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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 [theosis].

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. He 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. Upon further re­flection, he convinced himself that hesychasm was heretical, and so carried his complaints to Patriarch John XIV Kalekas of Con­stantinople. However, the Patriarch rejected Barlaam’s allegations, recommending that he leave the monks to themselves and mind his own business.

Shortly thereafter, Barlaam met Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessalonica, and for some time the two held discussions on the questions that trouhled 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.26 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 that the purpose of man’s existence is ultimately to share in God’s Uncreated Energies—in other words, union with God, 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.

Writing his own work, A Tract Against the Messalians, Bar­laam attempted to tar Saint Gregory Palamas and the hesychasts with the brush of the fourth-century Euchite or Messalian heresy. (Note: Euchitism or Messalianism, the belief system of “the praying people,” taught that, as a result of the Fall, everyone had a demon bonded to his soul, a demon which remained even after Baptism and which could only be expelled by an intense and unrelenting program of prayer that supposedly led to passionless-ness and an immediate vision of God.) Since Barlaam was something of a sensation in certain circles in the Imperial Capital, his exchanges with Saint Greg­ory became a cause célèbre and a potential source of division in the Church, a situation urgently requiring an official response. Therefore, Patriarch John XIV called a Synod in June of 1341, held at the Cathedral of Aghia Sofia, at which the accusations of Bar­laam, and Saint Gregory’s defense, were ventilated. Significantly, Saint Gregory was supported by his close friend Emperor Andronikos III Palasologos. In the matter of hesychastic prayer, par­ticularly the Jesus Prayer, Barlaam again accused Saint Gregory of heresy, specifically, Messalianism or Bogomilism, and with re­gard to the distinction between God’s Essence and His Energies, of ditheism, belief in two Gods. Since the Synod was sufficiently conversant with Orthodox Tradition not to be misled by the Ital­ian philosopher’s sophistries, it declared for the teachings of Saint Gregory Palamas and hesychasm. Barlaam was condemned and his works ordered collected and burned. Also condemned was the monk Gregory Akindynos, a follower of Barlaam who had bor­rowed from the writings of Thomas Aquinas to attack hesychasm and had criticized Saint Gregory as “an innovator.” Additionally, the Synod banned further public discussion of the hesychast con­troversy, either for or against, since theological dissension meant further political division in a “political environment… [that] was already explosive.”30 Sobered by the Synod’s decision, Barlaam hastily backpedaled, recanting his assertions and his accusations against Saint Gregory. That his recantation was insincere, given merely to avoid difficulties with the authorities, is shown by the fact that he later renewed his attacks against Saint Gregory Pala­mas. After a few years, Barlaam returned to Italy, converted to Pa­pism, and was eventually made Bishop of Gerace by the Pope.

Within days of the close of the Synod, Emperor Andronikos took ill and died. His death sparked a civil war between Dowa­ger Empress Anne of Savoy and Patriarch John, on one side, and the imperial Grand Domestic, John Kantakouzenos, on the other. At stake was control of the Regency, for the new Emperor, John V Palseologos, was only nine years old. It was mistakenly assumed that Saint Gregory Palamas supported Kantakouzenos, when in fact he remained neutral in this entirely political affair. Conse­quently, the Saint was arrested and imprisoned, at the instiga­tion of the Dowager Empress and the Patriarch, ostensibly for continuing the forbidden public controversy about hesychasm. Amazingly, Saint Gregory was also charged with heresy—amaz­ing because the Patriarch himself had presided over the Synod that had approved Saint Gregory’s teaching! At the same time, the Patriarch turned a blind eye to continued anti-hesychast agitation by Akindynos. Most shockingly, although Akindynos had been formally condemned by the Synod, Patriarch John XIV sometime later Ordained him a Priest and eventually Consecrated him a Bishop. Even Dowager Empress Anne was scandalized by these inexplicable actions, which persuaded her to attempt to win the hesychasts over to her side, a genuine necessity for her since she was losing the war and, as Ostrogorsky comments, her “power was now limited to the capital and its immediate vicinity.” She needed whatever support she could find. She ordered Saint Greg­ory released from imprisonment and a new Synod convened, which assembled on February 1,1347. The Synod condemned and deposed Patriarch John XIV, excommunicated Akindynos, and up­held the pro-hesychast decisions of the Synod of 1341. A Palamite Hierarch, Patriarch Isidore 1 of Constantinople, was elected to re­place the capricious Patriarch John. A day after the Synod closed, Kantakouzenos entered the Capital in triumph, declared a gen­eral amnesty, and was some days later Crowned Co-Emperor, rul­ing as Emperor John vi alongside the young Emperor John v. The Dowager Empress retained a position of honor, but power was wielded exclusively by Kantakouzenos. Among his other actions, he appointed Saint Gregory Palamas Archbishop of Thessalonica. The victory of Kantakouzenos assured the victory of Ortho­dox hesychasm, although one more episode in the controversy had yet to be played out. The philosopher and historian Nikepho-ros Gregoras, a celebrated intellectual and a man of decidedly Latin sympathies, began a new anti-hesychast campaign. Arch­bishop Chrysostomos explains that

In spite of his vast, encyclopedic knowledge, Gregoras was actu­ally unable to understand the subtle philosophy of the Palamites, and especially their distinction between the Essence and Energies of God. He believed that, in speaking of the Energies of God, St. Gregory had “implied more than one God.”

Gregoras’s outbursts engendered another Synod, held in the Blachernas Palace in 1351 under the presidency of Saint Kallistos I of Constantinople. This Synod, “generally regarded as de­finitive in the Orthodox world,”…”solemnly recognized the or­thodoxy of the hesychasts[,] and Barlaam and Acindynos were excommunicated,” as were Nikephoros Gregoras and all who refused to acknowledge the Orthodoxy of Palamite teaching, which is

nothing more than a masterful and concise synthesis of classical, Patristic Orthodoxy. The metaphysical kernel which lies at the core of the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church Saint Gregory captures in a single sentence: “Three realities pertain to God: es­sence, energy, and the triad of divine hypostases.” In a nutshell, Or­thodox Triadology, or the doctrine of the Trinity—what is prop­erly known in the Patristic lexicon as “theology,” in contrast to the “œconomy” of the Incarnation—, recognizes a threefold distinc­tion—not division—within the Uncreated Deity: the Divine Es­sence, or the Nature of the Godhead, which is so utterly foreign and incomprehensible to created reality that it must paradoxically be described simultaneously as being and non-being; the Divine Energies, or the Activities of the Godhead, which are infinite and permeate all of creation, and are known collectively as “Grace”; and the Divine Hypostases, or the Persons of the Godhead, viz., the Fa­ther Who is Unbegotten, the Son Who is Begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit Who Proceeds from the Father, all of Whom equally possess the fullness of the Divine Essence and the fullness of the Divine Energies.

Saint Gregory Palamas spent his final years serving as Arch­bishop of Thessalonica, reposing in 1359. With his Glorification by the Orthodox Church nine years later, hesychasm’s “final vic­tory was sealed.” As Metropolitan Hierotheos argues, because Saint Gregory Palamas “confronted the heresy of Barlaam, who said that God’s energy is created,” and because the Palamite Syn­ods “‘justified’ hesychasm, which is the only method that leads man to deification,” the Synods of 1341, 1347, and 1351 have “all the elements and hallmarks…to qualify” them collectively as the Ninth Œcumenical Synod of the Orthodox Church.

—Protopresbyter James Thornton