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In Honor of St. Gregory Palamas: A Sermon Delivered by Archbishop Chrysostomos

Translated from the Greek by Bishop Auxentios

A Sermon Delivered by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna in the Lecture Hall at Synod Headquarters, Kolonos (Athens), Greece, on the Second Sunday of Great  Lent, the Feast Day of St. Gregory Palamas

Your Eminence, Metropolitan Cyprian,
our beloved Father in Christ;
Your Graces;
Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

At the request of our Metropolitan and Father, out of obedience, and asking the intercession of the Saint, the blessing of His Eminence, and your forgiveness for my shortcomings and the obvious lack of eloquence in my short homily, I would like to say a few simple words about the basic teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

This second Sunday of the Great Fast and, as well, our monastery in California—which is a dependency of the Holy Monastery of Sts. Cyprian and Justina—are dedicated to the memory of St. Gregory Palamas, who, as we sing in his Troparion, was a great Teacher of the Church, a defender of theologians, and a luminary of Orthodoxy. That is to say, St. Gregory Palamas, by his life and with his teachings, expresses the catholic and oecumenical truth of Christianity and guides us to the criterion of the Faith, the Orthodox Church. During his life in this world, he tried to preserve the authenticity and purity of the words of the Holy Fathers, just as he protects us now, from the other world, in our humble but indispensable efforts in our own age to safeguard the legacy of the Fathers of the Church. Today, some seven hundred forty years after his repose, we are still illuminated in our Orthodox Faith by the beauty of this great and important example of those enlightened men and women who, by Grace, Christ unites to Himself, His light thus shining in their persons. And, indeed, in the synaxarion for the Feast of St. Gregory Palamas, we read that, from the very day of his Ordination, the Divine Light of the Savior continually showed forth on his countenance.

I am not an accomplished theologian, and I do not have the necessary gifts to set forth for you the profound spiritual essence of the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas. This gift from on high you may see in the work and daily life of our Metropolitan; and, to be sure, a number of the events in the life of St. Gregory Palamas are similar to those in the life of our spiritual Father (I could also, incidentally, draw parallels between the gifts of the Saint and those which I see in the Metropolitan), since God's elect—while each individual may, in his path towards deification by Grace (theopoiesis), remain true to the idiosyncrasies of his character or personality—draw their identity from the universal and archetypical Person of Christ, Who renders us, when He unites us by His love to His Body, authentic, genuine persons through the restoration of the image of God in our sinful hearts.

Therefore, once again because of my lack of gifts and theological knowledge, I will simply describe that which I do not actually know and that in which I am inexperienced. I do not believe that we have anything to lose by my poor words, since, first, I am speaking with the blessing and by the command of my spiritual Father, the Metropolitan (that is, out of obedience); and second, because I do not think that the mere description of spiritual things is without significance all together. In truth, even the Holy Scriptures, despite errors in our thinking in this regard produced by the influence of Protestant theology on the contemporary teachings of our Holy Church, do not contain the Glory of God, but rather—though with the power of the Holy Spirit and in a perfect manner—describe the Glory of God, leading us to an encounter with the reality of life in Christ, wherein by Grace the Lord Himself reveals to us His Glory. With the help of God and with the blessing of our spiritual Father, then, perhaps I can, with my few descriptive words about the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, bring you to an elementary awareness of the theological treasury of this physician of the soul of man, who, unfortunately, is still not so well known in the contemporary Church, despite the importance of his teachings for the witness of the Catholic Church of Christ, that is, the Orthodox Church.

By way of introducing my subject, let me say that the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas constitute a perfect manifestation of the catholic, or universal, truth of our Faith. His teachings express the fullness of Christian cosmology, anthropology, and theology (using the precise definition of the word theologia) and constitute a magnificent solution to the dilemmas of Western philosophy. The wisdom of St. Gregory Palamas, in fact, is based on profound theological principles: revealed truths that eventually lead us, and clearly so, to the scientific revolution in theoretical physics that began, in many ways, with Einstein and which, of late, has reached a stage where it theorizes that physical matter, the material of the physical world, is what we might call metaphysical; that is, that it is comprised not simply of atomic particles, but of elements of immaterial light energy (something which has a clear connection to the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, as we shall see). These imperfect theories of theoretical physics demonstrate to us that the Teachers of Orthodoxy live that about which our scientists only speculate (if at times fruitlessly so, at least from a spiritual standpoint); but they also tell us that God, Who is everywhere present and fills all things, reveals Himself, on account of His love, even in nature and in the secular efforts of mankind to find basic meaning in the world and to discover the ultimate aim of life. 

Thus, in the catholic and oecumenical—and I use these words, too, with their literal and ecclesiastical meaning—teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, we discover a perfect statement of the universality of Orthodoxy.

Before examining briefly the specific teachings of St. Gregory,  I must point out two basic things.

First, St. Gregory Palamas was not just an educated Teacher of the Church who spoke in theoretical terms about the Divine revelation and vision of God through the treatment of the ills of the soul of man. He was not just a great philosopher who expressed the doctrines of the Church with singular intellectual precision, as many say today on account of the current rediscovery of the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas in the realm of academic theology. He was, of course, literate and educated; in fact, he was a genius with incredible academic skills. When I read him through the eyes of a former psychologist, I put him on the level of Einstein, to whom I earlier referred. St. Gregory was, in my humble opinion, the most brilliant man of his age. But knowledge is one thing, while wisdom is another, the latter coming forth solely from experience in the spiritual life and through a revealed knowledge of God. St. Gregory Palamas did not theologize in a theoretical way, with the goal of analyzing theological ideas philosophically. Quite the contrary. Just as the Fathers of the Church baptized classical Greek philosophy in order to preach the ineffable truth of Christianity in the language of philosophy (thus making philosophy the slave of Christianity, and not Christianity the slave of philosophy, as happened in Scholastic philosophy in the West, after the tragic breaking-away of the Papists from the Orthodox Church), so St. Gregory baptized his educational accomplishments, making them a slave of the Church. The Divine Palamas, again, did not theologize in an academic sense, but from within his spiritual experience; that is, from within the living experience of the Church.

This fact is exceedingly important, since it allows us to see in a correct way, not only the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, but the general significance of education in the Church. Education, when it adorns our exposition of the Christian Faith, is extremely important for the Christian community. The highly educated Fathers of the Church wrote magnificently about theology. But the spiritual experience which they describe in their words is precisely the same experience as that of wholly illiterate Fathers and Saints of the Church. We thus have the examples of many Saints and holy personages in the Church who, rich in wisdom but lacking literary gifts, transmitted their wisdom to us through spiritual disciples more gifted in letters.

Indeed, our Lord Himself, the Source of both Divine and human wisdom, left with us not a single written word from His hand. Everything of His life we read in the words of His Divine Disciples. This shows us that in the Church, which is ruled by humility, education does not distinguish one person from another. The man of God is distinguished by his wisdom, which is a gift from God that enlightens both the educated and the uneducated man with the same Divine knowledge. For this reason, the educated man of God is not ostentatious in revealing his abilities, unless it is to help the Church or to help some other enlightened Father who does not have the gift of literary expression.

For example, St. Athanasios, the Patriarch of Alexandria, considered St. Anthony the Great, who was wholly illiterate, his teacher. And St. Anthony showed great honor to the person of St. Athanasios. We are mistaken if we believe that, because of the humility of St. Athanasios (who felt and said that St. Anthony had surpassed him in the knowledge of God), this great Patriarch did not have spiritual knowledge. St. Anthony considered Athanasios his own teacher, just as the Patriarch considered St. Anthony his teacher. The Patriarch had the gift of the written word; but his experience and wisdom were the very same experience and wisdom that St. Anthony possessed. These things united them in Christ, such that they spoke, taught, and preached with the same mind-set [phronema—Trans.], the same knowledge, the same spirit, and the common mind of Christ. They were separated only by their personal characteristics and gifts. Nothing else. Likewise, the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas and the teachings of the simplest Fathers of the Desert differ, not in essence, but only in presentation, owing to the inimitable philosophical and literary gifts of St. Gregory Palamas.

Second, I must insist that the idea, widely spread by certain contemporary theologians in Russia, that St. Gregory Palamas created, in his epoch, a new and innovative theology is utterly ignorant and based on nothing even resembling decent scholarship. This idea is at very best laughable. As the great Russian theologian, Father Georges Florovsky, emphasized repeatedly in his lectures, the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas are a virtual recapitulation [anakephalaiosis—Trans.] of the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, if not the Holy Gospels, rendered in the nomenclature of his age; they are a synopsis of the Neptic tradition of the Church, which the Lord Himself bequeathed to us in His life of asceticism, a witness which was perfected on the Cross and which blossomed forth in the Resurrection and its restoration of human nature. As His Eminence, Metropolitan Ierotheos of Nafpaktos has written, and quite correctly, St. Gregory Palamas was a synthetic theologian, in the sense that he knew and employed all of the theology of Orthodoxy. He thus underscores the opinion of Father Georges.

Now, then, a few specific words about the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas—about his magnificent synopsis of the Christian Faith: this ontological philosophy of life. As I told you earlier, I am not really a theologian; nor do I have personal knowledge or experience of the lofty gifts of the Spirit about which St. Gregory writes. What little I know, I know from my study of Byzantine history and from the perspective of the psychological presuppositions that I see in the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, and I can express myself only from such platforms. I ask your forgiveness, should I commit some error in my summary of that synopsis of Orthodox soteriology which is, in reality, the theology of St. Gregory Palamas. You must measure my words against the light of spiritual men and women, who live empirically that which I only understand, however imperfectly, from an historical, psychological, and entirely theoretical standpoint. Thus, some basic elements from the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas.

The fall of man. Man was created in the image of God. The disobedience of our forefathers darkened that image of God in man, and therefore, having lost his communion with God, man was separated from the source of life and perfection. As a result of this fall, man came under the dominion of sin and death. However, the fall of man did not entirely destroy the image of God within him, and thus, even in the life of sin, the love of God still acts within the human being, creating in his soul a nostalgia for the life for which our All-Good God created him. And this nostalgia is the source of the human need and search for God and the holy. From a psychological standpoint, we may say that man is ill, suffering because of his alienation from the ontological road which God set out for him. The symptoms of his illness are sin and his inclination towards things—with the aid of the Devil and the evil spirits, who resent the image of God which persists even in sinful men and women—that damage his soul and which even more greatly darken the image of God within him.

The restoration of the image of God in man. By His sacrifice on the Cross, and by His Incarnation, the God-Man Christ, Perfect God and Perfect Man, restored the image of God in man, endowing him with the possibility of returning to the communion with God that he enjoyed before the Fall. Christ became man, so that man might be made, by Grace, god (to paraphrase a Patristic maxim that appears often in the early Church Fathers); that human beings might participate in the Divine Energies of God, Who, in His Essence, naturally transcends even existence and Whom man cannot understand or grasp. God is all that is and all that is not. (Paradoxically, as an aside, those who say that they do not believe that God exists thereby recognize, in accordance with the apophatic theology of the Church, that God does, in fact, exist, since, by affirming that which is not, they have accepted one of the definitions of God, if only in a limited way. This is an interesting point, and it exposes both the illogical nature of atheism and the limitations of a theology that does not understand God in His transcendence of human cognition itself.) Hence, by the Grace of Christ, man may become, not God, of course, but a god by Grace and adoption. This deification (theosis), or theopoiesis, to use the more ancient terminology of the Fathers, takes place through the cure of man's infection by sin and by the restoration of God's image within him, owing, again, to the ontological restoration of human nature by the Resurrection of the Lord, Who, in His life in this world, provided us, by His example, with a vision of the spiritual methods by which we might treat our spiritual illness. Despite His perfection, He became, in His love, an example for the treatment of our sin.

The methodology of spiritual therapy. Man, if he wishes to restore the image of God within him and return to the path which God set out for us at the beginning—that the human being might be taken from glory to glory—, must imitate Christ in His manner of life; that is, a man or woman must fast, remain pure in soul and body (and this purity honors and encompasses, naturally, the mystery of marriage), sacrifice himself for his brother and friend, and live unceasingly in love. The imitation of Christ entails, it goes without saying, a change in ones life, or metanoia [repentance; that is, a conscious turning from a life of sin to the life of Christian virtue—Trans.]; one must cultivate, in his whole being, the nostalgia for the next life that dwells in his heart, knowing that this life is but a preparation for that other life (something which even the ancient Greek philosophers knew and understood). Thus, we see all things with our eyes directed towards Heaven, to the end that we produce in our minds a kind of passionlessness (passivity), accepting the good and the bad as though they were the same.

From a practical standpoint, we find in the Mysteriological [sacramental] life of the Church, especially by regular confession and frequent Communion, the medicine of immortality, which helps us to return the spiritual mind [nous—Trans.], through its cleansing and purification, to the heart (from which, through the effects of sin, the nous is separated and alienated), wherein, as St. Gregory tells us, there resides the repository of the Holy Spirit. Our evil thoughts separate us from the heart and, likewise, from God. However, when the spiritual mind returns to the heart, through the control of our thoughts, through the therapeutic application of the Mysteries, and by the recitation, unceasingly and continuously, of the entreaty which we make on the prayer rope (proseuche tou komboschoiniou—Trans.), that is, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, the mind is enlightened by the uncreated and immaterial light of God. The light of the heart purifies the mind, in turn, and gives it the power to see the image of God within the receptacle of the heart, which is the well-spring of joy. It is for this reason that St. Gregory Palamas continually had on his lips the words, Illumine my darkness.

When a person controls his evil thoughts, he comes to see, in this effort, the influence of sin on his life; this knowledge, in turn, creates a sadness (penthos) in the mind (a certain kind of spiritual depression or melancholy), and the mind is purified by way of this sadness, too, since such repentant sadness naturally incites in man a desire for the contrasting joy of God; and thus, he turns his mind to the joy of Grace, which is the therapeutic Light of God. In this way, in his mind, in the Mysteriological life of the Church, and in his heart, the human being is literally bombarded, because of the ineffable power of the love of God, by the Light of Christ. He comes to live, in his sadness and in his joy (accepting both with passivity), a positive life that leads to deification, which is the restoration of communion with God, the cleansing of the image of God within him, the salvation of his soul, and the vision of uncreated Light, which, as I have said, fills both the mind and the soul. And this first step towards the life in God leads us, by the Grace of God, to a state of joy that ultimately surpasses even the joy which the first-created ones knew before the Fall, as St. Symeon the New Theologian tells us.

The consequences of the treatment of the spiritual illness of man. When a person clears away the outer covering of sin from his mind, communing with God in his heart, he finds silent peace (hesychia) in his life (and for this reason the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas are called Hesychasm), the gifts of clairvoyance and working miracles, and all of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. But above all, he acquires the ability to show love to everyone: to his friends, to his enemies, to animals, and even to the dust on which he walks. He becomes a small Jesus Christ  within Jesus Christ, a god by Grace within the Divine Energies of the Triune God, an Angel (above the Angels) on earth. But the deification of a man also has consequences for his fellow man. Every man who is enlightened, that is, who is saved (for St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite equates deification, the enlightenment of man, with the salvation of his soul), helps his fellow human beings, and even those (the majority of Christians and other people, unfortunately, who will not come to union with God through a rebirth in Christ) who are lost. Every man or woman who unites himself or herself to Christ enlightens the universe and extends the boundaries of God's love. And this love reaches to Hades, where those who  are not united to God are tortured, not by the wrath of God (for God is love and desires the salvation of all mankind), but by their inability to accept and respond to the love of God, a love which is especially fervent in the depths of Hell. The extension of God's love by the salvation of His elect is the comfort of the damned, since every man who accepts and acts within the love of God exalts the whole of humanity in general.

Again, I ask that you forgive my necessary oversimplification of the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, many elements (and essential elements) of which I could not cite in my poor words.

I am sure that I have sufficiently tired you with my clumsy presentation. I thank you for your patience, in that respect. Nonetheless, I hope that, with the blessing of our Metropolitan and Father, I have left you with something positive and useful in my words.

Forgive me.

Suggested Books

Those who would like to read more about the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas may find several of Archbishop Chrysostomos writings on this subject beneficial.

We recommend the following:

Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Thought: The Traditionalist Witness (Belmont, MA: Nordland House Publishers, 1982). Chapter 5, St. Gregory Palamas on the Hesychasts.

St. Gregory Palamas and the Spirit of Humanism: His Views on Tolerance, Human Dignity, and the Human Body, Patristic and Byzantine Review, XI (1994).

The following may also be of interest:

Hieromonk (now Bishop) Auxentios, Dom David Knowles on Hesychasm: A Palamite Rejoinder, Kleronomia, VIII (1976), No. 1.

Idem, The Humanist Quest for a Unity of Knowledge and the Orthodox Metaphysics of Light: A Corrective to Father John Meyendorffs Misunderstanding of the Theology of St. Gregory Palamas, Orthodox Tradition, XI (1994), No. 3.

Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vol. I in Collected Works (Belmont, MA: Nordland House Publishers, 1972). Chapter 7, St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers.

Archimandrite (now Metropolitan) Ierotheos (Vlachos), Ho Hagios Gregorios ho Palamas hos Hagioretes (Lebadeia: Iera Mone Genethliou tes Theotokou, 1992), especially Section XII, "Eupeirike Theologia.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVII, No. 4 (2000), pp. 14-21. See also this other sermon on St. Gregory by Archbishop Chrysostomos: "On the Significance of St. Gregory Palamas for Our Times."