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Saint Gregory Palamas

Updated on July 13, 2012
A Holy Icon of Saint Gregory Palamas
A Holy Icon of Saint Gregory Palamas

Saint Gregory Palamas, Theologian of Hesychasm

Saint Gregory Palamas is not very widely venerated by the Catholic Church; in fact, his status as a recognized Saint is somewhat controversial. However, the Melkite Catholic Church, one of the Eastern Rite Churches in communion with Rome and as fully Catholic as the Latin Catholic Church, venerates him as a Saint.

Apparently His Holiness Blessed Pope John Paul II gave some clarification on the issue when, in the months following his assassination attempt in 1981, he supposedly recognized Gregory Palamas as a Saint. In the book "How Not to Say Mass" by Father Dennis C. Smolarski,S.J., Father Smolarski says that Blessed Pope John Paul II referred to Gregory as Saint Palamas while speaking before a group of mixed Eastern Orthodox and Catholics. However, this claim is disputed, as the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano only records an Orthodox Bishop referring to Gregory Palamas as a Saint.

In 1971 the Holy Synod approved allowing the commemoration of Saint Palamas during Great Lent due to the use of his theology in several Melkite Catholic prayers, and from then on the Melkite Catholics chose to officially commemorate him. For this reason in particular it can be said with reasonable confidence that the Vatican has no issues with the Melkite Catholic Church in regards to recognizing Gregory Palamas as a Saint.

The Church is not certain about many details of the early life of Saint Palamas. He was probably born in Constantinople of a noble Anatolian family (Anatolian refers to the region where Constantinople is located; it comprises most of the modern day Republic of Turkey). Even as a child he was attracted to the monastic life. Somewhere close to the year 1318 his brothers and him went to Mount Athos in modern day Macedonia to study Hesychasm, a mystical tradition of prayer based on experiencing God directly before trying to understand Him with the intellect. Saint Palamas later ended up becoming one of the premier defenders of Hesychastic prayer.

In 1318 the encroachment of the Turks forced Saint Palamas to flee to the Greek island of Thessalonica; it was there he was ordained a Priest in the year 1326. After this Saint Palamas lived as a hermit at a mountain near Beroea in Northern Greece, but he eventually returned to Athos in 1331.

In 1337 Saint Palamas got involved in a controversy with a Greek monk named Barlaam. Barlaam believed that philosophers had greater knowledge of God than the prophets and valued education and learning over contemplative prayer. He believed the monks at Mount Athos were wasting their time praying instead of studying to gain intellectual knowledge.

Saint Palamas criticized the extreme rationalism of Barlaam, prompting Barlaam to make a vicious attack on the hesychastic monks. The Saint responded with a brilliant scholarly work known as "Triads in defense of the Holy Hesychasts" (c. 1338). Saint Palamas's teaching was supported by the other monks in a council held in 1340-41.

In 1341 a Synod in Constantinople affirmed the Saint's views and condemned Barlaam's teachings. Two more Synods that met in 1347 and 1351 also supported Saint Palamas. The Eastern Orthodox generally look at these three Synods together where they comprise the Ninth Ecumenical Council; however, Catholics give it no such distinction.

Between the Synods of 1347 and 1351 Saint Palamas wrote a concise explosition of his theology known as "One Hundred and Fifty Chapters". It is from this work that we get the most knowledge about the Saint's theology.

In 1347 Saint Palamas was made the Archbishop of Thessalonica, but due to the political climate he could not actually take up his See until 1350. While voyaging to the Imperial Capital he was captured by the Turks and held for over a year. He died in 1359. The Orthodox Church glorified him (recognized him officially as a Saint) in 1368. Melkite Catholics cannot technically accept Orthodox glorification as official; however, Melkite Catholic tradition recognizes Gregory Palamas as a Saint.

Saint Palamas's theology became extremely influential in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches. His theology is now known to us as Palamism. Palamistic theology is very complex and especially difficult for Latin Catholics to understand. Palamas teaches that we can only know God by what he called his energies; that is, we can know what God does and who He is in relation to mankind. It is, however, impossible for us to know the essence of god, or what God actually is. Palamism is a way to reconcile two seemingly contradictory ideas about God; on one hand, God is far greater than we are and it will always be impossible for our puny minds to ever truly understand him.

On the other hand, God has revealed certain things about Himself to humanity through the Prophets and the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is from what He has revealed to us that we get our knowledge about Him.

Saint Palamas also talks of the Apostles seeing the uncreated light of God. The easiest way to explain this to Latin Catholics is that the uncreated light refers to the Glory of God revealed to the Apostles at the Transfiguration and to the Saints in Heaven. The Saints experience the true Glory of God that He reveals to us, but it is still impossible for our human minds to understand God's true nature.

This relates to how the Saints in Heaven experience God's glory. Latin theology refers to the Beatific Vision, or being in the Presence of God; this is the ultimate joy of Heaven. Palamistic theology, by contrast, claims that we cannot see God's true essence. Heaven is a never-ending process of theosis, or becoming more like God and understanding more of Him. This wonderful process that is the source of our ultimate joy will continue forever, since it is impossible for creatures to truly know everything about God. There is a certain beauty to the thought that humanity will never stop learning and never stop improving; in Palamistic theology, Heaven is anything but boring!

Saint Gregory Palamas is still very prevalent throughout the Eastern Catholic Churches, and he is undoubtedly a wonderful Saint for the Melkite Catholics to venerate. He is not officially a Patron Saint of anything, although we might perhaps call him a Father of the Melkite Catholic Church and the Patron Saint of Hesychasm. His Feast Day is recognized on the Second Sunday of Great Lent.


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    • KhachkarPress profile image

      KhachkarPress 3 years ago

      He might be controversial to Latin Catholics, but he has never been so in the East. Interestingly, there are a number of "post schism" saints who are venerated in the East. Saint Gregory of Narek, who Pope Francis recently declared a doctor of the church, was not in communion with Rome during his lifetime.

    • MarcAnthony profile image

      MarcAnthony 5 years ago

      Thank you once again for the compliment! I'm trying to find Saints that are interesting. This can mean a lot of things. For example, Adam and Eve were interesting Saints because so few people realized they were Saints.

      My articles on the three Emperors were interesting because Constantine and Charlemagne are both extremely famous yet so little known as Saints and Blesseds, and very few people realize that a 20th century Emperor of a country that participated in WWI would ever be eligible for Sainthood!

      Saint Raphael was interesting because he's an Angel-Saint, yet so little known in comparison to the other two Angel-Saints, Gabriel and Michael.

      Saint Palamas was interesting because so few people know about him. He was a real challenge to write, probably the hardest article I've written so far, because his theology is so foreign to Western Christianity! It's interesting stuff.

    • profile image

      Janhorner 5 years ago

      I love reading about these Saints. To be honest, never heard of this one so now I am more wiser. As always your hubs are very well written and I enjoyed the learning.


    • MarcAnthony profile image

      MarcAnthony 5 years ago

      Thank you!

      It took me about as long to write the two paragraphs on Palamistic theology as it did to write the entire rest of the article!

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      Credo ergo sum 5 years ago

      Very nice! Well done!