What Palamas Can Teach Us About Trolls
Internet trolling has, unfortunately, become commonplace even in Christian circles. While at times these trolls are known individuals who get a rise out of provoking anger and controversy, the present trend includes anonymous social media accounts using profile photos of holy images, while spewing responses that are anything but holy.
Last month, Sister Vassa Larin hosted Professors George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou on her YouTube Channel “Coffee with Vassa” to discuss Public Orthodoxy and whether it is “accommodationist.”
In predictable fashion, the trolls came forth.
Without going on a tangent into the specific nature of this Internet trolling event, trolling not only predates social media, but can be found intertwined with Christian history. Even the temptation of Jesus in the desert was a form of trolling (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).
Most recently, I encountered a saint who also dealt with a troll. Following my article on Night Vigil, I became inspired to spend time with the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas, namely Holy Hesychia: The Stillness that Knows God. Therein I learned of the saint’s encounter with a troll (17).
In the 1300s, a monk and scholar known as Barlaam the Calabrian decided to utilize his Western intellectualism to challenge the Orthodox scholars in Constantinople in order to prove his superiority. After handily being defeated by the scholars in Constantinople, Barlaam, I believe, sought to pacify his wounded pride by challenging the hesychast monks, claiming their spiritual practices were heretical. Given his scholarly background compared to the hesychast monks, Barlaam likely judged he would have dominated this debate.
However, Barlaam underestimated Gregory Palamas, who proved to be a most worthy adversary. First, Palamas privately communicated with Barlaam the errors in his understanding of hesychia. However, when this effort did not change Barlaam’s disposition, Palamas composed the Triads In Defense of Holy Hesychia (18). According to Fr. John Meyendorff, “Gregory Palamas orients his entire polemic against Barlaam the Calabrian on the issue of the ‘Hellenic wisdom’ which he considers to be the main source of Barlaam’s errors” (Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology).
Taking a step back, what was Barlaam’s motivation? His activity in Constantinople would suggest he was seeking to make a name for himself. To the extent Barlaam was met with some futility in this regard with his attempts at debating the local scholars, I believe Barlaam’s on-the-offensive confrontational temperament, which is similar to Internet trolls, led him to attempt to redeem himself at the expense of the hesychast monks. Therefore I believe Barlaam, as well as present-day Internet trolls, are operating from a place of insecurity.
By engaging Barlaam, Palamas gave to us this beautiful text on hesychast prayer: a discourse on encountering God who is Uncreated Light through the prayer of stillness and silence. We also learn from Palamas that hesychasm is only a means, with the goal being deification. “Deification is beyond every name. This is why we who have written much about hesychia have never until now dared to write about deification” (In Defense of Holy Hesychasts, Book Three 1.32).
At times, as in this example, engaging a troll can offer education and enrichment to bystanders. However, given the particularly insatiable need for trolls to attack, ridicule, and dominate, discernment is most necessary to ensure that by engaging we are not taking on a fool’s errand.
This dispute, which the synod of Constantinople upheld in Palamas’ favor, never altered Barlaam’s position. Often, no matter how much back-and-forth we participate in with a troll, the troll might not be open to discovering truth or changing their thesis. In fact, replying to a troll might only feed it and fuel its anger, while simultaneously draining our peace and energy.
Therefore, discernment prevents us from falling into a troll’s trap. The practice of discernment that Palamas offers is on the basis of watchfulness (νῆψις). By watchfulness, Palamas urges us to eliminate anything that prevents our thoughts from turning to God. When we receive a response online from a troll, while our knee-jerk reaction would be to reply straightaway, Palamas would call us to pause and center ourselves. Rooted in his notion of watchfulness is the importance of self-control (In Defense of Holy Hesychasts, Book One 2.2.).
When we have taken some time to engage in silence and experience stillness, that which can only come from God, we can then turn to God, the Uncreated Light, on how to respond. We detach from the anger and pride that might be in our hearts in reaction to this troll, and allow the love from God to permeate our being and transform the negative experience into one of union with God. And from this union, we can form our basis on whether or not to respond. Even if we choose to respond, we can do so from the place of unceasing prayer, united with the Trinity in communicating a loving response. Also in line with the Trinity, we can be detached in how the troll responds to our efforts.
In the end, trolls are people loved by God who are wounded and in need of God’s healing love. However, they satiate their pain by trolling. May we not be brought down with them, but be instruments in healing, pointing them to the risen Christ.
O trolls of Twitter,
Look upon the Face of Christ
And you will be saved.
Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Rite and has ancestral ties to the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charter holder.