“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”1


The Orthodox Church considers the events that occurred on Mount Tabor as being a historic reality. The Taboric light is not viewed as an allegorical turn of phrase or figure of speech but as a real aspect of the Godhead2. This divine light, given and experienced in mystery, caused the disciples who witnessed it, not only to become exceedingly afraid,3 but also to question what in fact they had experienced. After hearing the voice from the cloud: ‘this is my son, my chosen; listen to him!’4 the disciples filled with awe, were commanded by Jesus to ‘tell no one the vision, until the son of man is raised from the dead.’5

So just what was this light that the Apostles had seen? Clearly, it could not be of the essence of God for “no one can see God and live6“. On the other hand, the Exapostilarion of the feast of the Transfiguration proclaims “Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy Light, O Word, thou unaltered light from the light of the unbegotten father, we have seen of the Father as light and the Spirit as light, guiding with light the whole creation7” As the capacity to manifest light does not inhere in human nature the light must then flow from the divinity of Christ and hence his uncreated hypostasis. It is this uncreated light that points the way to union with God. The ontological and antimonical conundrums posed by the revelation on Mount Tabor pointed to the nature of the theological problems that confronted humanity, including the nature of Christ, human understanding of the Triune God, the role of the Spirit and indeed how humanity itself is to be saved.

If God is unknowable because of his transcendence then His impassibility demanded that the light be in fact created. Therefore, despite whatever Christ may have said as being the way to the Father then Christ was in fact separated irreparably from his humanity. Further, as Christ could not be the bridge between God and his people when there could be no union between human nature and the divine. This in turn meant that humanity had no certainty of the promise of salvation or to see God. If, on the other hand the light seen by the disciples flowed from the divine nature then clearly not only was Christ the means of salvation but that it was also possible for humanity to be one with God in this world. Hence, the promise of salvation of humanity is not only actualised through Grace but also humanity could experience the reality “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe.”8

Theology is the human response towards God. Humanity strives to listen and interpret God’s word to his people. The human quest is to find a means of listening and thereby move to God. Hesychism became the method of listening as well as the medium to attain the message namely that salvation is a reality and the promise of that salvation was manifested by the Holy Spirit through the Taboric light. This essay will consider the notion of hesychism in its role in the theology of light as well as the nature of that light through the foci of Saints Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas who gave this light human understanding. It will then consider aspects of this understanding for the salvation of humanity, received from God through the Holy Spirit.


Hesychism is not new to the church and has always existed. Hesychia has both an exterior and interior understanding. The exterior relates to solitude and to a person’s relationship in space with other human beings. This notion of solitude is manifested, for instance in the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”. Associated with the notion of hesychia is the notion of nepsis or watchful vigilance. Upon being asked by a brother “what is interior peace, and what use is it?” Abba Rufus replied “interior peace means to remain sitting in ones cell with fear and knowledge of God, holding off the remembrance of wrongs suffered and pride of Spirit… keep in mind your future death [and to be] watchful over your soul.”9

This interior understanding does not involve a journey into the desert but an interior journey into one’s heart. Thus, “the cell of a hesychist is the body that surrounds him, and within him is the dwelling place of knowledge” or, put in another way, “the hesychist is a man who fights to keep his incorporeal self shut up in the house of the body.”10 St Symeon the New Theologian, for one, insisted that the fullness of the vision of God is possible in the middle of cities as well as in areas of solitude. Further, hesychism is open to all as the criterion is not the physical distance between people but the inner reality. It is the conversation that is carried on in the heart with God that determines the hesychist and not just exterior silence. Thus, evil thoughts as much as evil words can condemn a person. Hesychia involves a progressive kenosis of the mind so that it is able to contemplate God.

The hesychist’s aim thus becomes not only as a receptor for God’s word but to also be able in the silence to apprehend the vision of God. In order to so do prayer is engaged and, in particular, the Jesus prayer. Thus, by praying “constantly”11 the multiplicity of thoughts is detached and disconnected thereby allowing focus upon the vision of God. Thus, the hesychist “can appreciate the value of each thing, because he sees each in God and God in each.”12

Thus, hesychism should be understood for what it truly is, namely, a means towards coming to have union with God by predisposing the contemplative towards reception of God’s word and thereby allowing God to dwell within. This means that hesychia is like a road whereby the Holy Spirit runs to embrace the prodigal son who acknowledges “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”13 Thus the uncreated light of Mount Tabor is both the message and the messenger for the hesychist that leads to eternal salvation, which after all, is the goal of all Christians. Implicit in this is the notion that the relationship between humanity and God is unmediated by ecclesial hierarchy and personal to each individual. Further, it is the Holy Spirit that wills the encounter between God and man, provided that humanity takes the first step towards finding God and continues to seek God. It should also be remembered that prayer ultimately can only lead to silence in the presence of God and this, in effect, is the reality of the message.

Hesychism involves a methodology designed to focus the mind upon the heart through such controls as prayer, breathing and fixing the mind towards an interior journey to the heart. To some one steeped in “humanistic mentality” and “philosophical convictions”,14 such as Barlaam, such a psycho-physical method of prayer had no place in religious thought and smacked of Messalian heresy. Moreover, practitioners of Hesychism participated in absurd doctrines, produced erroneous belief and were derided as omphalopsychoi (people whose soul is in their navel). However, despite such criticism, the hesychists were doing no more than following the Fathers in practising prayer of the heart as means to a vision of God.

St Symeon understood the theological task as being personal communication with God. Although he did not speak specifically of interior prayer, or formulate distinctions between the essence and energy of God he was nonetheless considered a master hesychist. St Symeon demonstrated that humanity was able to form an immediate knowledge of God. Having apprehended that truth he became the defender of that truth namely that, through the Spirit, humanity was able to form a relationship with God in this life. In speaking of the intellect he states “when contained not by walls but by the divine Spirit, it is firmly established in its natural condition and converses with God.15

St Gregory Palamas, in defending Hesychism from the attacks of Barlaam not only confirmed that the means of salvation is available to all who truly hunger and thirst but also created “a dogmatic synthesis of the hesychist tradition, affirming both the exclusively Cristocentric and sacramental foundations of “deification” and the absolute unattainable nature of the divine essence”16 St Gregory (in common with the Fathers) saw the purpose of man to progress from the image to the likeness of God, which likeness had been darkened as a result of his fall in Adam. Through repentance, Hesychism and living a life in Christ each person then not only attains vision of God but becomes “in fact the image of God”17.

The Holy Spirit

“When the Spirit of Truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.18” It is thus the Holy Spirit that reveals and manifests divine actions and allows for the possibility of human participation in the Trinitarian life and hence deification. Indeed, the works of the Trinitarian God towards his creation is indivisible and although each person in the Trinity interacts with each other in a mysterious way their action towards humanity is singular. It is this interaction as manifested in the New Testament that paradoxically allows humanity to participate existentially in union with God. Thus, at the Transfiguration the Son is identified as the beloved and the Holy Spirit is the Person that crosses the distance between God and humanity. It is by the Spirit responding to the plea of each individual who calls to God to enter their heart that initiates movement towards union with God and hence deification. It is this same Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation, participated in the incarnation, rested upon the Son at his baptism and transfiguration and was given by the Son to his church to bear witness of the love within the Trinity. As Rogers puts it “it is the Spirit’s own proper role within the Trinitarian life to glorify the love between the father and the son. In glorifying God, human beings participate in the Spirits own proper work.”19

It is thus the Spirit that guides humanity towards the kingdom of heaven. However, “the hypostatic character of the Holy Spirit remains undefined and “anonymous”20 and comes in the name of the Son to bear witness to the Son, just as the Son came to bear witness to the Father. To St Symeon the Holy Spirit is the vivifier that validates humanity and without whose assistance “our souls would be dead and our virtues worthless.”21 Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit that creates the resurrection of the dead soul by awakening it to a thirst and hunger for a life in Christ. It is this Spirit that renews the Gospel message so it can be lived in today just as it was experienced at the time of Christ thereby making the gospel message the message of today and not just yesterday.

To Gregory Palamas the vision of light surpassed human seeing and knowing. In order to achieve this vision a transfigured mind and purified body was required. Further, “true knowledge of God implies the transfiguration of man by the Spirit of God, and the negations of ‘apophatic’ theology signify only the inability of reaching God without such a transfiguration by the Spirit.”22 Thus by transcending his own nature each person is able to communicate with God who always remains transcendent in his essence. It is the Spirit that thus allows man to cross the gulf between God and man that was bridged by Christ through his incarnation.

It must be remembered that each of the fathers wrote about real problems and about real circumstances that confronted them. Their motivation in putting pen to paper was not to enter into some speculative discourse but to explain or defend the faith as received. As St Symeon put it, in 3.4 of his Practical and Theological Chapters, each saint from generation to generation received enlightenment and the grace of God thereby becoming just like a golden chain with each of them a link bound to all preceding saints in faith, love and good works. Saints Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas will now be considered in the light of this proposition.

Symeon the New Theologian

According to Krivocheine, Symeon was born in 949 C.E. at Galatea to parents belonging to provincial Byzantine aristocracy. When he was about 11 years of age he attended school in Constantinople with a view to entering the Emperor’s service under the sponsorship of his uncle, a court official. Relying upon references scattered through his works, including his 34 Discourses, his Theological and Ethical Treatises and 58 hymns of Divine Love as well the vita written by his disciple Nicetas Stethatos, Krivocheine draws a picture of a dissolute and malcontent young man who wanted to turn his life to God.

As a young man, he met Symeon the Pious who became his Spiritual Father. Under his influence he began to practice extreme ascesis. Thus, by day he would tend his worldly pursuits and at night through tears, prostrations and prayers wrestled his demons. These nightly vigils were no doubt intense and Symeon experienced his first vision of light that filled him with awe and joyous for more. Unfortunately, he fell back to his previous lifestyle and thus into Spiritual torpor. Although he did not break completely from his Spiritual father, the direction provided to Symeon was generally ignored by him and he continued the way of the world.

Symeon then had a direct apprehension of God that he described later as “You, compassionate master, lover of mankind. You show pity on me. The envoy who came was neither Angel nor man: it was you … indeed master, you remembered me when I lived in the world, surrounded by my ignorance. You chose me. You severed me from this world and installed me in the presence of your glory”.23 Perceiving that he had been rescued for God Symeon entered the monastery at Studios when he was approximately 27 years of age and began his discipleship under Symeon the Pious. Unfortunately, Symeon refused to submit to the coenobitic rule and to the direction of the Abbot and was expelled.

He then resumed his novitiate at the nearby monastery of St Mamas, still retaining the Spiritual guidance of Symeon the Pious. At St Mamas, he was soon professed and ordained priest and at the age of 31 elected as Abbot. There, his asceticism and charismatic teaching met resistance from his monks. At that time, the church was going through a period of ritual formalism where formulas were repeated at the expense of lived experience. As Meyendorff put it, the theology of tradition was being supplanted by the theology of repetition. Symeon, who never saw theology as an intellectual endeavor, strove to restore theology under the Holy Spirit and in the life of Christ. Indeed, if one possessed Christ there is no longer a need to read books because the person who has Christ has, through Christ, been initiated into the secrets of the hidden mysteries and thus becomes a divinely inspired book for others.

Likewise, Symeon had little time for ecclesiastical authorities. It was his view that, unless a member of the priesthood was worthy to have seen the light and thereby having a personal relationship with God, then he was not worthy of the priesthood. This in turn meant that the laity people could, from Symeon’s point of view, absolve sins. Further, God should be approached as mystery and not speculatively or scholastically. In 995, a number of his monks revolted against his attempts to create a new Spiritual climate at St Mamas. Patriarch Sisinnos, however, intervened and condemned the rebels to exile. Symeon, however, “did everything in his power to make the discontented monks return to the monastery.”24

Symeon also bought further problems upon himself by seeking to venerate the memory of his Spiritual Father Symeon the Pious as Saint. He had his icon written, compiled homilies, hymns and canons as well as celebrating his feast day. Patriarchal Sergius enquired about the cause of the feast and, being satisfied, Symeon was allowed to continue celebrating the feast day.

By that stage an adversary in Stephen of Alexina entered into dispute with him. Stephen who was influential with the Patriarch and Emperor and highly learned found Symeon offensive to church order. Stephen posed the question of whether the Son was to be distinguished from the Father by a conceptual distinction or a real distinction. Symeon responded through hymn 21 which joined issue with the temerity of Stephen to ask questions of which he had no understanding of. The feud ended in January 1009 when Symeon was exiled over renewed allegations over his Spiritual Father being a sinful man and he celebrated him as a saint. In exile Symeon founded a small monastery around the church of St Marina where he chose to stay despite being recalled from exile. He died in 1022 and in 1052 his relics were translated to Constantinople.

St Gregory Palamas

Palamas was born in 1296 into a world where the Byzantine Empire was now but a shadow of its former self although it may not necessarily have accepted that reality. By that stage Constantinople and Orthodoxy were deeply mistrustful of the West and Rome. In 1204 the fourth Crusade had decimated the Byzantine Empire which had withdrawn to Nicea until 1261 when Michael VIII Paleologos retook Constantinople. During that time, ongoing sacrilege, proselytisation and the establishment of Latin Patriarchates caused the East to view the Western church as predatory, self-serving and irreligious. Further, the empire was under relentless attack from the Ottoman Turks which resulted in its eventual fall in 1453. In short, the Byzantine world was unsafe, fraught with danger and liable under challenge of arms from the Arabic East and the Latin West.

Palamas grew up in the court of Andronicus II Paleologos having escaped the Turkish invasion in Asia Minor. Until he was about 20 he engaged in secular studies which grounded him in Aristotelian and Platonic logic. He then determined to become a monk. Gregory, by then being the head of his family, determined that his mother, four siblings and retinue of servants enter monastic life. He then travelled to Mount Athos to the great Lavra where he became aware of, and criticised exaggerated Hesychism, which sought to sacrifice the coenobitic life. In about 1326 Gregory was ordained priest and founded a skete in Thessaloniki. In 1331 he returned to Mount Athos, living at the skete of Saint Savva. In 1335 he was appointed abbot of Esphigmenou monastery where his zeal caused antagonism to the point where he left the following year and returned to his skete.

In 1338, Barlaam, a scholar and philosopher who had proselytised to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism began to make his mark in Constantinople. In defence of the Eastern position on the Filioque, Barlaam took the view that as Dionysius the Aareopagite had argued that God was beyond negation and therefore unknowable to man why should the East and the West argue about the procession of the Spirit as it was beyond human knowledge to speculate anyway? This provoked Gregory to challenge Barlaam who in the meantime took issue with the methodology used by the hesychists and condemned ascetic exercises that produced a vision of God “within the navel”25 to be heretical. Barlaam then took issue with the direct vision of God. As far as he was concerned the light was either an angel or the essence of the mind in which event it was acceptable, however, if the light was claimed to be from another hypostasis then that light could not exist.

It was against this background that Palamas composed his Triads for the Defence of the Holy Hesychists. In 1340 Palamas composed The Declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defence of Those Who Devoutly Practice Life of Stillness. This declaration was signed and endorsed by the entire community of Mount Athos as Athonite practice. It manifested the proposition that Grace is uncreated and unconditional. The manifesto also spoke about the Taboric light and said that:

Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something he was not, or by a transformation into something he was not, but by the manifestation to his disciples of what he really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While he himself remained the same, they could now see him as other than he had appeared to them formerly. For he is “the true light” (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and he shone forth like the sun – though this image is imperfect, since what is uncreated cannot be imaged in creation without some diminution.26

Moreover, this light was from the uncreated energies of God and, as a consequence of the gift of the Spirit, perceived by saintly people who possess Spiritual and supernatural grace and power both perceptively and intellectually. Thus, as Meyendorff said, “God makes himself really visible because in the church the kingdom of the world to come really exists already in anticipation.”27

In June and August 1341 consecutive Councils held at Constantinople condemned Barlaam and upheld Palamite teaching. However, this was not the end of the dispute as the humanist cause was taken up by a Bulgarian monk, and Gregory’s former friend, Gregory Akindynus as well as Nikophoros Gregoras. However, Andronicus Ill then died and Palamas, seen as a supporter of the ousted Grand Domesticus Cantacuzenos, was imprisoned for a period. In 1347 Cantacuzenos was crowned as co-Emperor and in the same year Palamas was elected Archbishop of Thessaloniki. In 1347 and 1351 new councils endorsed the theology of Palamas against Akindynus and Gregoras thereby confirming the victory of Hesychism and Palamite theology over scholasticism, Neoplatonism and humanism.

In 1354-55 Palamas was captured whilst travelling between Thessaloniki and Constantinople and held by the Turks for a year. After he was ransomed by the Serbs he returned to Thessaloniki where he died the 14th of November 1359.

The Theology of Light

How can Saints know that the light that they experienced was through the Holy Spirit? After all, did not St John warn “believe not every Spirit and test the Spirits whether they are of God. “28 However, if the Spirit speaks in full accord with the gospel commands then it must be true for the Spirit, Son and Father bear witness to one another. The Holy Spirit, in filling the Apostles on Mount Tabor with uncreated light, bore witness to the divinity of the Son who in turn is one with the father. Paul makes plain that the fruits of the Spirit include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self­control. Moreover, those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires and walk in and live by the Spirit.29 Both St Symeon and St Gregory would say that the Taboric light is both gift and promise in accordance with the words of Paul.

Both Saints would also say that the uncreated light is a gift that is given by the triune God to his creature. Although God made man ex nihilo and out of absolute love, by making him in his image and likeness he endowed him with free will to either accept or reject Him. Therefore, the actualisation of this gift calls for the cooperation of each individual to participate in the light to the extent of their inclination and capacity. It is also a promise in that the light is seen and understood as being, not created, nor as a physical phenomenon, and certainly not as an emotional or psychological perception. Both would also say that what the Apostles witnessed was real light, uncreated and emanated from the person of Christ who “as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.”30 That the disciples could now see this light emanating from Christ meant that the disciples themselves had undergone transformation and enlightenment. It was similar to the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus in that “suddenly a light from heaven flashed above him.”31 Unlike Paul however, who had to await Ananias to be sent by the Lord to restore his sight,32 the disciples did not lose their sight. However, what they shared in common with Paul was being filled by the Holy Spirit as a result of this witness to the light.

In that regard, we have the testimony of Peter, John and James. Prior to Tabor, Peter had identified Jesus as being the Christ, the son of the living God.33 Peter, in his second epistle, confirms his eyewitness of the Taboric light and understood it as not only making “the prophetic word made more sure”34 but also as affirmation that humanity can become partakers of the prophecy of scripture, not as a matter of individual interpretation nor from individual subjective impulse but by humans being “moved by the holy Spirit spoke from God.”35 John not only declared God as “light and in him is no darkness at all”36 but also saw in that light that God is love and that his followers should walk in the same way in which he walked.37 James, averred that “every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”38 It is the Holy Spirit in engaging with each of Christ’s disciples, together with their free will, that allowed participation into the union with God. Moreover, as the hypostasis of humanity was fully engaged through Christ, then the promise that the Triune God will embrace each person that seeks Him is true.

The theology of light also manifested itself in the Old Testament focusing on the notion of the Shekinah that made visible the presence of God on earth. God thus declared himself in the burning bush on Mount Sinai, over the Tabernacle, and other places. Jesus himself declared that “I am the light of the world.”39 This light is now manifested and declared to the world through the Eucharist. After communion, we declare that “We have seen the true light, we have received at the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, we worship the undivided Trinity; the Trinity has saved us”.40 This Taboric light is the operation of the triune God that declares salvation to his people.

In expounding the theology of light Saints Symeon and Gregory were doing no more than articulating for their own times and in their own circumstances what the disciples had participated in on Mount Tabor and what the Prophets had experienced before Christ. However, they each focused on what they respectively saw as being under challenge. Symeon, in his writing, demonstrates clearly that the Holy Spirit cannot be mediated by the clergy and there is a direct relationship between man and God. Any attempt to interfere in that direct relationship was perverse. Moreover, any person who was prepared to properly search for God would be guided by the Spirit to God and be in his presence and in his light. Symeon would justify venerating the memory of his Spiritual Elder, without permission from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as a manifestation of his faith that his yeronda had “stood in God” and was therefore Holy.

At this point it is opportune to reflect upon the notion of the sobriquet “new” as ascribed to Symeon. The Church is not only apostolic but also patristic. The role of each father is to bear witness to the true faith through the Holy Spirit. Their thoughts are existential and bear witness for their own times and for all time the mystery of the living word of God thereby making the word alive, authentic and relevant to their world. The fathers are not about innovation and certainly not about speculation and abhorred the word “new”. No father could do more than declare “these things we have been taught by the scriptures and have received from our fathers; and we have come to know them from our own small experience”.41 Thus, the gravamen of any complaint against any father lay in the notion that he was introducing something “new” to the word of Christ as received by him, for Christ is the same yesterday and today and any innovation is of human invention.

It is precisely on this point that St Symeon turned upon his accusers. He labelled as heretics those who confess that it is not possible to be, through the Holy Spirit, bathed in the uncreated light of the Triune God. In Catechetical oration 29 he rightly asks “if, then, it is impossible for us to carry out in action and observe without fail all the things that God says, and all that the Saints after first practising them have left in writing for our instruction, why did they at that time trouble to write them down and why do we read in church?” Symeon, in his experience of the divine light, does not rely upon human consciousness, being overwhelmed by the ecstatic state to participate through indwelling with God in his uncreated light. Even though we cannot see God, as he is incomprehensible to the senses, the ineffable light that is participated in is our understanding of divinity – even though it cannot be articulated. Although experiential, it is no less real if it cannot be articulated because what is experienced is simply beyond words. Thus, “he who is God by nature converses with those whom he has made Gods by grace, as a friend converses with his friends, face-to­face.”42 Moreover, this vision of light can be obtained frequently and should be sought incessantly in absolute humility and obedience. To Symeon, the light bought ineffable joy. However, whenever his vision was darkened by the cares of the day he suffered great deprivation by not participating in that light.

McGuckin43 assesses the Spiritual doctrine of Symeon as representing a synthesis of the Alexandrine School with its emphasis on the blessedness of the pure in heart and the Macarian tradition of God’s gift as supernatural knowledge. Whatever the assessment, the question that Symeon poses is: how can it be denied of one who has put on Christ and been made God through Grace and Adoption not also be God in awareness and knowledge and contemplation as a result of putting on Christ? This is not to say that the illuminated become God by nature but through Grace which is the gift and promise of the Holy Spirit.

Gregory Palamas is perceived as being a disciple of Symeon in bringing his work to a final perfection. Palamas confirms that the theology of the church lives in living tradition which presents Christ to every generation through the Spirit as the truth and the way to salvation. Like Symeon, the experiential life of Palamas also centered on one truth, namely that the living God is accessible to personal experience because God participated fully, through Christ, in humanity. Thus, God became man in order that man might become God. This aphorism is central to the understanding of the theology of light. Palamas had to deal with various antinomies, which true within themselves present perplexity to human understanding. He properly identified that the knowledge of God is experiential and given to all Christians inchoately at baptism and nurtured through Eucharistic participation in Christ. As Christ assumed humanity’s nature, then participation through Eucharistic prayer by humanity is participation both in divine life as well as the fullness of God. However, God is totally inaccessible in his essence. Therefore, humanity can participate in the being of God by grace, which is freely given by the Holy Spirit. It is this grace which allows participation in the energies of God, which is given by God thus allowing deification. This deification “is entirely unconditional, and there is no faculty whatever in nature capable of achieving it since, if it were, this grace would no longer be grace but merely the manifestation of the operation of a natural capacity44. The Taboric light, although real, remains invisible to those who have not been granted illumination by the Spirit. Therefore, the light is not perceptible with the human eye, but Spiritual and perceptible with the heart. It is this light that transforms humans into Spiritual beings able to see in this light not only in the Triune God but also see the light in others who also have this charisma.

The theology of light confirms to humanity as reality the promise of salvation made by Christ to his church. To be saved it is necessary to believe in Christ personally and as lived experience. Speculative questions as to the nature of Christ, either historically or eschatologically, are irrelevant; what matters is that Christ lives here and now. This means that each person can have the same relationship in Christ as the Apostles had. This in turn will mean that each person (and it is available to each person and not just a select few that we designate as Saints) can be transformed to see the Taboric light which is the seal of the Union thereby becoming Gods by grace.

The reality of grace manifests itself in the relics of the Saints as well as through miracles. It is by participation of the Holy Spirit in human nature that transforms relics to something above and beyond nature. It is for this reason that Orthodoxy has little need to speculate as to how precisely we are saved. For, as Climacus put it, “a humble monk will not preoccupy himself with mysteries. A proud monk busies himself with the hidden judgements of God.”45 In other words, no further proofs are necessary to vivify God’s promise of salvation than the evidence of relics and their transformative qualities. Relics thus remind that union with God is possible, not eschatological but here and now. No speculative theology is required as to the operation of the Spirit other than contemplation of relics now transformed by the Spirit.

Indeed, given the theology of light and the proper understanding of what occurred at Mt Tabor, any speculation as to the soul after death may well be considered as impious, audacious and indeed impertinent. After all, what further sign does humanity require than the promise that we can be made Gods by grace through the Spirit. This of course does not mean that grace, once attained, inheres within the person. What it does mean is that Christ must be put on by each believer who needs to actively participate on a daily basis by and through their free will. It should also be remembered that the Spirit blows where it wills. Nor should it be forgotten that grace is not merited or earned by simply imitating the life of Christ. This is the great mystery, namely how to reconcile the freedom of the Spirit in the face of the expectation of salvation by those are living in the Spirit. Saints Symeon and Gregory would say that such questions are not our concern, nor should we be worried about the how or why of salvation because the Taboric light is the promise and fulfilment of God’s word and God’s word is true. Indeed, St Gregory further adds that as there is no division in God then humanity fully participates in God, save and except in his essence which always remains beyond knowing to humanity.


The central theme of Byzantine theology is that man is not a closed autonomous entity but a relational creature with God. God’s being is beyond human understanding and He chooses how to be perceived by his creature. There is no ontological necessity for God to transcend his Being. God however, in his outpouring of love, not only made creation ex nihilo but also continues in that love despite the fall of humanity. Indeed, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”46 It is through the theandric Christ that divine and human nature is united without change, confusion, separation or division. This allows humanity to participate in divinity. Thus, to the church fathers, the fate of humanity lay in understanding the theandric nature of Christ and its implications.

In the Taboric light the church fathers were able to understand the reality that the promise of salvation made by Christ had in fact been delivered to humanity. In practical terms, the Taboric light manifested itself as uncreated and, as it emanated from Christ, it meant that it signed Christ as the Son of the Father. Hence the promise of deification made by Christ was true. Moreover, the mystery of the incarnation meant that divine hypostasis of the Logos in assuming humanity allowed humanity to participate in union with the Triune God. This potential allows humanity to ascend in a dynamic relationship of love, thus allowing for the eschaton to be made real in this life through that love. Therefore, there is no need to speculate the fate of souls after death, as it was possible for the soul to experience salvation through the Taboric light in this present life. That salvation is accessed, according to St Symeon, once there has been a second baptism in the Holy Spirit. Further, once a Spiritual person participates in the light with God, then the more the progress in divine knowledge, the more they fall into ignorance.

Did St Symeon and Gregory have time for the notion of apokatastasis?47 Certainly not – the idea that all would be saved ultimately precludes free will to reject salvation. In speaking about the fore-ordained, St Symeon stated that their numbers are inscribed, and when “all I gathered into the single body which is Christ, then the higher world, the heavenly Jerusalem itself which is the church of the firstborn will be complete,”48 This would also mean that the notion of epectasis would have little attraction. Therefore, the possibility of universal salvation as well as the growth of the soul after death was not acceptable to them. Salvation was here and now and the necessity to work to be amongst the elect was in this lifetime. There was no need for any more promise than the light of Tabor and no further proof needed as to the truth of that transformative light than the relics of Saints that are imbued with the Holy Spirit.

When God says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”, the purity of heart, according to the Saints, can only be attained through the actions of the Spirit. Symeon likens the action of the Holy Spirit as fire, and if fire is lacking, then a smith, despite having all tools and skill, can do nothing without the flame. Further, to access the flame there is no need to intellectualise or speculate as to what is being accessed which is in any event beyond any human understanding with the intellect. The flame is to be experienced, the flame is to be lived, and the light of the flame should lead each individual to the presence of God.

Ultimately, the goal of contemplation was vision of God. Although in his essence God is utterly unknowable, it is still possible nevertheless to have true contemplation with him. This contemplation cannot be expressed in words because what it perceives is invisible, devoid of form, simple, infinite, yet at the same time recognizable, embracing and loving. Notwithstanding that it cannot be articulated, it is none less real.

Saints Symeon and Gregory are owed a real debt by humanity. By giving understanding to the theology of light, they manifest the reality that the Holy Spirit, by participation in the life of each person who lived their lives in Christ, can have union with God as reality, and hence salvation accessible. The light given to the world on Mount Tabor is God’s sign and seal to humanity of this promise.



1 Mt 5:5

2 Lossky, V. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. SVSP: Crestwood NY, 1976. p. 2181

3 Mk 9:6

4 Lk 9 28 (these words echo the words used at the baptism of ChristO

5 Mt 17:9

6 c/f. Ex 33:20

7 The Festal Menaion p. 495

8 Jn 17:21

9 Ward, B. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. p. 210

10 Climacus, J. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Step 27. p. 262

11 1 Thess. 5:17

12 Ware, K. The Inner Kindgom. p.109

13 Lk 14:18

14 Meyendorff, J. St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. p. 85

15 St Symeon. 13th Ethical Discourse. Vol 2. On Virtue and Christian Life. p. 177

16 Meyendorff, J. St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. p. 122

17 Hierotheos (Metropolitan). St Gregory Palamas as Hagiorite. p. 66

18 Jn 16:13

19 Rogers, E. F. After the Spirit. p. 176

20 Lossky. V. In the Image and Likeness of God. p. 76

21 Krivocheine (Archbishop). St Symeon the New Theologian. p. 261

22 Meyendorff, J. The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church. p. 183

23 Krivocheine (Archbishop). In the Light of Christ. p. 19

24 Krivocheine (Archbishop). In the Light of Christ. p. 41

25 Meyendorff, J. St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. p. 85

26 The Philokalia. Vol 4. p. 422

27 Meyendorff, J. St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. p. 88

28 1 Jn 4:1

29 Gal. 5:22-24

30 Lk 9:29

31 Acts 9:3

32 Acts 9:17

33 Mt 16:13

34 2 Pet 1:19

35 2 Pet 1:21

36 1 Jn 1:5

37 1 Jn 2:6

38 Jas 1:17

39 Jn 8:12

40 The distribution of the Holy Eucharist from the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

41 The Philokalia. The Declaration the Holy Mountain. p. 242

42 Sermon 90. Lossky, V. The Vision of God. p. 148

43 Practical and Theological Chapters and Three Theological Discourses. p. 26

44 The Philokalia. p. 420

45 Climacus, J. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. p. 221

46 Jn 3:16

47 This was espoused by Origen and Evagrius Pontachus and was condemned at the fifth ecumenical Council (533 C.E.)

48 St Symeon the New Theologian. On the Mystical Life. Vol 1. p. 52



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