A HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF THE GREAT FAST

 

About What the Holy Church Wishes Us to Learn and

Remember from the Commemoration of Saint Gregory Palamas

 

        Brothers and sisters!

 

        On the second Sunday of Great Lent our Holy Church commemorates one of her greatest hierarchs, Saint Gregory Palamas, who lived during the fourteenth century, when a fierce debate was raging in Byzantium over whether man could have direct communion with God.  Some said that this was impossible, and that the abyss between God and man could not be bridged in any way or by any means.  Others said that man could see God and know His very essence.

        Saint Gregory, who was an Athonite monk for years and later became Archbishop of Thessalonica, looked to the Holy Fathers for the answer to this question and, on the basis of their teaching, insisted that although God is unseeable and unknowable according to his essence, He can be seen, known, and communed with through His energies.  When Saint Gregory’s teaching prevailed and was confirmed by several councils held in Constantinople, the Holy Church ordained that his memory be observed on this Sunday, the Sunday following the Triumph of Orthodoxy, as a sort of continuation of that feast.

        It is obvious from this that the council fathers, and the Orthodox Church as a whole considered Saint Gregory’s response to the debate to be extremely important for the children of the Church.  But what exactly does it mean for us?

        From Sacred Scripture, the history of monasticism, the Lives of the saints, and the teaching of the Holy Fathers, we know that there have been people who reached the summit of divine vision.  They knew God not merely from reading religious books or studying nature, but, like the Holy Apostle Paul, were caught up by the Spirit of God into the third heaven, where they heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.[1]  Through the centuries, there have been many such people, who have testified of their experience of this, and many more who have perceived at least something of the celestial reality.

        The so-called “Hesychast Controversy” about the human experience of God began when Barlaam, a Calabrian philosopher, challenged the Athonite monks who testified to their experience of divine illumination through prayer.  These monks, among whom Saint Gregory lived, had for centuries been practicing the Prayer of Jesus, continuously repeating in the depths of their hearts the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  When performed correctly -- that is, relatively slowly, in conjunction with a person’s breathing, with complete attention, with much force, and with a sense of sweet devotion and extreme contrition -- this prayer permits a man to concentrate on the one thing needful[2]:  the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God; and it enables him to abide in Christ, as the Lord bade us.  From this practice every gracious gift proceeds; by this practice, the divine energies are revealed to a man.  Even if, because of the cares of life, this prayer cannot always be performed under ideal conditions, it remains possible to say it with a certain level of attention while working or interacting with others, and thereby to enjoy at least some of the fruits of grace, the fruits of the energies of God.

        During the era of Saint Gregory Palamas, the practice of the Prayer of Jesus underwent a remarkable revival in Byzantium, not only among monks, but among the laity as well.  The more proficient attainted a state in which they were able to fulfill the Apostle Paul’s command to pray without ceasing.[3]  Without abandoning their other responsibilities, they constantly repeated the Prayer of Jesus in their hearts, and thus the abiding presence of Christ was revealed to them.  The most proficient (especially among the monks) were deemed worthy of special gifts of grace and were granted to behold the divine light -- the very same light which the three apostles saw when the Saviour was transfigured before them on Mount Tabor.

        As I said, Saint Gregory explained that the divine essence is unapproachable, inconceivable, and unknowable to man.  In this sense, no man can touch or embrace God, Who always remains a mystery to us.  At the same time, by His energies God reveals Himself to us mystically, in many ways and under many forms.  Ultimately, every sacred practice, every way and means to sanctification offered us by the Holy Orthodox Church provides the possibility of communing with the energies of God.

        But besides this, Saint Gregory Palamas made it clear that the divine energies are inseparable from the divine essence, and that the distinction between the two is a mental one; meaning, that it exists as such not in God Himself, but in our own understanding, for God transcends every categorization and is alien to all division.  In other words, we make the distinction in order to avoid misapprehending a mystery which ultimately must always remain beyond the bounds of human speech; beyond the bounds of our mind, intellect, and rational understanding. 

        And so, dear Christians, this is what the Holy Church wants us, her children, to understand and remember in connection with our celebration of the present feast:

        First, that God is unseeable and unknowable according to His essence, but can be apprehended and communed with through His energies.

        Second, that many have thus been elevated to the realm of divine vision, and that many more have experienced at least something of this reality.

        Third, that a chief means to divine illumination and every gift of grace is prayer, and especially the systematic use of the mental prayer, which over the centuries in the Orthodox Church has come to mean the use of the Prayer of Jesus.

        Fourth, that the Prayer of Jesus is for all Christians, and not just monastics.

        Fifth, that every way and means to sanctification provided by the Holy Church enables participation in the energies of God.

        And sixth and last, that God transcends every categorization, and that therefore distinctions pertaining to Him such as that between His essence and energies are made primarily to prevent our misapprehending a mystery, rather than to circumscribe what ultimately transcends the bounds of speech, intellect, and understanding.

        As I mentioned at the beginning, today’s commemoration represents a continuation of last Sunday’s Triumph of Orthodoxy.  Last Sunday, we gave thanks to God for our Holy Church’s victory over all heresies, and especially for giving us the sacred art of iconography, through which we mystically stand before the persons depicted, be they the saints, angels, the Mother of God, or the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  Today we glorify God for revealing to each of us, repeatedly and under many forms, His divine energies, which issue from His essence and transform our lives, opening to us the heavens and enabling us, while still on earth, to begin participating in the Kingdom of God.

        As we celebrate the memory of the great hierarch Saint Gregory Palamas, let us remember to beseech the Lord to make us worthy of the outpouring of His divine energies, and especially of His saving and transformative grace.  Let us pray also that by His gracious energies He elevate us from earth to heaven and begin revealing to us His Kingdom even now, while we are still on earth.  Amen.

 

       

 

[1] II Cor. 12:2,4

[2] Luke 10:42

[3] I Thes. 5:17