Gregory Palamas was born in Constantinople in about 1296, where his father was a courtier of Emperor Andronikos II. When Gregory was still a child, his father died and the Emperor took part in the education of the orphan. He hoped that the gifted boy would devote himself to imperial service. Instead, he chose monastic life on Mt Athos and the Christian tradition of unceasing prayer, known in Greek as ‘hesychasm’.
Gregory received a good education and even studied the pagan Greek Aristotle, but in 1316 he left to become an Athonite monk. In 1326, aged thirty, because of the threat of Turkish attacks he and others took refuge in Thessaloniki where he was ordained priest. Spending his time in prayerful service to the people, he also founded a small community of hermits near Thessaloniki in Veria. The cave where he lived and prayed can still be visited.
Later Fr Gregory served for a short time as Abbot of Esphigmenou on Mt Athos. Here he was asked by monks to defend the tradition of unceasing prayer from the attacks of a Catholic-trained Greek called Barlaam. Gregory wrote a number of works in defence and stood up for the practice of unceasing prayer at six different Councils in Constantinople. Like all later Greek Catholics, Barlaam asserted that it was impossible to determine from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds and Gregory naturally viewed Barlaam’s argument as agnostic. In his response titled ‘Apodictic Treatises’, Gregory proved that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but not from the Son.
In response to Barlaam’s attacks, Gregory wrote nine treatises entitled ‘Triads in Defence of Those Who Practise Hesychia’ (Unceasing Prayer). The first Triad was written in the second half of the 1330s and was based on discussions between Gregory and Barlaam. Gregory’s teaching was affirmed by monks of Mount Athos, who met in a Council in 1340–1. In early 1341, the monasteries composed ‘The Tome of the Holy Mountain’. This was a presentation of Gregory’s teaching and it became a textbook of Christian theology.
As an apostate Orthodox without spiritual experience, Barlaam viewed any claim of the real and conscious experience of God ‘as a heresy’. He also rejected the Christian teaching on the uncreated nature of the Divine Light, the experience of which is the result of unceasing prayer. Deprived of the Holy Spirit, he regarded that experience as ‘heretical and blasphemous’. The Divine Light was maintained by Christians to be identical to the Light seen by Christ’s disciples at the Transfiguration.
The second Triad quoted some of Barlaam’s writings. In response to this, Barlaam composed a treatise called ‘Against the Messalians’, which linked the hesychasts to a proud, materialist, Protestant-style sect called the Messalians, thus accusing Christians of heresy! In the third Triad, Gregory refuted Barlaam’s charge, showing that Orthodox Christians are not anti-sacramentalist and do not claim to see the essence of God. Gregory oriented the Orthodox teaching against Barlaam on the issue of pagan intellectualism, that is, the Hellenism of such as Aristotle, which he considered to be the main source of the heresies of the Scholastic Barlaam.
Six Patriarchal Councils were held in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351 to consider Barlaam’s attacks against Orthodox Christianity. These are accepted as having universal status by many Orthodox. Some call them the Fifth Council of Constantinople or the Ninth Universal Council. The Council of May 1341 condemned Barlaam and the Patriarch insisted that all Barlaam’s writings be destroyed. Barlaam realised that he could not promote his errors among Orthodox Christians and went to Italy, where he was soon appointed Roman Catholic Bishop of Gerace.
After Barlaam’s departure, a pro-Catholic Aristotelian intellectual called Gregory Akindynos became the chief critic of the Christian teaching on unceasing prayer and the Divine Light. However, the second Council in Constantinople in August 1341 condemned Akindynos and affirmed the findings of the earlier Council. Nevertheless, Akindynos and his supporters gained a brief victory at a rogue Council held in 1344, which excommunicated Gregory. Here his opponents spread slanderous accusations against him and in 1344 the corrupt Patriarch John XIV imprisoned Gregory for four years.
Nevertheless, the last of the Six Councils in 1351 supported Gregory and finally condemned his opponents. This Council ordered that his enemies, the Metropolitans of Ephesus and Ganos, be defrocked and jailed. All those who were unwilling to accept Christian teachings were excommunicated. A series of anathemas were pronounced against Barlaam, Akindynos and their followers. At the same time, a series of acclamations was made in favour of Gregory and the adherents of the Christian teaching, which he had expressed.
In 1347, when a new and non-corrupt Patriarch was appointed, Gregory was released from prison and consecrated Archbishop of Thessaloniki. He probably reposed in 1359 and his last words were: ‘To the heights! To the heights!’ He was canonised only nine years later, in 1368, and his life was written and a service was composed to him. His feast is celebrated twice a year, on 14 November, the anniversary of his repose, and on the Second Sunday of Lent. This is because St Gregory’s victory over Barlaam is a continuation of the victory of the Church over heresy, which is celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent. St Gregory’s relics are venerated in the church dedicated to him in Thessaloniki. In 2009 Gregory’s mother and four siblings also embraced the monastic life and the whole family was canonised.
Persecution is the norm for those in the Church who oppose politically-motivated corruption and intimidation. Christ was slandered and crucified. St John Chrysostom was deposed and twice exiled. St Gregory Palamas was excommunicated from the Church, slandered and imprisoned. In the last century St Nectarius of Pentapolis was slandered and exiled by jealous Greek bishops of his own Synod. St John of Shanghai was slandered, put on trial and suspended by jealous Russian bishops of his own Synod. Today, nothing has changed. Those who propose the Gospel model of the Church and not the corrupt one, which is all about money, power and so links with States, are also persecuted, just as we have been persecuted for 2,000 years already.