Second Sunday of Great Lent – Gregory Palamas
Last Sunday we celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy and all the icons were set out in glorious display. We do this in honor of the Orthodox council that clarified and proclaimed the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between man and God, between the material and the spiritual, and that God did indeed become a man in the Person of Jesus Christ and that He transfigures and heals that which was fallen into the image of God that it was created to be. The veneration of the icons confirms this understanding of the reality of matter transfigured by the healing presence of God.
On this second Sunday of the Fast we commemorate St Gregory Palamas, one of the great heroes of Orthodox Christianity. St Gregory is another key figure in understanding and clarifying both the relationship between man and God and of the reality of how God interacts with us to heal and transfigure us into that which He created us to be.
So, who was St Gregory Palamas? St Gregory was born in 1296 to pious and aristocratic parents and received a splendid education in which he excelled. He demonstrated such a fine mind and was so articulate that the emperor himself offered St Gregory great honors and all worldly opportunities. But St Gregory had refined his soul as well as his mind and left all this behind to live the life of a simple monk on Mt Athos. There in the concentration of the monastic life St Gregory experienced firsthand the spiritual blessings of stillness and quiet – from which one can calm the ripples disturbing the surface of the soul and see more clearly into the kingdom of God within. St Gregory was called from his monastic stillness to defend the Orthodox teachings about mankind’s relationship with God. There was a controversy raging at this time spearheaded by a man named Barlaam who fell prey to an overly intellectual approach and understanding of God. He taught that mankind can never have direct knowledge of God – that God was completely unapproachable to the limited reasoning of man. St Gregory, who had himself experienced direct contact with the Grace of God, responded brilliantly – clarifying the historical and fully Orthodox teaching that mankind may indeed have direct participation with the energies of God, but that God in His essence, remains wholly other. Barlaam and his followers were too immersed in a purely intellectual pursuit of God and neglected the Gospel teaching that, it is not the sophisticated of mind, but the pure in heart who shall see God.
The witness of St Gregory is important for us to understand for a number of reasons.
First of all, it is important for us to know that God is not a distant deity sitting on His throne in heaven… a Being with Whom we’ll not have direct interaction until we pass from this life into the next. As Father Stephen Freeman puts it, we do not live in a two-story universe, with God upstairs in heaven and us downstairs here on earth. Such a worldview separates us from the reality of the presence and interaction of God in the here and now. Our salvation is not just an outcome, it is a process which begins right now. The experience of heaven and hell begin here and now… as we draw closer to God or move further away from Him.
Secondly, the witness of St Gregory is important precisely because it is just that: a witness. It is a witness coming from a life lived in Christ. St Gregory did not outwit Barlaam’s theories with theological brilliance or persuasive rhetoric. Barlaam’s theologizing was precisely off mark because it was the product of his intellectual theorizing about God. St Gregory was able to defend and define the Orthodox understanding of God by bearing witness to his living experience of God. St Gregory was able to bear witness to knowing God because he had first applied himself, not to academic study, but to purifying his heart.
These are the two points I want to emphasize this morning: First, that God is present and interacting in our lives and accessible to us through His grace; and second, that our knowledge of God and approach to Him is through purification of our heart.
A recent great saint of Mt Athos, St Paisios, was a radio operator during the war. In his later years as a revered spiritual father, he would often refer back to his time as a radio operator and would describe how intently he would listen through his headphones as he turned the dial to get to the exact frequency where he could hear things clearly. St Paisios reckoned this to the process of tuning our hearts to the frequency of God’s grace.
It is absolutely true that God continues to ‘broadcast’ His grace to mankind. But we are not often tuned in to right frequency to receive it. Our lives are filled with so much static and the noise of other ‘channels’, that we find it very difficult to perceive the frequency of God’s grace and energies.
Great Lent is the perfect time for us to work toward turning off or minimizing the noise and static of these other channels. It is a time for us to do the work of attentively listening to turn the dial toward the frequency of God’s grace and blessings.
How do we do this? We do this through the gifts given to us in this precious time of year: through prayer, fasting, compassion, and all of the other disciplines that are designed to raise up our mind, warm up our heart, and tame our selfish passions.
To use St Paisios’ analogy, we may say that God is indeed broadcasting to us at all times. As Christ Himself said, He stands at the door of our heart and knocks. We will only hear this knocking, we will only tune in to that frequency of God’s grace if we are willing to work to still the distractions, the noise, and the static both external and internal to us.
St Gregory witnesses to us, through the experience of his own relationship with God, the reality and the joy of God’s presence and His generous outpouring of grace-filled energy upon us. Through his holy prayers may we attend to tuning in to God, and may we be blessed with the radiant energies of His grace and love for mankind.