St. Gregory Palamas, Hesychasm and St. Teresa of Avila

Wasn’t quite sure where to put this, but it seems to relate strongly to Eastern Catholic practice, so I thought I’d try it here.

I was reading about St. Gregory Palamas and how he taught hesychasm as a means of getting closer to God, and his Western Catholic contemporaries apparently objected to this on the basis that philosophy was supposed to be how one got closer to God (??? which seems to me to be a particularly limited and rather bone-headed view, and one that doesn’t work for me at all, but then again I never liked philosophy and am a bear of little brain in that regard). Over time this view has changed, as shown by people like St. Pope JPII affirming the teaching and the holiness of St. Gregory Palamas.

However, I would think that Western Catholic Saints like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and huge numbers of Western Catholic mystics were practicing forms of prayer that could at least be seen as comparable to hesychasm, long before St. Pope JPII made his pronouncement. I don’t think St. Teresa and St. John arrived at their experiences of God via long philosophical trains of thought. Am I missing something, if so what?

As a side note, other than hesychasm, did St. Gregory Palamas have any differences with the Catholic Church? I read somewhere that he did, but I can’t find a good source confirming that or providing details. I know he is currently a saint of the Catholic Church via Ukrainian Catholic and Melkite churches and I am not out to challenge that, I just can’t figure out what other than this prayer form was controversial about him in the first place.

I hope there is nothing offensive to ECs in this topic/ post; if so, please understand that it’s not intentional. I am just mystified about all this alleged past controversy which in my mind should not have even occurred.

There is a rather large book, over $50, of his homilies… He spent his life refining and expanding Homily 50/51, which was about the Theotokos first years of life, and how it was that she prepared herself in purity of heart from her birth, such that when she entered the Temple at 3-1/2 years of age, she was prepared to ascend directly into the Holy of Holies, with the somewhat enforced blessing of Zacharias, whom the Jews later killed for his “transgression” of permitting her to do so and abide there… An extraordinary person in every respect…

He shows in these two homilies just HOW She did so…

I cannot imagine how he received that knowledge…

geo

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To be a spiritual seeker is great. To be a spiritual settler, even better. If the other-worldly mysticism of Saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila fail to satisfy, I don’t know what to say! My estimate is that it is diminishing the self to such a profound degree that one is absorbed into the Trinity. We cannot be filled with God unless we empty ourselves of, well, ourselves.

And, I am right there with you on philosophy. It mostly gives me a headache and nearly all modern “philosophy” strikes me as little more than overthinking.

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Interesting how you identified " philosophy" and hesychasm. For us the west charity as well.
Perhaps DILUTION of east and west is a better description. Theology emphasis I east and west led to a fuller theological emphasis.
Protestants come along and dilute separating from the West. They are removed from the East.
Mystics like Merton and others worked to rediscover our earlier theology.

This homily will give you St. Palamas himself - First-hand…

When I first read it, I could not believe I was reading it…
I could not read it again for years…
So wonderful is this homily…

geo

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He is? Why?

I assumed for the same reasons St. Pope John Paul II reportedly called him a saint (although he’s not venerated in the Western Catholic church) and repeatedly called him a great theological writer.

I edited this post because checking past threads, it seems like Pope JPII’s alleged remark was in a book by a Fr. Dennis Smolarski, SJ, who when later consulted by a researcher had some difficulty substantiating the claim and thought he might have made a mistake. However, if Palamas is venerated by Byzantine Catholics and Melkites, then he is a Catholic saint, and I notice Catholic.org includes him in their extensive list of Catholic saints.

Elder Aimilianos of recent blessed memory said that he became nothing in his meditations…

geo

He’s a saint for the same reason any saint is a saint - He lived a life of heroic virtue while remaining faithful to Christ and His Church.

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I also find it telling that his big critic, Barlaam, is not a saint, nor has he ever been considered for sainthood afaik.

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It’s also interesting that many in the East claim that Barlaam was a Roman/Western Catholic. If memory serves me correctly, he was actually a Byzantine monk, eventually made hegumen, and scholar who was all but ostracized for his disagreement with Palamas. He turned West and was received into the Roman Church, later being made a bishop.

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What the west found/finds difficult with Gregory Palamas is his defense of hesychasm using his essence-energies as a real distinction in God, which seems to introduce another relation on top of the Trinity, but one that’s not simply relational but also implies God has parts. It’s lead to accusations of polytheism among other things.

The accusations of polytheism apparently didn’t last long if he’s now venerated as a saint in two EC churches and Pope St. JPII has praised the guy’s theology multiple times.

Well, depends on if a six hundred years or so is a long time. The charitable approach is that the west and east are speaking two different theological languages and so polemics over the centuries resulted in them talking past each other.

Whereas I mentioned the west threw out accusations of polytheism, the eastern polemics likewise accused the west of modalism.

Also in the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church. At least his feast day was celebrated at the Ruthenian Church I used to attend, second Sunday of the Great Fast.

ZP

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He is indeed venerated in the Ruthenian Church.

I think your characterization of the west isn’t fair. I don’t think they would say you get closer to God through philosophy. They have a long history of prayer as well, including apophatic prayer. The Cloud of Unknowing is one example that predates Teresa of Avila and John of the cross.

The essence/energy distinction is the main difference between Gregory palamas and the west.

One thing to keep in mind about St. Gregory Palamas is that he never debated with Western Catholics; his dispute was entirely with a fellow Orthodox monk, Barlaam of Calabria. Western theologians did not engage Palamism until much later, and through very different filters than Palamas’ Eastern contemporaries with whom he disputed.

Most of what we know of Barlaam’s position comes from polemics against him by Palamas and those who follow him, so it might not be fair to characterize his real beliefs based on what we have to work with, but we don’t have much else to go on to my knowledge. Barlaam did not believe that humans could really participate in the Divine Nature, and that a philosophical approach brought humans closer to God because it was by intellectual pursuits that we come closest to God. This is in stark contrast to pretty much all Latin Catholic theology, which has many schools and approaches but most all of them emphasize to one degree or another a real participation in Divine Nature through Grace; only nominalists would deny such real participation by Grace, and they lost that debate in the West within the Church (some branches of Protestantism draw heavily on these ideas, however).

continued…

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As for the Essence-Energy distinction, it’s important to understand it within the context it is being used. The Essence-Energy distinction is utilized to explain how the Divine Nature can be both transcendent and immanent at the same time, and how the Divine Nature can be both utterly beyond humans and yet is shared with humans. In the West different terminologies and approaches were used to explain this same reality, but the results are fundamentally the same.

Energy is the immanence and activity of a thing, the extension of its form. As St. John of Damascus explains, cutting is the energy of a blade, and burning is the energy of flame. These things are defined by their energy, and their energy arises directly from their natures. With God we can’t speak of energy being something separate from the Divine Nature since God is simple, so when the Divine Energy acts in something it is Divinity acting in it, and when a human soul acquires Divine “traits” the soul is receiving Divinity Itself.

To put it in terms more clear to Latin thinking, when God bestows Grace on a person He is not merely giving a nominal favor, as some Protestant theologians argue, but is actually sharing the Divine Nature Itself with them, albeit in a different mode than He possesses It Himself. Barlaam argued that this sharing was not possible, and that Divine Nature remains wholly distant from humanity and can be approached only through intellectual pursuits, while St. Gregory argued that God directly shares His Nature with the Faithful and that through Grace (and prayer) we can have a real, direct experience of Divinity. Barlaam argued that such direct participation in Divinity was impossible because the Divine Nature is beyond human nature, and that if humans possessed the Divine Nature they would cease to be, and Palamas countered that we share in the Divine Energy (infused Grace and Divine activity, to use more Western terminology) but not the Divine Essence (Being God in Himself). This usage of the terms “energy” and “essence” is foreign to Latin thinking, but the ideas themselves are not. The bottom line question is do humans really possess Divinity through Grace, and Latin tradition (like St. Gregory Palamas) has firmly come down with the answer “absolutely yes”.

The specifics of the hesychastic method of prayer are another issue, of course, with intertwining elements of theology and practical technique. Depending on what you read it can be as simple as deep contemplative prayer along the lines of St. Theresa of Avila or involve more complex breathing rituals and repetitions of specific prayers. The ultimate goal is making oneself a fitting dwelling of Divinity and experiencing this Divinity, however, and falls squarely within the category of contemplative prayer in a Western sense.

Hope that helps!

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Thanks, Ghosty. Very helpful explanations.

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