Anestis Keselopoulos on St Gregory Palamas: Virtue as the ‘Middle Way’ of Spiritaul Life
In his study of the thought of St Gregory Palamas, across a number of pages Anestis Keselopoulos considers his notion of virtue:
‘Examining the texts of the holy Fathers, we see that they clearly describe the beginning of the journey to God with a practical philosophy that is composed of two basic aspects of the spiritual struggle. The first aspect of the struggle is the wresting for freedom from the passions, which leads to purification. The second is the acquisition of the virtues…[Hence] the Apostle Paul’s exhortation: “Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.”‘
‘In Patristic teaching, it is commonly held that sinful habits reveal the soul’s sickness, whereas virtues reveal its health and natural state…The Church Fathers are unanimous – only the cultivation of the virtues brings us victory in the struggle against the passions. In other words, each passion can be conquered and cast our of the soul only by its corresponding virtue…Following the Fathers before him, St Gregory Palamas does not view sinlessness as a negative state, restricted merely to the flight from sin. Rather, he links it directly to exercising the virtues, especially the virtue of love.’
‘For the Fathers and for St Gregory Palamas, the word “virtue” has a far richer meaning than is commonly encountered in ethical teachings…Virtue…is a drive that is indeed human, yet is set in motion by the presence of God. And while piety frequently becomes a painless means of “ethical” life, the meaning of virtue always contains an element of suffering and sacrifice, since its origin is the sacrifice of the divine-human or “theanthropic” virtue of Christ.’
The saving work of Christ and the need for believers to appropriate it is emphasised by some Christians more than others, and is characteristic of the Protestant Reformation. While there is nothing particularly non-Orthodox in such a way of thinking about Christ, St Gregory steers in a slightly different direction, by emphasising the need for continuing work (which is far from a doctrine of justification by works!), and basing his understanding of human virtue on Christology (Christ’s being both divine and human). Such approaches are those of a very Orthodox mindset!