The second Sunday of Great Lent is always dedicated to Saint Gregory Palamas, a leading theologian of the medieval period. He successfully defended the Orthodox faith against rational innovations in theology developed in Italy.
Born in 1296 in Constantinople, he and his two brothers chose a monastic life on the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos, where they learnt the Orthodox practice of hesychasm, a contemplative method of prayer that in some cases may lead a practitioner to receive revelations or to witness the Uncreated Light of God.
In 1337, he was engaged in defending the monks of Mount Athos against accusations of a Calabrian monk, Barlaam. Barlaam believed that secular philosophers had better knowledge of God than did the prophets, and he valued education and learning more than contemplative prayer. He stated the unknowability of God in an extreme form. He accused the monks on Mount Athos of wasting their time in contemplative prayer when they should instead be studying to gain intellectual knowledge.
When St. Gregory criticized Barlaam’s rationalism, Barlaam replied with a vicious attack on the hesychastic life of the Athonite monks. Gregory’s rebuttal was the Triads in defense of the Holy Hesychasts (c. 1338), a brilliant work whose teaching was affirmed by his fellow Hagiorites, who met together in a council during 1340-1341, issuing a statement known as the Hagioritic Tome, which supported Gregory’s theology.
Contrary to Barlaam, Gregory asserted that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. Addressing the question of how it is possible for humans to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God, he drew a distinction between knowing God in his essence (in Greek, ουσία) and knowing God in his energies (in Greek, ενέργειαι). He maintained the Orthodox doctrine that it remains impossible to know God in his essence (God in himself), but possible to know God in his energies (to know what God does, and who he is in relation to the creation and to man), as God reveals himself to humanity. In doing so, he made reference to the Cappadocian Fathers and other early Christian writers.
Gregory further asserted that when the Apostles Peter, Jamesand Johnwitnessed the Transfiguration of Christon Mount Tabor, that they were in fact seeing the uncreated light of God; and that it is possible for others to be granted to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer, although not in any automatic or mechanistic fashion.
He continually stressed the Biblical vision of the human person as a united whole, both body and soul. Thus, he argued that the physical side of hesychastic prayer was an integral part of the contemplative monastic way, and that the claim by some of the monks of seeing the uncreated light was indeed legitimate.
Saint Gregory Palamas’ struggle with rational western philosophers continues to this day. Humanists, Marxists and some heterodox Christians are quick to discount the mystical aspects of life and emphasise the rational route to salvation. Saint Gregory’s theses emphasise that knowledge of God is not dependent upon a high level of education or possession of doctororates, but upon spirit.