The essence remains unapproachable, but the energies come down to us

St Basil the Great, Ep. 234, 1



The Russian Orthodox Church knows of two Italians who fled Italy after the Roman Catholic schism in the twelfth century, came to Russia and became Orthodox saints. These are St Antony the Roman and St Macarius the Roman. However, the Greek-speaking Orthodox world knows of two other Italians. The first also became a saint, the second, on the contrary, preached heresy, falling back into Roman Catholicism. The first is known to the Church as St Nicephorus the Hesychast, the second is the philosopher, Barlaam of Calabria.

St Nicephorus the Hesychast

St Nicephorus the Hesychast is known to us from the life of St Gregory Palamas. According to St Gregory he was ‘an Italian’ converted to Orthodoxy. This could mean that he was of Greek descent, from Sicily or Calabria, but whose family had been forced into union with Rome, or it could mean that he was an Italian of mixed Greek and Italian parentage. This we shall never know for certain. However, we do know that when he came to Constantinople, Nicephorus opposed the Unionist policies of Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos (1259-1282). Moreover, by his stand for Orthodoxy, he won many disciples amongst the elite of the Imperial Capital.

After this period, Nicephorus left for Mt Athos, where he became a monk and lived in a hermitage near Karyes, the Athonite capital. Here he wrote a booklet called ‘On Guarding the Heart’, which made him famous as a hesychast, and on which veneration for his memory is founded. This work is in fact an anthology of quotations from earlier hesychasts, ascetic saints and fathers, such as Sts Antony and Macarius the Great, St John of the Ladder and St Symeon the Theologian. In his Guide, St Nicephorus recommends particularly the importance of having a spiritual father and giving him obedience. This, he says, is essential if we are to guard the heart from distractions and achieve unceasing prayer, by calling on the name of Jesus Christ and asking for mercy. He also recommends as an aid for beginners the technique of breathing in and out as the prayer is said.

St Nicephorus can therefore be seen to have assimilated the hesychast spirituality, typical of the thirteenth century, which had been inherited from the long hesychast tradition from the first century on. Moreover, it was on the basis of such Christian experience, including that of St Nicephorus, and on the basis of his personal experience, that in the fourteenth century St Gregory Palamas wrote his ‘Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts’. So valuable was St Nicephorus’ Guide that it was later included in the Philokalia.

Barlaam the Calabrian

Some decades after St Nicephorus, probably at the very end of the thirteenth century, Barlaam, a Roman Catholic again possibly of Greek origin, was born in Calabria in Italy. Having joined the Orthodox Church, he arrived in Constantinople in about 1330 and became well-known as a philosopher and man of learning. He wrote on logic and astronomy and was given a chair at the Imperial University. Here he commented the writings of St Dionysius the Areopagite, as they had been set down in the fifth century by an unknown writer. In 1333-34 Barlaam was appointed spokesman by the Unionist Emperor of Constantinople to dialogue with Dominicans who had been sent from Rome to prepare Union with the Papacy. In 1339 he was sent to Pope Benedict XII in Avignon for the same purpose. He was an ideal choice for this task of apostasy, for Barlaam considered that the basic Roman Catholic heresy of the filioque had no significance whatsoever.

Under the influence of St Dionysius and his Orthodox teaching that God is unknowable, Barlaam had rejected the medieval rationalist Roman Catholicism of Thomas Aquinas. However, his understanding that God is super-rational, beyond mere human reason, did not mean that Barlaam had actually become Orthodox. From being an anti-Scholastic, Barlaam had absolutized St Dionysius’ writings on the unknowability of God, thus deforming their meaning, reading Neo-Platonism into them. He used the unknowability of God not to deny rationalism, but rather to affirm it, deciding that man can only rely on fallen human reason, ‘the knowledge of things’, to live his life. Thus, he had in fact separated human life and society from God and His grace, becoming one of the first humanist secularists of the Renaissance.

Barlaam divorced our practical daily conduct from possible sanctification by real grace. He dismissed any ‘experience’ of God as mere subjective imagination, self-illumination by the power of the psyche and the fantasies of meditation, as it can be among Roman Catholic mystics. They do not and cannot know the uncreated energies of God, because of their confession of the filioque. Logically, they would deny the Divine Light of the Transfiguration of Christ as the imagination of the apostles. Unable to know God through His Light, they knew only the external human nature of Christ, hence their cult of the crucified man, ‘Jesus’, their self-mortification and self-flagellation. Thus, it was too much knowledge of Roman Catholicism and lack of understanding and experience of Orthodox Christianity that led Barlaam into error. Barlaam forgot that, ‘in Thy light we shall see light’ (Ps 36, 9).

In all of this Barlaam was influenced by the pagan philosophies of Platonism (or rather Neoplatonism) and Aristotelianism, which were by definition cut off from knowing God by their pre-Christian paganism. Thus, he fell into the error of thinking that since God is unknowable not only to the fallen human reason, He is also unknowable to the purified human heart. In this, Barlaam, the University professor who worked only on an intellectual level and had no experience of the prayer of the heart, at once put himself into opposition with the hesychasts who had actually experienced God. Their leader was St Gregory Palamas, who managed to express the hesychast experience of God in the purified heart not in terms of the essence of God, which is absolutely unknowable, but in terms of the energies of God, which are knowable, but only to the heart that is purified by unceasing prayer.

As St Gregory could have explained, although we cannot know the Sun in body, mind and soul, we can know the rays of the Sun, that is, we can attain ‘theosis’ or divinization. As all the Fathers had said, and the Apostle Peter had implied before them, ‘God became man, so that man might become god’ (See 2 Peter 1, 4 – ‘that…ye might become partakers of the divine nature’). Significantly, St Gregory Palamas in Triads I, iii, 22, quoted from the life of the Western Father, St Benedict, to prove his point about transfiguration through the divine energies to Barlaam.

Yet Barlaam persisted in his belief, denying the divine energies, thus making God into a distant, transcendent God, not a loving Providential Creator. Thus, in his lack of experience he made God into a Sun, Who does not shine on His Creation. And he left the Church without the Holy Spirit, to mere men, the popes of Rome, from whom proceed the Holy Spirit, according to the combined errors of papism and the filioque. In Barlaam we see clearly all the consequences and ramifications of the filioque error. If the Holy Spirit is locked up between the Father and the Son, then indeed God is absolutely unknowable.

Barlaam had fallen into the error of the anti-body and therefore anti-ascetic intellectualism of Neoplatonism and the Neoplatonist heretics Origen and Evagrius. His essential error was to put the human reason at the centre of the human-being, rather than the heart. In practice he denied that we are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’, that we can be transfigured by the Uncreated Light, as was Christ, including in His human nature, on Mt Tabor. Thus, Barlaam claimed that secular education was essential in order to obtain any understanding of religious faith. It was this in his opening lines of his first Triad that St Gregory Palamas rejected, for ‘philosophy does not save’. Barlaam’s intellectualist approach to knowledge and faith expressed the whole post-Scholastic, early Renaissance mentality. It was after all precisely in the fourteenth century that this mentality was growing up in the schismatic West, above all in Italy.

As a result of Barlaam’s error, the idea that God is in all ways unknowable because the only way in which we can know him is through our minds, it was logical for him to disregard the Faith. If, as he asserted, we cannot know God anyway, then it does not matter which faith we confess, Roman Catholic or Orthodox. Everything is a mere matter of opinion. In Barlaam, we see an early, Renaissance form of Protestantism – all is individual opinion. It is this concept, which, claiming that God is unknowable, also fundamentally denies the Incarnation of Christ.

It is this which is at the basis of modern secularism and humanism. For secularism says, like Plato, that we cannot know God, and humanism, like Aristotle, says that we can only know man. According to this, the grace of God is unknowable and therefore it is pointless to try to acquire it. Ultimately, therefore, ascetic life is purposeless and Christianity is at best mere moralism – i.e. non-ascetic Protestantism. The ultimate logic of all this, however, goes even further, beyond Protestantism, to amoral agnosticism and from there to atheism.

As we know, Barlaam’s philosophy was rejected by St Gregory Palamas. The former then accused St Gregory and the hesychasts of Messalianism, an anti-Incarnation and therefore anti-sacramental and anti-ascetic dualist spiritualism. For Barlaam any claimed experience of God had to be Messalian, spiritualism. For the Church, however, the centre of the human-being, as in the Bible, is the heart, not the fallen human reason. Purified by unceasing prayer, it is the heart that is capable of experiencing God. The reason, or mind, merely follows the heart. Therefore, not only St Gregory, but the whole of Mt Athos condemned the teachings of Barlaam. In the summer of 1341 two Church Councils, assembled at St Sophia in Constantinople, condemned the philosophy of Barlaam. The latter, returned to Italy later that same year. Here, unsurprisingly, he was appointed a Roman Catholic bishop, teaching Greek to the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch.


In their lives the two Italians converts, demonstrate how we can become Orthodox and how we cannot become Orthodox. On the one hand, St Nicephorus turned to Christ, hastening to prayer and spiritual advice in humility and obedience. On the other hand, Barlaam, did not turn to Christ, remaining with his prejudices and false conditioning. St Nicephorus truly converted to Orthodoxy, Barlaam, on the other hand, although exchanging external rites, remained a Roman Catholic inside himself.

Their examples can be examples for us all. If we wish to enter truly into the spirit of the Church, then we must accept Her in humility and obedience. We must learn from Her, without attempting to impose our own false values and pride, which we must first unlearn. Only in this way can we make way for the grace of the Spirit. We cannot teach others, until we are aware in humility of our own spiritual impoverishment. And only then, though the sufferings of ascetic life, can we begin to know, let alone teach, anything. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

Those of a philosophical or speculative frame of mind should take heed: the (Orthodox) Christian Faith is not an idea, but a way of life, involving suffering and asceticism – the Cross. For there can be no Resurrection without first the Cross. Barlaam the Philosopher, denying the Cross, which was ever ‘foolishness to the Greeks’, and therefore denying the Resurrection, considered that man cannot know God. He was right, but only about himself. Barlaam could indeed not know God, because he was so full of himself.

In this way Barlaam became one of the founders of Western rationalist, secularist and humanist civilization. St Nicephorus the Hesychast considered that through prayer man can know God. In this way he is one who continued Christian (Orthodox) civilization. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. We note that it is St Nicephorus, the man of experience, whom we commemorate as a saint and Barlaam, the man of philosophy, whom we recall as a heretic. ‘For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty’ (2 Peter 1, 16).


Fr Andrew

24 July/6 August 2007
Great-Martyr Christina

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