Midweek Medieval Blog: St. Gregory Palamas and the Strange Practice of Silent Meditation

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This week’s Medieval blog takes a brief look into the life of St. Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359). Gregory was consecrated Archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347. Gregory was canonized in the Eastern Church in 1368. He is remembered most often for his theological legacy of Hesychasm. “The aim was to attain victory over the passions, and thus inner tranquility (hesychia), from which one could proceed to the contemplation of God. There was a stress on silent meditation and a particular posture was recommended as an aid to the concentration: the chin rested on the chest and the eyes were fixed on the navel… Breathing was carefully regulated and a simple prayer was recited.” (Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, 81).

Gregory is known for his theological battles with Barlaam, a Western monk. Barlaam disagreed with Gregory’s view that God could be known more fully through such practices as those mentioned above. Gregory responded by emphasizing humanity’s ability to know God only through God’s activities, or energies (Lane, 82).

Gregory demonstrated his thinking in a commentary on Matthew 16:28. He wrote, “Scripture shows us God descending from his supreme dwelling place and raising us up from our humble condition… so that the one who is infinite may be surely but within limits encompassed by created nature” (“Gregory Palamas on the Divine Condescension in the Incarnation,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alistair McGrath, 291).

Hesychasm, although a difficult concept, no doubt has many parallels in individual spiritual practice today. The practice of silent meditation and even specific posture and breathing exercises is sometimes advocated for Christians to try in their individual devotions. Even in Western traditions, Eastern practices and traditions are utilized and praised. I have only rarely taken time in silent meditation, but each time that I have, I have found the effect quite powerful. In living in such a busy culture here in the USA, the practice of silent meditation can prove to be a powerful, counter-cultural method of drawing near to God. After all, that was the whole point of Hesychasm: bringing its practitioners closer to God.

I think that is what Gregory’s focus was, as seen in his commentary on the transfiguration passage in Matthew. He saw tangible benefits to attempting to communicate with God through God’s activities and mercies in this world. I hope to attempt to try this practice in the coming weeks, and I encourage you all to as well.

What other spiritual practices allow you to commune with God? How do you like to spend your devotions?

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