The Three Powers of the Nous

by St. Gregory Palamas

Our father among the saints Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessalonica, was a monk of Mount Athos in Greece (at Vatopedi  and Esphigmenou Monasteries), and later became Archbishop of Thessalonica. His feast days in the Church are Nov. 14 and the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent. In anticipation of the second Sunday of Lent (coming this Sunday), we offer some of the writings of St. Gregory for your homiletic preparations. This excerpt is from his work, “The Triads.”

1.The three powers of the nous

The Evil One, who is always looking for ways of wickedly turning us aside from what is higher, forms fatal attractions in our psyches, then interlaces them almost inescapably with the ties that are most dear to men of vanity. To some he suggests vistas of deep and diverse knowledge, while to others he suggests wealth, or false fame, or carnal pleasures. His purpose is that we spend our whole lives seeking these things, and never have enough strength left to set our hand firmly to the education which purifies the psyche.

The cause’ of this education ‘is the fear of God.’ This brings to birth unceasing prayer to God in compunction, accompanied by obedience to the gospel commandments.

Once reconciliation with God is re-established through prayer and the fulfilment of the commandments, the fear becomes love. Then the sorrows of prayer, transformed into joy, lead to the appearance of the flower of illumination. Like a perfume from this flower, knowledge of the mysteries of God is then given to those who can retain it. This is education and true knowledge. A man addicted to the love of vain philosophy, who is wrapped up in its figures and its theories, never sees even the beginning of this, which is the Fear of God.

How can it enter into the psyche? Even if it could do so, how would it be able to live in a psyche that is surrounded, bewitched, and enclosed by varied and conflicting arguments, at least until it will say goodbye to all these things and give itself entirely to the School of God and at last gives itself wholly to a love of following the commandment.

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This is why it is good that the Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and divine contemplation. This fear will not live in the psyche alongside other feelings. It drives them all out. Then it polishes the psyche by prayer, making it like a tablet ready to be impressed by the grace of the Spirit.”

2. The spiritual practices of the Hesychasts.

This is how we turn against this ‘law of sin.’ We expel it from the ‘body’ when we introduce supervision by the nous there.

Through this authority, we determine what is appropriate for each power of the psyche, and for each member of the body which is able to accept it.

For the senses, we determine the object and the limits of their actions. This work of the law is called ‘self-control.’

For the passionate part of the psyche we achieve the best state of being, which bears the name ‘love.’

We also improve the intellectual part by eliminating all that prevents the thoughts from turning towards God. That part of the law we name ‘watchfulness.’

Someone who has purified his body by self-control, who by divine love has made of his wilfulness and his desires an opportunity for virtue, who has presented to God a nous purified by prayer, acquires and sees in himself the grace promised to those whose hearts are pure. He can then say with Paul:

‘For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6.)

But, he says,

‘we carry this treasure in earthen vessels.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7.)

In consequence, in order to know the glory of the Holy Spirit, we carry the light of the Father, in the person of Jesus Christ, in earthen vessels, that is to say, in our bodies. So will we fail to achieve nobility of nous if we keep our own nous in the interior of our body?

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Even without divine grace, what man who has a human nous – I won’t even say what spiritually awake man – could say this?”

3.The links between patristic theology and personal experience.

For myself, I think that knowledge, which these people say is the only noetic illumination, is called light only to the measure to which it is communicated by the divine light. According to the words of the great Paul:

‘For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God…’ (2 Corinthians 4:6.)

In his turn, the great Dionysius too said: ‘The presence of the noetic light unifies those it illumines, and reintegrates them with the one true knowledge.’ Do you see? The light of knowledge is communicated by the presence of the light of grace, and liberates us from the ignorance which fragments us. This Father called this light ‘noetic,’ while the great Macarius, clearly concerned with those who assimilate the light of grace in the form of knowledge, names it ‘perceptible to the nous’ ‘By its effects,’ he says, ‘you will see if the noetic light which has shone in your psyche comes from God or Satan.’

Elsewhere, after having called the glory which had appeared on the face of Moses ‘immortality,’ (although it illumined a mortal face), and showing how it appears in the psyche as soon as we truly love God, he said: ‘As the visible eyes see the visible sun, so it is that with the eyes of their psyche these men see the noetic light which reveals itself and will shine from their bodies at the moment of Resurrection, to make them also resplendent with eternal light.’

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As for the light of knowledge, we may never say that it is ‘noetic.’ On the one hand that light sometimes acts like a ‘noetic’ light. At those times the nous ‘sees’ it as an intelligible ‘light’ through its ‘noetic’ sense. When it enters reasoning psyches, it liberates them from the ignorance which has bound them to their state, restoring to them the multiple points of view of unified knowledge. This is why the cantor of the divine Names, as he sings of the luminous names of the Good, teaches us to say that ‘the Good is named the noetic light because it fills all the nous above the heavens with noetic light, and because it drives out all ignorance and all identification from every psyche it enters.’

So the knowledge which comes after ignorance has been driven out is one thing, while the noetic light which makes this knowledge appear is another. This is why the noetic light is manifestly present in the ‘nous above the heavens,’ that is to say, in what is above it.

How can we describe the light which is above the heavens and above the nous as ‘knowledge,’ (gnosis) except in metaphor? To put it another way, only the reasoning psyche could purify itself of the ignorance due to its state, which that great doctor described as ‘ignorance’ and ‘identification.’

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