3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 December 2010
I have several volumes of this series from Paulist Press, "The Classics of Western Spirituality". Frankly, they are very hard to digest. I guess you need a mystic mind to understand the writings, let alone the mind, of another mystic. Perhaps I'm just too rational? Or rationalist, as it were.
Gregory Palamas wasn't easy either, but his "The Triads" is nevertheless the easiest text I've encountered in this series. Palamas (who died in 1359) was a leading Orthodox churchman in the Late Byzantine Empire. He is most well known, or notorious, for his defence of the hesychasts, a group of monks who practiced a form of prayer that involved body postures and controlled breathing. (Modern admirers and detractors have likened it to yoga exercises.) The hesychasts claimed that this gave them a direct, mystical experience of God himself. Their practices were roundly condemned by Barlaam of Calabria, another leading Orthodox churchman, who was inspired by Catholic scholasticism. (I believe he eventually became a Catholic.)
On one level, this was the perennial conflict between the mystic and the philosopher, with Palamas being the former, and Barlaam taking the role of the latter. To Barlaam, God is unknowable "in essence", and all human knowledge of God therefore either takes the form of philosophical propositions, or mental experiences of created spiritual realites. Barlaam didn't deny that mystical vision is possible. However, he believed that this isn't a direct vision of God himself, but of something lower, something created by God especially for the purpose. The light that shone around Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration was a created light, according to Barlaam. This light, moreover, is purely mental or immaterial. It can only be "seen" mentally, spiritually. Since all other knowledge of God is philosophical, Barlaam and his followers naturally emphasized studies of Greek philosophy (presumably Plato and Aristotle). Barlaam seems to have been honestly shocked by the hesychasts. In his opinion, they denigrated formal learning in an obscurantist fashion, claiming that they could actually see God, and therefore didn't need Greek philosophy. Barlaam also suspected the hesychasts of heresy, since a Gnostic group known as Messalians claimed to have the ability to see God with their material eyes, using some kind of excessive prayer technique. The Messalians were connected to, or identical with, the Bogomils, a group similar to the Cathars. The editor of this volume, who is sympathetic to Palamas, believes that Barlaam might have encountered some kind of fringe groups among the hesyschasts, rather than the real thing. Barlaam also argued, basing himself on Pseudo-Dionysius, that we cannot say what God is, only what he is not. This apophatic theology he took to mean, that God is unknowable to man, unless God decides to reveal himself through created things.
"The Triads" was Palamas' defence of hesychasm. Palamas believed that the spiritual exercises of the monks were more important than Greek philosophy which, after all, was polytheist and "confused God with demons". He also believed that Barlaam had a Platonist and dualist view of the relation between soul and body, since to Barlaam, only our most refined mental faculties are involved in mystical vision. Palamas emphasized the traditional Christian position that body and soul are a unity, that God created both, and that the body will be glorified after the second advent. If this is true, then it cannot be wrong to combine prayer and mystical vision with bodily postures and exercises. Both soul and body is involved in prayer. Palamas further held that the hesychasts actually did see God, and he even suggested that they saw him in a kind of "material" way. In the mystical experience, God transforms not only the mind of the mystic, but also the body, somehow turning it into a glorified body, albeit temporarily. Thus, the mystic does see God with his (glorified or deified) material eyes. (At least this is my reading of Palamas. And yes, it does sound a bit extreme!) Just as Barlaam, Palamas also argued on the basis of Pseudo-Dionysius, but in his interpretation the apophatic theology of negation is only the first stepping stone to a positive vision of God, a vision that is ineffable, yet very real, not simply "nothingness".
For some reason, the main point of contention between Barlaam and Palamas was the idea of "God's essence". Barlaam believed that humans can't experience or behold God's essence. Hence, the light seen by mystics must be created. A created being can only see other created beings. Here, Palamas had a problem. On the one hand, he admitted that God's essence is beyond human comprehension. On the other hand, however, he nevertheless believed that the hesychasts actually see God himself. He also connected this to the Transfiguration, arguing that since Jesus was both God and man, the light seen by the disciples at Mount Tabor must have been divine and hence uncreated. Palamas attempted to solve this problem with the now famous (or infamous) distinction between God's essence and God's energies. The energies are uncreated and hence part of God, and yet they are not his essence. The mystics experience these uncreated energies. Barlaam accused Palamas of bitheism, but even a dispassionate observer can sense a problem here. If God's energies are uncreated, how can they *not* be his essence? If they aren't his essence, what on earth are they? Palamas solution is to claim that things such as God's providence, prescience, will and virtues are energies, but not his actual essence. God is always something more, something beyond, his energies. I'm not sure whether this is a satisfying answer, philosophically speaking, but then, Palamas wasn't really a philosopher to begin with, but rather a mystic arguing with a philosopher. This presumably forced Palamas to use the philosophical notion of "essence", trying to make it serve his own position.
What makes the confrontation between Barlaam of Calabria and Gregory Palamas so intriguing, is that the roles of mystic and philosopher are strangely inverted in their case. It's Palamas the mystic who takes the "corporeal" position, while Barlaam the philosopher takes the more "spiritual" position. Somehow, we would expect the opposite. Also, it's Palamas who takes the more overtly theological and "Biblical" position, while most mystics tend to oppose the orthodoxies of their respective faiths, in favour of a more free wheeling approach. Indeed, Palamas is the only mystic I'm aware of who sounds strangely "physical", and very consistently challenges Platonizing or Gnosticizing notions of the primacy of soul over body. At the same time, it also makes him more extreme than mystics of other traditions, who don't believe in the bestowing of heavenly bodies during the mystical experience. (Outside the Biblical religions, few believe in a physical resurrection to begin with!)
Finally, let me note that this volume doesn't contain all of "The Triads", but only selections. However, the main lines of argument are obvious, and there is both an introduction and lengthy footnotes to aid understanding of the text.
If you really can understand mysticism...