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Contemporary Traditionalist Orthodox Thought 

SAINT GREGORY PALAMAS ON THE HESYCHASTS1

by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and Bishop Auxentios of Photiki

Bishop-AuxentiosIn the Orthodox Church, we set aside the second Sunday of Great Lent to honor the memory of the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Thessalonica, Saint Gregory Palamas. We laud this miracle—working Saint as a pillar of the Church (“Εκκλησίας το στήριγμα”) and as a great luminary (‘”Ορθοδοξίας ό φωστήρ”) in our hymns. And again on November 14, so important is his contribution to the exposition of the mystical tradition, the Church calls to memory this remarkable Saint. Yet Saint Gregory is not well known to the common pious, and his study by theologians is scant in comparison to the tomes that have been dedicated to other Church Fathers. In Greece, it was not until the recent past that anyone showed any critical attention toward a collection of the Saint’s writings. And, greatly owing to his rejection by the West and the proverbial “Western captivity” of many Orthodox theologians, some Greek theologians have only a rudimentary familiarity with Saint Gregory and his immense importance to Orthodox thought. (Happily, the state of Palamite studies in the Slavic traditions is better developed and more profound2. It is no surprise, then, that considerations of Saint Gregory Palamas in the English language are limited and few.3 To the Orthodox in America, Saint Gregory Palamas remains largely unknown and the object of a liturgical commemoration void of that understanding insight by which the seed of worship blossoms fully into a flower of Divine knowledge.

What we wish to do in this short essay is introduce a few of the thoughts of Saint Gregory Palamas regarding Hesychasm or the monastic tradition by which the mind (νους) is cleansed, enlightened, and perfected, as this process is characterized in the Philokalia.4 In so doing we will turn to the richness of the original Greek, not wishing in this endeavor to present a systematic Palamite theology (for what is systematic is too often artificial and begets the limitations to which we have alluded [note 3]), but rather simply hoping to familiarize the reader with some of the pertinent, trenchant observations of Saint Gregory. To this end, we will summarize the words of the Saint in a short essay entitled, “On the Sacred Hesychasts” (“‘Υπέρ των Ίερώς Ήσυχαζόντων”).5 In this one small example of his works, we find that Saint Gregory, though profound and often demanding of us in his thought great attention and care, touches on issues of contemporary import with such clarity and brilliance that we almost unconsciously proclaim his outstanding beauty for the spiritual aspirant (“των μοναστών ή καλλονή”).

In our spiritually barren times, we lack those great “stars” of holy asceticism by which spiritual strugglers in the past, both monastics and pious laymen, guided their ascetic practices. We lack the perfect examples to emulate and therefore often lose sight of the very goals of our endeavors. So it is that we hear more and more often the accusation that monastic asceticism presupposes a kind of hate of the body, a denial of the very substance of the flesh. Having lost so many times the very purposes of our acts, we the religious give by our ignorance and our misguided (or unguided) efforts substance to such accusations. And, sadly enough, many of us begin to embrace such thought and abandon, for want of justification, the ascetic life on the grounds that it just might, indeed, involve an unconscionable rejection of the very flesh which Saint Paul calls the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.6 But this great confusion comes to us because we do not essentially understand the relationship between the body and the νους and because, by tradition in the West and by improper learning in the East,7 we have tended to seek, outside of our own bodies and in a frenzied searching for the ecstatic, Divine knowledge, setting aside and reviling the immediacy of the flesh. And bound up with this tragic process is the tendency, when the ecstatic is not attained or is even unsatisfying, to cast aside ascetic discipline as abnormal.

In Saint Gregory’s essay on the Hesychasts, he decisively points out for us the importance of the body and its quintessential role in the cleansing of the νους and the attainment of perfection. In so doing, we begin to understand the ascetic life (with its common disciplines of fasting, prayer, vigils, etc.), not as a means merely of casting off the body, but of preparing it for the interaction with the νους that forms the foundation of spiritual enlightenment. In Saint Gregory, we find that perfect harmony of νους and body in which ascetic practice becomes, not a negative struggle, but a positive instrument. Although Saint Gregory’s essay is specifically aimed at answering certain objections to the Hesychastic method,8 we find these fruitful answers shining with brilliant hope to the modern monk, as though they were written specifically in response to the problem of νους and body as we have posed it above.

Rather, he simply emphasizes πραξις (ascetic practice). And while there is, for the eastern “mystic,” an ecstatic union with God, this is not the ecstatic experience of the West (as championed by Saint Gregory’s famous adversary, Barlaam the Calabrian), in which the intellect is raised up and beyond the body; see Romanides, “Palamite Controversy—n,” pp. 225-232 passim.

St Gregory Regarding Philosophers

Many of Saint Gregory’s writings (such as his essay on the Hesychasts) were directed to people who grossly misunderstood the Hesychasts and thought that they were teaching a method by which Divine Grace could be breathed by the nose (“δια των μυκτήρων”) and by which mere bodily functions could effect Divine union. Interestingly, the exchange between Saint Gregory and his detractors represents the development of two “mystical traditions,” as it were, one emphasizing the instrumental importance of the body, the other considering the body an impediment to spiritual vision. Most of the detractors adhered to the very concepts of the body that led to the unbalanced notion of the relationship between body and νους of the less-productive monastic traditions, the fruits of which we see in much of the contemporary demise of ascetic life.

Saint Gregory introduces his short essay with an inquiry posed to him by a certain brother regarding calumnies against the Hesychasts to the effect that they were wrong in their meditative methods, in that they tried to keep their νοῦς controlled and free from wandering outside the body. The Saint begins his commentary with the stern warning that one must not think the body evil, and makes effusive allusions to Biblical and Patristic texts to the effect that the body is not evil. He cites, as one might expect, the Pauline dictum that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within us (“ότι τά σώματα ημών ναός τοϋ έν ήμίν Αγίου Πνεύματος έστιν”).9 He thus emphasizes that the body is something spiritual, not something to be set aside as unconnected with the spiritual experience. He goes on to point out that it is the preoccupation with things of the flesh which one avoids, not the body itself, the body being the proper vessel for the νους: “Ημείς δέ έν τοις σωματικοϊς φρονήμασιν είναι τόν νουν ο’ιόμεθα κακόν: έν τω σώματι δέ ουχί κακόν, έπεί μηδέ τό σώμα πονηρόν.”10 We see here a very balanced and functional view of the body, a fundamental starting point for the Hesychasts, which belies the notion that monastic asceticism is necessarily antisomatic.

Saint Gregory continues on in his opening remarks to identify just what it is about the flesh that is evil. If it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, it certainly cannot be as such functionally evil, but evil only as it serves other purposes. He notes that Saint Paul describes man as sold to sin and asserts that a man sold as a slave is not one by nature (“ου φύσει δούλος”).11 Therefore, the post-Lapsarian body is evil not by nature, but by disposition. Amplifying Saint Paul’s statement that within him there dwelled no good, Saint Gregory contends that it is not the body which is evil, but that which dwells within it (“δτι ου την σάρκα, αλλά τό ένοικοΰν αύτη, φησί, κακόν”).12 Cleansing the body of all sinful thought, we make it the abode of spiritual power, ruled over, appropriately, by the νους, which has become the overseer (“ή επισκοπή”).13 The appropriate place for the νους, then, is indeed the body. And the body properly ruled by the νους becomes not an evil thing, but a thing of good.

Once the body has been properly subjected to the νους, Saint Gregory writes, a certain triumvirate of principles comes to ascendancy. First, through the discipline of the body, one learns also to control the sensations of the νους. This is called “εγκράτεια” (literally, “temperance”) or mastery over the senses. Second, the correct use of the body and the νους allows the soul (or the desiring portion of the soul—”τω δέ παθητικά μέρει της ψυχής”)14 to acquire love. And third, one develops a neptic sobriety, a mental process of cleansing the νους by removing from it all that prevents its elevation toward God. In this triumvirate of principles, in the first instance, the usual interaction between the νους and body typical of normal cognitive functioning is subjected to certain controls. In modern psychological parlance, we would say that the νους no longer monitors bodily sensations as a basis for the formation of thought and action. These sensations (“passions” in the nomenclature of the ascetic Fathers) cease to intercede in the νους’s control of the body. And of course essential to this mastery over the passions is ascetic practice, by which the conditioned responses between the passions and the νους (“habit” as the Fathers would call it) are broken. In the second instance, one practices Christian virtues in acts of love and reverence, by which external stimuli are no longer effective in determining behavior; anger and passions offer, rather, the opportunity for virtue.15 In the last instance, this system avers, the νους is mystically cleansed and stands before God and the aspirant sees within himself the grace of the pure in heart.16

When the body is used as a spiritual instrument, it is given great powers, according to Palamite theology, for it becomes the vessel of the νους and, as it were, its proper servant. But what particular part of the body constitutes the νους itself? It is essential here to look at Saint Gregory’s response. He emphasizes that the νους is contained within the heart, not with the heart as its vessel (for the νους is incorporeal—άσώματον), but nonetheless as its “repository” (“ταμεΐον”).17 It is into the heart, then, that the νους, distracted on all sides normally by the senses, must retreat. It must introduce itself into the repository of thoughts. Quoting Saint Makarios the Great (+390), Saint Gregory affirms that the νους turned inward to the heart finds there, when the heart is occupied with Grace, the laws of the spirit. The heart contains the “throne of Grace” (“εν τω της χάριτος θρόνω”).18 We must not overlook here a tradition that Saint Gregory Palamas cites. The Eastern Fathers invariably call one to recognize the role of the heart in spiritual enlightenment. This is of utmost importance for any student of Hesychasm. Though in a subtle manner, more than any other aspect of Hesychastic thought, this emphasis on the heart over and against the brain stresses that neptic control is not something cerebral and not something akin to mere “mind control.” In an absolute sense, it is for this reason that Hesychastic practice is in fact unrelated to yoga, as some eclectic thinkers would propose. And it is for this reason, too, that one should not confuse simple mental use of the “Jesus Prayer” (the heart of monastic practice), as is unfortunately common today, with prayer contained in the heart. One is cerebral, the other “mystical.”

The entry of the νους into the heart constitutes, for Saint Gregory, the most important defense of the Hesychastic admonition that one must not, in spiritual practice, search for what is outside the body. The heart is that place in which the νους not only collects its thoughts, but in which it examines and reflects upon itself. It enters the Kingdom of God within. The νους, Saint Gregory Palamas writes (quoting Saint Dionysios the Great), “sees itself” (“εαυτόν ό νους όρα”).19 This is an astounding statement, for it suggests a deep self-reflection. But it is all the more astounding when we realize that Saint Gregory posits that this self-reflection of the νους takes place within a Grace-filled inner chamber. It is not, then, mere self-reflection that is the basis of Hesychasm. Nor is it some supracognitive internal self-revelation of the νους that constitutes the Hesychastic experience. It is, we sense from these profound statements of Saint Gregory, in the confines of the Divine Presence, outside mental processes as we understand them and in the depths of the heart of man, that true prayer, true communion, and true preparation for union with God take place. Realizing this, we are bereft of any justification in comparing Palamite Hesychasm (as is unwisely done all too often by theological dilettantes) to the desultory spiritual experiences that we encounter in contemporary “mysticism,” “spiritual encounters,” or would-be holy “elders.” It is sobering to see the incredible depth of the Palamite experience.

Saint Gregory Palamas now returns to the essential question that prompted his commentary on the nature of spiritual experience and assures the reader that there must be no doubt as to the efficacy and necessity of turning the νους toward the body (not away from it) and inwardly toward the heart. And this inward movement, we are assured, often results in the νους being returned to itself, freed from external concerns, and therefore by nature ascending to union withy God. The Hesychast is thus unified with God, not by seeking something outside of himself or by taking the νους away from the body, but by placing the νους within the depths of the body, within the heart. In so doing, in confining the νους within itself, the Hesychast becomes, ironically, an incorporeal being. Saint Gregory quotes an amazing statement by Saint John of the Ladder (+649) to this effect: “[Ώ]ς ήσυχαστής έστιν ό το άσώματον έν σώματι περιορίζειν σπεύδουν.”20 We are further assured by this holy and enlightened Father that all of the Fathers have taught this same truth.21

The remainder of Saint Gregory’s essay is aimed at a defense of the various physical practices by which the inner and outer man (the νους and the body, in some sense) are brought into proper relationship, in preparation for the entry of the νους into the heart. There are rich allusions to the mystical writings of the Fathers and to the Hesychastic practices of specific champions of those practices: Saint Symeon the New Theologian and his contemporaries, as well as other great Church Fathers. While the development of this portion of the essay is no less essential and no less captivating that the portions which we have covered, we will leave it to a subsequent paper to discuss the practice of Hesychasm, which must be approached with great care, lest the neophyte find in this practice a source of self-instruction.22 Suffice it to say that our present remarks touch, though briefly, on subjects of deep import which, in and of themselves, demand great attention and contemplation.

We find, in Saint Gregory Palamas, a dimension of spiritual insight so profound and so striking that we are, true to his very own words, compelled to receive them as the food of a spiritual experience of the deepest kind. In so receiving them, the ascetic life of the monk takes on a significance and an immediacy that mere speculation about the prerequisites of Divine union theorized in contemplative systems can never offer. In Saint Gregory, there is a theory pregnant with true experience. We read in the Εύεργετινός a beautiful little statement that sums up the soul’s reaction to the profound experiences of Saint Gregory: “Another wise Father compares one who teaches with words, without doing works, to a tree which has beautiful leaves but does not bear fruit.”23 The soul delights in the wonderful foliage of Saint Gregory’s words and yet feasts on the sumptuous nourishment of the God—bearing fruit which his works of wonder produce.

NOTES:

1 “Saint Gregory Palamas on the Hesychasts” originally appeared in Diakonia, Vol. xv, No. 3 (1980), pp. 220-228. Reprinted by permission.

2 Thus, the author was pleased to see that the late Archbishop Avery of Syracuse, Rector of the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville, New York, used Palamite imagery and references in his awe-inspiring sermons. See, for example, “What is Orthodoxy?”—a sermon by His Eminence, in Orthodox Life, Vol. xxvi, No. 3 (May-June 1976), pp. 1-5.

3 The most familiar English-language volume on Saint Gregory Palamas is, of course, [Father] John Meyendorff, A Study of [Saint] Gregory Palamas (London: Faith Press, 1974), which originally appeared in French. Its limitations are numerous, and Father Meyendorff’s misunderstanding of many Palamite concepts and his errors in translation have been brilliantly discussed by Father John Romani-des, particularly in the second part of his essay; see The Rev. John S. Romanides, “Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics—11,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. ix, No. 2 (Winter 1963-1964), pp. 225-270. The Reverend Professor Georges Florovsky also dedicates the last chapter of his Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vol. 1 of his Colkcted Works, ed. Richard S. Haugh (Vaduz: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987) to a considetation of Saint Gtegory and the Patristic Tradition. Unfortunately, the chapter is very short and Father Florovsky, with an acute awareness of the West’s unfamiliarity with Palamite thought, proceeds with such caution in presenting the Saint’s “daring” thought that the impact of Saint Gregory’s thought is almost totally lost. Moreover, in comparison to the other chapters in the book, there is a dearth of primary source references. A few other texts are also available in English, but again, these presentations are also not free from the same misunderstandings and etrors that mark the better-known studies mentioned above.

4 The Φίλοκαλία (fl,o6pomonm6ie in Russian) is a collection of the writings of the Eastern Fathers on the spiritual practices by which the aspirant achieves θέωσις (divinization), ultimate mystipal perfection, and union with God.

Φίλοκαλία, Vol. rv (Athens: Aster, 1977), pp. 121-131. Translations of some of the writings of Saint Gregory have appeared in English, including a translation of Saint Gregory’s essay on the Hesychasts Early Fathers from the Philokalia, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G. Ε. H. Palmer (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1954). Most of these translations are very inadequate, and the Kadloubovsky and Palmer translation omits much of the original text and uses a vocabulary that more often than not obscures the depth of the Greek text.

Cf 1 Corinthians 6:19.

7 Father Romanides notes that the eastern “mystic” (a term used here with caution) does not seek a life of contemplation as such and does not seek visions. Rather, he simply emphasizes πραξις (ascetic practice). And while there is, for the eastern “mystic,” an ecstatic union with God, this is not the ecstatic experience of the West (as championed by Saint Gregory’s famous adversary, Barlaam the Calabrian), in which the intellect is raised up and beyond the body; see Romanides, “Palamite Controversy—II,” pp. 225-232 passim.

8 Many of Saint Gregory’s writings (such as his essay on the Hesychasts) were directed to people who grossly misunderstood the Hesychasts and thought that they were teaching a method by which Divine Grace could be breathed by the nose (“δια των μυκτήρων”) and by which mere bodily functions could effect Divine union. Interestingly, the exchange between Saint Gregory and his detractors represents the development of two “mystical traditions,” as it were, one emphasizing the instrumental importance of the body, the other considering the body an impediment to spiritual vision. Most of the detractors adhered to the very concepts of the body that led to the unbalanced notion of the relationship between body and νους of the less-productive monastic traditions, the fruits of which we see in much of the contemporary demise of ascetic life.

Φίλοκαλία, p. 123.

10 Ibid., p. 124.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13  Ibid. 

14 Ibid. 

15 Ibid., pp. 124-125. This is most beautifully expressed in the Greek.

16 Ibid., p. 125: “Κτάται και όρα έν έαυτφ τήν έπηγγελμένην χάριν τοις κεκα-θαρμένοις τήν καρδίαν.”

17 Ibid. 

18 Ibid. 

19 Ibid., p. 126.

20 Ibid., p. 127. This difficult passage is adequately, though with great license, translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer as follows: “The hesychast is an incorporeal being who strives to keep his soul within the limits of its bodily home.”

21 This seems to be an appropriate place to add an incidental remark. We see in Saint Gregory an assertion that his teachings are those taught by all of the Fathers. Indeed, his writings are nothing more nor less than a compendium of the mystical teachings of the Fathers, compiled in such a way as to present in one place a system otherwise scattered through many texts. This point is one which eludes some ill-read commentators on Saint Gregory, who find in him a “new Orthodoxy,” a “new dimension” of Eastern theological thought. Such discoveries are spurious and result from a poor understanding of the spiritual Tradition of the Fathers. One cannot help but note this trend toward finding “new theologies” and “new dimensions” in Orthodoxy—as though, contrary to what spiritual experience teaches and the Church affirms, there is not an unbroken Tradition of Orthodox wisdom which disallows the sudden creation of a “new” system. (By this, however, we do not suggest that Orthodox Tradition is dead conservatism. Far from it!) This trend has resulted in some ridiculous characterizations of Saint Seraphim of Sarov (+1833), the great Russian ascetic. And it reaches a truly ludicrous level when one finds scholars suggesting that the Orthodox Church is not known by this name and as a distinct entity before the Great Schism, as an otherwise competent scholar recently commented. This trend, which results from the poor state of some aspects of Patristic scholarship, should be checked. Not only are its scholarly foundations faulty, but it is spiritually harmful.

22Indeed, no one should embark on Hesychastic practice without rigid training and the guidance of a spiritual Father—a guidance which no monk, in this spiritually vapid age, would be wise to offer.

23 Μικρός Εύεργετινός (Athens: Hagion Oros, 1977), p. 30.

Source

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