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The Palamite Synods of 1341, 1347, and 1351

The Synods of Constantinople held in the years 1341, 1347 and 1351 involve the teachings of Saint Gregory Palamas, one of the greatest theologians of the late Byzantine epoch. Synthesizing and systematizing the teachings of earlier Church Fathers, Saint Gregory clarified and explicated aspects of the ancient ascetic tradition so that others might aspire to holiness.

In the year 1330, there arrived in Constantinople one Barlaam the Calabrian, a Greek monk from Seminaria, a town located in the far south of Italy, near the “toe” of the Italian “boot.” While Greek in language and culture, Barlaam had been educated in the Western fashion of Scholastic rationalism, in fact “saturated with the [sic] scholastic theology,” as Metropolitan Hierotheos puts it, and was more of a philosopher than a theologian. Barlaam argued that man grasped knowledge of God through his mind, through study and speculative contemplation, and by intellectual effort, which is in contrast to the Orthodox teaching that true knowledge of God is achieved mystically, through asceticism and prayer. When Barlaam heard of the hesychastic method of prayer, in which mental prayer is combined with specific bodily postures and the control of breathing, and was told that by this method the body as well as the soul experiences the effects of God’s Grace and even achieves a vision of the Divine Light of God’s Energies, he dismissed it all as the ravings of ignorant monks.

Shortly thereafter, Barlaam met Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessalonica, and for some time the two held discussions on the questions that troubled Barlaam. One might note at this point that Barlaam was enormously proud of his education and an arrogant man in general, and consequently disinclined to listen to or take seriously views that contradicted his own; in fact, Protopresbyter John Meyendorff (1926—1992) states that “Palamites and anti-Palamites agree in ridiculing his pride.” The thought that simple monks, without a brilliant education like his own, claimed to receive Divine illumination, that is, knowledge of God, infuriated Barlaam. However much Saint Gregory struggled to assuage the apprehensions of Barlaam on the question of hesychasm, Barlaam stubbornly held firm his opinions. Saint Gregory explained the distinction between the Essence of God and His Uncreated Energies, citing instances from Holy Scripture, such as the burning bush in the Old Testament and the Transfiguration of Christ in the New Testament. Barlaam dismissed these examples, opining that they were temporary phenomena created by God for His Own purposes, and rejected altogether the distinction between the Divine Essence and the Divine Energies. God in no way could be experienced or “seen” by man, he contended.

Without mentioning Barlaam by name, Saint Gregory began writing his Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts in which he defends hesychasm against the accusations of Barlaam. In this work, Saint Gregory states the purpose of man’s existence is ultimately to share in God’s Uncreated Energies—in other words, union with God, or theosis, (“divinization” or ”deification”). Properly prepared and cleansed, we become one with God, united to Him by participation in His Energies, though assuredly without uniting to His transcendent Essence. To achieve union with God, one must purify one s heart of all that is unworthy of God, which means all the evil passions that were entwined with human nature by the Fall, including impure thoughts, words, and deeds. Man must defeat these passions and purify his heart so that it is no longer subject to them. By this method and process, the practitioners of hesychasm, in Saint Gregory’s words, “transcend all knowledge by uninterrupted and immaterial prayer, and it is then that they begin to see God….” They “see” God while still in this life, in the midst of prayer or, more precisely, they see the Uncreated Energies of God.

The Œcumenical Synods by Protopresbyter James Thornton