Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos
St. Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite
This book presents the life, work and teaching of St Gregory Palamas as they relate to his identity as a monk of the Holy Mountain. In the consciousness of the Church as a whole, St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, is not just a great Father of the Church and an Ecumenical Teacher, but belongs to the company of the Three Hierarchs and the three great Theologians of the Church, as “The Fourth Hierarch and Theologian”.
Drawing on information provided by St Philotheos, St Gregory’s biographer, the author describes the Saint’s life from childhood, before he moved to the Holy Mountain. Subsequently we see the Saint as monk, priest, Abbot and Metropolitan, and it is stressed that he was a true Hagiorite, not only because he stayed on the Holy Mountain, but because he lived the life of the Holy Mountain. We learn about the Saint’s gifts and virtues, but also his temptations, which he regarded as a special blessing from God. The Saint’s teaching is an expression of the life which he encountered on the Holy Mountain, that is to say, the hesychastic way of life which is the essence of the Orthodox tradition.
The core of the Saint’s teaching can be found in his dispute with the speculative philosopher Barlaam. He overturned Barlaam’s erroneous views and laid down the theological conditions for noetic prayer. He demonstrated that noetic prayer is found in the tradition of the Church, and is not just the prerogative of monks, but can be practised by all Christians. By setting out in theological terms the value of fasting, vigil, tears and compunction, and also analysing the importance of the senses during the practice of noetic prayer, he teaches us that the body cannot be overlooked in man’s effort to be purified. In fact, he explains that the grace of God acts in the soul and from there is carried over into the body as well.
In the chapter entitled “Monasticism and Monks” there is an analysis of the Saint’s teaching on the monastic life, which he places within an Orthodox theological framework. A subsequent chapter called “The Essence of Orthodox Monasticism” includes a commentary on the central points of the Saint’s letter “to the most reverend nun Xeni”. It explains who is a true monk, what the passions are, how the cure of the tripartite soul can be achieved, and what poverty of spirit and blessed mourning are. Orthodox hesychia and purity of the nous are defined as the basis and foundation of the monastic life. The method of prayer adopted by monks, and by all the Hagiorite Fathers, is upheld as the only one that leads to true knowledge of God. In all his writings the Saint links monastic life with the theology of the Church.
The reader will discern that it was through the theology of the Church that the Saint confronted the various social problems that were occupying the people, his flock. In the chapter “His Social Teaching, a Dimension of the Monastic Life” we read about the Saint’s social teaching, which is the fruit of the hesychastic life which he led on the Holy Mountain. This chapter also looks in detail at the Saint’s relations with the Zealots of Thessaloniki and the whole phenomenon of zealotism in that period.
The chapter “The Keeper of the Holy Mountain” gives an account of the Saint’s close relationship with the Mother of God. He was deemed worthy see her in his lifetime, and to be taken under her protection. The Saint’s homilies on the Feasts of the Mother of God are characteristic, culminating in his sermon on the Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God, where it is emphasised that hesychasm is the true Orthodox way of life and the essence of the Orthodox Tradition.
Through the chapter “The Hagiorite Tome” we learn about the declaration composed by the Saint. This is a summary of all his teaching, in which he expresses the experience of the Holy Mountain, and which also became the doctrine of the Church. Reference is made to the important issue of the distinction between essence and energy in God. It speaks of God’s uncreated energies without beginning, which proceed from His essence. It teaches about the natural condition of the nous, which is its return to the heart, and about the distinction between nous and reasoning, and between nous and sense. The purpose of man is shown to be deification: his union with God, which is the vision of the uncreated Light. The fact is also underlined that only experienced saints are true teachers of Orthodox theology.
In the next chapter, “The Vision of God on the Mountain”, the writer refers to contemporary Hagiorite witnesses of deification, who show the value and importance of the Holy Mountain. In his interpretation of the great event of the Transfiguration of Christ, the Saint stresses that the ascetic method and participation in the sacraments of the Church are essential prerequisites for the vision of the uncreated Light.
From studying the complete work we realise just how significant a contribution has been made by the teaching of St Gregory of Palamas, who first acquired a personal knowledge of God, then went on to become an unerring theologian, preacher and teacher of the uncreated Light. He preserved all the true presuppositions of Orthodox theology and gave expression to the experience of the Holy Mountain, which is also the experience of the Orthodox Church.