On the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent the Orthodox Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. This day is also known as the second “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” Last Sunday was the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” remembering the restoration of the holy icons and official end of the Iconoclast controversy. This past Sunday also had to do with the Orthodox Church’s triumph over a heresy. The heresy took place in the 14th Century and had to do with the energies and essences of God. Barlaam, a renowned orator from Calabria, Italy claimed that it was impossible to know the essence of God and gave the example of the light at Mount Tabor where Christ was Transfigured as an example. He claimed the light that surrounded Christ and dazzled the Apostles who were with Him was created. St Gregory Palamas was a monk from Mount Athos who later became Archbishop of Thessaloniki. He disputed Barlaam’s claim, rightly discerning that it is in God’s Energies that we are able to perceive His Essence. Thus, the light experienced by the Apostles at Mount Tabor was uncreated. The uncreated Energies of God are poured forth through creation. If God’s Energies were created it would be impossible for man to have genuine communion with God Who is uncreated. The energies of God is “God in Action.” Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature..(2 Peter: 1:4) His creation is sustained and united by His energies, while He is fully transcendent in His essence. The Grace of God is identified with His Uncreated Energies.
The heresy of Barlaam was anathematized at the Constantinople Council of 1341 which was held at Hagia Sophia. The works of Palamas at this Council were known as the Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts or the Hagiorite Tome. However, just like with the heresy of Iconoclasm, this heresy did not end with just one council. It took another ten years for the heresy of Barlaam to officially end at the Council of Blachernae in 1351. At this council, Palamas’ teachings were upheld and Barlaam’s were condemned.
The word Hesychasts was mentioned above. What is a Hesychast? It is someone who practices Hesychasm. St. Gregory Palamas practiced this type of praying. Hesychasm is from the Greek word ησυχία which means quietness or calmness. It is the experienced use of mental prayer or the prayer of the heart which requires solitude and quietness. This type of praying did not develop overnight. Its roots go back to the 4th Century with the Desert Fathers, like St Macarius of Egypt. In the 11th Century, St Simeon the New Theologian provided more detailed instruction for monks on mental prayer. One of his writings, A Treatise on the Three Methods of Prayer is found in Volume IV of the English version of the Philokalia. The ascetics of Mount Athos, St Gregory Palamas included, put the detailed instruction of St Simeon into practice. This became known as Hesychasm. Stillness and solitude are essential for prayer. As it says in
Psalm 46: Be still and know I am God. We can also pray with icons which is why we upheld their veneration on the previous Sunday.
We heard on vespers Saturday evening: Are there any lips of earthborn men that can worthily extol the Hierarch? For he is the teacher of all the Church, and he is the preacher of the light of God; and the Holy Trinity’s true mystic; the great pride of the monastics and their ornament, who shined forth in contemplation and the active life; Thessaloniki’s great glory, and a fellow-citizen now in heaven of that divine, stupendous gusher of fragant oil, Demetrius. As the hymn says, St Gregory teaches us that we can experience the uncreated Light of God, just like the Apostles did at Mount Tabor. This day is indeed the Second “Triumph of Orthodoxy” because of the tremendous impact the teachings of St Gregory Palamas have on the Orthodox Church. Just like with the period of Iconoclasm, the years of the heresy of Barlaam were a contentious, critical period in the history of the Orthodox Church. However, by the Grace of God the Orthodox Church prevailed and both heresies were overcome.
May all of us be “triumphant” in our own spiritual struggle through Great Lent!