More Thoughts from Gregory Palamas

Meditation, in Orthodox Christianity, is generally considered to be an inward movement. To meditate is to focus on Christ within us. This makes Western Christians antsy. It sounds too much like far Eastern (ie, India, China, Japan) meditation which is generally rooted in some form of pantheism.

And the concerns aren’t new. Barlaam, a Roman Catholic monk from Calabria (the toe of Italy) in the 14th century called the Eastern Orthodox practice “naval gazing” because of the practice of the monks dropping their chin to their chest and looking insides themselves (in terms of their posture at least) as they meditated on Christ within themselves.

Western meditation, certainly within the Roman Catholic tradition and even more so within Evangelical Protestantism is a movement upwards rather than inwards. (In the Orthodox tradition prayer is a movement upwards while meditation is a movement inwards.) Roman Catholics often think of prayer as a circular ladder while mountaintop imagery is common within Evangelical circles, both emphasizing an upward movement and the Evangelical flavor also emphasizing an external (as much as meditation as a thought process can be external) process.

So, given the scandal, the misunderstandings, and the general discomfort that Orthodox meditation practices cause, why are they so doggedly persistent on this metaphor of moving inward rather than upward? As with nearly everything in Orthodox theology, it comes back to the incarnation.

In Gregory Palamas’ Triads (III.i.9, or p. 71 in the Classics of Western Spirituality series), he explains that what the Christian contemplates is not God’s essence, or what Moses called “the face of God” or “the glory,” in v. 22) (“… [T]hen I [Yahweh] will take away my hand, and you [Moses] shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” Ex. 33:23). Rather than the essence, the Christian is given the gift to perceive God’s energies. But these energies just don’t float around the universe like energy left over from the big bang, just waiting for a clever scientist to observe it. The Divine Energies are only observable to the extent that they attach themselves to and illumine something within the created order.

In other words the Divine Energies can be perceived by the Christian when those energies are united with the person. This is not precisely the same thing as “the hypostatic union” – the union of deity and humanity in Jesus Christ. That was a union of God’s essence with a human person, without division, without confusion, etc., etc., etc. The process Gregory talking about is similar, but what is being united is the divine energy rather than the essence. What we can contemplate is not the Holy Spirit itself but rather the gift of the Spirit to and within the person.

And as this gift is united with the Christian, the divine light begins to shine within, and sometimes, for those who have eyes to see, to shine without. But it is not the energies qua energies that are being contemplated, it is the gift of the union of divine energy with the submissive human person. In order to contemplate God’s glory it is therefore necessary to look within rather than above. The Christian is not a scientist peering into the heavens with his spiritual telescope, he is a friend of God. It is not the raw energy that is of interest, but warmth of relationship of human nous and Holy Spirit.


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