Since 1368 this Sunday has been dedicated to the memory of St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1296-1359). This commemoration forms a continuation of the feast celebrated on the previous Sunday: St. Gregory’s victory over Barlaam, Akindynos and the other heretics of his time is seen as a renewed Triumph of Orthodoxy. In the earlier period there was on this day a commemoration of the Great Martyr Polycarp of Smyrna (+ c. 155), whose feast was transferred from the fixed calendar (23 February). This commemoration, like that of St. Theodore, underlined the connection between Lenten asceticism and the martyr’s vocation. The second Sunday also takes up the theme of the Prodigal Son as a model of repentance, with the first of the two Canons at Matins being devoted to this parable.
Source: The Lenten Triodion. Mother Mary, of the Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Bussy-en-Othe, and Archimandrite Kallistos Timothy Ware: 1977.
The defence of the Hesychasts was taken up by St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessalonica. He upheld a doctrine of the human person which allowed for the use of bodily exercises in prayer, and he argued, against Barlaam, that the Hesychasts did indeed experience the Divine and Uncreated Light of Tabor. To explain how this was possible, Gregory developed the distinction between the essence and the energies of God. It was Gregory’s achievement to set Hesychasm on a firm dogmatic basis by integrating it into Orthodox theology as a whole. His teaching was confirmed by two councils held at Constantinople in 1341 and 1351, which, although local and not Ecumenical, yet posses a doctrinal authority in Orthodox theology scarcely inferior to the seven general councils themselves. But western Christendom has never officially recognized these two councils, although many western Christians personally accept the theology of Palamas.
Gregory began by reaffirming the Biblical doctrine of the human person and of the Incarnation. The human being is a single, united whole; not only the human mind but the whole person was created in the image of God. Our body is not an enemy, but partner and collaborator with our souls. Christ, by taking a human body at the Incarnation, has ‘made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification.’ Here Gregory took up and developed the ideas implicit in earlier writings, such as the Macarian Homilies; the same emphasis on the human body, as we have seen, lies behind the Orthodox doctrine of icons. Gregory went on to apply this doctrine of the person to the Hesychast methods of prayer: the Hesychasts, so he argued, in placing such emphasis on the part of the body in prayer, are not guilty of a gross materialism but are simply remaining faithful to the Biblical doctrine of personhood as a unity. Christ took human flesh and saved the whole person; therefore it is the whole person – body and soul together – that prays to God.
From this Gregory turned to the main problem: how to combine the two affirmations, that we humans know God and that God is by nature unknowable. Gregory answered: we know the energies of God, but not His essence. This distinction between God’s essence (ousia) and His energies goes back to the Cappadocian Fathers. ‘We know our God from His energies,’ wrote St. Basil, ‘but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence. For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable.’