The Flame Imperishable: A Short Reflection for the Feast of St Gregory Palamas

The Flame Imperishable: A Short Reflection for the Feast of St Gregory Palamas November 14, 2008

Cross-posted at: The Well At The World’s End.

Organ of wisdom, clear trumpet of theology, Gregory of divine speech, we praise thee. As thou dost stand before the Primordial Mind direct our minds to Him that we may cry: Rejoice, O Gregory, herald of grace!

— Kontakion of the Feast of St Gregory Palamas (Nov. 14). 

In the notes accompanying the dialogue, Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, Tolkien has the following to say about the mysterious “Flame Imperishable,” mentioned in other sources, especially at the beginning of The Silmarillion

This appears to be the main, Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence.  This Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it.  But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’ by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being.[1]

It does not take much to change around what is said above to find the Christian meaning behind the text. Eru is God. Melkor is Satan. The Ainur are the angels. But what are we to say about the Flame Imperishable itself? How are we to understand it? As an Eastern, I come to this text with a theological tradition which Tolkien was not entirely familiar with, and yet one which seems too similar to what Tolkien wrote here to ignore: that of hesychasm and its notion of the uncreated energy of God. If used as a hermeneutical lens, it provides a rather clear way for us to appreciate Tolkien’s theological point. More importantly, it will allow for a better way to judge the kind of theological depth which lay behind Tolkien’s life-work. Finally, it will point out that there might be more underlying unity to the mystical theology of the East with Western scholastic thought than might ordinarilly appear to be the case (as Tolkien’s Catholic education was shaped in great part by the Western scholastic tradition). 

It is important to note the importance of St Maximus the Confessor in the hesychast tradition, for his exploration on the question of Jesus’ human and divine energies is the dogmatic ground by which hesychasm was able to establish itself as an authentic witness of the Christian faith. And it is clear St Maximus believed that for every nature, there is an equivalent energy which operates; it is by it’s operation that a given nature is manifested to us.[2] For the divinity, that means there is a divine energy. This, the energy of God, must be, like God, uncreated and eternal. The sixth ecumenical council, III Constantinople, confirmed St Maximus’ general thesis, making it more than mere speculation.[3]

St Gregory Palamas must be understood as one who is simply taking this tradition and confirming its theological significance when he says our knowledge of God, and our experience of God, is related to God’s interaction with us. God’s being is manifested to us by his energy, while God is, in essence, transcendent and beyond our comprehension. Our knowledge is true, since it is truly God we experience, but we must not limit God to that which we can understand or experience. “Thus, neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor the things akin to them are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause. But we say He is life, goodness and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential.”[4]

Tolkien’s idea of the Flame Imperishable is amazingly similar to the thought of St Gregory Palamas on the uncreated energy of God. He wanted to explain how God as a creator worked in the world while not being comprehended by it. His understanding of the notion of sub-creation, and the relationship between an author and the work he or she writes, allowed him to see and understand, by analogy, how God must relate to the world. It is doubtful Tolkien had much, if any, direct connection to the thought of Palamas. But it is interesting to note, on this, the Feast of St Gregory Palamas, how Tolkien, reflecting upon God and creation, ended up with a similar theological point. How is this possible unless there is more that unites the Western tradition with the East than is often claimed in theological debates? Obviously, as Hans Urs von Balthasar would point out, there are some issues one might want to address with St Gregory Palamas.[5] How are we to understand what has been said in relation to modern personalism? Do we not experience the very essence of God through his divine persons? Is there not some true communication of the divine essence by the economic Trinity? But this is at best an issue of qualifying the language being used, making sure the tradition does not turn into agnosticism or atheism.


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring. Ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 345.
[2] See for example his Disputation with Pyrrhus for a rather clear presentation of this fact.
[3] III Constantinople says of Jesus Christ, “But we glorify two natural operations [energies] indivisibly, inconvertibly, unfusedly, inseparably in our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, our true God, that is, the divine operation [energy] and the human operation [energy]  […] each nature indivisibly and without confusion willed and performed its own works…” DZ 292.
[4] St Gregory Palamas, The Triads. Trans. Nicholas Gendle (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983), 95.

[5] See, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic  III: The Spirit of Truth. trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 128 – 130.

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