Second Sunday in Lent, St Gregory Palamas
Light of Orthodoxy, upholder and teacher of the Church,
the adornment of monastics,
and invincible champion of theologians,
O Gregory, miracle-worker,
the pride of Thessalonika,
the herald of grace,
entreat always that our souls may be saved.
Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessaloniki, was the
defender of the Hesychasts. He upheld the doctrine that the human
body played an important part in prayer, and he argued that the
Hesychasts did indeed experience the Divine and Uncreated Light
of Tabor. To explain how this was possible, St. Gregory developed
the distinction between the essence and the energies of God. He
set Hesychasm on a firm dogmatic basis, by integrating it into Orthodox
theology, and by showing how the Hesychast vision of Divine Light
in no way undermined the doctrine that God can not be comprehended.
His teachings were confirmed by the local councils held in Constantinople
in 1341 and 1351.
St. Gregory began by reaffirming the Biblical doctrine of man and
of the Incarnation; i.e. the whole man, united in body and soul,
was created in the image of God, and Christ, by taking a human body
at the Incarnation, has 'made the flesh an inexhaustible source
of sanctification'. The Hesychasts, so he argued, in placing emphasis
on the body's part in prayer, are not guilty of a gross materialism
but are simply remaining faithful to the Biblical doctrine of man
as a unity. Christ took human flesh and saved the whole man; therefore
it is the whole man that prays to God.
How is it possible for man to know God and, at the same time, affirm
that God is by nature unknowable? St. Gregory answered this question
by quoting St. Basil the Great who said "We know our God from
His energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence.
For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable".
St. Gregory added "God is not a nature, for He is above all
beings.... No single thing of all that is created has or ever will
have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature, or nearness
to it". Even though God's essence may be remote from us, He
has revealed Himself through His energies (or grace). These energies
do not exist apart from God, but are God Himself in His action and
revelation to the world. It is through these energies that God enters
into a direct and immediate relationship with us. When we say that
the saints are 'deified' by the grace of God, we mean that they
have a direct experience of God Himself through his energies (or
grace), not in His essence.
The vision of Light that Hesychasts receive is the same Light that
surrounded Christ on Mount Tabor. It is a true vision of God in
His divine energies.