Barlaamism in Contemporary Theology (3 of 3)
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
3. Significant Barlaamite Views
When one reads the theological criticisms of Saint Gregory Palamas towards Barlaam, some interesting points are observed which indicate the similarity between various contemporary theologians and Barlaam.
Saint Gregory Palamas refuted Barlaam and ascribed to him many characterizations, one of which was “self-made monk”, by which he meant that Barlaam did not become a monk after lawful endurance under a spiritual father from whom he learned the monastic life and Orthodox theology. This is manifested by his views, which are differentiated from Orthodox Tradition. We will indicate some important points.
First, Barlaam not only did not know precisely the method of Orthodox hesychasm, but he was against sacred hesychasm, as it was experienced by the Prophets, Apostles, Fathers and the contemporary monks of Mount Athos. This is why he turned against the hesychasts and particularly against Nikephoros the Confessor, who was a teacher of sacred hesychasm and noetic prayer.
Saint Gregory Palamas defended sacred hesychasm, which he came to know on Mount Athos, he received it from the spiritual fathers and ascetics, and he practiced it in his personal life. The entire content of the Triads refers to sacred hesychasm, which is why he titled his work “Triads for the Defense of Those Who Practice Sacred Hesychasm”. Sacred hesychasm is inherently associated with the purification of the heart from the passions, the illumination of the nous and theosis, as discussed in detail by Saint Gregory Palamas. The complete acceptance of the teachings of the Holy Fathers and not the theories of the philosophers, the return of the nous into the heart, the value of the human body which partakes of divine Grace, the illumination of the nous by the Grace of God and not the knowledge of archetypal beings, the vision of uncreated Light which is the glory of divinity – these are the essence of Orthodox hesychasm.
Saint Gregory Palamas, referring to Nikephoros the Monk, says that after being convicted of the cacodoxy of the Italians (the Papists), he came to the Orthodox Church and fully accepted its teaching and way of life. He went to Mount Athos, which borders “this world and the world above’, and is the “household of virtue”, and there he subjugated himself to eminent Fathers. After giving to them for a long time the experience of his humility, he received in exchange from them “the art of peace, which is the experience of hesychasm”. Saint Gregory characterizes hesychasm as “the art of peace”, because by this method the inner world of man is pacified of the tyranny of thoughts, fantasies and the passions. But this hesychasm is learned, or rather mystagogued, by experienced Fathers towards those who are apprenticed to them for a long time.
Thus, Saint Nikephoros acquired sacred hesychasm and became a “leader” of those who struggle against the intellectual world, which are the spirits of wickedness, namely the demons. For this reason he himself collected many patristic passages of the Neptic Fathers, where their spiritual struggles and outcomes were determined. Indeed, because many beginners could not hold the “instability of the nous”, not even moderately, he put forward a manner by which it was possible to constrict moderately “their much-wandering fantasies”, namely psycho-technical methods.
Throughout the centuries the Barlaamists and Barlaamizers have not accepted the practice of hesychasm, the sacred method of Orthodox quietude, because they obviously distinguish it from philosophical principles, they give great importance to logical analysis and dialectical reasoning and reflection. Not only do they not accept sacred hesychasm, but they also deny the entire method, often deriding those who practice it. Thereby they jeopardize the entirety of Orthodox theology. It is characteristic that the philosopher Barlaam, as Saint Gregory Palamas says, used his “many whimsical thoughts” as fire to burn away any opposition. Philosophizing theologians who are against the hesychasts do the same thing with their “many whimsical thoughts”, their knowledge, which is the result of their reason and fantasies.
Secondly, Barlaam is not in accord with Orthodox Tradition on the issue of unceasing prayer.
Sacred hesychasm is inherently associated with noetic prayer, for the manner by which sacred hesychasm is practiced the senses are purified, especially the heart, namely the passionate part of the soul, and man is freed from impassioned thoughts, the nous is freed from the enslavement to the senses, to reason, to the passions and to the environment, and then one is able to pray purely and untroubled to God. This is noetic prayer and this is how the unceasing prayer takes place that is spoken about by the Apostle Paul: “Pray unceasingly” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Barlaam could not deny the call of the Apostle Paul towards unceasing prayer, but he construed it very superficially, externally and reflectively. He argued that to “pray unceasingly” does not mean “the action of prayer, but the habit of this”. That is, unceasing prayer, according to Barlaam, is not the constant repetition of the name of Christ, like the hesychasts do, rather it is to think that one cannot do something or complete something unless it is the will of God. In other words, it is an abstract belief in God’s existence and presence.
Saint Gregory Palamas refuted such an interpretation concerning unceasing prayer, especially since, as he writes, Barlaam is an “unceasing and never praying” philosopher. Barlaam didn’t know unceasing prayer, not even “with breaks”, namely occasional prayers. Such prayer, as interpreted by Barlaam, according to Saint Gregory, is not absent even from the devil, who knew that he didn’t even have authority over the pigs unless God allowed it.
Then the hesychast Saint makes a famous analysis on what unceasing prayer consists of. I am completely confident that at this point, as well as in similar other places, the Saint is strongly expressing his personal experience. Anyhow, this is the key difference between him and Barlaam. Both used patristic passages, but Barlaam interpreted them philosophically/reflectively and essentially misinterpreted them, while Saint Gregory Palamas interpreted them through his own personal experience. This passage on unceasing prayer is most important, but I will necessarily only quote the essential content.
Saint Gregory interprets that when we speak of unceasing prayer, in reality what is meant is a “secret and confidential spiritual gift” of God, which is made available to those who are made worthy to receive divine eros in order to unite with the Lord of all, who remain without food or breath during prayer, they return the nous to themselves and are united with God. Later, this spiritual gift of prayer given by God to man, sometimes attracts the “allowed nous” towards the ineffable union and from this springs sacred gladness, and sometimes when the nous is lifted towards God there comes within it a song, like music. That is, the nous when it is found in the heart is lifted towards God and noetic worship takes place. Those who become partakers of this restless and indefatigable Grace have prayer unceasingly implanted in the heart, even while doing their daily work, and this prayer takes place even when they sleep. As evidence for this interpretation of unceasing prayer, Saint Gregory Palamas presents the relevant scriptural and patristic testimonies.
Hence, unceasing noetic prayer is not a sense of the presence of God, as Barlaam would say, but a continuous activity of the uncreated Grace of God within the purified heart of man that is expressed with prayers, as the Apostle Paul says: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:18-19).
This noetic prayer Saint Gregory calls “reasonable, or rather spiritual worship”, which is done by those who honor and are dedicated to this “life of quietude throughout life”. and helps beginners to participate in this “angelic and other-worldly liturgy”. Therefore, noetic prayer that takes place within the atmosphere of sacred hesychasm is “spiritual worship” which is integrally associated with the “angelic and other-worldly liturgy”.
Barlaamists and Barlaamizers not only are empirically ignorant of this spiritual and angelic liturgy, but they deny it, dishonor it and mock it. They completely identify worship with hymns and prayers, which they want to understand with their reason, because otherwise they don’t feel like they are praying. In other words, they are based entirely on their reason and make it absolute. The question is: if they think in and desire to pray this way, then how will they learn about the other-worldy liturgy and how will they enter into this after their death, since they are ignorant of it and fight against it now?
Third, Barlaam first distanced himself from the Church in his intellect and then in actuality, which shows that when one distances themselves from the theology of the Orthodox Church, then it is a matter of time when they will join another christian heretical tradition.
Barlaam was a Uniate monk who came to the Eastern Roman Empire without knowing Orthodox hesychasm, since he knew western scholasticism and this is why he reacted with acidity when he was informed about the manner by which the Athonite monks were praying. Saint Gregory Palamas immediately identified this fact and indeed interpreted how Barlaam began and ended his life.
Saint Gregory Palamas, negating the views of Barlaam, who argued that perfection is achieved by the knowledge of Greek studies and philosophy, writes that he will try to expose the “cause of the disease” and will compose “medicine according to God”. The Athonite Saint expresses his pain for the spiritual illness of Barlaam, when he uses the phrase “good member of the Church”, where he seeks to maintain some bridges with Barlaam so that he is not completely removed from the Church. However, Barlaam had already removed himself from the Church “intellectually”, because he did not accept the teachings of the Church, since he dishonored the experience of the Prophets and praised the teachings of the philosophers.
Further on he faces the view of Barlaam that the Grace of the Holy Spirit given by God is created – here is concealed the Latin teaching of the actus purus. He writes that Barlaam tried in this way to lead us “fraudulently” and “forcefully” into the mind of the Latins.
Then Saint Gregory writes that Barlaam finally accepted the Pope, he asked him to give him the prayers of salvation, he embraced his knees with pleasure and respect, he lowered his head into the hands of the Pope and received “thence the seal rejoicing”.
Saint Gregory further notes that the entire presence of Barlaam in the Eastern Orthodox Church was like a play, since he parodied and play-acted what is ours. He further writes, he never received any type of sanctification from the Church and no one ever saw him commune of the Immaculate Mysteries, nor did he receive the monastic tonsure according to the Tradition of the Church, so he was a “self-made monk” and “falsely-made”.
What is important, as Saint Gregory points out, is that first one distances themselves from the Church “intellectually”, since they do not accept all her doctrines and traditions, then they try to “fraudulently” and “forcefully” make Orthodox accept Latin traditions and even accept or seek to receive the “blessing” of the Pope, then accordingly they become associated with heresy. This is the path of the Barlaamites and Barlaamizers, who after altering the Orthodox faith, then they are brought together to worship with the Papists, and then comes the ultimate approach to their faction.
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, “Βαρλααμισμός”, October 2014. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.