St. Gregory Palamas, freedom, and the self

The second Sunday on the Orthodox Calendar commemorates St. Gregory Palamas – perhaps the most significant theologian and teacher of the late Byzantine period. He particularly is important when considering the nature of the Christian experience of God. Orthodoxy believes that it is truly possible to know God though He remains unknowable. The mystery of this true knowledge constitutes the heart of St. Gregory’s work. I offer this small reflection on the topic of freedom in his honor.

St. Gregory Palamas

Part of the experience of being involved in religious activities in the late 60′s and early 70′s was the not infrequent encounters with members of cults (they seemed to be everywhere). I’m not certain how I would define a cult (not purely by doctrine but certainly by its destruction and control of its members as whole persons). I worked in a “coffee house” (which in that particular time period, oddly enough, was not associated with coffee) for a couple of years – playing music and being involved in the adhoc ministry that was part of that world. We encountered young people from across the country (there was hardly anywhere else to go on the weekends, unless you drank or did drugs – the coffee house had neither). But a common thread in my encounters with cult members was an absence – it was as though nobody was home.

Conversations could be attempted – but the answers came back as selected quotes. Doubt, questioning, many of the things that you would expect from most people in conversations regarding God, were part of the absence. It is little wonder that people involved in cults were often treated as though they had been “brain-washed.” Something like that seemed to be the case.

Since then I have occasionally (though not often) encountered the same phenomenon in people who were not members of what anyone would think of as a cult. However, the same sense of absence, of a rigidity replacing freedom, marked the encounter.

Several years back I came across a small book that offered interesting insight into all of this: In Search of the Person: “True and False Self” according to Donald Winnicott and St. Gregory Palamas (Alexander Press, 2002). With a title like that, how could I resist? I was not familiar with Winnicott, though from what I read his work is pretty standard psychological fare. The author is Fr. Vasileos Thermos, who is both a practicing Psychotherapist and an Orthodox priest, living and working in Greece.

I was struck by a quote in the book from Fr. Dimitri Staniloae:

“To the extent that man does not use his freedom, he is not himself. In order to emerge from that indeterminate state, he must utilize his freedom in order to know and be known as himself.”

To summarize (hopefully without doing injustice) – our freedom, an essential part of what it means to be a person, is frequently suppressed in the name of religion (or other ideologies). Fearing immorality (or something similar), or seeking conformity at any cost, it is easy to reduce a person’s freedom, substituting a false obedience, that results in the creation of a “false self.” This “false self” is the “absence” I encountered in some cult members and others.

Freedom is a paradox. It is an utterly inherent part of our existence – a critical part of our salvation – and yet threatening in its power. Freedom of the self can seem a threat to every kind of order (religious, political, social, etc.). Nevertheless we are told in Scripture that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (freedom)” (2 Corinthians 3:17). St. Paul will also warn in his letter to the Galatians (5:13) that our liberty should not be used as an excuse to sin. And thus the paradox is set. Without freedom, we will not become the whole person we were created to be and which is the proper end of our salvation. But freedom can also be directed incorrectly, leading to yet another bondage (to sin). But substituting a religious bondage for a sinful bondage is not the answer.

Of course, Scripture also speaks of our being the “slaves of Christ,” a true statement when rightly understood, but also capable of misunderstanding and misuse.

This is, for me, part of the paradox of Orthodoxy. When I converted, a number of acquaintances in my former Church, made explanations to themselves that my conversion was an effort to hide from and avoid the discomfort of freedom. There was an assumption on their part that because the Orthodox Church’s teachings are clear and “conservative” on certain points (certainly in comparison to liberal Protestantism), that the Church must therefore be rigid and controlling. This is simply not the case.

It is easy to assume that canon law, because it is canon “law,” suppresses our freedom and makes us slaves. And yet this is not at all the case. The canons and Tradition (like Scripture) point us in the proper direction and enlighten us in the path of salvation. But the Orthodox application of the canons is guided by something other than a rigid literalism. We fast, but not as though the fast were a law. Every Bishop and Priest who serves as a custodian of the canons, has to apply them with salvation in mind (this is the proper use of what is termed “economia”). Different persons, different situations, require different applications of the canons. One rule does not fit all.

This mystery extends throughout the Church. This is not a reduction of canons into mere “guidelines” but the requirement of wisdom in their application as we seek to direct souls towards a proper relationship with God. The freedom of the person has to be respected in a manner such that what is nurtured is the “true self” and not a humanly created automaton (the “false self”), or simply the ego quoting what it does not truly know.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The paradox of our relationship to God is that obedience in our relationship to Him does not enslave us – but sets us free. It is the same as the paradox of the Cross. Christ said of the Cross, “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own self” (John 10:18). Our own salvation can be no different. No one can take our life from us – we must lay it down of our own self.

We lose our life in order to find it. We lose a false self in order to find the true. The saint is the most free of all human beings. What a strange wonder.