Gregory Palamas: Knowledge, Prayer & Vision

by M.C. Steenberg

A deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain (Diocese of Sourozh), Dr. Steenberg is a patristics scholar, and formerly a Fellow in Theology at Greyfriars, Oxford. He is currently chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity & All Saints. He serves in the parish of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Oxford, and is to be heard in the weekly ‘A Word From the Holy Fathers’ broadcasts of Ancient Faith Radio and Monachos.net.

Three foundational aspects of the Theology of St Gregory Palamas

The theology of St Gregory Palamas, as expressed during the Palamite Controversy of the mid-14th century, is far too extensive to be addressed in its full breadth in a paper such as this. Rather than attempt a manifestly impossible task, then, we will limit the focus of this essay to three central points in that theology: first, the idea of knowledge as expressed in the conflict between Gregory and Barlaam; second, the matter of prayer and the body; and third, the notion of the divine vision, which will lead naturally into a discussion of the energies and the essence of God.

A Knowledge Beyond Knowing: Barlaam’s Objection to Apodictic Theology

One of the first objections raised against St Gregory Palamas’ theology was brought forth by Barlaam of Calabria, and dealt specifically with the issue of knowledge. Two fundamentally different views on knowledge were involved in this dispute: first was that which Barlaam and others held, and which might broadly be termed, following Meyendorff, as the Dialectic Method of knowing God.1 This was a largely philosophical view, based upon the position that knowledge of God might be gained by the use of discursive reason, dialectic, and rational investigation. As this very fact would suggest, the dialectic approach involved a strong element of kataphaticism. Yet, following the course of the great philosophers, it also readily admitted of the incapability of affirmative theology to truly apprehend the divine truths of God; and thus there was a strong, if not consuming trend towards apophatic theology present in this view.

Barlaam himself seems to have based his own severe apophaticism on the model and example of Pseudo-Dionysius, with which he was quite familiar; yet his understanding of that writer was incomplete: where Dionysius was to stress certain positive elements of his apophatic reasoning (such as the positive experience of the divine darkness), Barlaam’s model seems to have been almost wholly negative—to the point of bordering on a certain agnosticism. God is transcendent, he taught, and thus to ascend to purer knowledge we must espouse negative theology and transcend our own perceptive reason; yet ultimately the Transcendent cannot be truly known, even with apophaticism used to its utmost. At the heart of Barlaam’s teaching is the significant idea that God cannot truly be perceived by man; that God the Transcendent can never be wholly known by man the created and finite.

Gregory, on the other hand, taught something quite different. This second conception of knowledge of God brought it out of the realm of mere dialectic—whether positive or negative, kataphatic or apophatic—and into the arena of demonstration; what Meyendorff terms Apodictic Knowledge of God.2 Natural knowledge, believed Gregory, is one aspect of man’s relationship to his Creator; and yet it is quite a different thing to know about God, than it is to actually know Him. The great divergence between this view and that of Barlaam, was that Gregory believed the latter aspect to be not only a hypothetical possibility (which Barlaam would have denied), but a fully attainable reality. It was not a question of whether or not man could know God by direct, immediate knowledge, but whether or not he would, given the life he was leading.

Gregory’s view should not be seen to undermine a positive view of philosophical thought as a whole, which was a continual accusation made by Barlaam. Taken as a tool for the progression of the human person towards a state receptive to divine grace, Gregory saw philosophy and discursive knowledge as a perfectly reasonable set of aids for the Christian. It was only when philosophy, whose created end is the furtherance of knowledge of God,3 was misused by the philosophers and turned, in effect, into God, that Gregory raised his voice in ardent opposition.

This was the ‘fallen’ state of knowledge, which did not betray an evil inherent in knowledge itself, but simply the misuse made of it by certain philosophical schools. Gregory understood natural knowledge within the metaphor of the natural world revealing aspects of God; to which revelation God Himself would add the grace to know Him intimately. He writes:

There is a knowledge about God and His doctrines. (…) The use and activity of the natural powers of the soul and of the body do shape the rational image of man, but that is not the same as the perfect beauty of the noble state which comes from above; that is by no means the supernatural union with the more than resplendent light, which is the sole source of sure theology.4

Thus Gregory viewed natural knowledge, in all its philosophical forms, as a tool leading to something greater, yet every bit as real as that very knowledge: the divine grace which brings about union, the true source of contemplative knowing.

But this conception clashed harshly with that of Barlaam, who seems firmly to have espoused the neo-Platonic tradition as he interpreted it from Dionysius, and could not find common ground between his own rationalist views and those of Gregory. Much of the earlier arguments in the Palamite conflict centred in this very issue of knowledge, and apart from being an interesting debate in its own right, this dispute led Gregory into the formative stages of the theological conceptions he would bring forth later in the controversy. The relationship of apophaticism to human knowledge, and that to God’s nature as transcendent Being, would come into play with great importance a short time later, and, as we shall see, would have direct bearing on Gregory’s famous argument for the distinction of energies and essence.

Prayer and the Body: Objections to the Hesychast Method of Prayer

An objection which would soon follow the above, involved the method of prayer practised by the hesychast monks. As we discussed in our previous paper on the historical background of the Palamite controversy, Barlaam learned of this practise only a short time after beginning his discussions with Gregory, and soon added this item to those in dispute.

Once more we find the presence of two general views which clashed in this debate. The first, again, is that of Barlaam, and might be termed the Platonic, or Evagrian conception of the human person. We will not spend a great deal of time discussing this view here, as its basis is essentially that of the neo-Platonic, dualist understanding of humanity, which has been addressed in previous papers. Yet it should be noted that Barlaam shared Evagrios’ spritualizing tendencies, which in the Calabrian’s case edged the conception of human spirituality into the realm of that which brought the soul into sanctification by means of overcoming the body. While we might not see Barlaam as quite so daringly dualist as Evagrios, and certainly not Plotinus, we still find in him the central tenets of a dualistic theology.

In opposition to this view was Gregory, who took a more biblical stance in his understanding of the human person. Maintaining the Old Testament conception of the human person as an integral whole, whose character and essence is seated in the heart (kardi/a)—a view which, while not always in the majority, has certainly never been absent in the patristic tradition—Gregory could not take a share in the philosophical dualism of Barlaam and his contemporaries. Meyendorff writes, ‘It is above all against a dualistic conception of man that Palamas raises his voice’,5 and indeed it was largely for polemical reasons that Palamas raised the issue at all. Yet it was one of fundamental importance to his understanding of humanity as the creation of God, and one which he saw as not only theologically necessary, but empirically verifiable:

What pain or joy or movement of the body is there, which is not shared by soul and body?6

Gregory could thus not support the view that soul and body were distinct and separate in the greater scheme of human life. Still less could he accept the notion that the soul was good and the body evil, for ‘only the Messalian heretics say that the body is evil in itself.’7 In Gregory’s conception, matter in itself, whether the matter of the human body or that of any other form, could not be evil by essence, for it was the creation of God. ‘Apart from sin, nothing is wrong in itself in the present life, not even death, but everything can lead to evil.’8

Here we find a key element in Palamas’ theology that began to be directly expressed in his conflicts with Barlaam over the nature of the human person: the idea that it is only the misuse of the elements of created nature, whether mind or matter, soul or body, that cause them to become ‘evil’ and far from God. In their ‘natural’ state, all elements of creation have the ability to bring about knowledge of and union with the Creator. Again, we find that Gregory is here far from innovative, as this notion had been expressed in the writings of the Fathers for centuries (quite notably in the fourth chapter of Pseudo-Dionysius’ On the Divine Names); yet it was Gregory’s special gift to take this long-standing and essential element of patristic theology, and weave it so artfully into his greater conception of the sanctification of the human person. In speaking again of the connection of soul and body, and this time relating it to the activity of both in the spiritual life of the individual, he writes:

There are blessed passions, activities common to soul and body, which do not attach the spirit to the flesh (sa/rc), but draw up the flesh to a dignity near to that of the spirit, and make it to turn towards the heights. (…) In the same way as the Divinity of the Word Incarnate is common to soul and body … so, in spiritual men, is the grace of the Spirit transmitted to the body by the soul as intermediary, and this gives it to experience of divine things, and allows it to feel the same passion as the soul.9

It is interesting to note that Gregory did indeed advocate the use of a ‘psycho-somatic technique’ in the hesychast method of prayer; yet he did so not out of a conviction that this was an essential necessity (rather, he saw it principally as in aid for beginners),10 but rather out of a conviction that refusing to admit the validity of a type of prayer involving the body would be to negate the reality of the intimate and foundational unity of the human person. This unity, when properly attuned, may not only serve as the source of wholeness in personal sanctification, but allows the whole person to take an active part in the progression toward a sanctified state.

Unnatural Participation: Objections to the Divine Vision, and the Distinction of Energies and Essence

A third major objection raised against Palamas’ teachings was that centring on his defence of the divine vision—of his support of the reports of those hesychasts who claimed to have seen the Divine Light with their own eyes. Both Barlaam and Akindynos, and to some degree Gregoras, would object to this notion, for to their minds it sounded too reminiscent of the heresy of the Messalians. That the hesychasts would claim to see God, using much the same language as St Symeon the New Theologian had used three centuries earlier, seemed to echo the Messalian concept of beholding the divine nature with bodily eyes—a notion that had been refuted at the Sixth Oecumenical Council and elsewhere. Yet Gregory Palamas would ardently defend the monks’ claims, and to that defence we will now turn.

We do not have time here to delve too deeply into the reports of experiences of the divine light, for such could easily consume a paper of its own (if not several). Our principal interest is to relate how Gregory’s understanding of these experiences—of the individual’s own apprehension of the Divine Being in personal, visible form—related to the overall theological ‘picture’ which he produced in his writings as the result of the Palamite controversy as a whole.

In this we will discover his defence of the vision of the light, and his distinction between the essence and the energies of God, to be manifest extensions of the theological points we have already discussed.

First we must return to that point most recently addressed: that of prayer. Gregory and the Athonite hesychasts did not understand the divine vision, generally, as a randomly accorded charismatic gift, but rather the fruit of true and inspired prayer. In our above quotation from his second Triad, Palamas wrote that the passions, when properly focused and directed (i.e., through prayer), possess the ability to

‘draw up the flesh to a dignity near to that of the spirit,’ and that in this state the Spirit ‘gives [the body] to experience of divine things.’

This is the goal toward which the practise of hesychasm—which Palamas did not see as the end of spirituality, but a chief among its tools—is aimed: the purification and sanctification of the person, so that the divine transfiguration wrought of the Spirit might take place.

This transfiguration of the body so that it might ‘experience divine things’ was not understood by Gregory in a merely metaphorical sense; it was not simply a symbol for increased knowledge of God that led to improved understanding, but a real and true change in the human person, such that the manner of his knowing the Divine Creator might indeed be transformed. To fully understand this concept, we must now return to the first theological point discussed in this paper: that of Gregory’s ‘apodictic’ conception of divine knowledge.

We have already addressed Barlaam’s contention that the limitations of man’s knowledge keep him from ever coming to a real knowledge of the Divinity, who utterly transcends all human thought—and the fact that this led him to espouse a severe apophaticism, leading almost to agnosticism in its final analysis. Gregory, too, found place for the apophatic approach, but for a different—and important—reason: he did not see it so much as the limitations of man’s knowledge that kept him from knowing God by personal experience, but the fact that God, by nature,is unknowable. It is not simply a lack of proper perception—through which we must work apophatically—that keeps humanity distant from a personal knowledge of God’s nature, but the fact that God Himself is entirely unknowable in that nature to His creation, as a property of His being.

This would at first seem to be in line with the very claims that Barlaam made in opposition to Gregory, but that similarity is lost when one considers that, while Palamas understood God’s nature to be unknowable, he believed that God Himself is nonetheless directly known. Here he developed his famous distinction between two aspects of the Divine Being: the essence, which is the nature discussed above, and which has as a ‘property’ its absolute transcendence and ‘unknowability’ to the human mind; and the energies, which are the workings of that essence in the universe, and which are given to the experience of those who are in a state of grace ready to behold them.

The energies of God, as distinct from His essence, nonetheless relate to this essence. They are not foreign to the nature of God, but inherent products of it. Moreover, they are not mere ‘side-effects’ of God’s presence, but His actual immanence. Meyendorff writes,

The Trinity itself is totally present in the divine energies, and there is no question of the emanations of Plotinus or of beings distinct from God. On every suitable occasion Palamas stresses the fact that the energies have neither hypostasis nor existence of their own, but result from the divine hypostasis.11

This is an essential point in Gregory’s theology, for it stresses the union of differing characteristics of God’s being: essence and energy are two aspects of His nature, yet they are not wholly disparate or foreign to one another. But neither are they the same—and here, again, Gregory stresses the supreme transcendence of the divine essence, as related to the immanent presence and experience of the energies. The latter are those uncreated indications of God that ‘manifest [Him] outside of his unkowable essence,’12 yet they are not to be seen either as the essence itself, nor as composite ‘parts’ which together make up that essence.

Neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the life and all such things are simply the superessential essence of God, for God, as Cause, transcends them; nevertheless we say that He is Life, Goodness and other such things.13

They do not compose the being of God (…) It is He who gives them their existence, without taking his existence from them; indeed it is not the realities which surround God which are the essence of God, but he is their essence.14

Thus we see Gregory’s insistence upon the firm distinction between essence and energy, which defines them as unique and separate aspects of God’s being, yet each a real and whole manifestation of God Himself. In a powerful and revealing phrase, he writes ‘God complete is present in each of the divine energies.’15

Within this context of God as existent in His essence and manifest in His energies, we can see with improved clarity Gregory’s conception of the divine vision in hesychast prayer. This is not direct encounter with God’s transcendent nature, which both Barlaam and Gregory agreed was impossible; nor was it a ‘materialisation’ of God’s being such that human eyes might behold it, which would be the heresy of the Messalians.

Rather it is the personal encounter of the transfigured person with the manifest energies of the living God, in which the Transcendent One is eminently (‘apodictically’) known and experienced, without losing His transcendence of being. ‘When the Saints receive the vision,’ writes Meyendorff, ‘they enter into direct contact with God Himself, who remains totally transcendent though revealing himself to them.’16

The opposition to the hesychast experience of the divine vision was, then, met by Gregory with a detailed and intricate theological response that both preserved the sacred and ineffable ‘otherness’ of God, while nonetheless insisting upon the reality of experience and personal knowledge of the same.

Concluding Thoughts

There is much to Gregory’s theology which has not been discussed in this short paper, as time restraints dictated that only a few of the major issues be addressed. Yet the above three concepts are of central importance to his entire theological outlook, and have been of great influence in contemporary discussion, ever since the rediscovery of his works in this century.

Once can see in Palamas’ theology a holistic view of man and a dynamic conception of faith, which are intimately bound up in a spirituality of sanctification and transfiguration that is wholly in line with the patristic tradition in which the saint lived and thought. It is fitting, perhaps, that we should close our patristic survey with this author who, 1,400 years after the earthly life of Christ, so dynamically presented what had been taught and exposited about Him in the centuries previous.

Points for further discussion

1. There are no dogmas in physiology. Palamas was supportive of scientific investigation into the workings of human physiology, and did not believe that this study and its discoveries did not conflict with divine truth.

2. The Mystical Doctrine of the Incarnation. A point of vital importance in Palamite theology: that the Incarnation of Christ wrought a ‘radical change’ (Meyendorff, p. 149) in the relationship of man with God, and this change is passed along to all humanity through the mystical participation of prayer and the sacraments.

3. The notion of return to one’s self, for Christ is in us.

4. The central significance of baptism and the Eucharist as the means by which the sanctification of the body is joined together with that of the soul/mind through prayer.

5. Christian Materialism: the extension of Gregory’s views on the Incarnation and the redemption of matter, to the extent that all of matter may itself be ‘deified’ to some degree.

6. The significance of Grace as the spur by which all salvific and sanctifying activity occurs, and its relation to the soul and body (connected with point #4, above).

Notes:

1. Meyendorff, p. 117 ff. [back]
2. ibid. [back]
3. Cf. Triads, I.1.12, 18. [back]
4. Triads, I.3.15 (emphasis mine). [back]
5. Meyendorff, p. 143. [back]
6. Triads, II.2.12. [back]
7. Triads, I.2.1. [back]
8. Homily 16, col. 213C. [back]
9. Triads, II.2.12. [back]
10. Cf. Triads, I.2.7; cf. also Meyendorff, pp. 145-146. [back]
11. Meyendorff, p. 216. [back]
12. ibid. [back]
13. Triads, II.2.7; cf. also III.3.6. [back]
14. Triads, III.2.25. [back]
15. Triads, II.2.7. [back]
16. Meyendorff, p. 208. [back]
© 2009, M. C. Steenberg – The original article can be found here.
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