2nd Sunday of Great Lent – St Gregory Palamas
Today is the second Sunday of Great Lent, and on this Sunday we commemorate a very important saint of the Orthodox Church, St Gregory Palamas. St Gregory lived in the early part of the 14th century, was raised by pious Christian parents, and received an excellent education. 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, where he dedicated his life to prayer and asceticism.
There, in the concentration of the monastic life, St Gregory experienced firsthand the spiritual blessings of stillness and quiet and prayer – from which one can calm the waves and 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.
Now, on the one hand, we can agree with Barlaam… the intellectual and reasoning aspect of mankind – while it can reach astonishing heights of discovery and understanding about things – still, this rational faculty of mankind is limited and can never ascend the heights of apprehending God. While we can affirm this limitation along with Barlaam, we must beware of falling into the trap that he found himself in and that he was promoting.
Orthodoxy stands in awe before the great mystery and majesty of God. In the Divine Liturgy, as we are about to consecrate the Sacred Gifts, the priest declares God to be ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, inconceivable, ever existing, eternally the same.
And yet, if God is so unapproachable and incomprehensible, then where does this leave us in terms of our relationship and experience of God? This was the danger of Barlaam’s focus only on the limitations of the human mind to apprehend God.
St Gregory, who had himself experienced direct contact with the Grace of God, responded brilliantly – clarifying the historical and fully Orthodox teaching that while God in His essence, remains wholly other – yet mankind may indeed have direct participation of God through His energies. This clarification is extremely important in understanding Who God is and how He interacts with mankind and how mankind may interact with God.
God is not distant. He is not ‘the man upstairs’ Who looks down upon us, perhaps occasionally interacting to smite us for something we have done wrong or blessing us for something we have done right. We are not orphaned in this life… left to simply hope for our heavenly reward before we might have contact and interaction with God.
No, the Orthodox teaching and the Orthodox experience is that God is with us! And we, if we strive to do so, may be with Him – even while working out our salvation in this earthly life.
While St Gregory and the witness of the Church affirm the unknowability of the essence of God, St Gregory and the entire witness of the Church underscores the intimacy and the confidence of the experience of communing directly with God through His divine energies, through His grace. And, as St Gregory explained so articulately, our experience with and our interaction with the energies of God are experience and interaction with God Himself. To make the weakest of analogies… if God were compared to the sun, we can say that His essence is like the unapproachable fiery orb in the sky. And yet, we experience directly the energies of the sun in the light and the warmth which shine upon us.
St Gregory, and all those who had encountered God and had experienced His grace and energies, knew from personal experience that God dealt directly and intimately with mankind.
To relegate the experience of God to our intellectual capabilities of understanding is to do a great disservice to both God and mankind. And just think… if it was a temptation in the 14th century for mankind to rely solely on his rational mind, how much more so are we subject to the arrogance of exaggerating the importance and verification of our intellect? We are children of the ‘Age of Reason’ and we are immersed in and impressed by the explosion of discoveries and inventions of our scientific age.
How often is our faith challenged by the doubts whispered or shouted by this age of reason? How often are we frustrated and thwarted in our attempts to explain and justify our faith to others?
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ… we will never get a clear glimpse of God through our attempts of understand Him rationally. The intellectual treasury of the Orthodox faith is vast and deep, but it will only take us so far. And, likewise, we will never fully convince another soul of the existence of God through mere words and proofs. What does Christ tell us Himself about how we shall see God? He does not say ‘Blessed are the brilliant, for they shall see God.’ No… He points us toward another sense altogether… ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’
The grace and energies of God are most clearly perceived and experienced by a heart which is being purified. As we pray everyday in our morning and evening prayers: ‘God is everywhere present and fillest all things.’ God is not distant, and if we will continue the work of purifying our heart we will more fully perceive and experience that joy and love of the grace of God.
I conclude with a quote from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware… ‘We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.’