was once called “the cause of all disorders and
disturbances in the Church.” Now imagine that he was
called this by the Patriarch of Constantinople himself.
The year is 1344. This comment was made during a Church
council and it caused this man to be thrown into prison
for the next 4 years. The man who was “the cause of all
disorders and disturbances in the Church” was St.
He has a long and complicated story but
each one of us needs to know about this man St. Gregory
Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica. That is why the
Church in her wisdom has set aside this the second
Sunday of Great Lent as Palamas Sunday. Why was this man
called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in
the Church?” What had he done that was so terrible?
He was raised in Constantinople in a
wealthy family. His family was even friends with the
Emperor but from a rather young age Gregory was inclined
to the life of the Church. It was no surprise because
his parents loved the Church and frequently invited
clergy and monks to come and spend time with them. As a
young man Gregory left the comfortable life and traveled
to Mt. Athos in Greece to be trained in the ways of
prayer as a monk. He dedicated his whole life to God
because he loved God and wanted to spend all his time in
the service of God. He grew wise and strong through
prayer under the guidance of some experienced holy men.
Unfortunately due to time constraints I
can’t tell you all of his story but I will tell you that
he advanced and gained the rank of Abbot, a leader of
one of the monastic communities as well as a very
respected elder on the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos).
The real trouble began when a very gifted
speaker and teacher, a monk from Italy, visited Mt.
Athos. This monk was Barlaam. He taught the monks that,
“He believed the monks on Mount Athos
were wasting their time in contemplative prayer when
they should be studying. He ridiculed the ascetic labor
and life of the monks, their methods of prayer, and
their teachings about the uncreated light experienced by
the hesychasts (those who practice stillness through
prayer). Countering the traditional stance of the Church
that “the theologian is the one who prays,” Barlaam
asked: “How can an intimate communion of man with the
Divine be achievable through prayer, since the Divine is
transcendent and ‘dwelling in unapproachable light’ (1
Timothy 5:16)? No one can apprehend the essential being
of God!” Barlaam was convinced that God can be reached
only through philosophical, mental knowledge—in other
words, through rationalism.” AGAIN Vol. 27 No. 1.
So this led to a great dispute among the
monks and especially between Gregory and Barlaam. Why
such a dispute? Because Barlaam was teaching that we
learn and experience God through knowledge. That we know
God in the head first. This was a type of rationalism.
It is the belief that the only proper way to know things
is through reason. This led to many of the problems in
Western Christianity and led ultimately to the
The problem is that essentially it means
that we know God only through logic as if God is a
mathematical equation. It ignores the fact that for
centuries illiterate but holy men and women have had
true experiences of God through the life of the Church.
It also means that the work and struggle we undertake
is all worthless because God is known only through the
We are told that Barlaam traveled to
Constantinople and stopped at the monasteries. He
refused to attend vigils, prayer or fasting and did not
trust in spiritual experiences. In short, he behaved
much like modern Christians, even so-called Orthodox
Christians. He caused a division throughout the Church
with his improper teachings and then blamed it all on
Gregory. This sort of thing has happened before and will
probably happen again.
I did not intend or plan it this way but
for the last two weeks I have mentioned that knowing God
is not theoretical, it is an actual experience. Gregory
Palamas taught that we could certainly know God. He made
an important distinction. He said that there were two
sides to knowing God. One was to know God’s essence.
This is impossible for any human being. No human has
ever seen God. No one can grasp His greatness or His
On the flip side, Gregory taught that we
could know God through His energies: the way that He
clearly acts through our world and visits us. He
compared knowing God to the Sun. God is like the Sun.
This Sun can never be grasped or even looked at closely.
It is impossible and yet we can receive the energy from
the Sun. We feel the warmth of the rays, we experience
the light and heat.
St. Gregory suffered and was imprisoned
more than once for defending his understanding of the
faith. We may one day have to be courageous enough to
suffer for our Christian faith. You can’t prepare by
stocking guns and ammo. You can prepare by loving your
neighbors and by stocking God’s words in your heart and
by becoming men and women of prayer and teaching this
life of prayer to your children.
St. Gregory teaches us that it is
possible to soak up God’s love and blessings through
genuine communion that is possible through the struggle
to reach fervent prayer. It doesn’t happen automatically,
but comes by the grace of God. God wants to affect us
through prayer, prayer is not meditation or an
intellectual exercise. It is communion and fellowship
with the Almighty.
Today we are reminded that we can
experience God; He is not a theory hidden in a book.
Education and degrees only go so far, the experience of
pure prayer is a true teacher. As we’ve been struggling
through the fast for a few weeks we are inclined to
think “it is not worth it.” Why fast, why pray more, why
attend extra services, why do any of this?
St. Gregory answers to us: these things open us up to
experience the presence of God.
So keep struggling, it is indeed worth it.
Glory be to God Forever. AMEN.