Sunday of Great Lent – St Gregory Palamas
Last Sunday, the first of the Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorated the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On that day the icons of the church were brought to the center for veneration – recalling the triumphant decision of the 7th Ecumenical Council which affirmed how good and appropriate it is for us to honor the image of God – and by extension the image of His Holy Mother and of the saints – because God became man, He took flesh upon Himself and He truly dwelt among us. This endorsement of the place of icons within the church proclaims and enforces the Orthodox understanding of the relationship of the spiritual and the material. We do not believe as many non-Orthodox teachings believe that ‘spiritual equals good’ and ‘material equals bad’. It can be a great danger to assume that just because something is ‘spiritual’ that it is good… As they say: ‘All that glitters is not gold.’ Orthodoxy proclaims that God alone is good and that God’s presence in both spirit and matter can bestow His blessing upon both.
If we may say that the message of the first Sunday, the Triumph of Orthodoxy, is that God’s grace can descend upon matter and mankind – thus illumining and transforming them; then we may look to the message of this second Sunday of Great Lent, the celebration of St Gregory Palamas, as an encouragement and instruction that mankind can ascend through God’s grace to a true communion with God.
Before discussing that ascent through grace, let us briefly understand who St Gregory was and what controversy caused him to step forward as a defender of the Orthodox faith.
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.
And yet, if God is so unapproachable and incomprehensible, then where does this leave us in terms of our relationship and experience of 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.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what does all this mean? It means that 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 have not been left as orphans by a Creator Who simply set things in motion. No, the Orthodox teaching and the Orthodox experience is that God is with us!
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 of the experience of communing directly with God through His divine energies, through His grace.
And how do we do we experience that? What does Christ tell us Himself about how we shall see God? He does not say ‘Blessed are the theologically 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, which comes before Him with a simple and trusting faith.
The purpose of our Lenten struggle – of fasting, of praying, of more frequent church services, of reducing the worldly distractions in our lives – the purpose of all this is toward purifying our hearts, of instilling in us that simple and trusting faith.
We see this demonstrated in today’s Holy Gospel wherein the friends of the paralyzed man, in their zeal and simple and trusting faith, stopped at nothing to bring their friend before the Lord to seek His healing. And we see this in the life and teaching of our father among the saints Gregory Palamas – who wholeheartedly trusted in the testimony of his direct experience of God to uphold and defend the Orthodox teaching of the intimacy of the relationship between God and man.
May God grant us such simplicity and trust that we too may be strengthened and encouraged and transformed by that life-giving energy of the grace of God!