The feast of St. Gregory Palamas is celebrated twice a year, on the second Sunday of Lent following the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy and today, the day of his repose.
St. Gregory was born in Constantinople in 1296. His father, who reposed when Gregory was only seven years old, enjoyed a prominent position in the Imperial Court as a member of the Senate and a Councilor of the Royal Court. He was entrusted by the Emperor to be the tutor of his grandson, who came to be the next emperor. Despite his father's repose, St. Gregory enjoyed a privileged youth growing up near the Emperor and being educated by the most gifted philosophers and theologians of the time.
Following these studies, St. Gregory left for the Holy Mountain and became a monk. At the same time, his mother and two of his sisters also went to convents in Thessaloniki. In 1325, St. Gregory was ordained an hieromonk. In 1335 he was chosen as Abbot of the Esphigmenou Monastery but afterward stepped down and pursued the hesychastic life until he was asked to defend the Athonite monks against the charges launched by Barlaam the Calabrian. This conflict has commonly been termed the Hesychast Controversy. Later, he was ordained Archbishop of Thessaloniki. During this period, he was sent to Constantinople where the Turks captured him. After having been ransomed, he spent all his time with his flock in Thessaloniki during which period we have a significant portion of the homilies he delivered. He reposed on November 14, 1359. Nine years after his death, he was canonized and placed on the official calendar of the Hagia Sophia.
In his introductory work on the saint, Professor Papademetriou writes,
[Saint Gregory] Palamas did not construct a theological or philosophical system, nor was he a teacher writing academic theology. He was himself a man of prayer – a theologian who devoted himself to prayer, and when the Church was attacked, he was called upon to use his talents to defend it.[i]
Central to the controversy which St. Gregory was involved in is the question “What is the aim of the Christian life?” In its simplest answer, we can say, it is theosis which is the Greek word, usually translated into English as deification. It is a word that expresses the union of the Christian to God.
Further emphasizing this union, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae writes, “Orthodox spirituality aims at the perfection of the faithful in Christ. This perfection can’t be obtained in Christ, except by participation in His divine-human life. Therefore the goal of Orthodox spirituality is the perfection of the believer by his union with Christ.”[ii]
This word cannot be rendered adequately in any modern language and can appear difficult to understand. Yet the term is used and defined when we read the Fathers of the Church, past and the present.
It is found in the writings of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons and, a hundred years later, in the works of St. Athanasius the Great. St. Irenaeus wrote, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”[iii] In the letter to Adelphium, St. Athanasius writes: “For He [i.e., God] has become Man, that He might deify us in Himself”[iv] and in his work entitled On the Incarnation he says, “For He [i.e., the Word] was made man that we might be made God.”[v]
This union with God is not to be confused with an absorption into God in a pantheistic sense like a drop of water into the ocean. Nor is it to be confused with a human relationship wherein is a union between those who love each other. Instead, this union with God is brought about by the grace of God which transforms and deifies man. It is not a by-product of intellection or virtue. As Saint Gregory writes,
Through grace God in His entirety penetrates the saints in their entirety, and the saints in their entirety penetrate God entirely, exchanging the whole of Him for themselves, and acquiring Him alone as the reward of their ascent towards Him; for He embraces them as the soul embraces the body, enabling them to be in Him as His own members.[vi]
God is the Creator and we the created. Some describe this distance as God being “holy” and “other” than us, but He is not entirely so because He still communicates Himself to us in a manner that imparts His life to us. St. Gregory describes this with the analogy of the sun. For us humans, the sun is out of reach, yet we experience the sun’s rays, its solar energy, and heat. In this same way, we are unable to grasp God’s essence, but we can experience Him through His energies. The experience of God in this way and the transformation that it brings about is called theosis-deification. In the words of Professor Papademetriou, “This does not mean that we become God but are instead filled with his energies such as love and grace. As the energy of the sun is in the plants as chlorophyll, yet the plant does not become the sun, in the same way, we participate in the divine energies, and our person is filled with God’s uncreated energies, and we attain theosis…”[vii]
This union with God is not a “manner of speaking” or something symbolical as though we appear perfect or “justified” without actually being so. Rather, as Metropolitan Kallistos writes, “Our theosis is in no sense merely symbolical or metaphorical: it is a genuine and specific reality, a pure gift of grace experienced even in this present life.”[viii] Moreover, it is this experience of God that is central to the Christian life. As Fr. Georges notes, “The ultimate purpose of St. Gregory’s theological teaching was to defend the reality of Christian experience. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man.”[ix]
How does this happen? Although this transformation is not apparent in the body because of bodily weakness, and the death, yet in regards to the soul, it begins in Baptism, as St. Gregory writes,
This bodily renewal is seen now through faith and hope rather than with our eyes, not being reality yet. The soul’s renewal, on the other hand, begins… with holy baptism through the remission of sins and is nourished and grows through righteousness in faith. The soul is continually renewed in the knowledge of God and the virtues associated with this knowledge, and will reach perfection in the future contemplation of God face to face. Now, however, it sees through a glass darkly.[x]
In his sixteenth homily, St. Gregory describes this transformation noting that it is “complex.” He writes,
There is a starting point and perfection, and an intermediate stage in between. The grace of baptism, which is called the washing of regeneration, inaugurates this action in us, providing remission of all our sins and of the guilt of the curse. Perfection will come with the resurrection of life for which believers hope, and the promise of the age to come. The intermediate stage is life according to Christ’s gospel, by which the godly person is nourished, grows, and is renewed, making progress day by day in the knowledge of God, righteousness, and sanctification. Gradually he reduces and cuts away his eagerness for things below, and transfers his longing from what is visible, physical and temporary to what is invisible, spiritual and eternal.[xi]
In another work, St. Gregory, referring to the keeping of the Lord’s commandments, writes:
For the Lord has promised to manifest Himself to the man who keeps [His commandments], a manifestation He calls His indwelling and that of the Father, saying, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and will make our abode wth him, and “I will manifest Myself to him.”[xii]
In this way, God’s presence within a person is not related to his intelligence. Rather, it is through the fulfillment of the commandments. For St. Gregory, the fulfillment of the commandments has no other result than the purification of the passions and, according to God’s promise, only this keeping of the commandments will procure the presence, the indwelling, and manifestation of God.[xiii]
Fathers, brothers, sisters although our theosis is a great mystery and its magnitude towers over our understanding, yet St. Gregory tells us simply keep the commandments and God will unite you to Himself.THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF SAINT GREGORY, LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
[i] Papademetriou, George C. Introduction to St. Gregory Palamas (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004), 42.
[ii] Orthodox Spirituality (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 21.
[iii] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus; Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Roberts, A. and Donaldson, J. (Peabody, Hendrickson Publishing, 1999) 1:526ff.
[iv] St. Athanasius the Great, “Ad Adelphium” in Athanasius: Select Works and Letters ; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Schaff, P. and Wace, H. (Peabody, Hendrickson Publishing, 1999) 4:576f.
[v] St. Athanasius the Great, “Incarnation of the Word” in Athanasius: Select Works and Letters ; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Schaff, P. and Wace, H. (Peabody, Hendrickson Publishing, 1999) 4:65ff.
[vi] Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Philip, and Ware, Kallistos eds. & trans. “The declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defence of Those who Devoutly Practise a Life of Stillness” in The Philokalia (London: Faber&Faber, 1995), 4:421.
[vii] Introduction., 42-43.
[viii] Palmer, G.E.H.,Sherrard,Philip, and Ware, Kallistos eds. & trans. The Philokalia (London: Faber&Faber, 1995), 4:292.
[ix]“St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers”
[x] “Homily Sixteen” in Saint Gregory Palama: The Homilies, C. Veniamin, ed & trans (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), 131.
[xi] The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas. Christopher Veniamin, ed. (Waymart: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2008), 97.
[xii] The Triads, Meyendorff, John ed. and Gendle, Nicholas trans. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1983), 61.
[xiii] The Triads, 59.