Before both the epistle and Gospel reading, we are commanded to pay attention. This is sensible. When God speaks I ought to listen.
But God being God, when does He not speak? When is God not speaking to the human heart? When is not revealing Himself to us?
To be sure, God can (at least from my point of view) speak with greater or lesser subtlety. Yes, He appeared to Moses in a burning bush(Exodus 3:2) and lead the Hebrew children to the Promised Land as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22).
And yet, when He spoke to the Prophet Elijah, God spoke not in “a great and strong wind” that “tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces.” God didn’t speak in “an earthquake” or “a fire.” No, when He spoke to Elijah, He spoke as ultimately He always does, in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 9:11-12, NKJV) in the depth of the human heart.
This is why, as we heard in the epistle, “we must pay closer attention to what we have heard.” God’s voice is small and still and unless we quiet ourselves and listen so we can hear what He has to say, we will simply “drift away.”
While we might imagine that people make a conscience decision to separate themselves from the Church and to stop following Christ, more often faith—like marriage—dies by a series of small acts of neglect. It is indifference and distraction that usually steals the soul from Christ. Major sins, what the Apostle John calls sins “leading to death” (1 John 5:16, NKJV), are never the starting point. They are rather the fruit of a habit of spiritual or moral negligence; of prayers rushed or skipped, sins of omission rather than commission.
Recall the miracle in the Gospel we just heard.
Like many of our Lord’s miracles, this one was public; Jesus heals the paralytic scribes who only a moment ago accused Him of blasphemy for forgiving a man his sins. Given the times, it isn’t wholly unreasonable that the scribes took offense at Jesus’ words.
But their anger at Jesus is so overwhelming that it causes them to miss what the crowd saw. The crowd was attentive and so when the man ” took up the pallet and went out before them,” they were “amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’”
The difference between the scribes and those in the crowd wasn’t what the eyes saw but what the heart heard. For all their ignorance of the Law, the hearts of those in the crowd were open to hearing the small, still voice of God.
And this brings us the saint who we commemorate today: Gregory Palamas.
There is neither the time nor the place to explore the subtle of the saint’s theology. Suffice it to say that for Palamas the voice that we hear in our hearts is really the voice of God. It isn’t a psychological phenomenon but God speaking to us directly and personally. He was tenacious in his argument that our experience of God in prayer, in the Liturgy and the others sacraments and services of the Church is a real, unmediated and direct experience of God.
What we have, in other words, is not knowledge about God but knowledge of God. A real, unmediated, direct, and personal intimacy or communion with God.
We can summarize the goal of the asceticism that so occupies us during the Great Fast in this way. First, the ascetical life helps us overcome the myriad distractions in our lives that come between us and God. How frequently, to speak only for myself, I become fascinated with some idea I have about God. That this idea is true is, from the point of view of our communion with God, is secondary. The spiritual life isn’t a collection of true ideas or wholesome feelings about God any more than it is about living a morally good life. To be sure, these all have their place but in service of pointing us beyond themselves to God. Or, as St Seraphim of Sarov says:
Prayer, fasting, vigil and every Christian work, however good it is in itself, does not constitute the goal of our Christian life, but serves as a means for its attainment. The real goal of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
As distractions wane, our ability and desire to focus on God, and God alone, waxes. This second goal of the ascetical life is often overlooked. Christian asceticism is not about being able to perform great feats of physical endurance. No, asceticism is rather about learning to fix the heart and mind, indeed the whole person, on the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
Asceticism without love makes me no better than then the demons. Think about it. The demons keep vigil because they don’t sleep, they fast because they don’t eat. Not having physical bodies as we do, their attention never wavers. What they lack is not the elements of asceticism but it’s inspiration and goal, the love of God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we enter now into the third week of the Great Fast, let us ask God to help us grow in our love for Him and in Him for our neighbor and in this way fulfilling the whole of the Law.
To this end, that is to grow in love, let us as well offer to God not only our heartfelt prayers but also our ascetical struggles. We offer them not because God needs them but because we do so that we can celebrate Christ’s Glorious Resurrection a little freer from sin, a little freer to love.