Saint Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessaloniki, is perhaps the most important figure in 14th-century Orthodox theology. He dedicated himself to the defence of the values of Hesychasm, the domination of which in monastic life after the 14th century is mostly owed to the appeal Palamas and his writings had among the wider monastic community. In 1316 Palamas became a monk at Mount Athos where he was initiated into hesychastic monasticism. In 1326 he was ordained priest and in 1336 he began to exchange letters with Barlaam of Calabria, objecting to his syllogism in theological approaches. This grew into a fierce controversy that brought Barlaam to make accusations against hesychastic values and the monks that pursued them, and most of his works were initiated by this debate. The controversy with Barlaam grew large enough to gather supporters on both sides. Palamas was openly supported by patriarchs such as Isidoros I, Kallistos I and Philotheos Kokkinos. He was also strongly supported by John VI Kantakouzenos with whom he became a close friend, something which led to his arrest until 1347, when John VI became emperor. During this same year, Palamas was appointed archbishop of Thessaloniki until his death in 1359.
Hesychasm, from the word “ἡσυχάζειν” (to be silent, to be at peace), describes a way of spiritual life for monks, based on a specific method of prayer, who by inner quietude could reach the highest monastic ideal, that of communion with God. As a term and practice it can be traced back to the early desert fathers, who pursued quietness contrary to the ‘noise’ of the lay world. At the beginning, the word ‘hesychast’ simply described the hermit or anchorite who abandoned the world for a life of solitude, yet, during the 4th century, the hesychastic way of life began to adopt a set of principles, mainly as a result of the diffusion of the writings of Evagrius of Pontos on prayer, who incorporated into the Christian ascetic practice elements of neo-platonic thought, which until then were condemned as non-Christian. At the center of hesychastic practice was the effort of the hermit to free himself from the physical body and the material world in order to unite with God, not, of course as a total separation between Spirit and Body, as supported by platonic philosophy, but rather in a way that would encorporate the soul into the Body of Christ. The first detailed system of hesychastic values appears in the work of John of the Ladder during the 7th century, who insisted that the hesychast should focus on his main goal by taking carefully one step at a time as if climbing a ladder; a ladder to Heaven. During the 11th century, Symeon the New Theologian gave a fresh breath to Hesychasm, but it was in the 14th century that as a system it vividly flourished mainly on Mount Athos, nourishing a young generation of monks dedicated to the hesychastic values, among whom Gregory Palamas, whose life and works had such a wide impact, enough to refer to ‘Palamism’ as the peak set of hesychastic ideals. Palamas’ theology mainly evolved around the notion that God was made of “uncreated Essence” (ἄκτιστος οὐσία) and “uncreated Energy” (ἄκτιστος ἐνέργεια); Essence referring to God Himself and thus not being seen or perceived by Man, while Energy being the medium between God and the Creation. It is the divine Energy by which God both created and appealed to Man and Nature, and by which they, in turn, could interact with His presence. The Creation, especially as material world, is the outcome of God’s Energy, which is omnipresent. God is the sole creator of the Universe, which He has created ex nihilo, a teaching rooted in Patristic theology and significantly differentiated from Platonism, according to which God created the Universe from already existing material.
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