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Fourteenth Century

Gregory Palamas

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.

Essence and Energy

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

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.

Saint Stephen of Perm

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 Rubley

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 and the Bulgarians

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.

Liturgical Development

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

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.