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The personal relationship of Saint Gregory Palamas with the Theotokos

St Gregory Palamas and his holy family

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, from his book Saint Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite

Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlahos of Nafpaktos

Every Saint loves the Panaghia. Sainthood is not understood without this Theotokophilia. It occurs because the Saints, after tasting the Love of God, communing of the Body and Blood of Christ, and experiencing the gifts of the incarnation of Christ, feel the need to give thanks also to that person who was the cause of this great joy. It is well known that the Saints are very sensitive and are therefore grateful for even the smallest gifts which they receive, and much more for the great gift of the deification of human nature, which came about in the Tomb of the Theotokos. She gave her flesh to the Son and Word of God for His incarnation.

This is also the case with St. Gregory Palamas. However, the Saint felt love for the Panaghia also for other reasons. He was granted to see her in his life; he was her protege. We shall give more details to demonstrate this truth, as his biographer Philotheos Kokkinos, Patriarch of Constantinople, describes them.

The first indication is the fact that from an early age he was given into the protection of the Theotokos by his father. Before his father died, St. Gregory’s mother asked him to ask the emperor to protect his children. That Saintly man not only did not accept her words, but rebuked her in a way and said to her. “I do not leave my children to some earthly rulers, but I leave my children to the Mistress of all, the mother of the King of heaven.” And indeed at the time when he said these things he was looking at the icon of the Theotokos which was in front of him. St. Philotheos says in the biography of St. Gregory that the words of his holy father came true, because the Theotokos herself persuaded the emperor to take care of the orphan children, and also later “she was seen to be their protectress and guide, and in every way the saviour of both their souls and their bodies.”

The second circumstance which shows that his father’s prophetic words were actually fulfilled and the Theotokos was a wonderful sponsor, governess and guide, came from the period of his studies. At the beginning of his studies the Saint had difficulty in memorizing. Then he placed a restriction on himself not to come near the books and not to begin reading without first having knelt three time before the icon of the Theotokos, saying a prayer at the same time. When he did this every day he succeeded very easily in memorizing and reciting the lessons. But if he sometimes forgot to follow this rule even the recitation failed right away. At the same time, as Philotheos says, the Panaghia persuaded the emperor to be the guardian of the children and to assume all their personal expenses. Furthermore the emperor showed particular sympathy, for he invited them to come to see him and talked with them in a kind and loving way.

The third sign is from the period of his asceticism on Mount Athos. Immediately after he came to the Holy Mountain he gave himself over with great zeal to ascesis, fasting, vigil and unceasing prayer. It is significant, according to the information of St. Philotheos Kokkinos, that he prayed unceasingly to the Theotokos. He prayed day and night to God, projecting the Mother of God “as guide, protector and mediator, all the time bringing before his eyes her aid and her countenance, with words and prayers and noetic movements, and pondering the way of obedience with her guidance.” So in the first two years the Saint was praying constantly to God, with the Panaghia as his guide and mediator. The prayer which he was saying at that time was “enlighten my darkness.”

During a great stillness, while his nous had turned inward and to God, John the Evangelist appeared to him, not in a dream, but in a vision, and assured him that he had been sent “as a messenger from the Queen beyond,” to find out why he was constantly praying: “Enlighten my darkness, enlighten my darkness.” St. Gregory replied that, since he is a passionate man, he was praying to be enlightened by God to be conformed to His saving will. Then John the Evangelist said: “Do not be afraid, do not doubt… the Queen of all is giving the order through us: ‘I myself will be your help’.” And when again St. Gregory asked when the Theotokos would be his help and ally, in the present or future life, then the Evangelist replied: “Both before and now, and in both the present and the future.”

This appearance of St. John the Evangelist, sent by the Most Holy Theotokos, was revealed by St. Gregory himself years later to his fellow-monk Dorotheos, later Metropolitan of Thessaloniki. It is characteristic that the Theotokos heard the prayer and assured him that, just as long ago, so also now and in the future, she would be his helper and defender, and moreover, that she was filling him with divine gifts.

The fourth sign is the revelation which the Theotokos herself made to St. Gregory. It was at the time when he had returned to the Lavra, but he was staying at St. Savas frontisterion outside the Monastery of the Great Lavra. He once prayed for himself and his fellow monk to the Panaghia, “the usual governor and deliverer,” that both their guidance and their journey toward God might be unimpeded, but also that they might have what they needed for their nourishment, in order not to be very much occupied with collecting supplies and neglect prayer. Then the Panaghia, the Queen of all, appeared in a vision, “dressed modestly and purely,” just as the holy icons present her. Many saints had appeared and were following her. Then the Theotokos turned and gave them the order to serve St. Gregory and his companion: “From now on you are to be stewards and distributors of the necessities for Gregory and his companion.” And St. Gregory was assured that from then on “all that was necessary for our bodily needs was offered us without effort wherever we happened to be.”

From what we have said it is clear that St. Gregory Palamas had a close relationship and communion with the Theotokos. All the things that he writes about her, which we shall see further on, are obviously not dry, intellectual thoughts and reasoning conjectures, but experiences of the Panaghia. This explains his great love for her. We can also see the progressive manifestation and revelation of the Theotokos. At first, through his father’s prayer, she took up his protection. Then she showed him clearly that he must trust in her, for she would protect him throughout his studies. Then, through John the Evangelist, she assured him that she would be his helper and protector, and finally she herself was revealed personally. Throughout his life the Saint was convinced that he had the protection and help of the Theotokos, and therefore he struggled with strength and courage, expounded the theology of the Church in an Orthodox way and defeated the heresies of his time.

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