St. Gregory Palamas and Hesychasm

St. Gregory Palamas and Hesychasm

This Sunday our Church celebrates the memory of St. Gregory Palamas. He was a defender of our Orthodox faith. He is primarily known for expounding the Orthodox concept of deification. This was misunderstood and distorted by a Greek monk, Barlaam. Barlaam was well educated in the West, which considered knowledge of God a matter of intellectual reasoning. As Barlaam was perpetuating his error, St. Gregory came to the defense of the truth. He made a distinction between the unknowable Essence of God and His Energy, in Which we can participate and Which is uncreated. Through St. Gregory’s teaching we can understand the Apostle Peter’s words: “we have become partakers of the divine nature” (IIPet. 1:4).
Barlaam also misunderstood and attacked the hesychast tradition of the Church. St. Gregory again came to the rescue explaining how it assists in leading one to unite with God. So then, hesychasm is a path to the aforementioned, that is, the participation in the Uncreated energy of God, being partakers of the divine nature, which is deification. So today let us say a few words about hesychasm because by living it one obtains an entrance into the divine Life that God desires to pour out upon us.
In order to accomplish this I will refer to the “Foreword” of the book by Archimandrite Zacharias of St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex: Hesychasm, The Bedewing Furnace of the Heart. Here the abbot of the Monastery, Archmandrite Peter writes about Hesychasm and its place in the Church as follows:

“The Lord Jesus Christ is the spiritual sun which illuminates the whole universe. In the light of His precepts, we come to know the unerring way to the Father. Through His Incarnation, He established on earth the holy Body of His Church and within her bosom He implanted monasticism as a holy root which from the first centuries of Christianity until our days has brought forth blessed fruits, our sacred and God-bearing Fathers, who have bequeathed to us the holy way of Hesychasm.
“Hesychastic prayer is the heart of the Orthodox ascetic tradition. Hesychasm is the ‘innermost body’ of the Body of the Church the ‘salt of the earth’ and the sustaining power that preserves the world.
“The essence of Hesychasm lies in the guarding of the heart from all alien influence, so that man can stand before God in ‘pure prayer’.
“In this arduous struggle, the Lord astounds the soul with the unexpected and luminous dawning of His grace in the wondrous place of the deep heart. Then it is that man is built into a temple of Divinity not made by hands, fulfilling his true destiny. By the union of mind and heart, every Christian truly finds himself in the innermost recesses of his soul and, as a God-like mind, as an immortal hypostasis, he invisibly beholds God. This contemplation enlarges the heart to embrace heaven and earth; and then the ‘true man goes out to his true work’, namely, hypostatic prayer and intercession for the whole world. Such a prayer is a sign that the image first given to man at his creation is restored in us.
“The world, the creation of our great God, is beautiful indeed; but there is nothing more marvelous than ‘the hidden man of the heart’, the true man, in the image and likeness of God.” (Hesychasm, The Bedewing Furnace of the Heart, pp.11-12)
Let us struggle then, to make this manifest within us, which is—as Archimandrite Peter continues to write—“the most desirable and sublime miracle in all creation, the union of the heart of man with the eternal Spirit of God.”

The Veneration of Icons/Sunday of Orthodoxy

The Veneration of Icons/Sunday of Orthodoxy

Beloved of God, in the second of the Ten Commandments we read: (Exo 20:4) “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

Both in the past and the present a literal interpretation of this, out of context, has caused many to reject the veneration of icons. During the eighth and ninth century there was a terrible persecution against those who venerated the icons. And today we celebrate the end of these persecutions and the restoration of the icons to the Church.

But let us carefully examine this commandment and see exactly what caused this problem and what was it that our Lord was prohibiting. If we want to understand this commandment it should be considered in its historical context and collated with a more detailed description which is found in the Book of Deuteronomy. Here the Lord warns:

“Beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them and serve them, things which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.” (Deu. 4:16-19) If we consider the historical context, it is obvious that this commandment includes the prohibition of every variety of idolatry known to have been practiced among the Egyptians. Now let’s examine this step by step.

First the critical term which has caused much confusion: “graven image”. According to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary (can be found at the Hebrew term translated here is pesel; it is defined as, “an idol: -carved (graven) image”, the root word of this means “to carve”. In the Greek Septuagint text this word translated as “eidolon” which in English is idol. A question: Does pesel equal an Orthodox icon?

Let’s continue with a detailed examination of the prohibitions. Likenesses of male and female were mentioned. In ancient Egypt the people held a certain Osiris and his wife Isis as supreme divinities. Images of Orisis depict him as a handsome man in royal dress wearing a crown of an Upper Egypt headdress.
“The likeness of any beast that is on the earth”. “Among the Egyptians the ox was not only sacred but adored, because they supposed that in one of these animals Osiris took up his residence: hence they always had a living ox, which they supposed to be the habitation of this deity; and they imagined that on the death of one he entered into the body of another, and so on successively. This famous ox-god they called Apis and Mnevis.” 1

“The likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air”. Birds such as the stork, or crane, and hawk were objects of Egyptian idolatry. “The likeness of anything that creeps on the ground”. The crocodile, serpents, or beetle, were all objects of their adoration. “The likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth”. All fish were esteemed sacred animals among the Egyptians. One called Oxyrynchus had a temple, and divine honors paid to it. Another fish, called Phagrus, was worshipped at the city of Syene (modern day Aswan) on the Nile in Southern Egypt.

“In short, oxen, heifers, sheep, goats, lions, dogs, monkeys, and cats; the ibis, the crane, and the hawk; the crocodile, serpents, frogs, flies, and the scarabeus or beetle; the Nile and its fish; the sun, moon, planets, and stars; fire, light, air, darkness, and night, were all objects of Egyptian idolatry, and all included in this very circumstantial prohibition as detailed in Deuteronomy.” 2

Again let us hear the second commandment of our Lord:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol or graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

Now when we put it into its historical context, is it at all possible to believe that the Hebrew term pesel is equal to an Orthodox icon? No, how could it be? To do so would be show a total lack of logic. So let us, with undoubted faith continue to do as today’s tropar says, “We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One”.3 By reason of the fact that, “The uncircumscribed Word of the Father became circumscribed,…and He has restored the sullied image to its ancient glory, filling it with divine beauty. This our salvation we confess in deed and word and we depict it in the holy ikons.”4

May our Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of all the saints who suffered for the veneration of the holy icons have mercy on us and save us. Amen!

1. From the commentaries of Adam Clarke (British Methodist Theologian reposed 1832) on Exodus 20:4. Can be found on
2. Ibid.
3. Translation as found in service books published by St. Tikhon’s Monastery.
4. The Lenten Triodion, p. 306