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The fourteenth century was the time of the Palamite controversy in the Eastern Church. Gregory Palamas (d.1359) was a monk of Mount Athos. He was a practitioner of the method of prayer called hesychasm (hesychia means silence). By this method the person utilizes a rigorous bodily discipline in order to unite his mind and heart in God through continuous repetition of the name of Jesus, usually in the form of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Through the use of this method of prayer the hesychast monks claimed to gain genuine communion with God, including the spiritual vision of the Uncreated Light of Divinity such as that seen by Moses on Mount Sinai, and the apostles of Christ at the transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.
In 1326 the Calabrian Barlaam, a Greek uniate and a representative of the emerging humanist tradition of the Western renaissance, came to Constantinople. Barlaam and some Byzantine humanists who were highly influenced by Western philosophical and theological ideas, ridiculed the practice of hesychast prayer. They generally denied the possibility for men to be in genuine union with God. In 1333 Gregory Palamas confronted Barlaam’s position and defended hesychasm. He established the Orthodox doctrine that man can truly know God and can enter into communion with Him through Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church.
A council in 1346 upheld Gregory’s teaching. The holy monk made his famous distinction between the unknowable and incomprehensible Essence or Super-essence of God, and the actions, operations, or energies of God which are truly uncreated and divine (such as the divine light). These energies are communicated to men by divine grace and are open to human participation, knowledge, and experience.
After some years of political turmoil and theological controversy, councils held in 1347 and in 1351 (the year that Gregory became archbishop of Thessalonica) again upheld Gregory’s position as exactly that of the Bible and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. Since that time the theological distinction between the divine Superessence and the divine energies has become an official part of the doctrine of the Orthodox Church. Gregory Palamas was canonized a saint of the Orthodox Church in 1368 just nine years after his death.
John V Paleologos and Rome
The leading Byzantine emperor of the fourteenth century John V Paleologos (1341-1391) continued to have the hope that the West would come to the aid of the Greeks in the face of the ever-increasing Turkish pressures in the East. In 1369 John personally entered into communion with the Roman Church, without an attempt at formal church union. This act produced no lasting results either for the ecclesiastical or political destiny of Constantinople.
The Russians continued in the south under the Tatar Yoke. In the northern wooded areas of Muscovy, led by the Prince John Kalita (d. 1341), and the Metropolitan Alexis as governing regent (1353-1378), the northern Russians remained free and continued to prosper. The genuine “builder of Russia” in the north at this time was Saint Sergius of Radonezh (d.1392).
Saint Sergius was born in Rostov in 1314. He became a monk in 1334, going alone into the forests to and pray, giving the name of the Holy Trinity to monastic chapel. Many persons followed St. Sergius, some to join him in his monastic life, and others to live around his monastic community as pioneers and settlers. St. Sergius was extremely humble. He dressed in the poorest clothes. He continually worked for others. He taught by example only, fleeing from his position of abbot – which had been forced on him by Metropolitan Alexis – when he felt that the monks rejected his leadership. He was a strict ascetic, a practitioner of silent prayer, and a mystic graced with splendid divine visions and living communion with God.
In 1380 Saint Sergius – who was regularly consulted by Metropolitan Alexius and the national leaders – blessed the prince Dimitri Donskoi to engage in battle with the Tatars. Dimitri’s victory marked the beginning of the end of the Tatar control over the Russian lands.
The legacy of Saint Sergius to Russia and the Orthodox Church is immeasurable. Eleven of his disciples founded monastic centers in northern Russia around which lands were settled and developed. The mystics, spiritual life of the Russian Church, as well as the interrelation between the Church and the socio-political life of the Russian nation in later times was rooted in the person and work of Sergius of Radonezh.
A contemporary of St. Sergius, Saint Stephen of Perm (d.1396) was a learned bishop who undertook missionary work among the Zyrian tribes. Although his work did not remain, Saint Stephen created the Zyrian alphabet and translated the church writings into the native language. Thus he combined the Byzantine tradition of fostering local church life and laying the spiritual foundations for future missionary work of the Russian Church among the Siberian tribes and in Japan and Alaska.
Saint Andrew Rublev (d.c1430), the greatest Russian iconographer and perhaps the greatest iconographer in Orthodox history, did his marvelous work at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. He was a monk of the monastery of St. Sergius. He was the artistic follower of the iconographer Theophanes the Greek, and he worked together with his friend Daniel Chorny. Rublev’s most famous work is the icon of the Holy Trinity, painted for the Trinity-St. Sergius monastery, depicting in a perfect harmony of colors and lines the Three Angels who came to Abraham in the Old Testament. During this same period there was a renaissance of church art in the Byzantine empire, with many famous frescoes and mosaics coming from this period.
The Serbians were enjoying a flourishing period of their history under the rule of Stephen Dushan. The Serbian Church became a patriarchate in 1346. Also at this time, Saint Clement of Ochrid (d.1375) lived and worked among the Bulgarians, being a leader of national enlightenment.
Simultaneously, the Bulgarian monastery of Zoographos was established on Mount Athos.
Liturgically the fourteenth century reveals the order of worship in the Church as virtually the same as it is today. The Commentary on the Divine Liturgy was written by Nicholas Cabasilas. He also wrote a popular work called Life in Christ, which gives a symbolical interpretation of the liturgy showing ritual details which still remain in the Church practices today. For the first time the prothesis (proskomedia), as a separate rite preceding the liturgy of the Word, is found in the liturgical books.
The liturgical commentaries of Simeon of Thessalonica (d.1420) which provide detailed information about church worship came from this period. An interesting note in Simeon’s writings reveal that at this time the Holy Eucharist was still being given to Orthodox Christians in the sacrament of matrimony, and the blessed “common cup” was given only to those who were not allowed to receive Holy Communion in the Church.
The West in the fourteenth century saw the “Babylonian captivity” of the Roman popes in Avignon (I 3 03-13 7 8), and the “great schism” within the Western Church between various claimants to the papal office. Catherine of Sienna lived at this time, as did John Wycliffe, the forerunner of the reformation in England, and the English mystical writers Walter Hilton and Juliana of Norwich. The end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries witnessed the development of the Brothers of the Common Life in the low countries. This movement’s greatest representative was Thomas a Kempis who was the author of the famous Imitation of Christ. The writing of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (d.1321) and the painting of Giotto (d.1337) was during this period of history.