Knowledge of God According to St. Gregory Palamas

The vision of God, deification, union and knowledge of God are closely bound together. They cannot be understood apart from one another. Breaking this unity takes man further away from knowledge of God. The basis of Orthodox epistemology is illumination and God’s revelation within the purified heart of man.

Taken from the book “Orthodox Psychotherapy” by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

When a person rises from bodily knowledge to the soul’s knowledge and from that to spiritual knowledge, then he sees God and possesses knowledge of God, which is his salvation. Knowledge of God, as will be explained further on, is not intellectual, but existential. That is, one’s whole being is filled with this knowledge of God. But in order to attain it, one’s heart must have been purified, that is, the soul, nous (intellect) and heart must have been healed. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt.5,8).

Let us look at things more analytically.

As I have indicated, Barlaam insisted that knowledge of God depends not on vision of God but on one’s understanding. He said that we can acquire knowledge of God through philosophy, and therefore he considered the prophets and apostles who saw the uncreated light, to be below the philosophers. He called the uncreated light sensory, created, and “inferior to our understanding”. However, St. Gregory Palamas, a bearer of the Tradition and a man of revelation, supported the opposite view. In his theology he presented the teaching of the Church that uncreated light, that is, the vision of God, is not simply a symbolic vision, nor sensory and created, nor inferior to understanding, but it is deification. Through deification man is deemed worthy of seeing God. And this deification is not an abstract state, but a union of man with God. That is to say, the man who beholds the uncreated light sees it because he is united with God. He sees it with his inner eyes, and also with his bodily eyes, which, however, have been altered by God’s action. Consequently theoria (vision of God) is union with God. And this union is knowledge of God. At this time one is granted knowledge of God, which is above human knowledge and above the senses.

St. Gregory explains this whole theology in places throughout his writings. But since it is not our intention in this chapter to make a systematic exposition of his whole teaching about the knowledge of God, we shall limit ourselves to analyzing the central point in it as it is presented in his basic work “On the Holy Hesychasts,” known as the Triads. Again we must add that we shall not present the whole teaching as it is set out in that book, but only the central points. After each quotation we shall give the reference.

Here is a characteristic passage in which he briefly presents this teaching: “One who has cleared his soul of all connection with things of this world, who has detached himself from everything by keeping the commandments and by the dispassion that this brings, and who has passed beyond all cognitive activity through continuous, sincere and immaterial prayer, and who has been abundantly illuminated by the inaccessible light in an inconceivable union, he alone, becoming light, contemplating by the light and beholding the light, in the vision and enjoyment of this light recognizes truly that God is transcendently radiant and beyond comprehension; he glorifies God not only beyond his nous’s human power of understanding, for many created things are beyond that, but even beyond that marvelous union which is the only means by which the nous is united with what is beyond intelligible things, “imitating divinely the supra-celestial minds” (2,3,57).

We find the central teaching of St. Gregory in this passage. In order to attain vision of the uncreated light, a person must cut off every connection between the soul and what is below, detach himself from everything by keeping Christ’s commandments and through the dispassion which comes from that, he must transcend all cognitive activity “through continuous and sincere and immaterial prayer”. Therefore he must have been healed already, through keeping Christ’s commandments and through freeing his soul from all sinful connection with created things. He is illuminated by the inaccessible light “abundantly through an inconceivable union”. He sees God through union. Thus he becomes light and sees by the light. Seeing the uncreated light, he recognizes God and acquires knowledge of Him, because now “he recognizes truly that God is above nature and beyond comprehension”.

St. Gregory also develops this teaching at other places in the Triads.

The vision of God, theoria of the uncreated light, is not a sensory vision but a deification of man. Speaking of Moses’ vision of God “face-to-face and not in enigmas”, he recalls the passage in St. Maximus the Confessor that says: “Deification is an en-hypostatic and direct illumination which has no beginning but appears in those worthy as something exceeding their comprehension. It is indeed a mystical union with God, beyond nous and reason in the age when creatures will no longer know corruption” (3,1,28;CWS p.84). So the vision of the uncreated light is man’s deification. He sees God through deification and not through cultivating intelligence. The vision of uncreated light is called a deifying gift. It is not a gift of created human nature, but of the Holy Spirit. “Thus the deifying gift of the Spirit is a mysterious light which transforms into light those who receive its wealth. He not only fills them with eternal light but also grants them knowledge and life appropriate to God” (3,1,35;CWS p.90). Thus the vision of God is not external but comes through deification (2,3,25).

This deification is union and communion with God. According to St. Gregory, “Vision of the uncreated light is not simply abstraction and negation, it is a union and a divinisation which occurs mystically and ineffably by the grace of God, after the stripping away of everything from here below which imprints itself on the nous, or rather after the cessation of all noetic activity; it is something which goes beyond abstraction” (1,3,17;CWS p.34f). The contemplation of uncreated light is “by the divinising communion of the Spirit” (1,3,5;CWS p.33). “So the contemplation of this light is a union, even though it does not endure in the imperfect: but is the union with this light other than a vision?” (2,3,36;CWS p.65)

St. Gregory speaks of ecstasy. But this ecstasy, in patristic teaching, has nothing to do with the ecstasy of Pythia and the other religions. Ecstasy comes when, in prayer, the nous abandons every connection with created things: first “with everything evil and bad, then with neutral things” (2,3,35;CWS p.65). Ecstasy is mainly withdrawal from the opinion of the world and the flesh. With sincere prayer the nous “abandons all created things” (2,3,35;CWS p.65). This ecstasy is higher than abstract theology, that is, than rational theology, and it belongs only to those who have attained dispassion. But it is not yet union. That is to say, the ecstasy which is unceasing prayer of the nous, in which one’s nous has continuous remembrance of God and has no relation with the `world of sin’ is not yet union with God. This union comes about when the Paraclete “illuminates from on high the man who attains in prayer the stage which is superior to the highest natural possibilities and who is awaiting the promise of the Father, and by His revelation ravishes him to the contemplation of the light” (2,3,35;CWS p.65). Illumination by God is what shows His union with man.

Vision, deification and union with God are the things which offer man existential knowledge of God. Then man possesses real knowledge of God. The deifying gift of the Holy Spirit, which is a mysterious light, transforms into divine light those who have attained it and not only fills them with eternal light, “but also grants them a knowledge and a life appropriate to God” (3,1,35;CWS p.89). In this state a person possesses knowledge of God. In reply to Barlaam’s teaching that God is known by the greatest contemplators, the philosophers, and that knowledge of God transmitted “by noetic illumination…is by no means true” (2,3,78), St. Gregory Palamas declares: “God makes Himself known not only through all that is but also through what is not, through transcendence, that is, through uncreated things, and also through an eternal light that transcends all beings”. This knowledge, he says, is offered today as a kind of pledge to those who are worthy of it and which “illuminates them unendingly in the unending age”. That is just why the saints’ vision of God is true, “and he who calls it false has strayed from the divine knowledge of God” (2,3,78). Thus anyone who ignores and disregards the vision of God, which offers true knowledge, is in reality ignorant of God.

These things show that the vision of God, deification, union and knowledge of God are closely bound together. They cannot be understood apart from one another. Breaking this unity takes man further away from knowledge of God. The basis of Orthodox epistemology is illumination and God’s revelation within the purified heart of man.

As we have seen, knowledge of God is beyond human knowledge. Vision of the uncreated light surpasses all epistemological activity and is “beyond sight and knowledge” (2,3,50). Since vision of the uncreated light is offered to the hearts of the faithful and perfect, that is why “it is superior to the light of knowledge” (2,3,18;CWS p.63). And not only is it superior to the light of human knowledge “from Hellenic studies”, but also the light of this theoria differs from “the light that comes from the Holy Scriptures”, since the light of the Scriptures may be compared to “a lamp that shines in an obscure place, whereas vision of the uncreated light resembles the morning star which shines in the day, that is to say, the sun” (2,3,18;CWS p.63). The grace of deification thus transcends nature, virtue and human knowledge (3,1,27).

The vision of the uncreated light and the knowledge that comes from this are not an unfolding of the rational power, they are not perfection of rational nature, as Barlaam asserted, but they are superior to reason. They are knowledge offered by God to the pure in heart. Anyone who asserts that the deifying gift is a development of the rational nature puts himself in opposition to Christ’s Gospel. If contemplation were a natural gift, then all people should be gods, one less and another more. But “the deified saints transcend nature”, they are engendered by God, God gave them power to become “children of God” (3,1,30;CWS p.85).

The vision of the uncreated light, which offers knowledge of God to man, is sensory and suprasensory. The bodily eyes are reshaped, so they see the uncreated light, “this mysterious light, inaccessible, immaterial, uncreated, deifying, eternal”, this “radiance of the Divine Nature, this glory of the divinity, this beauty of the heavenly kingdom” (3,1,22;CWS p.80). Palamas asks: “Do you see that light is inaccessible to senses which are not transformed by the Spirit?” (2,3,22). St. Maximus, whose teaching is cited by St. Gregory, says that the Apostles saw the uncreated Light “by a transformation of the activity of their senses, produced in them by the Spirit” (2.3.22).

Vision of the uncreated Light and the knowledge which comes from it transcend not only nature and human knowledge, but virtue as well. Virtue and the imitation of God prepare us for the divine union, but the mysterious union itself is effected by grace (3,1,27;CWS p.83).

Thus deification, which is the goal of the spiritual life, is a manifestation of God to the pure heart of man. This vision of the uncreated Light is what creates spiritual delight in the soul. For, according to St. Gregory, evidence of that light is that the soul ceases to give itself over to wrong pleasures and passions, and that it acquires peace and stillness of thoughts, and rest and spiritual joy, contempt for human glory, humility joined with secret rejoicing, hatred of the world, love of heavenly things, or rather love of the God of Heaven alone, and a vision of uncreated light even if one’s eyes should be covered or plucked out (3,1,36;CWS p.90).

From what has been said it is clear that the end of man’s cure is vision of the uncreated light. But since in this chapter we are speaking about theoria, we may also look at Palamas’ teaching that there are many degrees of theoria. He says that this theoria has a beginning, and the things that follow on from this beginning differ in degrees of darkness or clarity, but there is never an end, for its progress, like that of the rapture in revelation, is infinite. Illumination is one thing and continuous vision of light is another, and still another is the vision of things in that light whereby even things far off are accessible to the eyes, and the future is shown as already existing (2,3,35;CWS p.65). So there are degrees of theoria, and with it, degrees of knowledge.

At this point we may also look at the teaching of St. Peter of Damascus about the eight stages of theoria (Philokalia 3,108). The first seven belong to this age, while the eighth belongs to the age to come. The first theoria is knowledge of the trials and tribulations of this life. The second is “knowledge of our own faults and of God’s bounty”. The third is knowledge of the terrible things before and after death. The fourth is deep understanding of the life led by our Lord Jesus in this world and of His disciples and the other saints, that is to say, the words and actions of the martyrs and the holy Fathers. The fifth is knowledge of the nature and flux of things. The sixth is theoria of created beings, or knowledge and understanding of God’s visible creation. The seventh is understanding of God’s spiritual creation, that is to say, of the angels. The eighth is knowledge concerning God, or what we call `theology’.

Consequently theoria has many stages and degrees, and many must come before vision of the uncreated light, which is “the beauty of the age to come”, “the food of the heavens”. Among the degrees of theoria are remembrance of death, which is a gift from God, unceasing prayer, the inspiration to keep Christ’s commandments fully, knowledge of our spiritual poverty, that is to say, understanding of our sins and passions, and the repentance following it. All these things come about through the operation of divine grace. Certainly perfect theoria is vision of the uncreated light, which itself is differentiated into vision and continuous vision, as Palamas says (3,1,30).

So the purification which takes place by the grace of God creates the necessary preconditions for attaining that theoria which is communion with God, deification of man, and knowledge of God. The ascetic method of the Church leads to this point. It is not based on human criteria and it does not aim to make the person `nice and good’, but to heal him perfectly and for him to achieve communion with God. As long as a man is far from communion and union with God, he has not yet attained his salvation. The spiritually trained person who sees the uncreated light is said, in the language of the Fathers, to be “deified”. This expression is used by St. Dionysios the Areopagite, St. John of Damascus, and repeatedly, as we have seen, by St. Gregory Palamas (3,1,30;CWS p.85f).

The healing of the soul, nous and heart leads a person to the vision of God and makes him know the divine life. This knowledge is man’s salvation.

We must pray fervently for God to grant us to reach this knowledge of God. The exhortation is clear:

Come, let us ascend into the mountain of the Lord, even to the house of our God, and behold the glory of His transfiguration, glory of the Only-begotten of the Father. Let us receive light from His light, and with uplifted spirits let us for ever sing the praises of the consubstantial Trinity.

And,

You were transfigured upon the mountain, O Christ our God, showing to Your disciples Your glory as much as they could bear. Do also in us, sinners though we be, shine Your everlasting light, at the intercession of the Theotokos, O Giver of light. Glory to You.

Source: Saint Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery

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