The First Sunday of Lent is dedicated to celebrating the Triumph of Orthodoxy – the victory of Orthodoxy over the heresy of iconoclasm. The Second Sunday of Lent is likewise dedicated to another triumph of Orthodoxy – the victory achieved by the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas.
In the fourteenth century two men left their homes to become monks. Gregory Palamas, the son of a Byzantine noble family left the possibility of an illustrious career at the imperial court to join a monastic community on Mount Athos. Barlaam of Calabria, a Greek-Italian, left his home in Italy to find monastic life in the East. Barlaam sought out some monks to learn about prayer from them. They taught him their techniques and told him that a particular fruit of deep inner prayer was a vision of God as uncreated light. Barlaam was shocked to hear this. The idea that God could be seen by people seemed to go against the principle that God is transcendent – totally other. Instead Barlaam taught that we cannot know God directly – the divine light and other divine revelations are simply created symbols (‘created grace’) from God that tell us about God but are not God Himself.
From his monastery on Mount Athos St. Gregory heard about Barlaam’s teaching. He was shocked and spoke out against it. For St. Gregory, Barlaam’s teaching was something like this: Imagine someone you have never met sending you a photograph of himself. You would learn true facts from it about how the person looks and even something of his personality – but you could not say that you truly know the person in the picture. By trying to defend God’s transcendence Barlaam had in fact declared true knowledge of God impossible.
Instead St. Gregory taught that God is both totally-transcendent and at the same time totally-immanent. St. Gregory did that by distinguishing between God’s ‘essence’ and God’s ‘energies’. What does this mean? Imagine a friend you know. You will never ever know that friend in the same way as that friend knows herself. That is – you will never know that person in her ‘essence.’ But at the same time we truly do know that friend in a real way by her ‘energies’ – her words, actions, the way she looks at you and treats you. By participating in our friends energies we truly know that person (the energies really are part of who she is) – though in a different way from the way she knows herself. Further by participating in a friend’s energies it is possible that in some way we begin to become like that person in a way not always easy to define.
So it is with God. We can never know God as only God knows Himself – but we can know God in His ‘uncreated energies’ – the innumerable ways in which God has real contact with us – the uncreated light being one of them. As uncreated they are just as much God as God’s essence but unlike the divine essence we can participate in them. By participating in the divine energies we can share in God’s divine Life and indeed become like God: ‘we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.’ (1 John 3:2) The defence of this essential Orthodox teaching was truly a triumph of Orthodoxy!
St. Gregory’s teaching was defended at three Church councils in Constantinople. St. Gregory went on to be archbishop of Thessaloniki. By some Orthodox he is regarded as the ‘Fourth Great Hierarch’ alongside the Three Great Hierarchs: Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. As for Barlaam, after his teaching had been condemned in council he went back to Italy. He left the Orthodox Church and later became a Latin bishop. Among other things he taught Greek to the Renaissance poet Petrarch before dying of the plague.