Byzantium had become a shadow of its former glory by the fourteenth century. Crusaders, stunned by the magnificence of Constantinople, which was already waning, sacked it. Slavic chieftains carved temporary kingdoms out of its northern territories, and Turks encroached on Asia Minor from the east. Within the gates of Constantinople aristocratic and noble factions warred amongst themselves to establish one or another dynastic claim. Venetian traders seized the empire’s mercantile economy and were never completely dislodged. Even as the empire sank towards its eventual oblivion, the Eastern Orthodox Church freed itself from imperial institutions and began to exert its independence within and its influence beyond Byzantine borders. The church faced challenges of a different kind and emerged from them as a stronger and more monastic institution. It fell to Gregory Palamas to be the catalyst who emancipated the church from its political liabilities and crystallized its spiritual orientation.
Gregory Palamas was born in A.D. 1296 in Constantinople. Though his parents were nobles from Asia Minor, repeated Turkish invasions had forced them to flee to the imperial capital, where his father became a respected member of the senate. During his childhood and youth Gregory received the best of traditional education, including the trivium and the quadrivium. Though Gregory’s father had died when he was still young, the emperor Andronicus II Paleologus promised him an important career in government, and Gregory seemed destined to pursue it. In 1316, however, Theoleptus of Philadelphia encouraged Gregory to take up the coenobitic life, and despite the pleading of the emperor, Gregory decided to become a monk. Since as eldest son he was responsible for his whole family, including a large number of servants, he persuaded his mother, sisters and brothers and many of the household staff to enter the monastic community. Most joined monasteries in Constantinople, but Gregory and his brothers set out for Mount Athos, the centre of both coenobitic and eremitic monasticism, which had been granted independence from imperial governance by Andronicus II in 1312. Dwelling near the monastery of Vatopedi for three years, Gregory moved on to the Great Lavra, the religious centre of Mount Athos.
There he seriously pursued the methods of meditation cultivated by the great expounders of hesychasm, including Symeon the New Theologian. Symeon’s standpoint became that of Gregory, who, like Symeon, preferred a life of retirement and contemplation. But again as with Symeon, a combination of historical circumstances compelled Gregory to speak out for what he believed was the quintessence of Christianity. He gave a systematic account of Symeon’s convictions and made them the central plank of eastern orthodoxy. His public life began when he decided to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to Sinai. Although the crusaders had been pushed out of the eastern Mediterranean, Muslim rulers were reasonably tolerant of Christian pilgrims, and the more intellectual of them would have discerned the influence of Sufi practices on those of the hesychasts. He was unable to carry out his plan however, and found himself in Thessalonika, where he met Isidore, the future Patriarch of Constantinople. He found that Isidore shared his deep feeling that spiritual contemplation was not a privilege of hermits but a necessity for all those faithful to the Christos.
He was consecrated a priest at Thessalonika and founded a small hermitage in nearby Berrhoea, remaining an ascetic for five years. In 1331 he returned to Mount Athos because Serbian raids in the neighbourhood of Berrhoea disrupted monastic life. He withdrew to the hermitage of St. Sabbas high above the Great Lavra, descending to worship with his brethren only for liturgical feasts. Though he was appointed abbot of the large monastery of Esphigmenou, his zeal for reform antagonized its two hundred monks, and he willingly returned to St Sabbas within a year. His peace was soon disturbed again, however, by two series of events one theological and the other political. A Calabrian of Greek descent named Barlaam came to Constantinople and won renown as a philosopher. John Cantacuzenos, the Megas Domesticus of Andronicus III, appointed him to a chair in the imperial university. He was given diplomatic missions to the papal court in Avignon, and he wrote commentaries on a variety of religious texts. Though wholly loyal to orthodox Christianity and a sharp critic of its Latin counterpart, Barlaam was deeply impressed by the secular humanism of the emerging Italian Renaissance. Philosophically, his belief in the transcendence of Deity led him to deny the possibility of knowledge of God. Temperamentally, he found that the hesychastic practices which promised such knowledge repelled him. He argued that meditation was useless and that whatever one could know of things divine had to come from a study of Nature.
Gregory recognized that Barlaam’s standpoint was not merely a scholarly stance on an abstruse topic. It challenged the hesychastic core of orthodoxy and undermined the concept of deification fervently taught by Symeon. Though Gregory had warned against contemplative practices undertaken without knowledgeable guidance, he defended meditation, reaffirmed the possibility of direct experience of the Divine, and held that the study of Nature was proper but that it could never furnish clues to spiritual reality. If Gregory was wary of anything which might nurture secular attitudes, Barlaam misunderstood the nature of hesychasm. Though the monks of Mount Athos solidly supported Gregory, and Barlaam decided to return to Italy, the dispute continued and might have remained indecisive had it not been for a rather strange concatenation of political events.
The emperor Andronicus III died four days after presiding over the conciliar debates which, in 1341, found in favour of Gregory. Since his son, John V, was a minor, his wife, Anne of Savoy, became regent. She could not maintain a balance between the megas domesticus John Cantacuzenos, who supported Gregory, and the patriarch John Calecas, who sided with the followers of Barlaam. After John Cantacuzenos secured imperial approval of the conciliar decision, he was ousted by the patriarch and a group of nobles. Gregory remained loyal to Anne as regent but openly condemned the palace coup. In 1343 the patriarch saw his way clear to arrest Gregory on charges of heresy and, when Gregory refused to change his views, excommunicate him. Though Anne was fearful that Gregory was a political adversary, she respected him as a theologian and found the patriarch’s arrogance intolerable. While John Cantacuzenos prosecuted a civil war against the throne, Anne plotted against the patriarch. In 1347 she convened a council which deposed the patriarch, and John Cantacuzenos came to the throne, ruling in the name of John V. Gregory was consecrated archbishop of Thessalonika, and John Cantacuzenos appointed a Palamite as patriarch, thus inaugurating a tradition that lasted for years and ultimately made monastic spirituality the ecclesiastical viewpoint. When John Cantacuzenos abdicated in favour of John V in 1354, he was already a revered religious authority. He became a monk and under the name Joasaph did much to separate church and imperium. When the empire collapsed in the fifteenth century, the church was largely unaffected and Byzantine civilization continued to exert a powerful influence through it.
Gregory was well liked in Thessalonika, for he fought social injustices of every kind, including the burdens imposed from the capital. Once when travelling to Constantinople to appeal to the emperor, he was a passenger on a ship which was captured by the Turks. He spent a year in pleasant captivity, debating religious views with the son of Emir Orkhan in the hope that "a day will soon come when we will be able to understand each other". Though a loyal citizen of Byzantium, Gregory clearly distinguished between the Byzantine church, whose truths were eternal, and the Byzantine state, which was temporal. When he was released, he returned to Thessalonika, where he died on November 27, 1359. He was canonized by the patriarch Philotheus, his friend and former disciple, and to the present day is venerated secondly only to Demetrius, patron saint of the city.
Barlaam’s treatises against the views held by most monks since the time of Symeon were not simply philosophical innovations – they brought to the surface ambiguities and tensions which had existed long before Symeon. Gregory understood that Barlaam’s challenge forced the recognition and resolution of incipient attitudes and conceptions which monks and ecclesiastical authorities alike preferred to ignore. The nature of eastern Christendom was at issue and perhaps only Gregory realized how great the risks were. Barlaam’s critique of mystical practices was based upon an Aristotelian view that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Given that Dionysius the Areopagite had taught that knowledge of God is utterly beyond sense experience and that Deity is unknowable, Barlaam argued that mystical illumination associated with highest deification could not constitute knowledge of God. If it had any value at all, it was only symbolic and, given what Barlaam had witnessed of hesychastic practices, he doubted that there was anything more than psychic indulgence in the prayer of the heart.
Although Gregory was opposed to the application of philosophical methods to religious issues, he thought out his responses very carefully. He knew that the church could not accept an exclusively sensory conception of knowledge without destroying the hesychastic view of deification, but he also saw that the monks had an unclear idea of knowledge of God. He read Barlaam’s works carefully and saw ironically that Barlaam, the philosophical empiricist, had no experience or firsthand knowledge of meditation. He confused preliminary techniques – such as restraining the breath – with the entire practice and held that centering the mind in the heart was equivalent to binding the soul to the body. In the name of Plato he advocated an almost Manichaean tension between soul and body, good and evil. Gregory responded by explaining the purpose of contemplative exercises. "We regard it as evil", he wrote, "for the mind to be concerned with mindings of the flesh, and not wrong for the mind to be in the body, for the body is not evil." Gregory rejected the notion of sinful matter, agreeing with Symeon that Adam’s Fall in the Garden of Eden (and not his physical embodiment) released a tendency in humanity to sin.
For Gregory the true home of the mind is the heart, which is neither a vessel for it nor something connected with it, but its organ or functional correspondence on the physical plane. "Thus the heart is the secret chamber of the mind and the prime physical organ of the mental power." If the soul would make proper use of the mind, it must be brought from its distraction and diffusion throughout the body to the condition of prosoche, attention. This is the aim of sitting calmly, counting one’s breaths and focussing attention on the heart – and not the navel as Barlaam claimed when trying to show that monks were errant omphalopsyches, who believe the soul is in the navel. Only when real attention is achieved will the prayer in the heart be efficacious.
Having disposed of Barlaam’s misconceptions regarding the nature of meditation, Gregory faced the formidable task of clarifying its purpose and result. All individuals who received baptism in the right spirit were promised the possibility of knowledge of God, though few, perhaps, ever sought it and fewer still attained it. Deification is direct experience of the Divine, becoming one with God, when the emancipated soul uses the one-pointed mind freed from the trammels of the body to soar to its spiritual home. The prototype of this experience was the Transfiguration, when Jesus became radiant with inner Light before the disciples on Mount Tabor. Since God is transcendent, Barlaam had argued, his Light would not be visible to earthly eyes. The disciples could not have seen the Divine in the experience on Mount Tabor, and so their vision was symbolic. Gregory was as willing as any hesychast to draw a sharp distinction between the Creator and creation, but he rejected an interpretation of the Transfiguration which would make deification nothing more than a symbolic event promising some future glory. For Gregory, as for Symeon, beholding the Light is beholding the Divine. It is not symbolic in the ordinary sense – as when one says that the individual Christian life is a symbol of the crucified Christos; it is not even a symbol in the deeper meaning of the term used by Maximus the Confessor when he said that Christ on the cross is a symbol of the human body. Seeing the Light is a direct experience of mystical union: the deified human being enters the Divine Presence now in this life, not solely in some post-mortem period.
For Gregory, apophatic theology – discussing the Divine through negation – had left itself open to Barlaam’s charge of contradiction because it was insufficiently bold. Deity indeed transcends affirmation, but it equally transcends negation. Barlaam saw in the knowledge of God revealed by grace merely an attempt to secure knowledge like that provided by the senses but inaccessible to them. Divine knowledge is not, according to Gregory, merely another science with special criteria for accessibility – it is not gnosis, knowledge, but enosis, union or assimilation. The alleged contradiction between the transcendence of Deity and the deification of the human being is in fact a dialectical truth, both halves of which must be understood simultaneously.
Deity is, Gregory taught, utterly unknowable in its essence, ousia, but knowable in its divine activity, energeiai. Though the average individual witnesses goodness, wisdom, majesty and Providence, the divine activity is not subdivided in any way, for Deity is wholly present in each action.
No philosophical distinction can capture this dialectical reality, for a world suffused with divine action is beyond any comprehension based on the senses. When the body is purified, the mind focussed and the soul filled with love, the whole individual is made one with divine action and knows Deity super-rationally. This is possible because "the essence of the mind is one thing and its activity another. . . . The mind is not like the eye, which sees all visible things but does not see itself." The mind can see itself, and when it becomes wholly attuned to Deity, it becomes the divine energeiai and beholds it as Light within itself. This is why Gregory preferred the Mosaic injunction "Take heed unto thyself" to the Delphic dictum "Know thyself." What remains an irresolvable philosophical paradox is an existential reality to one who has prepared himself to be deified. Divine grace is not mere salvation from an unimaginably miserable future but the resolution of this paradox.
Gregory successfully refuted the Barlaamite viewpoint because he loved his religious tradition enough to stand by it at great risk to himself and, even more, because he loved truth so much that he fearlessly faced the problems latent in its formulations. The monk who preferred eremitic to public life found himself the centre of great controversies. In resolving them through the cool articulation of the hesychastic standpoint, he brought a new clarity and focus to the distinctive traits of eastern Christianity, which have lasted to the present day.