St. Gregory Palamas
His Life and Wisdom
If the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas were summed up in one sentence, it would be this:Through Christian works of love and charity, as modeled after the love of Jesus Christ that is revealed to us by Christ’s offering of his life for us on the Cross, we have a true and real encounter with God—God is indeed present with us in a real and concrete way. St. Gregory Palamas is a saint because, through is life and teachings, we see that Jesus Christ is truly present in his people. Indeed, that is why we can paint and icon of St. Gregory. Not because St. Gregory is a god and deserves worship—because only God is worshiped—but
because St. Gregory’s life points to Christ—Christ is revealed in St. Gregory.
Hymns for St. Gregory
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation,
O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians,
O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace,
always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.
Holy and divine instrument of wisdom,
joyful trumpet of theology,
together we sing your praises, O God-inspired Gregory.
Since you now stand before the Original Mind, guide our minds to Him, O Father,
so that we may sing to you: “Rejoice, preacher of grace.”
Here, St. Gregory’s life is summarized from the writings of the lives of the saints:
Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, was born in the year 1296 in
Constantinople. Saint Gregory’s father became a prominent dignitary at the court of Andronicus
II Paleologos (1282-1328), but he soon died, and Andronicus himself took part in the raising and
education of the fatherless boy. Endowed with fine abilities and great diligence, Gregory
mastered all the subjects which then comprised the full course of medieval higher education. The
emperor hoped that the youth would devote himself to government work. But Gregory, barely
twenty years old, withdrew to Mount Athos in the year 1316 (other sources say 1318) and
became a novice in the Vatopedi monastery under the guidance of the monastic Elder Saint
Nicodemus of Vatopedi (July 11). There he was tonsured and began on the path of asceticism. A
year later, the holy Evangelist John the Theologian appeared to him in a vision and promised him
his spiritual protection. Gregory’s mother and sisters also became monastics.
After the demise of the Elder Nicodemus, Saint Gregory spent eight years of spiritual struggle
under the guidance of the Elder Nicephorus, and after the latter’s death, Gregory transferred to
the Lavra of Saint Athanasius (July 5). Here he served in the trapeza, and then became a church
singer. But after three years, he resettled in the small skete of Glossia, striving for a greater
degree of spiritual perfection. The head of this monastery began to teach the young man the
method of unceasing prayer and mental activity, which had been cultivated by monastics,
beginning with the great desert ascetics of the fourth century: Evagrius Pontikos and Saint
Macarius of Egypt (January 19).
Later on, in the eleventh century, Saint Simeon the New Theologian (March 12) had provided
detailed instruction in mental activity for those praying in an outward manner, and the ascetics of
Athos put it into practice. The experienced use of mental prayer (or prayer of the heart),
requiring solitude and quiet, is called “Hesychasm” (from the Greek “hesychia” meaning calm,
silence), and those practicing it were called “hesychasts.”
During his stay at Glossia the future hierarch Gregory became fully imbued with the spirit of
hesychasm and adopted it as an essential part of his life. In the year 1326, because of the threat
of Turkish invasions, he and the brethren retreated to Thessalonica, where he was then ordained
to the holy priesthood.
Saint Gregory combined his priestly duties with the life of a hermit. Five days of the week he
spent in silence and prayer, and only on Saturday and Sunday did he come out to his people. He
celebrated divine services and preached sermons. For those present in church, his teaching often
evoked both tenderness and tears. Sometimes he visited theological gatherings of the city’s
educated youth, headed by the future patriarch, Isidore. After he returned from a visit to
Constantinople, he found a place suitable for solitary life near Thessalonica the region of Bereia.
Soon he gathered here a small community of solitary monks and guided it for five years.
In 1331 the saint withdrew to Mt Athos and lived in solitude at the skete of Saint Sava, near the
Lavra of Saint Athanasius. In 1333 he was appointed Igumen of the Esphigmenou monastery in
the northern part of the Holy Mountain. In 1336 the saint returned to the skete of Saint Sava,
where he devoted himself to theological works, continuing with this until the end of his life.</br
In the 1330s events took place in the life of the Eastern Church which put Saint Gregory among
the most significant universal apologists of Orthodoxy, and brought him great renown as a
teacher of hesychasm.
About the year 1330 the learned monk Barlaam had arrived in Constantinople from Calabria, in
Italy. He was the author of treatises on logic and astronomy, a skilled and sharp-witted orator,
and he received a university chair in the capital city and began to expound on the works of Saint
Dionysius the Areopagite (October 3), whose “apophatic” (“negative”, in contrast to
“kataphatic” or “positive”) theology was acclaimed in equal measure in both the Eastern and the
Western Churches. Soon Barlaam journeyed to Mt Athos, where he became acquainted with the
spiritual life of the hesychasts. Saying that it was impossible to know the essence of God, he
declared mental prayer a heretical error. Journeying from Mount Athos to Thessalonica, and
from there to Constantinople, and later again to Thessalonica, Barlaam entered into disputes with
the monks and attempted to demonstrate the created, material nature of the light of Tabor (i.e. at
the Transfiguration). He ridiculed the teachings of the monks about the methods of prayer and
about the uncreated light seen by the hesychasts.
Saint Gregory, at the request of the Athonite monks, replied with verbal admonitions at first. But
seeing the futility of such efforts, he put his theological arguments in writing. Thus appeared the
“Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts” (1338). Towards the year 1340 the Athonite ascetics,
with the assistance of the saint, compiled a general response to the attacks of Barlaam, the so-
called “Hagiorite Tome.” At the Constantinople Council of 1341 in the church of Hagia Sophia
Saint Gregory Palamas debated with Barlaam, focusing upon the nature of the light of Mount
Tabor. On May 27, 1341 the Council accepted the position of Saint Gregory Palamas, that God,
unapproachable in His Essence, reveals Himself through His energies, which are directed
towards the world and are able to be perceived, like the light of Tabor, but which are neither
material nor created. The teachings of Barlaam were condemned as heresy, and he himself was
anathemized and fled to Calabria.
But the dispute between the Palamites and the Barlaamites was far from over. To these latter
belonged Barlaam’s disciple, the Bulgarian monk Akyndinos, and also Patriarch John XIV
Kalekos (1341-1347); the emperor Andronicus III Paleologos (1328-1341) was also inclined
toward their opinion. Akyndinos, whose name means “one who inflicts no harm,” actually
caused great harm by his heretical teaching. Akyndinos wrote a series of tracts in which he
declared Saint Gregory and the Athonite monks guilty of causing church disorders. The saint, in
turn, wrote a detailed refutation of Akyndinos’ errors. The patriarch supported Akyndinos and
called Saint Gregory the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church (1344) and had
him locked up in prison for four years. In 1347, when John the XIV was replaced on the
patriarchal throne by Isidore (1347-1349), Saint Gregory Palamas was set free and was made
Archbishop of Thessalonica.
In 1351 the Council of Blachernae solemnly upheld the Orthodoxy of his teachings. But the
people of Thessalonica did not immediately accept Saint Gregory, and he was compelled to live
in various places. On one of his travels to Constantinople the Byzantine ship fell into the hands
of the Turks. Even in captivity, Saint Gregory preached to Christian prisoners and even to his
Moslem captors. The Hagarenes were astonished by the wisdom of his words. Some of the
Moslems were unable to endure this, so they beat him and would have killed him if they had not
expected to obtain a large ransom for him. A year later, Saint Gregory was ransomed and
returned to Thessalonica.
Saint Gregory performed many miracles in the three years before his death, healing those
afflicted with illness. On the eve of his repose, Saint John Chrysostom appeared to him in a
vision. With the words “To the heights! To the heights!” Saint Gregory Palamas fell asleep in the
Lord on November 14, 1359. In 1368 he was canonized at a Constantinople Council under
Patriarch Philotheus (1354-1355, 1364-1376), who compiled the Life and Services to the saint,