15 March 2009

Synaxis of the Family of St Gregory Palamas

As a father and a non-monastic, one thing that has always fascinated me about St Gregory Palamas is his family. I shall give an excerpt from the beginning of the Life of St Gregory by his disciple, St Philotheos Kokkinos, that refers to them. This is taken from the website of the St Gregory Palamas Monastery in Ohio, with a few minor corrections by myself:

Gregory was the offspring of noble and pious parents. So virtuous was his father that the emperor Adronikos Palaiologos the B’ made him one of his counselors. And not only the earthly king, but also God, the heavenly King honored and glorified him even while he was still alive with miracles. Foreknowing his death, Constantine—that was his name—took the angelic Habit, that is, he became a monk, and was named Constantios.

After his father’s death, Gregory gave himself up to the study of ancient philosophy. . . .

Seeing Gregory’s achievements and progress in governing issues of the empire, the king was very happy and was arranging high positions and honors for him. However, young Gregory had his mind in higher things: the Heavenly King, and His Kingdom was his only concern.

. . .

At the age of 20, after turning down all the honors and promises of the emperor he decided to flee the City and go to Mount Athos. Having convinced all the members of his family to follow in his example, he came to the Lavra of Vatopaidi—one of the biggest monasteries, even today—and gave himself up to the venerable elder Nikodemos. He received the angelic schema from this elder and in a very short time—under the guidance of his elder—he climbed the ladder of practice [praxis] and reached the great heights of vision [theoria].

First of all, the fact that even while living in the world, St Gregory’s father, Constantine, was such a holy man that he was able to work miracles and foreknow the day of his death is astonishing to me. Second, I am fascinated by the fact that St Gregory was able to convince ‘all the members of his family to follow in his example’ and be tonsured, an event portrayed in the icon above (a fresco from the St Gregory Palamas Monastery in Etna, CA—one can order prints here), where we see St Gregory surrounded by his parents, Constantine and Kalloni, his brothers Macarius and Theodosius, and two sisters whose names I can’t find. (Incidentally, in the Roman Catholic Church one finds a similar story concerning the famous Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux—see the account in the Vita Prima by William of St Thierry of how Bernard came to present himself at the gate of Cîteaux ‘along with most of the male members of his family and a group of friends’, traditionally numbering thirty altogether, in Pauline Matarasso, trans. and ed., The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century [London: Penguin, 1993], pp. 21-5; this quote is from Matarasso, p. xiii).

Metropolitan Hierotheos has commented on both of these points, showing that they are linked together. In St Gregory Palamas As a Hagiorite, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1997), p. 32, he writes:

. . . [I]t is well known from the patristic tradition that when the nous is detached from reasoning [dianoia] and is illuminated, a person is able to live in the world with its various troubles and still have unceasing prayer.

Married people as well are able to live that life, as we see here in St Gregory Palamas’s father. . . .

Before leaving this world his father was tonsured a monk, ‘a way of life and conduct into which he was not uninitiated’. This is quite characteristic because it shows that Constantine, although married and the father of many children, was not different from the monks; his way of life was purely monastic. He had the same tradition, which was and is in reality the life of the Gospel.

Thus we are reminded of what St Gregory himself has taught, namely, ‘Married people can also strive for this purity, but only with the greatest difficulty’ (‘To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia’ 20, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, comp. St Nikodimos and St Makarios, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], p. 300).


orrologion said...

On married people and their potential for holiness, there is a Greek entitled something like "Ascetics in the World" that is being translated into English by Fr Nicholas Palis (with a little editorial help from the priest at my church).

(Included in the book is the life of a certain Constantine - I think that was his name - who very well may perhaps become the 2nd saint of Karakallou to be glorified...)

The Ochlophobist said...

I have been looking for a book on St. Gregory, I have most of the usual English language 20th century academic/semi-academic stuff (Meyendorf & Co.), and these have left me largely unsatisfied. I do not have this book by Metropolitan Hierotheos. Obviously, you think highly of it as you have quoted from it several times now. How good of a book is it, and if you were to only have one book on St. Gregory in English (secondary lit), would that be the one?

orrologion said...

You can read all or most of "Saint Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite" here:


Over the years I have been tempted and re-tempted to buy Met. Hierotheos' books in English. Each time I have to return them or give them away - I at least stop reading them - due to the terrible translations. (Or, I will assume it is the translation). I so wish that the Greeks would find truly talented translators to present their work in English. It seems they rely on friends of friends, or friends of the monastery. Knowing English is not the same as being able to write well in English.

Herman Middleton's "Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit" is one of the only 'Greek' books I can truly enjoy reading. I don't understand why every monastery and publisher in Greece doesn't hire him to translate everything they have into English.

orrologion said...

I have read a portion of STOTS Prof. Christopher Veniamin's translations of sermons by St. Gregory Palamas (Mount Thabor Press). They are quite good. These are newly available primary sources on St. Gregory in English.

aaronandbrighid said...

Christopher> That sounds great. I'd love to see this book!

Owen> I don't know how familiar you are with the Metropolitan's books, but they're not always the most enjoyable reading. The style is very dry and stilted, due in part to an overly literal translation method. The organisation of the material is very text-booky, too.

Both of these criticisms apply to the present book. That said, for a number of reasons it probably is the most useful single volume in English, if only for its comprehensiveness. It doesn't just focus on St Gregory's anti-Barlaamite writings, or indeed, on his theology in general, but considers his Life by St Philotheos, his homilies, and his significance as an ecclesiastical figure. It also gets at the heart of something concerning the theology that I think is often missed: the gnoseology it presupposes. There is a good chapter on this called 'Empirical theology', which, while it could be taken in a naively positivistic direction, is still IMHO an important discussion to have. Another thing that seems to be absolutely unique to this book is the chapter 'His social teaching, a dimension of the monastic life', which talks about St Gregory's role in and views on the Zealot revolt, 'Romanity', and 'sociality'.

Of course, my favourite books on the specifics of St Gregory's writings are Mantzarides's 'Deification of Man' and Keselopoulos's 'Passions & Virtues in the Teaching of St Gregory Palamas'. Perhaps I am biased because the latter author is my advisor and the former was his mentor! But I would have a hard time letting them go and keeping Met. Hierotheos's book only!

aaronandbrighid said...

Christopher> Your assessment of the Metropolitan's books is partly right: the translations are bad, but they are bad because they are too faithful to the original. His style is typical of a lot of Greek prose, and to them I suppose it is acceptable. But it reads very oddly in English. It doesn't flow well or something. For some reason, I think it would also help of the printing and the orthographical conventions were more Anglicised. The texts just don't LOOK right! What UK or American publisher would ever print a book that looked like these?

Part of the strength of Herman's book is that the Lives are of course original compositions and not translations from Greek. What do you think about the translation of 'The Authentic Seal'? That translator was an Oxford grad and a neighbour of mine in Thessaloniki. He was about as native an English speaker as one can get!

orrologion said...

What I have read online of 'The Authentic Seal' has been good. Was that a translation or a composition.

A very good point re 'Precious Vessels', but the quotes from the Elders weren't compositions, were they?

I was once asked by a Greek translator to help edit his translation of a text on the JWs. What I noticed was that the organization of thoughts and paragraphs was simply foreign to English conventions. I was able to keep literally every thought and turn of phrase in the piece, but had to reorder everything so that it made sense and 'flowed'. He didn't like that as he had been planning - for who knows what reason - to publish this memoir in both languages side by side. (This was not the kind of text that one would need to 'check the original language' on, it was very colloquial and 'amatuer').

I don't know Greek or the Greek intellectual tradition well enough to say, but I wonder if you are correct that they are simply following Greek conventions that do not travel well outside of Helles. If they are an innate part of the text, then they should stay, but I get the sense that it is really more a matter of style and convention. I don't think adapting it a la 'Unseen Warfare' would be so great an affront, but perhaps Gerondolatry will not allow for such tinkering. I wonder if Russian and Romanian are just that much more 'Western' to not have needed as much tinkering for similar writings to make better sense in English. Uniglot Americans such as I cannot say.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

This is all very helpful, particularly the notice of the sermon translations. That's where St Gregory shines. He's one of the few Fathers of whom we have both treatises on technical theological subjects and pastoral sermons. The value is that we learn that these theological issues are not just technical intellectual discussions, but have a very practical effect on Christian life.

Barlaam and Akindynos and the others opposed to St Gregory never thought to follow their objections to their ultimate conclusion: that if we cannot experience God except through created intermediaries, there can be no personal relationship between God and man. This strikes at the heart of all Theology (the Incarnation and Communion particularly) and is deeply, totally, thoroughly anti-Christian, one of the most dangerous heresies ever to strike at the Church. And it is surprising that the controversy continues among whom we might call the children of Barlaam, the intellectualists who write on the subject and find in favor of the academic approach to theology (because it is what they do and all that they know) rather than the lived, experiential approach exemplified by St Gregory and the other Hesychasts. That it popped up again (in a slightly altered form) in the time of the Kollyvades tells how insidious it is, and how, as in the case of the iconoclasts, even the direct and seemingly effective addressing of an heresy does not always percolate throughout the masses.

aaronandbrighid said...

Christopher> Yes, 'Authentic Seal' was a translation of Elder Aimlianos's words, but a good translation (it helps that this elder has a more beautiful prose style). In 'Precious Vessels', the Lives of the elders are Herman's compositions, but the teachings were his translations from the Modern Greek. Again, he is a good translator, and that's why they don't sound so odd. I'm not surprised by your anecdote because I know of at least a couple of instances where the translator or an editor has been painfully bogged down in having to do precisely what you described. I don't know about Romanian, but my sense is that Russian is easier to translate because modern Russian prose is what Bakhtin would call 'bilingual' To adapt what he has said about Latin vis-a-vis Greek, 'From its very first steps, the Russian literary word viewed itself in the light of the French word, through the eyes of the French word; it was from the very beginning a word "with a sideways glance", a stylised word enclosing itself, as it were, in its own piously stylised quotation marks.' Even with all of its interaction with other languages over the centuries, Modern Greek seems to be to be almost naively provincial by contrast.

Kevin> Apropos of your comment about theological issues and Christian life, there is a great paragraph from the Prologue of Keselopoulos's book on St Gregory that I shall have to post.

The Ochlophobist said...

Thanks all for your helpful comments. A very interesting thread.

I spent 8 weeks in Russia in the summer of 1992. We had 5 translators that traveled with our team of 35, but on those occasions when we (none of us Americans spoke Russian) needed to speak without a translator present we were amazed at how many folks spoke french. I was amazed (remember this was soon after the fall of the Soviet state) how classically european the culture was. Even in cities in Siberia, one would meet folks who were quite well versed in Debussy and Proust, and there would be one city centre bakery that sold french style breads and pastries, and there were french style boulevards. Obviously the Russian court spent many generations infatuated with things french, but it seems that during the Soviet period there were some allowances for the francophile cult. I seem to recall a passage or two in Billington about the schizophrenic relationship of Russian culture to French culture. I bet Fr. John Behr, who happens to suffer from francophilia, would be interesting to speak with concerning these issues.