Encountering God

St Gregory Palamas

This Monday I lectured about St Basil the Great (330-379), and the discussion portion of the evening was reserved for his treatise On the Holy Spirit. One of the facts that I brought up in St Basil’s response to Eunomius of Cyzicus was the fact that, contrary to Eunomius’ thought, Basil teaches that we cannot actually know anyone perfectly according to their essence. Our knowledge of other persons is derived from their activities — what they say, what they do, how they react to what we say, etc., etc. We can learn about the essence of another person from his or her activities, but the activities are what we experience directly.

Eunomius, on the other, was understood by his opponents to say that we can know God according to His essence — and a proper understanding of accurate doctrine, the sound use of words, was part of this. God, according to essence, for the Eunomian, is unoriginated, for example. Knowing this helps bring us closer to the actual essence of God.

The word used by St Basil for “activities” is energeiai. As I drafted my notes, my mind was drawn inevitably to St Gregory Palamas (1296-1357/59), almost a millennium later. I’ve blogged about the essence/energies distinction in Palamite theology before. Twice, in fact. Being a lumper rather than a splitter, I thought it was worth bringing this Byzantine moment into the lecture itself, to show my students the ongoing trajectories of these things, but also bringing up the difference between Palamas and St Thomas Aquinas on this point — and noting that we Protestants have no official position here.

In mentioning Palamas and his use of this distinction, I mentioned the hescyhastic controversy and the encounter monks of Mount Athos had had with what they deemed the uncreated light, the energy of God.

I’d like to note here that St Gregory Palamas, in fact, uses St Basil, On the Holy Spirit as a source:

The divine supraessentiality is never named in the plural. But the divine and uncreated grace and energy of God is indivisibly divided, like the sun’s rays that warm, illumine, quicken and bring increase as they cast their radiance upon what they enlighten, and shine on the eyes of whoever beholds them. In the manner, then, of this faint likeness, the divine energy of God is called not only one but also multiple by the theologians. Thus St Basil the Great declares: ‘What are the energies of the Spirit? Their greatness cannot be told and they are numberless. How can we comprehend what precedes the ages? What were God’s energies before the creation of noetic reality?’

St Gregory Palamas, Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts, ch. 68, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, The Philokalia, Vol. 4, p. 377, citing St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 19.49

The point being made at this particular moment in Palamas is that the energy, the activity, of God is single and fully united yet still able to achieve multiple effects. This particular Palamite treatise, apologetics for the hesychasts, is, in fact, replete with references to the Cappadocians and Chrysostom.

The central argument of Topics of Natural and Theological Science is that the light the hesychasts have encountered is the uncreated light of God, the energy of God, the activity of God, existing with God before creation, and not a created grace sent from God as a blessing (which is what the more Thomist-Aristotelian Barlaam would argue, it seems).

How do we encounter God in that uncreated light? The approach comes up in the name for these monks — hesychasts, those who pursue hesychia, defined by the translators of the Philokalia thus:

a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.

The Philokalia, vol. 4, p. 435.

What one of my students wanted to know was the relation of hesychia and meeting God in that place of stillness to the wider Christian life. The short version of my answer was that meeting God in stillness, in your prayer closet (cf. Mt 6:6) always results in greater love for other humans, but that the life with other humans is part of the life with God. (As my answers tend to do, it ranged widely: The Cloud of Unknowing, Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, St Basil the Great, St Silouan the Athonite, St John of the Cross.)

This is the tension of the Christian spiritual life. To make our eastern hesychastic vision almost up-to-date, St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) spent time as an almost-hermit in his monastery where he could pray as much as and whenever he wanted. He later spent time as steward of the monastery, where he had to adapt his prayer life to meet the schedule and demands of this role, a large part of which was organising and overseeing the lay brothers who worked for the monastery. He found greater satisfaction in the latter role, despite the reduced times for prayer. As St Basil says, how can we fulfil the command to love our neighbour if we spend all our time alone?

God is encountered in silence alone. God is encountered in community.

In closing, one of the driving forces behind the theologians covered in my Nicaea course is the true encounter with God that the Christian has, whether as a member of the mystical body of the Incarnate Christ as St Athansius’ shows in On the Incarnation and the Life of St Antony, or as a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit as St Basil shows in On the Holy Spirit. The Christian life, then, is an encounter with the Triune God, and this is what they were trying to put into words.

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.