On the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas
Brethren, today we celebrate a great Father of our Church and champion of Orthodoxy: Gregory Archbishop of Thessaloniki, the Palamas. His memorial is ordained by the Holy Church on the second Sunday of the Fast to indicate that, in St. Gregory, the Triumph of Orthodoxy over heresies (which we celebrated last Sunday) continues. St. Gregory did not introduce new doctrines to Orthodox theology; he simply mounted a defense of the treasured, mature, dogmatic tradition. Not everything that is ancient is venerable or honorable—indeed, many heresies are ancient. We must discern the Truth in all things.
The Truth is eternal and immutable. The Orthodox theologians simply expand on this essence—they never add or subtract from it. St. Paul commands Christians to pray without ceasing. This is the total unification of the soul to Christ, wherein we can confess with the Apostle Paul: “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It is not enough for a man to be born of water and the spirit, that is, to receive the holy sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation; it is necessary to not “quench” the Spirit. It is necessary to “abide in the vine.” How do we accomplish this? Through the constant memory of God: through the conscious knowledge that our life is His, and we must live for Him! “And that I live not for myself alone, but for Thee, my Master and Benefactor”, as we read in the Post-Communion prayers.
And yet it is not possible to abide in the vine or to confess that I am a new man in Christ if I do not show the gifts of the Spirit in the flesh. If I preach to others while I myself am a servant of sin, I run in vain. It’s important to be circumspect, for, as we are taught, “the days are evil.” Sin abides in the world, and as the Lord tells us, the αρχον, the leader or prince of this world is the evil one. He will consistently, through history, engage a portion of humanity unto his service. And these unfortunate ones knowingly, but perhaps mostly unconsciously, will aid and abet his will. This is evidenced through history.
In our times we see it manifest in those who refuse to submit to Christ, and to the Gospel, and to the teachings of the Church. There are those outside of the Church who display this spirit of rebellion, and those within the Church—clergy and laity alike—who in their dispositions display symptoms of this rebellion. In all things, it is important to submit to the Truth, which is Christ. To hear His eternal voice echoing in the pages of the Gospel. And to become, ourselves, living Gospels through the sanctification which flows through the Holy Mysteries. Therefore, at each opportunity, tired or not, inconvenienced or not, we should cease making excuses as to the road, or as to the journey, or as to the elements, in the words of St. John Chrysostom. Let us be men and women of mature, principled Christian convictions.
In the Great Canon we heard, “Come, let us pass over the unstable river of time.” Time. It has its limit, it runs by us, the days turn into months and years and then we will all face the eternal judgment seat. And it is unstable: we live in an unstable reality wherein at any moment the worse could occur. We must center on Christ so we may pass all these trials and be vouchsafed to worthily stand before the Son of Man. We must remain united in Christ. And whoever is not united to Christ now… how can he claim Salvation? Having known and willingly ignored the Church’s commandments, how can such a one inherit the Kingdom?
St. Gregory Palamas teaches us how one may be united with Christ, he shows us the road wherein the Pauline saying, It is Christ who lives in me becomes an incarnate reality for us. And this occurs in prayer. Prayer is a simple matter. We require God’s mercy. It is a popular tradition for people to phone the priest, or perhaps a monastery, to explain a particular problem or issue and request prayers. This is fine and pious. Once, one monk told me that it isn’t absolutely necessary to go into such details. God knows the need of each one and his or her circumstances. We must run to “Him… who knows each one and his circumstances, who knew each one from his mother’s womb” (Liturgy of St. Basil). His mercy is all that we require for the soul’s healing and unification with Christ. What better prayer, or what more beautiful prayer could there be than the following prayer: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner? Though brief, it contains the whole evangelical truth. It confesses Jesus Christ is the Lord God, it confesses that we are sinners, and it confesses that we are in need of mercy. The mercy, the grace of God is what enlivens and quickens. It is God’s attribute; it is what lowers to Hades and Raises again (Lenten Matins).
The word for oil and mercy in Greek is the same word. The Good Samaritan—Christ—pours oil (mercy) on the wounds of the man fallen amidst the robbers (the demons and sin). Are we not this wounded man? Does Christ not mercifully heal our wounded-by-pride nature? And yet, how can He accomplish His work if He does not find us to be willing participants and co-workers in the furthering of His Kingdom? At Holy Thursday we will hear, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” If our God calls us friends, why do we not desire to enter into this friendship of communion with Him? Could it be possible that, should we continue in the idleness we prayer to be delivered from in St. Ephraim’s Lenten Prayer, we may neglect so great a salvation?
The hesychastic, mystical Tradition of the Orthodox Church as defended by St. Gregory Palamas is our recourse and aid in our predicament. We are caught in a cycle of passions and sins. Seeking union with Christ is the salvific answer to the soul’s wounded condition. Despite the evident scriptural and patristic evidence that supports hesychasm—“If a man loves me and does my commandments my Father and I will come and make our abode in him”—hesychasm historically faced an onslaught from the rational thinkers of St. Gregory’s time, particularly those Greeks affiliated with western positions, many of whom eventually ended their lives within the Latin Church. One such man was St. Gregory’s principal opponent, Barlaam. Barlaam of Calabria was a Greek by birth; whether he converted to Orthodoxy or was born Orthodox is a matter of debate. The crux of the matter is that having gained imperial favor in the East, Barlaam set in motion an intricate attempt to discredit Orthodox monasticism.
St. Gregory rose as a champion of Orthodoxy against Barlaam, and in a series of writings called the Triads, St. Gregory defends the age-old Orthodox positions. Namely, that the union of God and man – Theosis – via the conquering of the passions, stillness in the heart (Hesychasm means “stillness” from the Greek, ησυχία), unceasing prayer… which leads to apathy (dispassion) and finally, θεωρία wherein one beholds Christ, envisioning His uncreated energy by beholding the Uncreated Light—in the measure that one can handle—as the disciples did on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration. This, in other words, is Salvation. Notice that salvation is not a consequence of a certain number of pious works, being a “good person” or being “nice” or “polite”. Salvation is not the consequence of living a personal faith, in the sense that no amount of personal prayer (if it is divorced from the sacramental life of the Church) or the following of “online services” can save.
The Church is Liturgy and Liturgy is the incarnation of Christ and His Kingdom in the world. In the Liturgy, Christ is manifest in the Eucharistic elements. He is consumed but never exhausted, sanctifying those who partake of Him in fear and love. Therefore, Liturgy is absolutely indispensable to our Christian life and our process of Theosis. I fear, however, that in our age of “me”, where every man and woman has become a self-proclaimed expert on a host of issues both ecclesiastical and not, we run the real risk of a “parallel” “at-home” “Orthodoxy” being created wherein believers “condition” themselves to living a pseudo-Church life divorced from any real parish. The Liturgy was the focal point of village life in the average European village, East and West.
Today, Christ is not the focus but man has made himself his own god and he is the focus of everything. The pride of life infects fallen man and deceives him into placing a roster of items and pastimes before Liturgy. Christian, you have a holy obligation without fail to attend the Liturgy piously and to commune of the Holy Mysteries. If the old men and women of nineteenth century Greece could walk eight hours one way through mountains, at night, to attend a Liturgy in some heremitic chapel, then what excuse do we have today? We have absolutely no excuse. I have never understood how children can be sent to play hockey at five a.m., how they can get to school by 8:45 a.m. without fail, and yet Liturgy is too much, it’s too complicated, and it’s too early. The devil will create one thousand excuses for you to keep you and your children away from Christ in the Liturgy. No more, no less.
Salvation is the incarnation of the God-Man in the heart and the heart’s turning toward the God-Man in a union of intimate prayer and communion. And none of this, it must be emphasized, is practiced apart from the Church’s sacramental life. On the contrary, hesychasm and the unceasing prayer is a natural consequence of living the sacramental ecclesial life of Orthodoxy. The practice of the noetic prayer complements the sacraments: it does not replace them. Rather, the practice of the Jesus prayer—Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me—places the soul in the proper disposition to worthily commune of the Holy Mysteries unto sanctification and deification-Theosis.
This is the exact concept that St. Gregory defended against the heretical Barlaam. Today, we must be imitators of the holy fathers not only in words, but also in deeds. Let us heed the example of St. Gregory as we seek to live our Orthodoxy sacramentally in the Liturgy, having as our aid the prayer, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. If we live such a sacramental life, then at our personal judgment we will experience Christ not as fire but as mercy. Do we wish to meet Christ in His mercy, in the heavenly kingdom, which is the eternal liturgy? Then, sanctifying our souls with the constant mention of His Name, let us stick as bees around a honeycomb to the Church’s sacramental life, to the Divine Liturgy, in all sincerity, and in all piety. Through the prayers of St. Gregory, may we acquire such love and desire to meet Christ in the Liturgy, and in the ceaseless invocation of His Holy Name.
May God’s mercy cover us all as we approach the mid-point of the Lenten Season as we journey within the Ark of Salvation, the Church, to the Feast of Feasts, the Holy Pascha.