by Metrpolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos serves the Metropolis of Nafpaktos in the Church of Greece. His study of the patristic texts and particularly those of the hesychast Fathers of the Philokalia, many years of studying St. Gregory Palamas, association with the monks of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos), and many years of pastoral experience, all brought him to the realization that Orthodox theology is a science of the healing of man and that the neptic fathers can help the modern restless man who is disturbed by many internal and existential problems. In his books, he conveys the Orthodox spirit of the Philokalia to the restless and disturbed man of our time. This is why they have aroused so much interest.
This is an excerpt from his book “St. Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite.”
Apart from the polemical writings which have survived, there are also homilies by St. Gregory which show that he expresses the hesychastic life of the Holy Mountain. Some of these were addressed to the monks on the Holy Mountain on various feast days, and the rest were spoken to his Flock in Thessaloniki. It is characteristic that in speaking to his Christians, he teaches noetic prayer and thus shows that there is not a great contrast between monastic life and married life. From the abundance of passages which St. Gregory interprets hesychastically I would like to select four in particular.
The first refers to the interpretation of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and chiefly to the analysis of the prayer of the Publican, which he presents as a type of hesychastic prayer. In this parable the Lord, introducing the Publican, said:
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner'” (Lk. 18, 13).
St. Gregory says: “Do you see the amount of humility, and faith and self-reproach: Do you see the extreme contraction of his reason and senses, and at the same time the brokenness of heart mingled with the prayer of this publican?”.
The words “at a distance” manifest humility and self-reproach. That he “stood” indicates “the long continuation of his standing… as well as the persistence of his entreaty”. That “he would not even look up to heaven” is “both standing and submission, the portrayal not only of a lowly servant, but also that of one condemned”. This way of praying and the position of his body shows “right condemnation and self-reproach”.
That “he beat his breast” manifests his great contrition and deep mourning.
“God have mercy on me, a sinner”
shows the value of the prayer of a single phrase. Pleading nothing else, thinking of nothing else, he was paying attention only to himself and God, rotating and multiplying this prayer of a single phrase, which is the most effective kind of prayer”.
The second passage is about the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here too St. Gregory interprets the parable hesychastically. St. Luke the Evangelist presents Christ’s parable, in which we read:
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (Lk. 15, 13).
St. Gregory does not analyse the parable in terms of morals, but theologically. He sets forth its true dimensions. Having the mind of Christ, experiencing the mystery of the spirit, he grasps its true meaning.
Belonging organically, as he does, to the Orthodox Tradition, he realises that the fall of man, the so-called ancestral sin, is in reality a darkening, obscuring and deadening of the nous, whereas the resurrection of man is the vitalisation of the dead nous. It is in this light that he also interprets the parable of the prodigal son.
The nous is man’s real wealth. “Above all else the nous is our innate essence and wealth”. As long as we remain on the ways of salvation “we have our nous gathered in itself and in the first and highest nous, God”. Our salvation is that we have our nous in God.
But when we open a door to the passions, then our nous “is immediately scattered, wandering all the time around things that are carnal and worldly, around the manifold pleasures and passionate thoughts about them”. Then a man’s nous becomes prodigal, and in general he is called prodigal. The wealth of the nous is prudence, and it distinguishes good from evil as long as we continue to keep Christ’s commandments. But when the nous withdraws from God, then prudence too is scattered into prostitution and imprudence.
Man’s soul has not only a rational aspect but also appetitive and incensive aspects. In its natural condition man’s nous “directs desire towards the one and truly existing God, the only good one, the only judge, the only one who provides pleasure unmixed with any pain. “But when the nous is in the unnatural state, when it departs from God and is darkened, then desire is dispersed into many self-indulgent appetites: “drawn on the one hand towards a desire for foods that are not needed, secondly towards the desire for unnecessary things, and thirdly towards the desire for vain and inglorious glory”.
This comes about through desire. But when the nous is being deadened, the incensive power too is similarly taken captive. When the nous is in its natural state, when, that is to say, it is united with God, then it rouses the incensive power only against the devil and utilises the soul’s courage against the devil and the passions. But when it disregards the divine commandments, then “one fights against one’s neighbour, rages against those of the same race, is infuriated with those who do not assent to one’s irrational appetites, and alas, one becomes a homicidal man…”.
The third passage is from the analysis which he gives of the Panagia’s sojourn in the Holy of Holies. It is true that her entry into the Holy of Holies is not described in the Scriptures, but it is an organic part of Orthodox Tradition. The Church has established this whole teaching about the entry of the Panagia into the Temple, and in fact it has a feast day for it. St. Gregory Palamas accepts this teaching of the Church and analyses it theologically.
In the Temple the Theotokos lived in Paradise. “She lived her life without equipment, unworried, carefree, without grief, having no part in base passions, above the pleasure that is not without pain, living only for God, seen only by God, nourished by God, guarded only by God, who was to dwell among us through her, she looking only at God, making God her delight, constantly devoted to God”.
Since the Theotokos had been freed of any material tie and had even thrown off the relationship of sympathy towards her body, “she attached her nous to turning towards itself in both attention and unceasing divine prayer. And as she had come completely to herself through this and had overcome the multiform rabble of thoughts, she discerned a new and ineffable way to heaven, which I would call intelligible silence.And fixing the attention of her nous on this, she soared above all created things and saw God’s glory better than Moses and kept an eye on divine grace…”.In the holy of holies the Theotokos busied herself with noetic prayer and in this way attained intelligible silence. In this way she saw the glory of God better than Moses did. In other words, she attained the vision of God. And since this vision of God is union with God, therefore even before she conceived Christ, the Theotokos was united with the Trinitarian God.
St. Gregory also takes this opportunity to give an account of the method of acquiring true theology.
First he says that speaking about God and meeting God Himself are two different things. In order to speak about God one needs to have speech, perhaps also art. Reasoning too is needed, and earthly examples offered by the senses. That is a way in which even many wise people of the world can speak about God, even men who have not undergone purification.
But it is impossible to unite with God through reasonings and examples afforded by the bodily senses. One does not attain communion with God “unless in addition to purification we go beyond, or rather above ourselves, leaving everything perceived by the senses, as well as sensation, rising high above thoughts and reasonings and all knowledge, and thought itself, wholly surrendered to the energy of noetic sensation, which Solomon forenamed a sense of the divine”. When a person rises above thoughts and reason itself, then he can be united with God.
The Theotokos chose this way to attain communion with God. She followed the way of hesychia. Noetic hesychia is nothing other than the standing still of the nous and the world. “Seeking holy stillness the virgin found a guide: stillness of the nous, the world standing still, things below forgotten, sharing the secrets above, laying aside conceptual images for what is better”. This stillness is the entrance to the true vision of God, which “is the only example of a truly healthy soul”.
Virtue is a medicine for the ills of the soul and for the passions, while the vision of God is a fruit of the healthy soul. It is through the vision of God that a man is deified. He is deified not through conjectural analogy… but through a hesychastic way of life”. The Theotokos achieved hesychia and the vision of God in the Temple and she attained communion with the Triune God. And anyone who wants to achieve this vision of God, which is man’s salvation, must follow the way of life of the Theotokos. The only way is the way of hesychia.
Finally, a fourth example of hesychastic teaching is the meaning in a passage of the Old Testament. There it says:
“On the seventh day He rested from all His work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done” (Gen. 2:2-3).
Interpreting this the saint writes that there are works of God “which He neither began to do nor ceased doing”. He did not begin to act because He is without beginning, since, as Christ Himself said,
“My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I am working” (John 5, 17).
God’s work without beginning is the knowledge of beings and the foreknowledge of things which are to be. Also God’s work without beginning and without ceasing is judgement and providence. In order to be created, beings need judgement and providence, but after creation they need judgement and providence as well, “so that they may not disappear unseasonably: or some may change with time for the benefit of themselves or of the whole, and others may remain unchangeable”. In other words, God, with His uncreated energy, which is called providence, continues to direct the whole creation for the fulfilment of His purpose.
God directs creation by His providence. Another of God’s works without beginning is “the return to Himself, for He moved without beginning in self-contemplation, the vision of Himself”.
Since God “neither began to do nor ceased doing”, what then is God’s rest? Why does Moses say that God rested after his labours? Rest is the way back “from the things below to those things that are greater and supracosmic”. In His creation in six days God was “outside Himself through His extreme goodness” – He condescended in His love for mankind.
On the seventh day, after the creation of the whole world of the senses, he returned, as befits Him, to his own height, which He had never left. And God blessed this rest in order to show us that we should value the knowledge of the beings of nature more highly than the things of the senses; also to indicate to us, to teach us and ask us to enter as far as we can into that rest ourselves, “which is our noetic vision of God, and through it the movement upwards towards God”.
This is the framework in which these things are interpreted by St. Gregory and the Apostolic words:
“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God. For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest…” (Heb. 4, 9-11).
In reality our own rest is hesychasm, noetic stillness, which is rest from the world and the return of the nous to the heart. In analysing this rest, the saint says that we first pay heed to the teaching of the Spirit, since we are ridding ourselves of the lower ceaseless and toilsome cares and laying aside the works connected with them. Then we prefer these words of the Holy Spirit to every passionate and worldly thought and we ponder them in our nous, which is to say our heart.
After that, if we remove every thought, even if it be a good one, from our nous, and through constant attention and unceasing prayer the nous returns to itself, then we enter the divine rest, which is the vision of God.
All this noetic hesychia, as described by the holy Fathers, who are basically hesychasts, is the way which leads to the divine rest – to the vision of God. And we believe that the hesychastic way of life is what makes a person Orthodox. It is the basis of the dogmas and all the truths of the faith. Apart from this there is no true theology.
After all this it is clear that St. Gregory Palamas is one who expresses the hesychastic life of the Holy Mountain. His stay on the Holy Mountain, his obedience to the discerning spiritual Fathers and the experience which he acquired, made him a true theologian, a great Father of the Church.
In all his works, whether polemics or homilies, his hesychastic life is seen. He lived the life of the Holy Mountain and became a Hagiorite.
And this of course is identical with being “Orthodox”.