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.

“I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘Glory to God’ for shoes”

My wife and I recently watched (at the recommendation of my friend Andrew) the documentary Athos – Mount Athos Monk’s Republic Documentary on YouTube. I’ve embedded it at the bottom of the post for your viewing pleasure. Do go and watch it.

In case you’re unaware, Mount Athos is a mountainous peninsula in Greece that is populated by nothing but male monks. Some live in community. Some are hermits. Some live with maybe one other monks. Some live in what is called a “lavra”, which is a collection of hermits who get together every once in a while. Most of the monasteries and hermitages, etc., are Greek, but there are also monastic settlements on Athos for Serbians, Bulgarians, Russians, and Romanians. Monks have populated Mount Athos for 1000 years, and they pursue peace (hesychia), purity of heart, pure prayer, and God Himself here to the exclusion of all else.

At one point in the documentary, a monk gets a Christmas package from his sister in Athens. He lives with one other monk — they are forerunners from a monastery on the mainland, making their settlement suitable for more monks from their monastery to come. In the package are a knee brace, four pairs of socks (he gives two to his brother monk), and a pair of boots.

He tries the boots on and says, “They fit. Glory to God.”

My wife’s comment, “I’ve never said, ‘Glory to God,’ for shoes that fit.”

Me, “Neither have I.”

Maybe we’re missing something. The monks in this documentary have the Jesus Prayer on their lips continually. They pray before taking a drink from a water pump. They pray before testing the loaves of bread they just baked. They gives thanks to God over and over again.

Imagine if we laypeople starting cultivating such glorifying of God and such thankfulness…

Dispassion and stillness (apatheia and hesychia)

I have been reading Evagrius, and about Evagrius, lately, either with the purpose of understanding his approach to Scripture (hence his inclusion in my post, Early Ascetics Talking About the Bible) or his demonology. Along the way I encountered Luke Dysinger’s Evagrius website, about which I recently blogged, and there I was able to read his text and translation of select scholia on Proverbs by Evagrius.

These scholia, like most of Evagrius’ works, are little nuggets to ponder over — in this case, to help you understand Scripture. Proverbs 1:33 reads, “He who hears me reposes in hope and lives in tranquility, fearless of any evil.” Evagrius writes:

Ὁ ἀπαθὴς ἡσυχάζει ἀφόβως ἀπὸ παντὸς κακοῦ λογισμοῦ

The person who has dispassion (apatheia) lives in stillness (hesychia) with no fear from any evil thought. (My trans.)

The [one who possesses] apatheia [dispassion] lives in tranquillity without any fear of evil [tempting-thoughts] (Dysinger trans.)

This is a scholion you could read over and over and ponder anew in different ways. We see very clearly Evagrius’ concision with language — he has a single Greek noun to that I render with three English words, and a single verb that likewise takes three English words. It’s not just ‘Greek has such precision’ here — Evagrius uses great concision, as well. These two words, apathés which derives from apatheia and hésychiazo which derives from hésychia are the subject of this post. These two words are key to grasping Eastern Christian spirituality.

Apatheia

I have mentioned apatheia on this blog before, with reference to Clement of Alexandria — passionlessness, dispassion, freedom from the passions: these are normal ways of Englishing it. It became controversial around the turn of the fifth century, so John Cassian avoided it in his Conferences, using the phrase puritas cordi, purity of heart, instead. (I’ve also written about that.)

Apatheia doesn’t sound very fun to us these days. It sounds like being grim and maintaining a stiff upper lip — stoic in a bad sense. We like to laugh, to cry — all these emotions. However, I do not think this is what the ancient ascetics mean by it. Evagrius himself says:

“Whether all of these [thoughts] trouble the soul or do not trouble it does not depend on us. But whether they linger or do not linger or whether the passions move or are not moved, that depends on us” (Praktikos 6, trans. Jeremy Driscoll in the introduction to Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, p. 13). 

The passions are those movements within our hearts, minds, souls, that affect us. We do not necessarily control them. A life lived at the mercy of the passions is not necessarily happy. To consider an extreme case, I have a friend with bipolar who, when he was undiagnosed, purchased a very expensive set of Civil War figurines online because he was sure they would be collectibles and multiply in value over the years. They have not. He wasted that money in a manic moment precisely because he was being ruled by his passions — his enthusiasm for these figurines and how cool they were.

That is the sort of life apatheia wants to set us free from.

My son, approaching three years old in a few months, currently asks endlessly, “Why?” Sometimes the answer is, “Because I/you/he/she/the bird felt like it.” In Evagrius’s world, the person possessing apatheia — the apathés — might “feel like” doing something, but whether or not he or she did it would be based upon discretion/discernment, wisdom, love, and knowledge.

A life thus lived is, as a result, calm, peaceful, tranquil — it possesses hesychia, peace, stillnness, quietude.

Hesychia

The result of attaining apatheia is to live in hesychia. I first met the term hesychia in John Michael Talbot’s book The Music of Creation. Talbot provided the image of a pool of water that is stirred up so that you cannot see the bottom. Hesychia is the peacefulness and stillness of the so that it becomes clear and limpid, so that you can see the bottom and pull out any garbage you might see.

In the English translation of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, the translators give the following definition in their glossary:

a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepend by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of the heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him. (p. 365)

Much of The Philokalia is about watchfulness, as with Evagrius. The watchful Christian attains heyschia, calmness and stillness. It is, perhaps, paradoxical,that pure prayer leads to hesychia, given that one of the Desert Fathers (I forget which), said that prayer is a struggle until your last breath. But this state of peacefulness is always under attack from the thoughts arising from within our own fallen minds as well as those provoked by the demons. 

Hesychia comes up at various points in Evagrius. In Ad Monachos he writes:

The double-tongued monk agitates the brethren,
but the faithful one brings stillness. -ch. 95

In the one singing psalms, irascibility is quiet (hésychiazei);
and the long-suffering one, fearless shall he be. -ch. 98 (trans. Jeremy Driscoll)

Not that seeking hesychia is easy:

As it is impossible to purify water once troubled unless it remain undisturbed, so too is it impossible to purify the state of a monk unless he practise stillness with all rigour and perseverance. -Exhortation 1 to Monks, ch. 7 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz)

This is the quest of Evagrian and Philokalic spirituality — hence why its later exponents, such as Gregory Palamas, were called hesychasts.

As you sit in your house today, maybe working from home, maybe taking care of children, maybe alone with your spouse, maybe truly alone, perhaps now is a good time to attempt to quiet those many thoughts that come through all of us. Take a few moments to cultivate hesychia, seeking apatheia and purity of heart, after all:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

Philokalic Friday: My Goodreads review of The Philokalia, Vol. 1

The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete TextThe Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text by G.E.H. Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first of a massive, five-volume anthology of texts running from the fourth through fifteenth centuries, compiled on Mount Athos in the eighteenth century by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth. Of the five, only the first four have been translated into English; Kallistos Ware says he needs to start refusing speaking engagements so they can finish the fifth. This volume begins in the fourth century and includes texts into the seventh; therefore, this volume (and the next, at least) is part of the common heritage of both western and eastern Christians.

Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware have done an inestimable service to the English-speaking world in providing us with this rich collection of documents, that represent a core of the Eastern Orthodox tradition that has exerted a powerful influence since its publication in 1782 (on which see Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present Day). The translation is clear and lucid, and the editorial material provides many aids to the reader. These aids are, in my opinion, essential to understanding texts so far removed from us in time, space, and situation. We are not desert hermits or monks. Many of the readers of this volume are, rather, urban laity with little or no monastic context. Many of us, moreover, are not even Orthodox.

In fact, the Introduction and the Glossary are themselves an education in hesychastic spirituality (on which, more below). The main themes of the text and its function are introduced in the former, and the ancient Greek Christian understanding of a variety of important, specific terms is provided in the latter. Moreover, we are reminded that these texts alone are not the entirety of the path to holiness these authors themselves were on: many of them lived in communities, they celebrated the liturgy, they practised acts of mercy, they read Scripture, and so on. And many of them wrote texts on other topics not included because they are not the focus of The Philokalia.

The specific focus of The Philokalia is the prayer of the heart, or inner prayer, which is cultivated and practised as essential on the road to hesychia — peace, calmness, stillness, silence. Practical considerations are here, such as Evagrios the Solitary counselling against the eight wicked thoughts (later, seven deadly sins in the western tradition) in his treatise ‘On Prayer’. Elsewhere, Hesychios the Priest gives an extended series of chapters on ‘watchfulness’.

Watchfulness, in fact, may be the watchword for attaining hesychia in Philokalic spirituality. We are called to watch our thoughts, guards our hearts, be on the lookout for temptation. We are counselled to bring to mind the stories of Scripture, both the examples of the saints therein and the life and deeds of Christ. We are reminded to meditate on the grace of God as we have experienced it in our own lives. We are called to focus on and pray the Name of Jesus.

All of these, arguably, are forms of watchfulness. Either they are the mind itself watching for danger and fleeing from danger, or they are the mind occupying itself with things above, and thus being prepared for temptation or a wicked thought when it comes.

Many of these texts are difficult. Well, maybe all of them are. This is not an easy book. It took my two years to read it, after a first failed attempt 12 years ago. Much of the content is either not applicable to us or hard to apply. Discernment of what is wisdom for the urban layman is required. Watchful, attentive reading and prayer must come here alongside humility. I suspect that many will give up, either judging the authors of these writings for not being their own breed of Christian or just finding it too hard. I understand. I also counsel you: Keep going.

One difficulty you will face is simply a matter of genre. Many of these are collections of short sayings, from a sentence to a paragraph. They are not always arranged in a visibly logical way. It can be hard to read many of them at once. I recommend reading only as many as you can take at once and meditating on them. I also, on my third reading of Evagrios ‘On Prayer’, took notes and tried to find structure and meaning within the texts. These are, for the most part, not extended discussions or discursive essays properly united with a theme and an argument. Simply be ready for that.

This volume includes selections from: St Isaiah the Solitary, Evagrios the Solitary (aka Pontikos), St John Cassian (the only Latin in the whole five volumes), St Mark the Ascetic (aka Mark the Monk), St Hesychios the Priest, St Neilos the Ascetic (of Ancyra), St Diadochos of Photiki, and St John of Karpathos, as well a barely Christianised Neoplatonic text attributed to St Antony the Great.

The only thing I wish were here is the original introduction by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain.

View all my reviews

Philokalic Friday: The Failure of My Achievement

I did it! Twelve years after my first attempt, and two years after the start of my second, I finished The Philokalia, Vol. 1 this Lent! Well done, me! I mean, how many people can boast that, after all? Sure, people read the Rule of St Benedict, or St Augustine’s Confessions, or, say, the Bible all the time. But, really, to struggle through the difficult content of the first volume of The Philokalia in any language is something of an achievement in the world of devotional reading.

After all, it took me two years.

Off and on, that is.

Mind you, it’s not as though I spend very much time praying the Jesus Prayer. It’s not as though I spend my life in ‘watchfulness’. Given how quickly I grow annoyed or impatient, I don’t think I have that much hesychia. And those eight deadly thoughts (logismoi) that Evagrius talks about so much? Probably all here, not really being resisted that much.

Nonetheless —

I hope it has been good for me to read this book, and reread some sections of it. I think I’ve read Evagrius On Prayer four times now. I am sure I could profit from another read. I know that I do, at times, reflect on teachings from this book and how they’ve helped me.

But the point here is:

Just because I have read a (difficult) devotional book and occasionally apply its lessons does not make me holy.

Practising holiness is what makes us holy.

Oh, wait. No. The Philokalia would only partly agree with that …

The grace of God is what makes us holy.

Philokalic Friday: Some wisdom from St Neilos of Ancyra

This week, my Lenten journey through the latter half of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, brought me to the end of St Neilos of Ancyra’s Ascetic Discourse (discussed in the last Philokalic Friday). The final pages of the text are a discussion of the monastic life more closely, as well as some remarks about the passions.

Neilos, like Evagrius before him (and Cassian after Evagrius; fun fact: a lot of Evagrius’ works were transmitted under Neilos’ name after his condemnation in the 500s), sees the passions as being closely linked together — gluttony can lead to avarice and fornication, that sort of thing. While his causes and effects don’t always strike me as particularly convincing, the interconnectedness of our vices as well as of our virtues is worth meditating on. Root out one vice, or strengthen one virtue, and everything else may start to fall into place.

He maintains that the process of asceticism begins with renouncing material possessions, then renouncing friends and relatives, and only then can one practise stillness (hesychia). As a married, lay Protestant, what can this mean for me?

I think that it means we need to start taking seriously Jesus’ difficult words about possessions, property, relationships. In the consumerist, post-industrial West, we are lulled into spiritual torpor by the materialism that surrounds us, aren’t we? I know I am. Even when one begins to control acquisitiveness, there is still a lot of attachment to what I already possess left behind.

And then friends and relatives. This is harder, for it is in the home and the family where we find ourselves living out the commandments to love and serve others. Nevertheless, evangelicals, in particular, have at times idolised the family and raised it to a position higher than it deserves. Neither my wife nor my son is my god. I don’t know how these things work out in practice, but presumably devoting time to prayer, Scripture, and charity to those beyond the home is a start.

The difficulty that faces us, however, if we are to accept St Neilos’ teaching, is that for a monk, these renunciations begin with an external act and are followed by the renovation of the heart, thus creating space for hesychia. As a married lay Protestant, I cannot perform these external acts of renunciation that monks do. And I do not think I can perform the internal renovation of the heart without hesychia.

Of course, St Neilos is not Scripture, so I need not apply all of his teaching to my own heart and hearth. Still, these thoughts are worth pondering and praying over.

What is The Philokalia?

In conversation over Skype recently, I held up my copy of The Philokalia, vol. 1, as a way to signify who Kallistos Ware is. ‘Ah yes, that book you’ve been blogging about,’ is an approximation of the response. Which is fair enough. I realised that I’ve not actually told the reading public what The Philokalia is. Since it is what my brother and I are slowly wading our way through (and hopefully becoming better pray-ers as a result), here we go.

The Philokalia is a multi-volume anthology of Greek spiritual texts on the subject of prayer. The authors range from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. So far, the English translation includes four out of a proposed five. The inescapable, inimitable Met Kallistos Ware (for many of us, our first introduction to Orthodoxy, through The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way) is one of the translators. The collection was assembled on Mt Athos, the monastic/spiritual heart of Orthodoxy, in the 17th century by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios.

You may recognise some of the authors they included: Ps.-Antony the Great, Evagrios ‘the Solitary’ (aka ‘Ponticus’, in the original attributed to St Neilus of Ancyra), St Maximus the Confessor, St Makarios the Great, St Gregory of Sinai.

This multi-volume anthology is not a comprehensive guide to the entire ascetic life. As I said, it is about prayer. Thus, the external aspects of Christian spirituality, such as fasts and vigils, are lacking. In fact, it is not even about the entire life of prayer. It is about ‘inner prayer’, about the inner kingdom, about the prayer of the heart. I believe that in its later volumes (they arranged roughly chronologically) it is more specifically about The Jesus Prayer (I’ll discuss that prayer soon, I think).

The goal of this inner prayer is the encounter with God through purity of heart, through seeking hesychia — peacefulness, stillness. The Greek spiritual movement associated with the word hesychia is called hesychasm, and its monastic practicioners are hesychasts. The Francisco-Benedictine musician John Michael Talbot described hesychia as being like sitting on the edge of a pool, and letting the detritus subside. When it still and clear, you can see to the bottom and see both the good and the bad. (See The Music of Creation.)

The bad can thus be removed.

It is an approach towards intimacy with God.

Of course, all the texts were selected by hesychast monks for monks and written by monks to begin with. Not everything here will suit all readers, but much wisdom is to be found for the prayerful, attentive reader. A guide, a companion, will help. We are reading vol. 1 straight through, but I’ve discovered a piece by Met Kallistos that has a series of recommended texts to start with. I close with his words, then:

Sometimes I am asked: in what order should the writings of the Philokalia be read? Should we start at the beginning, on page one, and read straight through to the end? Probably that is not the best method. To one who is unfamiliar with Hesychasm but who has a serious and deep longing to discover its true meaning, I sometimes suggest the following sequence of texts:

i. St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesy-chasts (Philokalia IV, 197-295, English translation Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia, 164-270) (27).

ii. St Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness (Philokalia I, 141-73, English translation I, 162-98).

iii. Evagrios the Solitary (alias Neilos the Ascetic: i.e. Evagrios of Pontus), On Prayer (Philokalia I, 176-89, English translation I, 55-71).

iv. A Discourse on Abba Philimon (Philokalia II, 241-52, English translation II, 344-57).

v. St Gregory of Sinai, On the Signs of Grace and Delusion; On Stillness; On Prayer (Philokalia IV, 66-88, English translation IV, 257-86) (28).

But here I strongly recommend readers not to attempt the physical technique mentioned by St Gregory, unless they are under the direct instruction of an experienced spiritual teacher.

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.