This Sunday is the Second Sunday of Lent, on which the Orthodox Church commemorates St Gregory Palamas. This staunch defender of our faith and Father of the Church lived from 1296 to 1359. Over the course of his life as a monk and a bishop he fought against thinkers who wished to drag the Church away from its tradition and towards a Western, reason-based mode of thinking in comparison with traditional Eastern thought.
This difference in thinking is a topic for a future article, but suffice it to say that in beholding God the reason of this world is insufficient and unable to lead us onto the correct path.
One of the positions defended and further explained by St Gregory Palamas is that of theosis, or deification. In defending the true experience of the divine Presence through this gift of personal divine communion, St Gregory defended the Biblical position that we truly can become gods by grace.
This concept starts in the Old Testament, with humans being made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Deification is only required because we have fallen into sin and continue through sin to deform the divine gift of life. This does not mean that we abandon our human nature and assume the same divine nature as God, for this is impossible. It means that we become perfected humans as we were meant to be at Creation.
But where does it say that humans are gods with a little “g”? Psalm 81 (82) calls members of the Church, those who take on the challenge of theosis, ‘sons of the most High’ (v. 1) and ‘gods’ (v. 6) who ‘die like men’ (v. 7). Christ quotes Psalm 81 in John 10:34, reproaching the Jews who considered it blasphemy to ‘make Yourself God’ (John 10:33).
There are three steps to deification according Pseudo-Dionysius, steps which are adopted and discussed by Palamas. The first is the purgative way (catharsis). This is purification of the passions, but not necessarily of ignorance in response to Barlaam the Calabrian’s thinking that catharsis also required knowledge of Greek culture (Palamas, Triads). Christ in the Beatitudes says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5:8). This purity is only achieved through struggle and through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The second step is the illuminative way (theoria). This occurs after a person has started to purify themselves and begins to become more enlightened as to virtue and the workings of divine grace. This helps the process of purification and allows for works to be done in a spirit more pleasing to God. This step can last for many years and often until the end of many lives.
The third and final step is the unitive way (confusingly called theosis). This is a state in which a person is perfectly united with God through their complete purity and desire for God. This is achieved through the ‘prayer of the heart’, the Jesus Prayer, and ‘unceasing prayer’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
St Gregory Palamas defended that true theosis is an act which requires humans to make the effort to reach God. The closer we get to Him, the more we are able to experience His light until we become immersed in it and become the light given ‘to every man coming into the world’ (John 1:9). For this and his other efforts on behalf of the Orthodox faith he is remembered in each Great Lent, a time in which his teachings are lived by the people of the Church.