March 4 (O.S., February 19) 2018: Second Sunday of the Great Lent: St. Gregory Palamas the Archbishop of Thessalonica; Synaxis of all Venerable Fathers of the Kyiv Caves; Apostles Archippus and Philemon of the Seventy, and Martyr Apphia (1st c.); Martyrs Maximus, Theodotus, Hesychius, and Asclepiodotus of Adrianopolis (305-311); Sts. Eugene and Macarius, presbyters, confessors at Antioch (363); St. Dositheus of Palestine (6th c.), disciple of St. Abba Dorotheus. St. Rabulas (530).
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints, Gregory Palamas the 13th-century Archbishop of Thessalonica.
Reading the saint’s vita, indeed reading the life of many of saints and fathers of the Church, it’s hard to avoid the realization that it has never been easy to follow Christ. St Gregory, for example, spent the three years immediately before he was consecrated bishop in prison because of his unwavering commitment to the Gospel.
After he became the archbishop of Thessalonica, popular opposition prevented from taking his diocese. In fact, he spent most of his episcopate not in Thessalonica but an exile in Constantinople.
So what is it about the saint that stirred up such opposition?
St Gregory is primarily known for his defense of those monks on Mount Athos who taught that it was possible to see the divine light with, as they said, our bodily eyes. This teaching has a solid biblical foundation. On Mount Tabor, the disciples Peter, James and John, the monks argued, were able to see the divine light when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes (see Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36).
The important point for our salvation is this. If, as Palamas’ opponents argued, what the monks saw was not the uncreated divine light but merely an internal psychological phenomenon (a “created reality” as they said), then if fact we don’t know God. All we know is our idea about God.
It also means that my body hasn’t been redeemed. Instead, my body becomes an obstacle to communion with God.
And if all this is true then God never REALLY became Man and took on our nature. All we have, for Palamas’s opponents, are ideas. Beautiful ideas, inspiring ideas but just ideas.
This is the error that St Gregory fought. While the details of his argument are interesting, they are too complex for a homily. What matters for us is his conclusion that we can have a tangible experience of God. Even in this life, we are not limited merely to ideas about God.
In the troparion for Transfiguration we sing that Jesus revealed as much of His glory as the disciples “as they could bear.” The idea here is clear. On Mount Tabor Peter, James and John get a glimpse of the divine light that always surrounded Jesus. They, and we, see as much of God’s glory as we are able to bear.
My openness to see and willingness to receive His glory is what matters.
For many Orthodox Christians, hearing that the experience of God is an ordinary part of life in Christ is something they’ve never heard. It such a strange thing to hear that it sounds wrong.
But one of the central reasons why my spiritual life often feels rote, like I’m only going through the motions is because I confuse the means of the Christian life with its goal. The sacraments and the services of the Church, the ascetical life and the works of mercy, reading the Scriptures and the fathers, all of these are the means of the Christian life. They are things we do.
But the goal of the Christian life is, as St Gregory tells us, to experience God’s love for us. And to experience not just theoretically but tangibly. Bodily even.
Often when I tell people this they nod their heads in understanding but then they’ll pause. Their expression makes clear that they are wondering why they haven’t experienced God’s love for them. Across their face is written the thought, “What’s wrong with me? Does God not love me?”
In fact many of us do experience God’s love for us. We just don’t recognize the experience for what it is. Often a deep sense of peace will settle on a person. It is these moments of inner quiet that the monks of Mount Athos understood to be an experience of God’s love.
I overlook the importance of these moments because I so rarely take the time to be still. I get so busy that those moments of inner quiet that the monks saw as the fruit of the Jesus Prayer–”Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on me a sinner”–can seem to us more like checking out of life. Worse, we might even wonder if there isn’t something physically or psychologically wrong with us.
The opposite is the case.
The busyness that consumes my life, the frenetic pursuit of material goods or social status, are the real pathologies of human life. It is inner quiet–heyschia in Greek–that’s normal and healthy not only spiritually but physically and psychologically.
None of this is to say it is wrong to work hard or to be successful, Far from it!
God has given us not only spiritual gifts but material and intellectual gifts as well. All the gifts that God gives us should be received with thanksgiving. And, like the good steward in the Gospel (Matthew 25:14-30), we should develop the gifts God has given us so that we are profitable servants.
The problem is that I’ve flipped the script. I value worldly success as an end in itself. My love of worldly success is so deeply rooted, I even think of my spiritual life in worldly terms. How long I pray and how strictly I fast; how many good deeds have I done or how well do I know Scripture or the fathers.
Again, like material and social success, are good gifts given in the service of growing in God’s love. All the good things in our lives find their fulfillment in the experience of inner quiet. In the tangible experience of God’s love for us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we go through the rest of the Great Fast, we should try to carve out for ourselves times of quiet. It is in these moments when, like the disciples on Mount Tabor and the monks of Mount Athos, that we can become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and His great love not only for us but for all we meet.