deified, not by conjectural analogy based on reasoning and observations, but under the guidance of hesychia.”
Through this method of Orthodox hesychia we are healed, “we are set free from things below and turn towards God.”With constant supplications and prayers, “in some way we touch that blessed nature that cannot be touched. Thus the light beyond our perception and understanding is diffused ineffably within those whose hearts have been purified by holy hesychia, and they see God within themselves as in a mirror.”
The most significant points in this passage by St Gregory Palamas are that by means of the Orthodox method, which is essentially the method of noetic hesychia, we purify our heart and nous, and so are united with God. This is the only method of feeling our way towards God and acquiring communion with Him.
The holy Fathers in their writings call this state of the soul “Sabbath rest”. Purified by the method of sacred hesychia and under its guidance, man’s nous “keeps the Sabbath” and rests in God. St Gregory Palamas speaks about divine rest: God’s rest when He “rested…from all His work”, and Christ’s rest, when He descended to Hell with His soul and His divinity, while His body and His divinity remained in the tomb. He writes that we too ought to seek this divine rest, concentrating our nous through assiduous attention and uninterrupted prayer. This divine rest, God’s Sabbath rest, is noetic hesychia. “If you raise your nous above every thought, however good, and bring it completely back to yourself by means of persistent attention and unceasing prayer, you too have actually entered into the divine rest and have received the blessing of the seventh day, seeing yourself and being lifted up through yourself to the vision of God.” It is significant that the Saint says these things in a homily to the flock in his Diocese in Thessaloniki. This means that everyone, to differing degrees, can acquire experience of this divine rest. In my view, this teaching has been lost in our own day.
The clear conclusion from this whole analysis is that the teaching of St Gregory Palamas is relevant to our time and should be studied and put into practice by people today. Of course, when we refer to the teaching of St Gregory Palamas we are in no way implying that this teaching is exclusive to this particular Saint. It is the Church’s teaching, which the Saint expressed in his era.
There are parallels between our age and St Gregory’s. Sadly, in many fields and on many levels it is the teaching of Barlaam that prevails rather than that of St Gregory Palamas.
Now is the time to rediscover our Tradition, not in the sense of rediscovering a few traditional objects or reviving traditional manners and customs, but principally by living the teaching of St Gregory Palamas. The saints and their theology ought to be central to our teaching and our lives. In this way we shall avoid anxiety and insecurity and find inner peace.