Second Sunday of Lent: St. Gregory Palamas

St Gregory Palamas, whose memory we celebrate this day, is known as a great defender of Orthodoxy; and so he is commemorated in the Lenten cycle on the Sunday after the Sunday of Orthodoxy. He was born in 1296 and came from a very pious family of the ranks of nobility. He was well educated and excelled in his studies at the Imperial University. While in the world he had as spiritual father Theoleptus of Philadelphia who is among the authors found in the Philokalia. At the age of 20 St. Gregory left the world to become a monk on the Holy Mountain. Through his ascetic struggles he ascended to great spiritual heights and monastics especially revere him as a hesychast. We could say a hesychast is one who fulfills the words of the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 45:10). The Elder Ephraim of Arizona has referred to him as the king of the hesychasts.

His commemoration comes up, as I have mentioned, on this Sunday which follows the Sunday of Orthodoxy because he was involved in a battle for Orthodoxy. And it was only nine years after his death that a council was held in Constantinople which canonized him and proclaimed him as “the greatest among the fathers of the Church” ( The Holy Fire, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 292). In the liturgical service for him he is called a “divine instrument of wisdom” a “joyful trumpet of theology” and a “preacher of grace” (The Lenten Triodion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, p.324). Where did he acquire this wisdom and theology so as to become a preacher of grace? Was it in is studies at the Imperial University? No, it was in the solitude and silence of his monastic cell, as the Psalmist says: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 45:10).

But how is it that these words of the Psalmist can be fulfilled so that one becomes still and acquires knowledge of God? It is through ongoing repentance. Repentance in the Orthodox Church has various shades of meanings. The Greek word “metanoia” literally means a change of mind, implying what the holy Aposlte Paul wrote to the Romans: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The equivalent word in Slavonic is “pokayaniye “, it implies to be wretched to mourn and lament—to be filled with tears. So in conjunction with the disposition of one’s heart, and effort of free will, this “spirit of repentance” acts in varying degrees. In some people it acts temporarily according to the sins they have committed. There is confession, the resolve to change, remorse, and maybe some act of penance. However, in others this “spirit of repentance” acts systematically, remaining upon one, leading him from one degree of purification to another. Then, continuing on, this “spirit”—which is the action of the grace of God—leads a man from one degree of enlightenment to another.

Joseph the Hesychast in writing to a correspondent explains this process as follows:

The spiritual life is divided into three stages, and grace acts in a person accordingly. The first stage is called purification, during which the person is cleansed. What you now have is the grace of purification. This form of grace leads one to repentance. All the eagerness that you have for spiritual things is due to grace alone. Nothing is your own. It secretly acts upon everything. So when you exert yourself, this grace remains with you for a certain time. If a person progresses with noetic prayer, he receives another form of grace which is entirely different.

As we mentioned earlier this first form of grace is called, “perception of the action of grace,” and is the grace of purification. That is, one who prays feels the presence of divine energy within him.

The second form of grace is called the grace of illumination. During this stage, one receives the light of knowledge and is raised to the vision of God. This does not mean seeing lights, fantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous, clearness of thoughts, and depth of cognition. For this to occur, the person praying must have much stillness and an unerring guide.

The third stage—when grace overshadows—is the grace of perfection, truly a great gift. I shall not write about this now, since it is not necessary. (Monastic Wisdom, The letters of Joseph the Hesychast; St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, pp. 44-5)

In the silence and stillness of his monastic cell, St. Gregory attained to the grace of perfection. He was united to God in his heart, God was active and living within him, his mind received illumination through prayer of the heart, he was taught by God. He acquired the knowledge of truth which St. Gregory of Sinai defines as “direct apprehension of truth through grace” ((Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Faber and Faber, p. 37). And so, when—during his lifetime—the Orthodox Faith was challenged he came to the forefront of the battle.

It happened that in the late 1330’s a monk named Barlaam, who was a great scholar, came from Italy to Constantinople. He was born in southern Italy of Greek parentage yet raised Catholic. Although he returned to the Faith of his ancestors it appears that he did not change much other than the error of the filioque. He attacked the hesychast tradition of the Church, he considered knowledge of God a matter of intellectual reason and held the Catholic position that since God is unknowable it follows that the grace in which we can participate is created. In responding to his misconceptions, St. Gregory defended the Hesychast tradition of the Church, and—more precisely than any of the Fathers before him—made a clear distinction between the essence and energy of God both of which are uncreated. God is unknowable in His essence but He is communicated to us through His energy which is uncreated. We can participate in the uncreated divine energy, “Speaking of the divinization of the saints, St. Gregory writes: ‘This is why the saints are instruments of the Holy Spirit, having received the same energy as Him’” (The Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, Holy Apostles Convent, p.253). The late Elder Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi Monastery on Athos expresses the experience of the saints as follows:

God is not contemplated at a distance, but dwells in the souls that have been purified, being apprehended through His uncreated Energies….

True believers ‘undergo’ this communion with God and experience the energies of divine influences organically, since in the whole of their being they bear—dwelling and abiding within them—the God in Whom they believe and Whom they worship. ‘For He says, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”’ (2Cor. 6:16) (Elder Joseph the Hesychast, The Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, pp.203, 204)

I would like to conclude by quoting the ending of the letter of St. Gregory Palamas to the Nun Xenia:

Let us, then, in blessed poverty also fall down and weep before the Lord our God, so that we may wash away our former sins, make ourselves impervious to evil and, receiving the blessing of solace of the Comforter, may glorify Him and the unoriginate Father and the Only-begotten Son, now and always and throughout the ages. Amen. (Philokalia Volume 4, Faber and Faber, p. 322)