Wait — Monophysites??

You were probably quite thrilled to see the saints return this week. And then you probably cocked your head to one side and said, “Monophysites? Aren’t they heretics?”

Well. No. Not really.

Or, if they are heretics, it is for being schismatics, as under Jacob Baradaeus who consecrated John of Ephesus Bp of Ephesus which already had its own bishop. That must have been awkward. John claims Jacob maintained the canons of Nicaea, but this does not sit with the fact that he created bishops for places that already had bishops.

But Monophysites are not the heretics you think they are.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of the Monophysites, you thought of them as people who believed that Jesus had one nature, and that nature was divine. Or that in Jesus’ single nature the divine was so powerful it completely subsumed his human nature, rendering it useless. Or that Jesus’ divine and human natures were confused with each other. Or that Jesus had a glorified body through his whole life on earth and, as a result, never suffered.

Each of those statements is a heresy, and each of them is a Monophysite heresy. But none of them is mainstream Monophysism as represented by Severus of Antioch, Philoxenus of Mabbug, Empress Theodora, John of Ephesus, et al.

Mainstream Monophysism is a highly conservative reading of Cyril of Alexandria that refuses to affirm the Council of Chalcedon on the grounds that its Christological formula “in two natures” divides the person of Christ and you effectively have two sons and two Christs, which is Nestorianism.

The rallying cry of the Monophysites is the statement of Cyril: mia physis tou theou logou sesarkmomene — one incarnate nature of God the Word. Since Chalcedon affirmed two natures, it was a posthumous betrayal of St. Cyril, according to the Monophysites.

If someone came along trying to interpret Chalcedon so that it could jive with the Cyrilline rallying cry, the Monophysites would pull out more Cyril, and say, “Nature = person = hypostasis. If Christ has two natures, he has two hypostaseis/persons.”

Monophysites such as Severus of Antioch believed that Christ was fully God and fully man, possessing all of the attributes of Godhead and manhood within the single theandric (God-mannish) union. This union was a complete union within his person, or hypostasis — thus, hypostatic union.

Now, people don’t fight about nothing. Well, sometimes they do, but usually they don’t. There was a real, substantial difference between them and the original Chalcedonians. The sad reality for the Monophysites, though, is that by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, called by Emperor Justinian, the Chalcedonians had so interpreted and reinterpreted Chalcedon such that it could by understood by a highly Cyrillian thinker — so-called “Neo-Chalcedonianism”.

But it was too late. The seeds of schism were sown. And to this day, the “Syrian” Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox are out of communion with us, despite joint statements on Christology. This is a sad reality, and one that should be remedied. Would that we had the grace to sit down together and work out the centuries of trouble!

If any of this makes no sense, let me know and I’ll try to de-jargonise it! 😉

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The Essence and Energies of God: Seeking to Understand Gregory Palamas

When a Western Christian first encounters talk of the ‘energies’ and ‘essence’ of God, this concept seems bizarre, foreign, silly, even heretical.[1] However, if we examine the writings and ideas of St. Gregory Palamas within the great tradition of theologians and mystics within which he stands, we find that, rather than being heretical, his ideas are, in fact, sensible. They are a synthesis of the dogma of the theologian and the experience of the mystic, steering a course that is able to maintain both the transcendence and immanence of God; such a task is very difficult and fraught with many dangers, as we may be tempted to fall off the horse of orthodoxy in either direction, making God the transcendent creator of deism or the immanent spiritual force of pantheism. Palamas gives us a holy, transcendent, immanent, loving God — a God to believe in.

One of the fundamental realities about the patristic and Byzantine understanding of God is the ultimate transcendence of the divine Person(s). Since God is transcendent, Palamas tells us that our understanding of Him is not, cannot be contingent upon secular, pagan learning[2] — be that learning Greek philosophy or postmodern physics. Rather, our understanding of God is based upon our own initiation into His self-revelation to humanity through the Scriptures, tradition, and the spiritual, mystical experience of the individual believer. Palamas shows us this reality of the unknowable God’s ‘knowability’ through consistent reference to the Scriptures and the sayings of the Fathers, from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus of the fourth century to John Climacus and Maximus the Confessor of the seventh.

If we begin with the proposition that God is incomprehensible and his essence unknowable due to the vast gulf that separates Creator from creature, then a paradigm for interpreting the mystical life becomes of paramount importance, for mystics throughout history claim to have encountered this inaccessible, transcendent God. The Judaeo-Christian mystical tradition stretches at least as far back as Moses who saw the back of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (Ex 33:18-23), and includes Isaiah (Is 6) and Ezekiel (Ez 1) as well as the experiences of the disciples upon Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-9, Mk 9:2-9, Lk 9:28-36), and Paul who was ‘taken up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor 12:1-5) — these last two being of great importance for Palamas in The Triads. Finally, Christ Himself says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5:8). The biblical roots of the mystical encounter with God, then, are strong.

The ascetic, hesychastic tradition within which Gregory stands is also focussed upon the mystic’s vision of and union with God. Purity of heart, according to John Cassian,[3] is the goal of all ascetic discipline, the end of which is the vision of God. This mystical, ascetic tradition runs in the East through John Climacus (d. c. 649) to Gregory Palamas to Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833), John of Kronstadt (d. 1908), and the twentieth-century Athonite hesychasts Joseph (d. 1959) and Paisios (d. 1994), while in the West it runs through John Cassian (d. c. 435) to Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Lady Julian (d. c. 1416), St. Teresa of Avìla (d. 1582) and moderns such as Evelyn Underhill (d. 1941) and Thomas Merton (d. 1968). The goal of all of these contemplatives and mystics is, as stated above, union with God; the experiences of many of them are reflected in Palamas’ writings.[4] Palamites sought this union through silence and quiet (hesychia), uniting their hearts with their minds so that as purified, psychosomatic unities they could see God Himself through the uncreated light[5] — a potential impossibility, as becomes clear.

Gregory’s chief opponent in the Hesychastic Controversy of the fourteenth century was a Calabrian monk named Barlaam. Barlaam believed that God, the uncreated Creator, was completely inaccessible, making no distinction between His ‘energies’ and ‘essence.’[6] The visions of the prophets, apostles, and saints had merely been of things created by God. The light seen by the contemplatives of the ages was created at best, or a ‘fantasy of the imagination’[7] at worst. St. Gregory accordingly made the important distinction between essence and energies, keeping God transcendent as Barlaamites wished yet immanent as hesychasts had experienced. And so we come to the heart of the matter.

Papademetriou puts it most succinctly when he writes, ‘The energies of God as conceived by St. Gregory Palamas are “manifestations” and “exteriorizations” of God Himself. They are uncreated.’[8] In other words, what Palamas calls ‘energies’ are not some sort of spiritual electricity coursing through the universe into which the mystic can tap — as they sounded to me when I first heard of them. No, they are the actions, attributes, and movement of God throughout the created order, emanating from his very essence and tripersonal self. Those who, like the cherubim, have become all eye,[9] catch a glimpse of these uncreated ‘energies,’ but not of the essence of Him whose ‘energies’ they are.

Gregory gives us a good image to compare with this distinction, that of the human mind, although in my recent readings he does not make explicit the comparison between our minds and God, a comparison going back at least to Basil the Great.[10] Palamas says, ‘the essence of the mind is one thing, its energy another.’[11] This statement is made in explanation of how exactly one can call the mind back to the heart;[12] in its energies, one’s mind can be all over the place, worrying and fretting about things, thinking and considering various realities. The energies of the mind can become externalised. Yet wherever these energies go, the essence of the mind continually resides in the heart. God is similar to the mind, but his energies can go further and do more, given their uncreated and boundless existence.[13] Thus, God is able to communicate to us his properties, his actual ‘glory and splendour,’[14] while remaining inaccessible to us in terms of his essence. The mystics truly encounter the real God, contrary to Barlaam; however, their encounter is with the energies, not the essence of God. We can see a true, uncreated light that is part of God’s uncreated, ongoing, eternal action in this world, yet we cannot see God Himself and the fullness of His glory. This is the distinction Palamas makes, and it enables the dogma of the theologian to dovetail with the experience of the mystic, keeping Byzantine theology from driving a wedge between the two.

St. Gregory Palamas gives his readers a framework for understanding God as both immanent and transcendent. His theology, on the one hand, affirms the apophatic tradition running from Gregory of Nyssa, the tradition that can only describe God in negative terms — i.e. what God is not, e.g. immutable, infinite; God in His essence is unknowable. It also makes room for the cataphatic tradition running from Gregory of Nazianzus,[15] the tradition that can speak about God in positive terms — e.g. God is three prosopa with a single ousia; God in His energies is accessible to the pure in heart. The point of the hesychastic life is to purify the heart through prayer and ascetic ordeal, thereby coming to the beatific vision and the grace of the uncreated light, a wonder so glorious that those who have beheld it often have shining faces to reflect that light.[16] Palamite theology is not heresy, and it is not nonsense. It is a synthesis that enables us to make sense of the undeniable presence of the transcendent God.


[1] Re Palamas and heresy, see George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas (New York 1973), 20.

[2] The Triads, ‘Philosophy does not save,’ I.

[3] Cf. Conference 1; Cassian is the only Westerner in the Philokalia. See also Evagrius Ponticus, Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27,70, who argues that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the greatest thing one could ever achieve. On the influence of Evagrius on Byzantine monastic theology, see John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York 1979), 67-69.

[4] One example of many is Palamas’ statement that ‘the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves,’ reflecting the heart of the experience of St. Teresa of Avìla’s Interior Castle.

[5] This is the system of prayer laid out by Palamas in section C of this week’s readings, and it is one of the types of monasticism practised by the monks of Athos today, as seen in Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Monastic Wisdom (Florence, AZ 1998).

[6] George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 22-24.

[7] Cf. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ II.ii.9. This phrase shows the common western Christian bias towards the rational intellect as the only valid road to God.

[8] Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 43.

[9] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.21. Cf. Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo 1975), Bessarion 11, p. 42.

[10] Cf. Letter 233.

[11] The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ I.ii.5.

[12] That Palamas believes the mind to reside in the heart, not the brain, is evidence of his extensive reading not of pagans but of Christians, since pagans had established the residence of the mind in the brain in the writings of ‘Hippocrates’ in the fourth-fifth centuries BC.

[13] Cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, II.13.4 on God’s boundlessness as well as on His uncreated light.

[14] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.23.

[15] Both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus could be said to make use of both the apophatic and cataphatic tradition. Nyssa, however, is most famous for his postulation of knowing God in the darkness.

[16] Besides  the biblical precedents of Moses, the Transfiguration, and Stephen, Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1963), draws our attention to St. Seraphim of Sarov (pp. 131-132) and Evelyn Underhill (p. 239n.) who both underwent similar experiences.

Saints of the Week: Cyril and Methodius

There has been talk of upping the number of female saints included on this blog. This is a good thing (cast your votes now: St. Teresa of Avila or Mary Ward, who first?), as would be upping the number of non-monastic persons, especially adding some who were even married. Holiness is attainable to all persons, regardless of gender or marital state. Somehow, though, the monastic men make the bulk of the big ST’s…

Apologies also for how Orthodox this blog is getting. I’ll try to play to my Anglican and Evangelical constituents a bit more someday. For now, though, I would like to discuss two stellar exemplars of missionary work who can inspire Christians of all stripes, from evangelical Baptists to charismatic Anglicans to Pope Leo XIII (who enrolled them into the western calendar of saints in 1880) and the Russian Orthodox.

In the West, the “Holy-Equal-to-the-Apostles” Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs and co-patrons of Europe with St. Benedict of Nursia, are commemorated in the West on the same day as St. Valentine (he was the weekly saint a year ago), in the East they share a feast on May 11.

Sts. Cyril (d. 869) and Methodius (d. 885) were brothers from Thessalonica. St. Cyril started his career as a librarian at Ayia Sophia (librarians can be destined to greatness, and not just Rex Libris!) while St. Methodius served as a soldier. Both left their secular employment to become monks.

It seems that they began their work not among the Slavs but among the Khazars when their king asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael to send missionaries for them to learn more about Christianity and the Trinity. There is a chance that they converted the king and many noble Khazars to the Christian faith, but I don’t vouch for the accuracy of that (if you CAN, please tell us in the comments with a citation).

Their big work, their life’s work, began in 862 when a similar petition was made by Rastislav of Moravia for people to come and instruct him in the Christian faith. The monastic brothers from Thessalonica were sent to fulfill King Rastislav’s request.

There was already a Christian presence in Moravia, founded by western missionaries, and Cyril and Methodius came to continue their work, as Rastislav had expelled the western missionaries in his angling for political power against the Frankish King (Mediaeval and Byzantine religion is never far from politics). They set about organising the church ministry and hierarchy.

Whilst in Moravia, it is said that they met some of the western missionaries whom they said believed the “Heresy of the Three Languages” — that worship and the Scriptures could only be in one of three languages — Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. This was clearly contrary to how Cyril and Methodius envisaged the church operating, for they devised a new alphabet for the Moravians and their language, then proceeded to translate service books into the local tongue. The Heretics of the Three Languages opposed this, but, apparently, the pope supported such action and protected Sts. Cyril and Methodius (see abbamoses).

Indeed, their work was so highly favoured by Rome that Pope St. Nicholas I himself invited them to Rome and praised them for their work, despite the attempts of certain Roman clergy to claim that the Thessalonian brothers were messing around in their turf. This was in 867. They returned to Moravia and continued their work, not only structuring the state-supported church but evangelising as well.

In 869, Cyril died. St. Methodius continued the work alone until his death. Unfortunately, after the death of these brothers, the pressure against their followers in Moravia (from fellow Christians!!) was so great that they left and brought the Gospel and the Cyrillic alphabet to the Bulgars instead. That alphabet was the basis of the alphabet for all Slavic languages today, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian. That missionary enterprise was the basis of the Slavic churches today as well.

God bless Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Their approach, going so far as to create a new alphabet, is reminiscent of missions to the First Nations of North America, especially the efforts among the James Bay Cree to create a syllabary (by James Evans) with the New Testament for the new believers (adapted for Inuktitut by Edmund James Peck, saint of the week here). May we all seek to translate the everlasting Gospel of Christ into the language of the people, be that language postmodern English, modern Greek, an Amazonian language, or Scots — and communicate it to the hearts of the people that they may understand and find Jesus, with the Gospel taking root in their lives and producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Saint of the Week: Daniel the Stylite

I recently read the Life of Daniel the Stylite here. St. Daniel lived from 409-493 in the Eastern Roman Empire. I recommend his Life. It’s long, but the author gives a nice recap at the end:

Our all-praiseworthy father Daniel bade adieu to his parents when he was twelve years old, then for twenty-five years he lived in a monastery; after that during five years he visited the fathers and from each learned what might serve his purpose, making his anthology from their teaching. At the time when the crown of his endurance began to be woven the Saint had completed his forty-second year, and at that age he came by divine guidance, as we have explained above, to this our imperial city. He dwelt in the church for nine years, standing on the capital of a column, thus training himself beforehand in the practice of that discipline which he was destined to bring to perfection. For he had learned from many divine revelations that his duty was to enter upon the way of life practised by the blessed and sainted Simeon.

For three and thirty years and three months he stood for varying periods on the three columns, as he changed from one to another, so that the whole span of his life was a little more than eighty-four years.

During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’;( 1 Philipp. 3:14.)1 he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all, yet he possessed nothing on earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built. And though many, amongst whom were sovereigns and very distinguished officials occupying the highest posts, wished to present him with splendid possessions he never consented, but he listened to each one’s offer and then prayed that he might be recompensed by God for his pious intention.

One of the things from this life that interested me was his battle with demons in a little church. This demon-battling role is something that we find frequently in the monks and anchorites of the fourth and fifth centuries. The holy man does battle with the spiritual forces of evil on our behalf. St. Daniel cast out demons from people as well as places. He also healed the sick.

Holiness for the ancients wasn’t simply good, moral living. That’s called virtue. Holiness is that something more, that way of life that goes to the next level.

Martyrs, for example, bear witness to Christ through their deaths. The ascetic, once Roman persecution ceases, takes his place, bearing witness to Christ through his suffering. The martyrs are glorified by the wounds from their deaths — Tertullian imagines that they will still have them even at the Resurrection. Daniel was glorified through the wounds on his feet caused by standing on a pillar all the time.

The Stylite — a type of asceticism founded by Simeon — is a living symbol of what all monks are. He stands on his pillar between Earth and Heaven, interceding for the people below. He is an intermediary, and the pillar clearly shows us this aspect of the monastic role in society.

Daniel is also notable because, being a Stylite and being so close to Constantinople (1 mile North along the Bosporos), he was easily accessible to the emperors and aristocrats. The pious Emperor Leo of blessed memory (as the Life calls him) liked listening to Daniel so much that he had a palace built nearby. The Monophysite usurper Basiliscus sent an envoy to essentially get Daniel’s blessing. A very different world than our friend St. Antony of Egypt!

And so we see Daniel the Stylite. Living on a pillar isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it seems to have worked for him. One last thought from his biographer to close:

While we bear in mind our holy father’s spiritual counsels let us do our utmost to follow in his steps and to preserve the garment of our body unspotted and to keep the lamp of faith unquenched, carrying the oil of sympathy in our vessels that we may find mercy and grace in the day of judgment from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost now and henceforth and to all eternity, Amen.