Gregory Palamas. The Triads. Translated by Nicholas Gendle. London: SPCK, 1983. 172pp.
Palamas’s treatise the Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts is presented in this translation under six headings: Philosophy does not save; Apophatic theology as positive experience; The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body; Deification in Christ; The uncreated glory; and Essence and energies in God. The translation is a selection of those passages which are most representative of Palamas’s thought. Whilst this is a polemical work against the Calabrian philosopher Barlaam, Palamas has set out – in line with the tradition of the Fathers – an authentic exposition of the hesychastic way of life, and by extension the Christian way of life.
Though his work primarily defends the hesychastic way of life and the vision of the uncreated light which the hesychast monks experience, Palamas’s repeated references to scripture, and his concern for those who have not “departed the world” to live the hesychastic life, affirm that this experience is accessible to all Christians. Herein lies a significant contribution of Palamas’s work – union with God is not the domain of a select few, but available to all who observe God’s commandments – a theme which pervades the treatise. The framework in which the hesychasts “operate” is specifically oriented and supportive of combating evil as well as maintaining constant remembrance of God, yet the ultimate goal of such a life is accessible to all and a common call for all who wish to live in Christ: it is a way of life culminating in the love of God and pure and perfect love for neighbour.
The treatise holds a special place in Church tradition as it laid the foundation for the doctrine of the essence and energies in God, which describe the manner in which the created world can experience the uncreated God in all his splendour and glory, whilst God’s essence for ever remains imparticipable.The vision of the uncreated light and union with God is in fact an experience of the unoriginate and uncreated God which Palamas affirms throughout his treatise. Palamas demonstrates this reality by finding recourse in the teachings of the Fathers, the witness of scripture, and more importantly the experience of the saints. It is this experience which he consistently claims throughout his work to be the ultimate presupposition for true knowledge of God. Precisely for this reason he refuted Barlaam who propounded the superiority of knowledge deriving from learning and study, as far more inferior to the knowledge which comes from direct participation in the energies of God:
These things escape and transcend the intellect of one who seeks merely in a theoretical way, and not knowledge of them by practise and the experience that comes through it. Such a man impiously lays hands on the sacred and wickedly rends apart the holy, for he does not approach these things with that faith which alone can attain to the truth that lies above reason (52).
In addition to the exposition of the essence and energies of God and the theological arguments with which Palamas sought to affirm the possibility of an immediate experience of God, but not of His divine essence, it was his express purpose to show how the hesychasts attained such an experience, for their method, as alluded to earlier, had implications for a far greater context. Palamas’s method was in contradistinction to the epistemological method of Barlaam which was centred on knowledge of the natural sciences. He wanted to demonstrate the futility of Barlaam’s method as opposed to the humble approach of the hesychasts: the observance of the commandments; prayer which leads to purity of the heart; and the elevation of the mind (detachment from sensible things), which lead to the vision of the divine light along with other gifts of the Spirit.
Palamas also emphasizes the distinction between the gift of grace and the gift of nature which is inferior and requires effort and exercise. The gift of grace is a sacred wisdom which has a holistic and transformative effect on the recipient. Whilst natural knowledge can become an instrument for good, it is not a gift of God ‘for it pertains to the order of nature and is not sent from on high’ (29). Palamas wrote that this sacred wisdom is of a spiritual nature which is salvific, purifying and deifying. Indeed, one of the reasons why Palamas argued for the uncreated light was because of its power to deify the person. It was the very light the apostles experienced on Mt Tabor, the fullness of divinity dwelling in the humanity of Christ.
Although Palamas consistently emphasizes the incomprehensibility of the vision of light, he does not shy away from describing some of its effects: an out of body experience; elevation of the person to an ‘ineffable height’; body becomes immersed in the light and accessible ‘to the bodily eyes’; indwelling of God; a sustenance – ‘the bread that came down from on high’ (57, 58); resistance to ‘evil pleasures and passions’; ‘inner peace’; ‘stilling of thoughts’; ‘spiritual repose and joy’; ‘contempt of human glory’; humility; inner rejoicing; ‘hatred of the world’; love of God (90). Barlaam was so far removed from the experience of the uncreated light that he repeatedly denied it as an experience of the divine. Any such experience he considered as illusory and symbolic.
Palamas wrote that it is only through faith that one can become a god by grace, and Barlaam’s failure to submit to the doctrine of Palamas led him to heresy and a perverted concept of God. For instance, Barlaam claimed that the experience of light was nothing but the self-contemplation of the image of God when a person had been freed from all ignorance. Therefore, lacking authentic experience, Barlaam misinterpreted the mystical Christian tradition and ruled out a transcendent experience of God by reducing it to a natural phenomenon achieved through worldly knowledge.
This treatise is obligatory for an understanding of the hesychast controversy of the 14th century. Presenting the theology of the essence and energies distinction, which was always part of the Orthodox tradition, though not clarified and formulated as a dogma of the Church, this book forms a vital part of Holy Tradition insofar as it provides a faithful witness to the mystical Christian tradition. As Palamas stated throughout his work, it is in the light of the Holy Spirit that the light is seen – the very light that has guided faithful Christians into all truth.