Reconciling Hesychasm and Scholasticism in the Triads of Gregory Palamas

Daniel J. Castellano


Part II

Part I
1. Introduction
2. Summary of Problems
   2.1 Essence-Energies Distinction
   2.2 Uncreated Light
   2.3 Perceiving the Light through Hesychasm
3. The Triads: Divine Essence and Energies
   3.1 Unoriginate Powers (Energeiai) and Works (Erga)
   3.2 Unoriginate Attributes
   3.3 The Superessential
   3.4 Energies Revealing the Essence through Attributes
   3.5 Energies as Limited in Time
   3.6 Energies as Distinct from Essence
   3.7 Participable Energies
   3.8 Theophanic Energies
Part II
4. The Uncreated Glory
   4.1 The Reality of Theophanic Energies
   4.2 Theophanic Light as Natural Symbol of Divinity
   4.3 Theophanic Light as Deification (Theosis)
5. Deification or Theosis
6. Hesychast Experience
   6.1 Divine Contemplation as Positive Experience
   6.2 Medieval Hesychast Method of Prayer
   6.3 Modern Corrections to Hesychast Practice

4. The Uncreated Glory

Thus far we have spoken of theophanic or divinizing energies as divine powers whereby God transforms a creature so it may perceive something of the Divine Essence. Such energies are aspects of God Himself, and consubstantial with the Superessential Essence. There also exists a divine glory or heavenly life that is distinct from God, yet inseparable from Him. Since this too is eternal, we may say it is uncreated.

In general, the term “glory” refers to an aspect of a person as perceived by others. This need not imply that glory is solely in the eye of the beholder, especially when we consider it to express an intrinsic virtue of the person in question. In the case of divine glory, this is something perceived by a creature other than God, yet the perceptible does not belong solely to the creature, but also to God, or the glory would not be properly divine. Since God is essentially imperceptible, this glory cannot be the Divine Essence, yet it must be eternal lest the glory of God should depend on creatures.

The heavenly life of the angels and saints is often identified as the contemplation of divine glory. Gregory Palamas remarks that the divine and heavenly life is rightly called “spirit” or “divinity” by the Fathers, as the deifying gift is never separate from the Holy Spirit who gives it. This gift is “a light bestowed in a mysterious illumination. ” It is “enhypostatic” because it is in the hypostasis of another (i.e., the recipient). It is contemplated not in itself, nor in its essence, but in hypostasis (i.e., the personal locus of the recipient). The Holy Spirit transcends as cause this gift of deifying life which is in Him and proceeds from Him. (III, i, 9)[1]

Here Palamas is considering the energy of deification as it is manifested in the recipient. This indeed is not identical with the Divine Essence, but a work of God. What is received is not identical with the divine energy, for the creature is capable of receiving this energy only partially. Recall that Palamas considers that God transcends even the energy in itself, for God is Superessential, not contained by any determinate concept. Yet we have noted that the energies are plural only with respect to their activity toward the world. As Palamas admits, they are substantially of the Essence, which admits no composition.

4.1 The Reality of Theophanic Energies

The question arises whether the divine glory, as perceived by men or angels through theophanic energies, is something that really exists in God or if it is something that exists only in the mind of the creature. Palamas upholds the first view, noting that the glory of God that shone on Moses’ face could not have been ordinary sensible light, for no man could gaze upon it. Likewise he cites St. Gregory Nazianzen saying that Christ will come as He did on Mount Tabor, “the divine triumphing over the corporeal.” Against Barlaam’s claim that this was visible light, only a symbol of divinity, Palamas retorts: how can this be a symbol of divinity if it lasts only a day? (III, i, 10) This rhetorical argument proves too much. After all, the burning bush was a symbol of God, yet it was not permanent, and the same is true for all prophetic revelations. Maimonides held that such theophanic light was created, for the purpose of manifesting the Divine Presence.[2]

St. Thomas Aquinas was familiar with the opinion of Maimonides (and Avicenna) that the divine attributes existed solely in the minds of men, and with the seemingly contrary opinion of Dionysius (and St. Anselm) that creatures participate in truly divine attributes that are in God. He reconciles these two views in a rarely read yet important article in his Commentary on the Sententia (translation mine):

Those of the first opinion considered created things themselves, upon which names of attributes are imposed, just as the name wisdom is imposed on a certain quality, and the name essence is imposed on a certain thing that does not subsist, and this is far from God, and for this reason they said that God is to be without essence (Deus est esse sine essentia) and that wisdom as such (sapientia secundum se) is not in Him.

Others, verily, have considered the modes of perfection from which said names are taken, and, because God according to one simple “to be” (esse) is perfect in all ways (omnibus modis), which is signified by names of this kind, for this reason they said these positive names are suited to God. Hence it is clear that this opinion of theirs does not in any way deny what the others say, because neither the first group said that some mode of perfection of God is of the “to be,” neither did the second group place in God a quality nor a non-subsistent thing.

Hence the third is clear, namely that the reasons of the attributes (rationes attributorum) are really in God, because the reason of a name is held on the part of he to whom the name is imposed, rather than on the part of he who imposes the name.

With regard to the fourth, namely, whether the plurality of these reasons is only on the part of our understanding, or is in any way on the part of the thing, it is known that this plurality extends to the reasons, from the fact that the thing, which is God, surpasses our understanding.[3]

First, St. Thomas freely acknowledges that the term “essence” is inadequate for God insofar as that implies some definite non-subsisting thing. Likewise, names of attributes are inadequate when considered as referring to definite qualities, since mere accidents are further removed from God. As is often the case, he interprets his predecessors charitably, saving their doctrine by introducing his own metaphysical distinction between the act of existing (esse) and essence (essentia). God exists simply, and by virtue of this simple existence He contains all perfections.

God as such is not plural or composite, but by the single limitless act of divine existence He realizes all perfections attributed to him. The plurality of these attributes is not just in our mental conceptions, but also in the rationes that answer to them. A ratio in St. Thomas’s usage is nothing other than what the intellect understands by the signification of a name. This is not simply the mind’s conception, but what answers to that conception in reality. The ratio is the similitude of our conception in something factual. This distinguishes fact-based conceptions from fictional conceptions, such as a chimera, which do not correspond to anything real.

At first it might seem that there cannot be any ratio corresponding to the names of divine attributes, or else that any such ratio is inapplicable to God. If the names of the divine attributes have definitions, then they are limited and unworthy of God. If the divine attributes are beyond definition, then the intellect cannot understand anything by their names and there can be no ratio.

St. Thomas, on the contrary, holds that even a name for something surpassing our understanding, and therefore beyond definition, may have a ratio. When we use the name “wisdom” to refer to Divine Wisdom, we do not intend any wisdom that we can understand or define, but something surpassing our understanding. Though our conception is indefinable, it intends something. The ratio is the thing intended, not what we understand.

We intend by “divine wisdom,” “divine goodness,” etc. distinct perfections beyond human understanding. God really answers to each of these perfections, so there is a diversity of rationes, not just a plurality of mental conceptions. The plurality of rationes does not imply plurality in God, i.e., plurality in the single esse. Rather, all these rationes are realized in God by one and the same thing. To illustrate, Aquinas cites St. John Chrysostom describing how angels praise God, some as His glory and some as His goodness, etc., showing that they cannot see a vision of the One comprehending all the attributes. Similarly, we might say that a bright, white light has distinct rationes answering to our concepts of bright and white, but conceivably[4] in reality there is not a composite of things or natural principles, one that makes the light white and another that makes it bright, nor are the whiteness and brightness really distinct from the light itself.

This metaphysical justification buttresses Palamas’ insistence on the extramental reality of divine glory, which is a divine attribute. Palamas finds further support in revelation. Surely in the Age to Come we will have no need of symbols, nor be deceived in our hopes, gaining only a sensible light. (III, i, 11) This argument is more potent, for once it is conceded that the glory of heaven promised to us cannot be mere sensible light, there is no obstacle to admitting that God may have already granted such vision on earth to his servants.

The real revelation of divine glory in Heaven does not imply a full comprehension of God the Superessential or God the esse. Glory is but one of many divine perfections which, though real, do not introduce plurality or composition into divine existence as such. While divine glory may not communicate full comprehension of the Infinite God, it does really manifest God Himself, not merely a symbol or representation of Him. Palamas quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa: “It was as light that the divinity was manifested to the disciples on the Mountain.” (Homily XL, 6) According to Palamas, this cannot mean that light was a mere symbol. (III, i, 12) Recall that in Greek a symbolos is a mark or sign, something other than the thing represented. If something is a symbol of God’s glory or divinity, then it is not God’s glory or divinity. As Palamas says, a drawing of humanity is not humanity.

Adding to his Patristic evidence, Palamas cites St. John Chrysostom, who says “the divinity manifested its rays.” How could rays be of the divinity if light was only a symbol, formed from existing nature? Likewise, St. Basil speaks of “God who dwells in light unapproachable.” The Liturgy of the Feast of Transfiguration says, “In Your Light which appeared today on Thabor, we have seen the Father as light and also the Spirit as Light,” and, “You have revealed a… ray of Your divinity.” Palamas contrasts his method, relying on the faith of the saints and the Church, against that of Barlaam, who uses philosophy to show that the light is not truly itself divinity. (III, i, 12)

Lest one might think that this talk of light as divinity is a lapse into paganism, we should dispel a confusion of terms. The “light” of Tabor, etc. is not sensible light. It is described as such because of an apparent resemblance, yet it is visible only to those who are spiritually transformed. It is made visible to the eyes, but only transformed eyes. We are not seeing God in His Essence (i.e., His unlimited existence or the Superessential), but are seeing a real act or energy of God. This energy is never separated from the Essence, so we do in a sense “see” divinity. This is no more problematic than any other attempt to describe theosis or divine immanence.

In the Latin conception of the Divine Essence, no emanation is possible in actus purus. This does not preclude the energetic manifestation of divinity, for it is not the incommunicable esse or Superessential Essence that is manifested.

Palamas weakly argues that St. Maximus held an exalted view of the light as divinity. Since St. Maximus sometimes makes the higher the symbol of the lower (e.g., the Lord on the Cross is a symbol of our body nailed to our passions), we supposedly should infer that his mention of light as a symbol of kataphatic and apophatic theologies implies the superiority of light. At any rate, we should not hold this mention of light as a symbol to imply that it is a mere appearance or illusion. After all, St. Maximus says Moses is a symbol of providence and Elijah a symbol of judgment, though they are real men. Most Fathers avoid calling the light a symbol, so it is not mistaken for something other than God, i.e., a creature. (III, i, 13) It nonetheless may be called a “symbol of divinity” in the sense of a sign that communicates divinity, though not as something alien to it.

Barlaam claimed that the light of Tabor was but a phantasm or symbol of God’s glory (III, i, 14), akin to other symbolic perceptibles shown to the prophets, e.g., the axes of Ezekiel and the scythe of Zechariah. Palamas responds by asking us to consider whether the light is a natural or non-natural symbol. A natural symbol derives its being from the nature of the source; in this sense heat is a sign or “symbol” of fire. Otherwise, it is conventional or non-natural symbol, such as a torch that warns of attacking enemies. If the symbol has no natural existence, it is a phantasm, like the perceptibles of prophetic visions. (III, i, 13) If the light of Tabor is non-natural, it either has its own being or nature, or it is a phantasm. If the latter, then Christ never really was, is or will be as He appeared on Tabor! (III, i, 14) This would reduce the Transfiguration to a mere light show. Instead of revealing Christ, it would be disguising Him. This contradicts Patristic testimony about the reality of the Transfiguration. (III, i, 15)

Palamas’ argument need not imply that the Transfiguration was a full revelation of Christ in His Essence or in His glory. It may be a symbol in the sense that it is a foretaste or partial revelation of Christ’s full glory.

4.2 Theophanic Light as Natural Symbol of Divinity

Once we eliminate the possibility of phantasm, the light is either connatural with God or not. Palamas’ sun/rays analogy used elsewhere suggests that it is connatural with God. Sometimes, he might overemphasize the non-identity of this energy with the Essence, seeming to imply independence. Yet he rejects the notion that the light is an independent reality, for this would heretically add a third nature to Christ. (III, i, 17) Clearly Palamas is not creating a demiurge out of this light. Rather it is connatural and coessential with God.

To express this in Latin terminology, we would say there is a virtual distinction between the Essence and the energy (i.e., the light). This virtual distinction is not merely formal or conceptual, but is also in the extramental rationes. Nonetheless, the distinction is not “real” in the sense of in re, i.e., the energy is not a separate “thing” from the Essence. The Orthodox often object to Latin denials of the real distinction, but in this technical terminology, the complement of “real” includes not just “imaginary,” but also “virtual.”

Palamas approaches the ontological status of the divine glory with the concept of enhypostasis as used by the Fathers. In early Christology, the Orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation considered Christ’s human nature to be enhypostatic, meaning that the humanity of Christ existed in a concrete individual human person as a substrate or hypostasis. This was opposed to the heretical anhypostatic doctrine that only some impersonal human nature was conjoined to the divine nature, not a definite human person, in which case Jesus was not a real man.

When the Greek Fathers referred to the divine light as “enhypostatic,’ Palamas claims, they evidently meant to affirm that it was something persistent in being (i.e., substantial), not a mere illusion or some fleeting phenomenon. (III, i, 18) This does not imply that the light is a fourth hypostasis in addition to the three Divine Persons, only that it is grounded in substantial being, not a mere percept or concept. Earlier, Palamas held that the hypostasis in which the glorious light inheres is the recipient creature. (III, i, 9) By grace, it takes root in our being and clings to our person, so it is more substantial than a fleeting perception. Yet, by nature, this light inheres in the Divine Persons, so it is also enhypostatic in this sense.

The light, according to Palamas, is obviously a natural symbol of Christ’s divinity, not humanity. Since it coexists with the eternal divine nature, it has no beginning or end. (III, i, 19) Now we see why it is said to be “around God,” the way heat is around fire. A natural symbol takes its being from what it represents. It is possible to participate in the natural symbol without participating in the nature. Thus we can see the dawn, though we cannot stare into the sun directly. We may feel the warmth of fire but not stick our hand it. (III, i, 19) This contrast between the imparticipable (sun, fire) and participable (ray, heat) serves as an analogy between the Divine Essence and the participable energies (e.g. glory or light). This is as close as we can come to reconciling the reality of theosis with the absolute transcendence of God.

There are limits, however, to this analogy. The physical examples give essential accidents that are distinct from the substance. The glory of God cannot be a mere “accident” of the Divine Essence, for that implies subordination in God. It would create a cause-effect relationship between God and His glory, yet they are coexistent. Further, it is not clear that we have really resolved the incongruity. If we are discussing God’s glory as it is manifested in creatures, then yes, we have this partial participation. But if the glory is connatural with the Divine Essence, are we not then truly participating in the imparticipable Essence, at least imperfectly?

We must keep in mind that the Greeks are using metaphysical concepts different from those of the Latins. For Palamas and many Greek Fathers, a “nature” (physis), consists of essence (ousia) and energy (energeia). Energy is not an accident, but the actualization of a nature. Thus it is not something subordinate or extrinsic to the nature.

Identifying the participable energy too closely with the Essence, on the other hand, seems to imply that we can participate in the imparticipable Essence. This is why Barlaam recoils from identifying the divine light as a natural energy of God, since this would imply that we can somehow see the Divine Essence. By reducing the light and any other perceptible revelation to a mere phantasm, however, he seems to deny the possibility of any real theosis or participation in God. In fact, if these visions are mere illusions, the glory and the light would actually be less than intellectual concepts, since the latter at least may correspond to real objects.

Palamas, in keeping with the faith of the Church, affirms that God really can raise us to participate in Him, yet not in His Essence. This may seem to have it both ways, but there are many mysteries of faith that appear contradictory at first glance. Palamas uses the essence-energies distinction to show that theosis is not contradictory. Unlike later hesychasts, he was not content to say that the faith is beyond logic, but took logical objections seriously. Holding him to this standard, we may ask: is the glory of the Divine Essence or not? Do we participate in the Essence through the glory? More generally, how does one participate in an unparticipable God?

Barlaam had raised similar points, not in overt denial of theosis, but pointing to the internal tensions of Palamas’s account of the participable divine light or glory. While affirming the divine reality of the perceived glory, Palamas seems to have created a new problem for his account. If the light, Barlaam asks, is so utterly transcendent, bearing much of the Master, why hesitate to say this is the Superessential Essence? Why put something above the light? This seems to make God composite, unless the light is a creature after all. (III, i, 24)

Palamas answers that the energy or light inseparable from the Divine Essence. The Superessential is not composite on account of this. Otherwise “no simple essence would exist if it were so, for one would search in vain for a natural essence without energy.” Far from shunning philosophy, Palamas relies on this metaphysical thesis in support of his theology. An energy is not a distinct natural principle, so Palamas is not guilty of ditheism. Nor is an energy something merely accidental to an essence. Without any energy (i.e., activity), an essence (ousia) would be inert (i.e., inoperative), so it would not truly be a nature (physis, i.e., principle of motion, change, or activity). Thus the energy is not another thing, neither essence (ousia) nor accident. (Recall that Aristotle uses ousia for what Latins call substance.) By defending himself against Barlaam’s charge of making God composite, Palamas takes for granted the simplicity of the Divine Essence, and so agrees with the Latins on this important point, at least in principle.

The Thomists hold (as does Maimonides) that the Divine Nature is ineffable and simple, more radically than even the angels, to the point that God’s act (esse, “to be”) is inseparable from His Essence. Palamas finds a similar doctrine in St. Maximus, who teaches that the Divine Nature is “unoriginate, uncreated, not intelligible, simple and without composition, and so similarly is its will.” Note that the Will was historically considered an energeia or operation of God. Palamas agrees with St. Maximus that the simplicity of the Essence applies to the Will, as well as “all the natural energies belonging to the divinity.” (III, i, 25) The energies do not introduce plurality in God, for they all partake of the simplicity of the Divine Essence. Just as the Will of God, though unoriginate, is not a second God, neither are the other energies.

4.3 Theophanic Light as Deification (Theosis)

The plurality of energies is not on account of a plurality in God, but in the different ways God manifests Himself to different people. It is not by our own natural faculties, but by His deifying gift or energy that we may be united with divinity. St. Maximus, in Ad Thalas, says “Deification is an hypostatic” mystical union, beyond intellect. (III, i, 28) God does not allow Himself to be seen in the Superessential Essence, but according to His deifying gift. Deification may be called the “grace of adoption,” i.e., we are not natural sons of God. We, as humans, do not participate in the divine nature, but are adopted sons by God’s will or energy. (III, i, 29)

This grace, the principle of divinity, is in fact a relationship, Palamas says, though not a natural one. It is not merely supernatural, but even beyond relationship qua relationship, for how would a relationship have a relationship? (III, i, 29) By this he means that deification is both the relationship itself and the object with which the creature relates, just as light is both the thing seen and that by which you see. The object is the divine energy, so even this energy transcends the relationship and is beyond our comprehension. With the grace of deification, we may experience an incomprehensible divine energy, but we can never know God in His Essence. This is due to the limitation of deification or energy as manifested in creatures, not that such energy is limited in itself. Palamas only says that God does not allow us to see His Essence, perhaps because he is reluctant to declare that anything is absolutely impossible to God.

Since the energies are a supernatural grace, not a perfection of our rational nature, they can only be known by experience. We may learn of these not by becoming more rational, but by following those with experience. Deification is beyond every name, i.e., beyond our rational conception, so Palamas hesitates even to write about it. (III, i, 32) He does so not because he pretends to explain it, but only to defend belief in this reality against accusations of idolatry.

“The Principle of deification, divinity by nature, the imparticipable Origin whence the deified derive their deification” is inaccessible to sense and intellect, even the angelic. Only when a creature (mind or body) is hypostatically united to divinity does the latter become “visible.” Only hypostatic creatures (i.e., individual persons) can receive such union. When deification unites to a mind, that mind can “know” God, though not by natural intellection. When it unites to a body, that body can “see” God, though not by natural sight. Those deified “have received an energy identical to that of the deifying essence;” (III, i, 33) i.e., the divine energy received is the same as the natural energy of the Divine Essence.

Deification is made possible by the Incarnation, for “In Christ the fulness of divinity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:19) Those who are sanctified in Christ may likewise have divinity dwell, not only in their human souls, but even in their bodies. This indwelling of divine energy is not like “art in works of art,” where the creative power shines forth in its effects, but rather as “art (techne) in the man who has acquired (i.e., learned) it.” In other words, the energy of divinization is something given to us but not something produced in us. The saints thus act as instruments of the Holy Spirit, working miracles by His energy. (III, i, 13)

Evidently, the divine energy of theosis is called “light” because of its effect on the faculty of sight, but it affects all faculties, enabling them to perceive what they cannot by their own power. This revealing light, or principle of deification or divinity, is not identical with the Divine Essence insofar as it is manifested enhypostatically. Yet considered in itself and in its fullness, existing apart from any recipient, it is none other than the Superessential Essence. For, as Palamas admits, Christ alone could receive the entire infinite power of the Spirit, and he thereby partook of divinity itself, i.e., the Essence. (III, i, 14). It seems, then, that it is wrong to apply an energy-essence distinction to God considered in Himself, though it may be applied to God as manifested to His creatures. As Palamas has confessed, the Divine Nature is unlike other natures, so there is no reason to expect Him to be bound to the usual rule that a nature must have essence and energy, even if such a metaphysical thesis is admitted. Without denying that the Divine Nature is energetic, we must say that the energy is not another res in addition to the Divine Essence, for that would contradict the simplicity of the Essence, which Palamas, following St. Maximus, has admitted.

To make this account logically and metaphysically coherent, we must distinguish between different senses of the term ‘energy.’ As the Latins correctly note, there is no potentiality in the Divine Essence, so it never fails to act in its fullness. The unlimited fullness of this activity may be considered the “natural” energy (by equivocal analogy between the divine and created natures) of the Superessential. This is the sense in which God has only one operation, i.e., a single Divine Will, as in the orthodox doctrine that Christ has a Divine Will and a human will. We may regard the Divine Energy entirely as Will since God does nothing involuntarily. God’s Will is not something distinct from God, or merely accidental to Him. Accordingly, this single Divine Energy or Divine Will may be identified with the Essence, or at least not considered something extrinsic to it.

Yet there is another sense, in which God has many energies, as manifested and expressed in creatures. This sense is extensively used by the Greek Fathers, and indeed was the sense understood by Honorius in his letter on the monothelitism controversy. It is this sense that Palamas uses when he says that the deifying gift of the Spirit cannot be equated with the Divine Essence, because no creature can receive the totality of the indivisible Divine Energy. (III, i, 34) Here the deifying energy received is only a particular work of God or act of volition. It is not limited in itself, for it is indivisible from the fullness of the Divine Energy, but it is limited by the capacity of the creature receiving it, or the measure God chooses to dispense. This account leaves no objection to equating the fullness of Divine Energy, considered in itself, with the Divine Essence. Indeed, by giving the limitation of the creature as the reason for non-equation, Palamas implies that the Divine Energy in its totality is to be equated with the Essence.

This divine light or deifying energy can be recognized when the soul ceases to give in to evil passions. It is only when we have contempt for human glory that we can perceive the Divine Glory. This light can be perceived even if the eyes are closed or gouged out. (III, i, 36) It is not by our own efforts that we perceive this light, first because it is only with the help of divine grace that we can be freed from evil passions, allowing the inner peace that comes from the love of God to flow into us. Even in this receptive state, we do not see the Divine Glory by our own power or faculties, for it is visible even to the blind. The divine energy or light, both that which we see and that by which we see, belongs to God.

5. Deification or Theosis

What the Latins call sanctifying grace the Greeks more boldly call theosis or deification. This refers to the process (or a later stage of the process) of the faithful becoming like Christ, and thereby attaining a certain likeness to God. This process is effected by divine power, not our own. Nonetheless, those unaccustomed to the term may find the notion of deification to be uncomfortably similar to the divine pretensions of various pagan rulers. Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis (1943) offers a standard by which we can tell whether our understanding of sanctification or deification has crossed the line into idolatry: “to reject every kind of mystic union by which the faithful of Christ should in any way pass beyond the sphere of creatures and wrongly enter the divine, were it only to the extent of appropriating to themselves as their own but one single attribute of the eternal Godhead.” (Mystici Corporis, 78)

Palamas remains on the side of orthodoxy by treating all deifying gifts as borrowed clothes, so to speak, rather than as something proper to ourselves. He follows the New Testament in speaking of us as adopted sons, rather than sons of God by nature. (III, 1, 29; cf. Rom. 8-9, Gal. 4:5, Eph. 1:5) He has also said that the deified creature is like an artist who has acquired art as something learned, rather than a work of art, which is itself an expression of artistry. That is to say, the saints can perform divine acts (e.g., working miracles) only by what they are given by God; it is not something intrinsic to them. (III, 1, 13) These are just different ways of saying that the divine attributes are not to be predicated of us as our own rather than God’s.

For Palamas, this distinction in attribution or predication is not a mere technicality, for he holds a most exalted notion of the Divine Essence as compared with creatures. It not only transcends all senses, but even Godhead! (II, iii, 8) That is to say, it is beyond anything that can be affirmed about God, beyond all kataphatic theology. Accordingly, the divine light is not to be identified with the Essence, yet the saints attest that it is real, not merely symbolic. “What it is, they do not pretend to know.” It is a grace invisibly seen and ignorantly known,” i.e., it is not by our powers of sense or intellect that we can see or know it.

Barlaam holds that what is divine and immaterial cannot be seen, applying this principle also to angels, who cannot be seen even by each other. Though the hesychasts do not hold that the divine light is an angel, Palamas finds it useful to point out how some Fathers taught that angels, though incorporeal, may be seen by different modes. Sometimes they appear as a sensible concrete essence, which is visible to any creature, even the uninitiated or brute beasts. Sometimes they may appear as an ethereal essence (i.e. an intelligible, non-sensible substance), which a psyche can only partly behold. For those who are purified and made worthy, a true vision may be granted. Thus Barlaam is wrong to claim that angels are invisible in their essence, not merely insofar as they are incorporeal. This puts the visions of contemplators of God on a par with those of brute beasts. (II, iii, 10)

Palamas does not explain how an immaterial essence may be seen, but simply accepts that this is possible because it has happened, and is attested by the Fathers. It is made possible not by our own faculties, but by a deifying gift. Barlaam thinks it is categorically impossible for anyone, even an angel, to see an immaterial essence, since it is by definition not susceptible to vision or any other form of sensation. Further, it should not even be possible for angels to see each other intellectually, since each angel is its own species of intellectual substance, according to a common Scholastic thesis (not among the twenty-four confirmed as “safe norms for intellectual guidance” in 1916). This is because angels, being immaterial, have no principle of individuation and so each is its own species of intellectual substance. Yet all we truly know about angels in their essence is that they are incorporeal, which is not necessarily the same as immaterial in the Scholastic sense. They might have an incorporeal “matter” that individuates them, so they could be intelligible to each other.

Speculation aside, once it is conceded that incorporeal essences may nonetheless be perceived by different modes (sensible symbol, intelligible symbol, or in reality), the limitations of our faculties do not impose a hard constraint on what is possible. The self-revealing essence, be it God or angel, supplies the deficiency, allowing itself to be seen. In the case of God, however, it is absolutely impossible for His Essence to be contained in any vision, since the Essence transcends any determinate being or attribution. Thus divine visions are only partial revelations.

The contemplative mind, says Palamas, sees more than itself (i.e., the essence of mind) in vision, but sees the glory impressed on its own image by God. The glory reinforces the mind’s power to transcend itself. To be receptive to such a vision, one needs only to purify the passions. Contrary to Barlaam, intellectual ignorance does not impede the vision of God. Keeping the commandments suffices, and the effect of the commandments is to purify the passions, not to eradicate intellectual ignorance. (II, iii, 11) What makes someone worthy of divine vision is freedom from sin, and there is no sin in intellectual ignorance. It is not our capacity, but God’s power, that makes the vision possible, so we do not need to improve our intellect in order to ascend to this contemplation, as a Neoplatonist might hold. We only need a pure heart to be counted worthy to enter the Divine Presence, which admits no impurity. This preliminary purification is itself attributable not solely to our own efforts, but to divine grace with which we cooperate.

Palamas is careful, however, to affirm that the hesychasts do not see the Divine Essence, or an emanation of the Essence, but rather the divine glory, in their visions of light. He concedes to Barlaam that the Divine Essence can never be perceptible, by distinguishing the glorious light from the Essence. (II, iii, 12) This seems to get him in trouble again, for we now have something of the imperceptible God that is truly divine, yet not the Divine Essence nor an emanation of such. How does one avoid the charge of ditheism?

Recall that the divine glory is an attribute, which is not the Divine Essence or an emanation of such, but an energetic manifestation of God, not separable from the Essence. It is a part or one of many aspects of God only from our perspective and limited capacity. It is not merely imaginary, but has extramental existence; it is something real in God. As divine, it is not perceptible or intelligible by our faculties, but is made so to us by its own revelatory power.

It is not clear why the divine glory, which “belongs to the divine nature in an ineffable manner,” should manifest as light, or indeed as anything sensible. Palamas cites St. Isaac of Nineveh attesting that the soul has “two eyes,” one that sees the secrets of nature, i.e., the glory of God in nature, and another that sees spiritual mysteries, i.e., the “glory of His holy nature.” (II, iii, 15) This is akin to the Latin distinction between external and internal divine glory.[5] We have “eyes” for divine glory, though we do not see the Divine Nature itself. It may be fitting, therefore, to refer to what these eyes see as “light,” but this only establishes a metaphorical usage.

Against the philosophical apriorism of Barlaam, Palamas offers the testimony of the Fathers and other contemplatives. Their report that observing the commandments yields contemplation, though it does not remove ignorance (as Barlaam objects), proves that reception of contemplative visions does not depend on worldly knowledge. Divine contemplation or union with God does not bring cognitive knowledge, for the divine is intellectually incomprehensible, though it also bring true wisdom that heals the soul in its cognitive faculty. (II, iii, 17)

Union with God may be considered “knowing” God only in an equivocal sense, for this union transcends all natural modes of perception and intellection. Divine contemplation is beyond any intellectual comprehension, so it may be described rhetorically as “ignorance,” but even this name does not properly apply to its uniqueness. It is not apophatic theology, a series of abstractions or negations distinguishing God from all else, for that operates by discursive reasoning. (II, iii, 35) After all, if we merely list the ways in which we cannot know God, this can hardly establish a union between the mind and God. Nietzsche would be right to call such religion nihilistic if there were nothing more than these negations. It is through prayer that we are able to stand apart from evil passions and neutral distractions (including knowledge of created things), so that we may devote our attention entirely to God. This undistracted, unperturbed state of the soul already transcends apophatic theology, since it sets aside discursive knowledge, devotes attention to the existent God, and elevates the mind rather than negating it with the rest of creation. It is not yet union, for that can only come by the Holy Spirit granting what is beyond all natural powers. (II, iii, 35)

Divine contemplation is not apprehended by any natural faculty, not even the spiritual intellect of angels. Rather the Holy Spirit grants a power that transcends all created faculties, whereby we may apprehend the Divine Glory or light. In this rapturous union, we see the light because we ourselves have been brought into union with the light. Insofar as we are united with the light, we cannot even perceive ourselves by natural faculties, accounting for St. Paul’ perplexity. (II, iii, 37; cf. 2 Cor. 12:1-4)

This account of theosis may seem to cross the limit defined in Mystici Corporis, for Palamas asserts that St. Paul had “gone out from all beings, and become light by grace, and nonbeing by transcendence, that is by exceeding created things.” (II, iii, 37) He denies that this entails absolute participation in the Divine Essence, which is beyond “nonbeing by transcendence.” Still, if the Divine Glory is a divine attribute, indeed the “capstone of the attributes of God,”[6] it would cross the line into idolatry to say that we have become the glory or the light in the sense of something that is proper to us. We avoid this if we understand the qualification “by grace” to mean that the gift of the light remains proper solely to God. We “become light” only in the equivocal sense that saints “work miracles,” i.e., by divine power in or through the creature, not by a power proper to the creature. Palamas seems to think he avoids idolatry by making a distinction between the glory and the Essence, as if it were possible for a creature to become one and not the other. While we may allow that it is possible, by divine grace, to participate in one and not the other, this participation is never something that makes the Divine Glory properly attributable to us.

It is true, as Palamas says, that the glory of created things is not the same as their essence. (II, iii, 66) His analogical conclusion that this should be even more so the case for the utterly transcendent God does not follow, however, for the Divine Glory might likewise be utterly transcendent, and it is highly dubious to rely on analogies with nature, when treating the absolute simplicity of God. Nonetheless, insofar as glory exists to be seen, it is immanent rather than transcendent, though much of it remains transcendent. Certainly the external glory, by definition, is immanent in nature, and even some of the internal glory may be made immanent by the gift of contemplation. The creature in contemplative union transcends all creatures insofar as he does something by divine grace that is impossible by any created nature, but not in the sense that he ceases to be a creature.

It is difficult to articulate how a creature may supernaturally participate in God, though absolute participation in His Essence is impossible, without seeming to introduce a second divine entity that is not the Essence. We must keep in mind the principle that the manifestations or energies of God are partial or plural according to the limits of our capacities, but in themselves they are of one cloth with the Divine Essence.

Without understanding how this can be so, we may accept that this is so on the testimony of revelation. Christ prayed, “That they all may be one, as thou Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21) Elsewhere, St. John says, “we shall be like to [Christ], because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) St. Paul likewise teaches: “It is given to us, all alike, to catch the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, with faces unveiled; and so we become transfigured into the same likeness, borrowing glory from that glory, as the Spirit of the Lord enables us.” (1 Cor. 3:18) The Orthodox have always understood that a foretaste of this same glory of the Lord was granted to the Apostles on Mount Tabor. This same glory was seen by St. Stephen just before his death. Likewise, Palamas believes, the demon-banishing “ray of light” granted to St. Anthony was truly a manifestation of (internal) Divine Glory.

All of this establishes that it is possible for the saints to have really seen God’s glory. This is not by sensation or intellection, for God is insensible and unintelligible, but by a “supra-intellectual knowledge.” (II, iii, 68) The Latins also believe that we will behold God by a direct immediate intuition. Barlaam wrongly assumes that this beatific vision will be confined to the modes of sensation and intellection. If this were so, we could not truly see God at all, but only symbols of His Presence. The reality of theosis can be accomplished only by a divinizing grace that altogether transcends natural faculties.

Even this supernatural endowment confers only a measure of God’s glory in divine contemplation, not the limitless transcendence of the Divine Essence. Creatures always remain limited in some way, and such limits are the measure of divine gifts. This holds for nature no less than the supernatural, for all our natural endowments are divine gifts. Accordingly, the Eastern Orthodox do not generally make a sharp distinction between the orders of nature and grace, since all is a gift of God, and we are limited only by the measure of what God grants to us. Nonetheless, to avoid idolatrous pretensions, they too must take care sometimes to use the term “grace” to refer specifically to that which is beyond the capacity of nature.

It may seem bold to assert that any creature may perceive the internal Divine Glory, which is perceptible to God alone. The explanation of theosis, a divinizing gift that gives us a likeness to God and is itself a divine attribute, hardly seems less daring. Against this concern we may note that even the Latin term “sanctifying grace” conceals the same bold aspiration. After all, to sanctify is to make holy, but God alone is holy. Somehow we are enabled to participate in this holiness. Without understanding how this can be so, and without pretending that this dwelling in Divine Glory makes any divine attribute our own property, we may nonetheless accept it on faith, following the testimony of Scripture and Tradition.

6. Hesychast Experience

Although Gregory Palamas successfully proved that God may grant theosis to the saints, it is less obvious that the hesychasts achieve this on a regular basis. In this life, theophanies are rare, and cannot be earned by human efforts. Moreover, the supra-intellectual contemplation promised to the saints seems not to correspond to the apparently sensory experience of the hesychasts. If the internal divine glory is beyond sensation and intellection, it must be something more than a mere light perceived by the eyes of the body or soul.

While Palamas repeatedly insists that contemplation can be granted only by divine grace, not any human effort, hesychasm on its face appears to prescribe a positive method for attaining union with God. This would be an especially brazen sort of Pelagianism. It has echoes of the auto-salvific pretensions of Eastern mysticism, to which Westerners often turn because it offers a definite method for spiritual enlightenment. Such spiritual practices are usually quietistic, emptying the mind of all thoughts, resulting in a peaceful, euphoric state.

Those who claim that this euphoric state is the vision of God only bring discredit upon their religion to those familiar with the methods and effects of auto-suggestion. Without pretending to give a blanket endorsement or dismissal of hesychast experiences, prudence demands that we should try to identify some means of distinguishing genuine contemplation from merely naturalistic phenomena.

6.1 Divine Contemplation as Positive Experience

Although Palamas often invokes apophatic theology to show that divine contemplation transcends all natural faculties, including the angelic intellect, he nonetheless insists, with the hesychasts, that contemplation is an experience with positive content that affects body and soul. Contemplation is beyond knowledge and sensation, yet it is not mere negation. It is precisely by insisting on the positive reality of such contemplation that hesychasm distinguishes itself from mere quietism or a worship of nothingness.

Those who protest that divine illuminations cannot be made accessible to the senses contradict themselves, for they must confess with all Orthodox that, under the New Law at least, there were divine illuminations made perceptible to the senses (e.g., the Transfiguration, Pentecost), not mere symbols. (I, iii, 3) Even the reduction of Old Testament theophanies to mere symbols is problematic in some cases (esp. those of Moses), but Palamas does not press this point.

Barlaam, restricting himself to philosophy, thinks contemplation must be intellectual, since knowledge is the only illumination that transcends sense. Thus he would make knowledge the goal of contemplation. Palamas regards contemplation as beyond intellection, though it might be called “knowledge” in a highly equivocal sense. If by “intellect” we mean any faculty that apprehends ideas or essences, then even the angelic intellect is naturally incapable of contemplating divinity, which is beyond all concepts or essences. The angelic intellect is different from our own both in ability and mode of operation, so that it does not need to start with the senses, use perceptibles as symbols, or reason discursively. It grasps what is in its power immediately and permanently, directly apprehending ideas, yet God is beyond any idea. The Godlike comprehension they enjoy in Heaven is not by their own nature, which is shared even with the demons, but is imparted to them by divine glory.[7]

Since the intellect, no less than the body, is incapable of divine contemplation by its own power or mode of apprehension, Palamas sees no obstacle to admitting that divine illumination can similarly elevate the body’s sensitive faculties beyond their natural ability. The illuminated rational and sensitive faculties see not by their own power, but by divine glory. Somehow they become able to see that which in itself is neither intellective nor sensitive.

It is far from obvious, however, that this mystical union granted to the saints has anything to do with hesychast experiences. Barlaam was understandably scandalized by the behavior of some hesychasts, who became confused, leapt about, and were filled with delirious happiness. Monks who experienced these ecstasies often showed little sign of moral improvement, and some even boasted that it was unnecessary to study Scripture, as mystical prayer sufficed. They even pretended that the colors of the sensible lights were interpretable, with divine things being white and evil a fiery yellow. (I, iii, 3) These and other Neo-Messalian errors were so widely reported that it can hardly be doubted that they were prevalent at least among some hesychasts. Such desire for constant ecstasies is the mark of a novice, not a saint.

Nonetheless, Palamas holds that the authenticity of a vision should not be dismissed merely because it is perceived with the sensitive faculties. Against Barlaam’s rationalistic (some might say Platonic) tendency to insist that the sensitive faculties should be deadened in order to perceive God, Palamas holds that even the sensitive faculties are transformed and perfected so that they may participate in this illumination. (III, ii, 15) This will be necessary to confirm the hesychasts’s claim that the divine light can be seen even with corporeal eyes.

It might seem that this position is incompatible with Western asceticism, which emphasizes a deadening of the sensitive faculties. Yet this deadening is only with regard to concupiscence in the negative sense. While there are some practices that involve a denial of sensible goods, this is for the purpose of strengthening our faculties in the long run, as attested by St. John of the Cross. The purgation of sense is designed to remove our attachment to corporeal goods, so that our faculties desire nothing but God. As feelings can no longer help us find God, this makes us need and long for the purely spiritual contemplation brought by grace. In the first dark night, sense is accommodated to the rational soul, freed of affections toward things of this world and desiring only God. In the second dark night, the spirit in turn is purged of imperfections, so that the soul may walk in faith without even spiritual consolations. This prepares the soul for passive reception of divine union, which St. John describes in purely spiritual terms without explicit mention of the body. St. Gregory Nazianzen, in his fourth theological oration, says that the body also is purified, but purification of the body entails that it be subject to the soul. This agrees with what St. John of the Cross calls the first dark night.

Palamas rejects any tendency to impose too sharp a division between body and soul. While many saints have taught that the contemplative spirit should separate itself from the sensitive faculties, this should be understood only with respect to our vicious carnal passions. There is nothing wrong with allowing emotion, memory, and other sensitive faculties in our contemplation; indeed it is impossible for the human spiritual soul to act without the sensitive faculties. Palamas will repeatedly emphasize a “whole person” view of spiritual illumination, where body and soul act as a unity not only in preparing for divine contemplation, but in experiencing it.

Mystical union with God cannot be a purely intellectual contemplation, for God is beyond knowledge and unknowing, i.e., beyond kataphatic and apophatic theology. The divine vision is accordingly incomprehensible and unnameable, which is why the Apostle and the saints could not say what the “light” is. This incomprehensibility does not imply that one sees only in a negative way, as per apophatic theology, for one in fact sees something. (I, iii, 4)

The vision is not accomplished by body or soul. It is not accomplished corporally, since the corporeal Body of Christ is beyond the Heavens. (I, iii, 5) The union is not the product of a cause or relationship, for these depend on the intellect. Though it comes to be by abstraction (i.e., apophatically), it is not itself abstraction. (I, iii, 17) By these distinctions, Palamas avoids the Messalian heresy, for the union is not the result of anything that depends on us, i.e., intellectual activity or its negation. Neither thinking nor “emptying your mind” effects the divine union, though the latter condition may be a preparation for such union, insofar as it frees us from vicious passions and worldly distractions. All the hesychast practices should be construed not as causing mystical union, but creating appropriate conditions so that the contemplative is receptive to divine grace. In agreement with St. John of the Cross, Palamas holds that divine union is a gift that may be granted after stripping away what tethers the mind to the world (Loc. cit.); the purgation itself is not the union, nor the cause of the union.

Even with these qualifications, this account is psychologically naive. Supposed mystical unions seem to follow hesychast exercises with a frequency surpassing that of the Apostles. How can we be assured that such ecstasies are not self-induced at an unconscious level? Palamas says that if all intellectual activity has stopped, how could they see except by the power of God? (I, iii, 18) This too is naive, for it supposes that all mental activity is in rational consciousness. The visual cortex may still be active. While Palamas does well to show that there is no theological obstacle to the sort of divine visions claimed by hesychasts in this life, this is a far cry from showing that their concrete claims are credible.

It would be a quietistic error to think that the mystical vision consists of just doing nothing. Thus Palamas says that it is not “absolute inaction,” but rather “an inaction surpassing all action.” (I, iii, 19) That is to say, the apophatic process of abstraction, by which we strip away all things that are not God, does not lead us into nothingness, but to something that is beyond all determinate actions. Only in this sense does apophasis lead to mystical union. Apophasis only prepares us for mystical union; it does not suffice to effect it. Thus Palamas denies that the saintly visions refer to the “ascent through the negative way,” which is within human powers and does not transform the soul. (I, iii, 20) This “ascent by the negative way” is not what St. John of the Cross calls “ascent to union with God,” but refers only to apophatic theology as a purely intellectual meditation. St. John’ method integrates intellectual and sensual asceticism. There is no sharp distinction between “by your own power” and “by grace.” By practicing asceticism voluntarily, you receive greater graces.

Still, hesychasm may seem like a short cut bypassing contemplative ascent. Per St. John, extremely few, likely only the Apostles, become ready for the beatific vision in this life. In Scripture, St. Paul implies he had such a vision only once fourteen years ago (2 Cor. 12:2), yet hesychasts claim to have such visions repeatedly! It is true that St. Paul describes this transcendent experience as vision, saying “I know not whether I saw out of the body or in the body.” (Loc. cit.) A power beyond our sensitive and intellectual faculties enables us to “see” in some sense. According to St. Isaac of Nineveh, the soul in this state transcends prayer, not praying any determinate thing, but receiving from God a pure prayer, i.e., a vision of divine glory. Palamas describes this ecstatic state as beholding a “light without limit, depth, height or breadth.” St. Paul stood in the midst of this sun brighter than the cosmos, “having become all eye.” (I, iii, 21) Truly, this is not sensible light, but something beyond sensation and intellection that is imparted to our transfigured soul or body. Many Fathers wrote of this light, but how many claimed to experience it?

To link hesychast experiences with the Orthodox tradition of theosis, Palamas must emphasize the role of “light” in theophanies. He confesses that this is not sensible light, nor is it intellectual light (i.e., knowledge), but rather it is an illumination transcending the faculties, yet mysteriously made accessible to them by grace. This light is not merely a symbol or special effect of deification. He boldly considers it to be the source of deification, i.e. “thearchy.”[8] That is to say, the light is not merely God’s act or ergon of deifying a creature, but also “deification-in-itself,” i.e., the deifying energy that is a real attribute of God, independent of any creature’s experience.

While it appears to produce a distinction and multiplication in the one God, yet it is nonetheless the Divine Principle, more-than-God and more-than-Principle. The light is one in the one divinity, and therefore is itself the Divine Principle, more-than-God and more-than-Principle, since God is the ground of subsistence of the divinity. (I, iii, 23)

The light or energy of divinity, like other divine attributes, is not a part or accident of God, but is seamlessly in Divine Unity. It is not only the thing seen, but that by which one sees, and the source of divine being, i.e., the Divine Principle (which transcends any definite concept of “principle”) cannot be other than God Himself, the Superessential (“more-than-God”). This does not imply that we can see the Superessential, for we are capable only of finite participation. Rather, the divinizing energy, considered in itself, is nothing other than the source of divinity, the Principle beyond all principles, i.e., God.

As with other divine attributes, the internal glory or energy of deification is not logically identical with God, for He can do other things besides grant deificiation; e.g., He can create from nothing. “Divinity” may be considered in two senses: (1) the reality of the deifying gift that divinizes us, a finite participation in God, or (2) the source of deification, or deification-in-itself. Both senses of “divinity” are called “light” by Palamas, in apparent agreement with Pseudo-Dionysius.

St. Thomas Aquinas likewise adopted the Dionysian use of the term “light” or “illumination” as an analogous reality in the intellectual realm. Though it might be said that sensible light is a symbol of intellectual light, Aquinas considered the latter to be no less real.[9] He evidently accepted the Dionysian view that greater angels may illuminate lesser angels, adding perfections to the nature of the latter. (Summa Theol., I, 45, 5) The principle of this sanctifying illumination is called “hierarchy” by Pseudo-Dionysius. A still higher illumination, beyond intellection, may be imparted to creatures by God Himself. This is called theosis, and its principle is “thearchy.”

In both Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius, we find that hierarchic and thearchic illuminations are mediated by intellectual light or something beyond intellectual light, but not by sensible light: “…the divinest and highest things seen by the eyes or contemplated by the mind are but the symbolical expressions of those that are immediately beneath it that is above all.” (Pseudo-Dionysius. The Mystical Theology, I) Palamas will take pains to show that divine illumination, though it is beyond sensation and intellection, can nonetheless reveal itself to our bodily vision as well as our intelligence.

6.2 Medieval Hesychast Method of Prayer

The mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite does not seem to provide a promising basis for hesychasm. True, Dionysius emphasizes negation and the apophatic way, though not to the exclusion of kataphatic theology, and he describes divine contemplation as a stillness beyond knowing. Yet he also calls it a darkness, because it is an illumination that is altogether inaccessible to bodily and intellectual vision. Even the lights and trumpets perceived by Moses are not divine contemplation, but things just beneath it, pointing to it.

It breaks forth, even from that which is seen and that which sees, and plunges the mystic into the Darkness of Unknowing, whence all perfection of understanding is excluded, and he is enwrapped in that which is altogether intangible, wholly absorbed in it that is beyond all, and in none else (whether himself or another); and through the inactivity of all his reasoning powers is united by his highest faculty to it that is wholly unknowable; thus by knowing nothing he knows That which is beyond his knowledge. (Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Mystical Theology, ch. I. Esoterica, vol. II, 2000, p.205.)

Sensible light is not even mentioned here, since it is beneath intellectual light, so obviously it cannot see what the intellect cannot see.

We pray that we may come unto this Darkness which is beyond light, and, without seeing and without knowing, to see and to know that which is above vision and knowledge through the realization that by not-seeing and by unknowing we attain to true vision and knowledge; (Ibid., ch. II, p.205.)

Again there is nothing about the natural faculties somehow receiving the ability to see the divine. On the contrary, it is by negating these faculties that we get this supra-sensual and supra-intellectual illumination. Palamas must strike out on his own to assert that divine contemplation may really come as sensible light, and not just symbolically. He must do this because hesychasm is a relatively new development, foreign to the Fathers. Though they acknowledged that the light of Tabor was not a mere symbol, they never affirmed that the divine glory was perceived by bodily eyes.

To justify this novel position, Palamas contrasts himself with the Origenists and all others who say the body is evil. God dwells in the body, not just in the soul. St. Paul does not call flesh evil, but that which inhabits it, the “law within my members.” Instead of rejecting our flesh, we should establish a good law for our faculties: temperance for the senses, love for the affective part, watchfulness or prayer for the rational part, rejecting all that impedes the mind from God. (I, ii, 2) A body subordinated to this rightly ordered soul can hardly be called evil. This is all well and good, but it caricatures the opposition. One does not need to think the body is evil to hold that the sensible faculties are altogether incapable of beholding God. One merely needs to hold, with orthodox faith, that God is incorporeal, so He may never be perceived corporeally.

For Palamas, however, body and soul are not neatly distinguishable, nor are the sensible faculties from the spiritual faculties. The soul is a single reality with multiple powers, mind (nous) being one such power. This rational part of our being is incorporeal, so it cannot be confined in us as in a container, but it is nonetheless considered seated somewhere in the body, its instrument. It cannot be outside us, for it is naturally conjoined to the body. Some say it is in the brain, but Palamas holds that it is in the heart, as in an instrument. (I, ii, 3) He makes this choice by appealing not to philosophy, but to revelation, taken literally: “For it is from the heart (kardia) that evil thoughts arise.” (Mt. 15:19)

No knowledgeable person today would invoke Biblical idiom as canonizing the ancient belief—held by Hebrews, Greeks, Egyptians, Hindus, and Aztecs, among others—that the heart is the seat of consciousness. Nonetheless, this literal belief was commonplace among Christians long before the hesychasts. Palamas’s citation of St. Macarius of Egypt (4th cent.) includes such expressions: “The heart directs the entire organism… it is there in the heart, that the mind and all the thoughts of the soul have their seat.” (Hom. XV, 20) When Palamas says “our heart (kardia) is the place of the rational faculty, the first rational organ of the body,” he means this literally. The heart located in the breast is the “controlling organ.” (I, ii, 3) To correct this faulty psychology, we may replace the heart with the brain, or better still, consider kardia more abstractly as the point of union between soul and body. In other words, it is the soul as immanent in the body.

The hesychasts taught that they should gather their mind and enclose it in the “body most interior to the body, which we call the heart.” Again, Palamas literally means the organ in our breast. When we set aside the false premise that this organ is the seat of consciousness, there is no longer a compelling reason to concentrate attention toward the chest. “Prayer in the heart” may be more abstract, focusing on the union between our rational and sensitive faculties. Ironically, we cannot “feel” our brain, since the central nervous system has no sensory neurons. Still, we can focus our awareness on the sensitive soul, thereby uniting the rational and sensitive faculties. Neurologically, our consciousness is going into the limbic system, not into some bodily organ. This recaptures the basic point of Palamist hesychasm. The mind or “heart” must go deeper into itself, not somewhere else. Focusing on some other bodily organ might direct our attention to what is external to consciousness, and be a distraction.

Turning the soul inward is not to “know thyself” in a naturalistic sense, but to prepare to receive interior grace. Palamas says you should not just go into your mind, forgetting you have a body, but must go into your body as well. (I, ii, 3) The hesychasts focused on the chest, from where our breath (pneuma) comes, and where sits the heart, believed to be the point of union between body and soul, as this is where we sense our deepest feelings. To fight both bodily and mental sin “one must force the mind to return to the body and oneself.” If we neglect the body, sin will grow there, i.e., as unconscious desires. To turn the soul “outward” instead, contemplating purely intellectual visions, is a Hellenic error, according to Palamas. Here he distinguishes himself from Neoplatonists, Gnostics, and Origenists, who focus their attention on external objects of thought, as if contemplation were a voyage of intellectual discovery. Instead, a truly divine vision is granted by God only to a worthy soul, so our only effort should be to guard ourselves from sin. This is not to be one of those false ecstasies or demonic inspirations where the recipients are “beside themselves,” not knowing what they are saying. Such suspension of personality shows that the inspiration comes from without, whereas true divine contemplation must come from within, by divine union with the recipient of grace.

Some say the mind is already within the soul, so how can it be “recalled within?” Palamas answers that the essence of mind; is one thing, its energy is another. (I, ii, 5) That is, its being is in the soul, but it may be directed toward objects other than itself, enabling it to see things other than itself. This distinction between consciousness and attention further illustrates the relation between essence and energy. In an analogous way, the Divine Essence in itself is wholly imparticipable, yet God may reach “outside Himself” through divine energy, directing His activity toward determinate creatures. Since we cannot reach God, though He can reach us, our task is simply to gather what St. Basil calls our dispersed mind, so God may find us guarded from sin and error, by the help of His grace.

Palamas considers it an error of Satan to keep the mind outside of the body during prayer. Instead, he refers to St. John Climacus in his Ladder of Divine Ascent: “The solitary or student of quiet and solitude [which Palamas interprets as hesychast] is he who tries to circumscribe and close incorporeal nature in the body its home (which of course is paradoxical and uncommon).” (I, ii, 6; PG, lxxxviii, 1097B) When we contemplate higher things, or are in prayer, it seems natural to forget we have bodies at least insofar as the body is oriented toward the world, receptive of sensory inputs and distractions. We should indeed direct our attention away from “the body” in that sense. Yet interior contemplation is not purely intellectual; the body also participates in deification. Feelings and affections of the heart are also important. After all, how hollow is prayer without feeling?

The physical disciplines of hesychasm, such as looking at oneself and controlled breathing, are not absolutely necessary, according to Palamas, but pedagogical aids to help people focus the mind within themselves. This prevents the mind from “dispersing” or wandering. (I, ii, 7) To keep the mind always active, it is given a task, such as repeating the name of Jesus, to prevent distraction.[10] Palamas follows the simple breathing technique of Pseudo-Symeon (13th c.?), which is to control the inward and outward breath, holding it back a little, so that one may control the mind’s attention and the breath in the same action. This departure from the more elaborate (and dangerous) techniques proposed by Nicephorus the Monk (13th c.) and other hesychasts reflects Palamas’s view that such techniques serve solely to minimize distractions, and do not themselves induce the contemplative state.

Only when, “with the aid of God,” the mind is purified of distraction can it be led toward a “unified recollection”[11] which is a “spontaneous effect of the attention of the mind, for the to-and-fro movement of breath is quietened during intensive reflection, especially with those who maintain an inner quiet of body and soul.” (I, ii, 7) This “inner quiet” (hesychia) is what gives hesychasm its name, and why its detractors accuse it of the heresy of quietism. Progress in hesychasm means progress in quietness or stillness, which would be pure quietism if this were an end in itself. Palamas, however, saves hesychasm from heresy by making this state merely preparatory for mystical union. He does not deny that this state is the result of human efforts (“a spontaneous effect of the attention”), though even here divine aid is required. By the same token, he must acknowledge that the hesychast discipline is not the only way to attain this undistracted state, though he finds it to be an especially good method.

Although we cannot become undistracted and guarded from sin without divine aid, the approach to this state appears to be predominantly naturalistic, which would account for its attainability even by those outside the Christian faith. By focusing attention upon the breast, controlling one’s breathing, and ignoring all external distractions while repeating a prayer or mantra, one spontaneously becomes still or quiet in body and soul. What does this stillness mean for a Christian mystic? Are there no discursive thoughts? No verbalization? Emptyheadedness? Palamas has elsewhere indicated that God is beyond all definite concepts yet more than their negation, so mystical union is more than mere nothingness. Still, it would seem that the preliminary quiet is a near-absolute stillness of body and soul.

Attaining the state of quiet at first takes toil and effort, for one must grow in love to learn patience. Nicholas Gendle remarks that Eastern contemplatives at first must force the lips to repeat Jesus prayer, then it finally becomes self-activating as a rhythm in the heart, even sleeping. (N. Gendle, trans. Gregory Palamas: The Triads, p.127.) This further suggests a naturalistic or physiological phenomenon, following a definite law. On the other hand, the emphasis on moral effort bearing fruit (I, ii, 8) may distinguish hesychasm from mere quietism. Palamas finds a moral rationale even for the much derided navel-gazing. Concupiscence is centered in the belly, so we should focus mind there to combat the “law of sin.” If we accept this moral dimension, then meditation becomes more than just turning off the mind and muscles, and the positive content of Christian religion becomes important, for only by the true faith can we guard against sin.

Hesychasm as understood by Palamas is not entirely passive, since one must be vigilant against evil passions of body and soul. This requires using the mind to pay attention to the whole self, body and soul. Non-sinful bodily desires return to their source, becoming elevated and united to God. The flesh is thereby transformed and elevated, not disdained. The body is our fellow worker. We should repress it only if it rebels, but accept it if it conducts itself well. (II, ii, 5)

Bodily disciplines are designed not to deny the body, but to mortify its capacity to sin. To avoid being dominated by passionate emotions, one must gain mastery over sensual pleasure. Suffering not only mortifies sinful passions, but brings about a holy compunction or penitence (katanyxis). (II, ii, 6) As taught in the Gospels, prayer and fasting are closely linked. To attain true mental prayer, one must first avoid distraction by anything incompatible with that state. Mere introspection is not enough, for some senses may operate without any external stimulus. Here, the experience of the saints, not reasoning, teaches that sensation painful to the sense of touch helps inner prayer. (II, ii, 5) Fasting, hairshirts, and other trappings of asceticism are designed to facilitate contemplation, not to inflict pain for its own sake.

Mortification of the passions does not mean to become insensible like a stone. Hesychasts feel physical pain from their postures, for which Barlaam criticized them. Palamas responds that physical discomfort or distress is no obstacle to prayer, but is conducive to it. Thus St. John Climacus teaches,“Hunger is the stuff of prayer.” By mortifying sinful inclinations, suffering brings a holy katanyxis (compunction; literally numbness or stupor), “through which both the stain of past faults are done away and the divine favour especially attracted,” disposing one to prayer. (II, ii, 7) Rationalistically, this seems strange, for hunger and other pains make it difficult to think clearly. Yet true mental prayer is not intellectual or discursive, but an attentiveness to the Divine Presence, before which no one can stand without first casting aside his vicious passions with compunction. This katanyxis is not a passionate sorrow over sin (which comes after prayer), but a numbness to vicious desires, so they have no appeal to us. Such a state can only be sustained with divine grace. In short, contemplation does not mean forgetting the body in all its sensations and affections. Some of these (pain, joy, sorrow) are positively conducive to contemplation. Rather, we must numb ourselves only to sinful passions.

On the other hand, Palamas thinks that St. Paul, when beholding the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2), “had forgotten all that concerns the body,” and indeed those who seek divine union should abandon all bodily and intellectual activities. (II, ii, 8) This transcendence of body and soul follows Dionysian mysticism, yet is hard to reconcile with hesychast practices that involve sensation and affection. When the Apostle speaks of the “concern of the flesh” (Rom. 8:5-7), he means sinful passions, carnal or mental, as contrasted with the positive “concern of the spirit.” Neither Dionysian supra-spiritual terminology nor hesychast emphasis on the positive role of physical method are to be found in St. Paul, though these traditions might still be valid expressions of Christian mysticism.

Palamas seems to regard the bodily and affective experience of hesychasm as only a preliminary to divine union, which transcends body and soul. Barlaam considers this to be an admission that the “lights” and other sensory experiences are not products of divine grace, since they are absent from divine contemplation and so would serve no purpose leading to it. Remarkably, Palamas responds that divine union transcends not only useless things, but also great, necessary things. (II, ii, 8) This boldly challenges the notion that “God does everything for a purpose” in the sense of utility or even necessity, so we cannot explain divine grace in terms of motive or purpose as we understand them.

Although the hesychast must, paradoxically, use bodily discipline to become detached from carnal passions, this does not mean that the body does not partake of divine union. Appealing to his own experience, Palamas knows that this union is not a product of conscious imagination, nor is it a fleeting phantasm. He describes it as a “permanent energy produced by grace, united to the soul and rooted in it.” (II, ii, 9) Here the divine energy is considered in its aspect of a determinate work of God. Free of material images, a spiritual joy makes us despise bodily pleasures, and works even in the body, giving the latter a spiritual aspect. This joy ennobles the body, in contrast with corporal pleasures that pollute the mind. (II, ii, 9)

Barlaam claims that any love for activities common to the body and the passionate soul nails the soul to the body, darkening it. Palamas retorts: “But what pain or pleasure or movement is not a common activity of both body and soul?” The body is not to be excluded from even the noblest passions of the soul. Here Palamas understands passions to be not merely carnal, vicious emotions, for the soul “suffers divine things,” so it is “passionate” even in its spiritual dignity that receives deification. This divine energy works even upon the body, as proved by the shining face of St. Stephen. It draws “the flesh to a dignity close to the spirit.” Such energies are in those who embrace hesychasm during their whole life. (II, ii, 12)

Palamas admits that this seems contrary to reason, but insists on the superiority of experience over theory. Mystical experience suffices to refute any a priori claim that something is impossible. Hesychasts experience deification of the body through the soul, so they know it is possible, the judgment of philosophy notwithstanding. After all, divine power transcends the intelligible.

He perhaps overstates the importance of the body when he says that “healings and miracles never take place unless the soul exercising either gift be in a state of intense mental prayer and his body in perfect tune with the soul.” (II, ii, 13) Not only does this ill comport with the miracles worked by the prayers of saintly souls in Heaven, but it would dare to make hesychastic practice a necessary condition of these divine gifts. This is the sort of Semipelagian pretension that would make monastic excellence the measure of closeness to God and the criterion for divine rewards. Yet God is supremely sovereign and may dispense or withhold His gifts as He sees fit. The quoted claim may be taken in an orthodox sense if it is understood merely in contrast with those gifts of instruction and interpreting tongues, which can be acquired naturalistically without any prayer at all. Indeed, Palamas does not intend to restrict the power of the Spirit to operate at will, for he remarks that the Spirit is communicated not only during mental prayer, but even through bodily actions, such as laying on hands. (II, ii, 13) He wishes only to insist that the body is not to be excluded as a vehicle and recipient of divine grace, including that of deification.

St. Paul’s heavenly rapture is in tension with hesychast emphasis on the role of the body, but Palamas holds that such ecstasies carry men outside their souls no less than their bodies. Even then such persons remain concentrated in themselves (i.e., body and soul in unity), and it is through their body and soul that God effects such supernatural experiences. At any rate, divine visions need not entail forgetfulness of the corporeal senses, as proved by the examples of the Apostles speaking in tongues at Pentecost, and Moses holding up his staff. (II, ii, 14)

Just as spiritual rapture is not a mere negation of bodily concerns, neither is hesychast impassibility a mere mortification of the passionate part of the soul. It entails positively moving the passionate soul from evil to good. Palamas considers the soul’s passionate part to consist of the irascible and concupiscent appetites. These are not to be utterly suppressed, but tamed, i.e., subjected to good judgment and reason. Though these powers can be misused, they also have good uses. A tamed concupiscent appetite helps one embrace charity, while an ordered irascible appetite teaches patience. The askesis or violence against oneself, needed to discipline fallen nature, is only an initial attack, so that one may then direct the faculties to their right use. Just as laymen must use worldly things in conformity with God’s will, so must monks use the passionate soul, after it is disciplined by violence. (II, ii, 19)

“Such forcing, by dint of habituation, makes easy our acceptance of God’s commandments, and transforms our changeable disposition into a fixed state.” A steady hatred of evil states and dispositions in the soul yields impassibility, which means no evil dispositions, but many good ones. This leads to love of the unique Good. True contemplation must involve the passionate soul for this to be a living sacrifice. (II, ii, 20) St. Paul exhorts “that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy pleasing unto God, your reasonable service.” (Rom. 12:1) The well-ordered body is a fitting subject for sanctifying grace.

Palamas establishes a healthy, incarnational asceticism, with a holistic view of the person as a unity of body and soul. We do violence to our bodies and our passionate faculties only to tame them and direct them to good uses. Once disciplined, they are not to be disdained, but may fully participate in divine contemplation. Although his theology and holistic asceticism are sound, he does not establish that hesychasm really does result in visions of God. He only refutes philosophical and theological objections to the possibility.

Hesychasts cannot require us to believe that they have really seen a vision of God with deified eyes and passionate souls, but we cannot say that this is impossible in principle, for such denial is anti-incarnational. Each case of hesychast vision should be subject to the usual criteria of private revelations. We are not bound to believe any particular case. No human technique guarantees a vision of God, who may freely grant or deny visions on whatever terms He wishes. At most, we can make ourselves better disposed for such mystical union by the same practices which, with divine aid, perfect us as Christians.

6.3 Modern Corrections to Hesychast Practice

Any claim that hesychast discipline is uniquely suited for facilitating mystical contemplation is problematic, for the simple fact that it was unknown to the Church in her earliest centuries. While the Jesus Prayer and other simple invocations of the Holy Name are truly ancient practices, their mantric use in combination with a physical technique begins only with the medieval hesychasts. Kallistos Ware identifies some earlier stages of this development. In the fourth century, Egyptian monks used single-phrase prayers of invocation to keep remembrance of God. Around AD 600, the name of Jesus was specially invoked to help attain inner stillness, and the standard form of the Jesus Prayer first appeared. Some contemplatives of the seventh to ninth centuries seem to indicate that this prayer should be coordinated with breathing. Only the Coptic Macarian cycle (7th-8th c.?) explicitly states that the Jesus Prayer should be said with each exhalation. No such affirmation is made in Greek texts until the late thirteenth century.[12]

The first record of a full-blown physical discipline was written by Nicephorus the Hesychast (teacher of Gregory Palamas), who may have invented the discipline, or at least formalized it into definite rules. Originally raised in the Latin rite but disillusioned with what he perceived to be false beliefs, Nicephorus joined the monks of Mount Athos. There he prescribed certain methods to prevent the mind from wandering during meditation, so the soul could attain a quietness or stillness. Shortly afterward, Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346) also wrote a method, and yet a third version erroneously attributed to St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) appeared around the same time.

With some variations, the hesychast authorities agree on some basic elements of physical practice. All agree that one should sit while praying, which was an unusual innovation at the time; ordinarily one prayed standing. Posture involved bending the head down sharply toward the navel, even if the neck and shoulders hurt. Modern hesychasts advise taking a comfortable position, so you are not aware of your body, though this seems incompatible with Gregory Palamas’ incarnational justification of bodily awareness, even discomfort. Gregory of Sinai and Pseudo-Symeon advocate slowing down breathing first, so it can be timed with the Jesus Prayer. Nicephorus does not specify that breathing should be slowed, but only that one should concentrate the intellect into respiration, to explore the inner self. “Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your breath into your heart.”[13] Here the intellect is literally going down into the heart, which was considered to encompass not only emotions but all consciousness, so this means going into the seat of intellect and the center of your entire being.

Evidently, this physical technique was informed by an erroneous psychology centered on the heart. Modern hesychasts may interpret “heart” more figuratively, justifying deviations from medieval physical practices. Indeed, Nicephorus held that bodily techniques were optional, while the essential part is the Jesus Prayer (which antedates hesychasm by centuries). Ware notes that modern Orthodox consider the old psychosomatic technique to be dangerous to health, and it should not be used without the guidance of a spiritual father. Nicephorus, by contrast, recommended this technique especially for those who lack a spiritual guide. He considered this to be something of a crutch for novices.

Modern hesychasts tend to de-emphasize the role of bodily techniques, both for reasons of physical health, and also to avoid confusing human effort with divine grace. Ignatii Brian Chaninov (1807-1867) advises monks against damaging their lungs by trying too hard to learn such techniques. Instead, what is essential is “the union of the intellect with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time.”[14] Likewise, Theophan the Recluse (1815-94) sets aside physical techniques as dangerous. “The essential thing is to acquire the habit of making the intellect stand on guard in the heart—in the physical heart, but not in a physical way.”[15]

With the benefit of increased knowledge of human psychology, modern Orthodox such as Ware are astute enough to avoid “equating the natural effect of certain physical exercises with the God-given grace of inner prayer.” Simply matching breathing with the tempo of prayer is safe, and recommended even by Western contemplatives such as St. Ignatius of Loyola. More elaborate breathing exercises or postures can cause heart problems. Mindless mantra repetition can induce auto-hypnosis, producing many of the “noetic” lights that Barlaam ridiculed. Alternate postures, such as crouching or prostration, known in Judaism as signs of humility, may also be fruitful, once we dispense with the error of insisting that concentration needs to be focused on the physical heart.

Most, perhaps all, of the dubious elements of hesychastic practice have been eliminated or corrected in their interpretation by modern Orthodox. With these modifications, there is far less danger of mistaking the natural psychosomatic effects of meditation for mystical visions, nor is there any pretension that man can work his way toward grace by some definite human method. As hesychasm has purged itself of its objectionable aspects, there no longer seems to be any reason not to receive it as a legitimate practice in the entire Church, East and West.

See also: Dark Night of the Soul | Council in Trullo

Notes to Part II

[1] Nicholas Gendle, trans. Gregory Palamas: The Triads, ed. John Meyerdorff (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1983).

[2] Guide for the Perplexed, op. cit., I, xxv, p.34.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I, d. 2, q. 1, a. 3. As noted by Mercedes Rubio in Aquinas and Maimonides on the Possibility of Knowledge in God (Springer Netherlands, 2006), this trifold distinction was added much later, reflecting St. Thomas’ mature thought, and he held this was necessary to understand the entire first part.

[4] This is just a hypothetical illustration, not an actual claim about physical reality.

[5] The external glory is further subdivided into the gloria materialis, whereby the order of nature manifests God’s glory, and the gloria formalis, whereby intelligent creatures actively glorify God through their deeds and praise.

[6] John A. Hardon, S.J. "The Divine Attributes Retreat: The Attributes of God The Glory of God" (Inter Mirifica, 1998)

[7] Pascal P. Parente. The Angels, ch. 2

[8] “Thearchy” was often used by Pseudo-Dionysius as a synonym for the Holy Trinity, but sometimes, as in this usage by Palamas, it means the principle or source of divinization. By divine unity and simplicity, this principle is not something existentially separate from God.

[9] In fact, St. Thomas considered the intellectual light, even in its natural operation, to be informed by divine light. We know first principles by participating in divinely imparted likenesses of the eternal rationes.

[10] Such repetition loses the character of prayer and becomes mantric if we ignore the meaning and simply reproduce the sound. It is possible to gain the distraction-reducing benefit of repetition, while still truly praying, as in the rosary prayers that help focus meditations on the divine mysteries. Repetition and routine makes distractions less likely, so you do not have to disperse your energy struggling against them. If there are non-sinful distractions, you may simply acknowledge them and continue meditating.

[11] In a translation note, N. Gendle attributes this expression to Ps.-Denys, On Divine Names, IV, 9. In that work, however, Denys is speaking of Divine Goodness collecting all things to itself. Palamas instead describes the soul gathering the entire person into a unity, a state which is an effect of its inwardly directed attention.

[12] Kallistos Ware. “Praying with the body: the hesychast method and non-Christian parallels.” Sobornost 14:2 (1992), 6-35.

[13] PG 147:963B-964A. Translated in Ware, op. cit.

[14] The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore), (Madras 1970), p.84 (translation modified by Ware, op. cit.).

[15] As translated in Ware, op. cit.

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