Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent: St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica

March 04, 2018 1 Comment

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent: St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica

St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Introduction

How is God known? That is the question which St. Gregory Palamas answered in his response to accusations raised by Gregoras, Barlaam, and Akindynos. After four successive synods in the fourteenth century (1341, 1344, 1347, 1351), the teaching of St. Gregory was upheld and that of Gregoras, Barlaam, and Akindynos were condemned. His teaching and their heresies were written in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy in 1453 and are read on every Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday of Lent). The commemoration of St. Gregory on the second Sunday of Lent is like a continuation of the Triumph of Orthodoxy because of his triumph over these heretics.[1] St. Gregory reposed in 1359 and was canonized in 1368, only nine years after his death and seventeen years after the last synod which upheld his teaching. It is St. Gregory’s teaching on how God is known which will be the subject of our homily today

Many people believe that knowing God is about packing as many relevant scriptural quotations as possible under various categories and only after compiling them are they able to declare who God is and what He is like. Some say that God cannot be known at all, that He is so different from us, being the Creator and we His creation, that there is no comparison between us and therefore no way to truly know Him but know only various things about Him. Some say that God can be known through His creation, that He has left His imprint in creation and therefore by reasoning about the world around us we can know what God is like. Others say that we need philosophy to purify us from our ignorance which will also grant us wisdom about things which are divinely perceived. St. Gregory, contrary to each of these views, states that ultimately God is known by the Christian who has united himself to Christ and by being united to Christ, he comes to know God. As the soul is to the body, so Christ is to the Christian.

The Men Who are United to God and Deified

In his work entitled Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts, St. Gregory explains how God is known in this union with Christ and what can be known about Him. This work is a compilation of various responses written over a three-year period to questions and accusations against the spiritual life of the monks on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Near the conclusion and end of this work, St. Gregory offers a description of the individual who has been united to God, the transformation which takes place, and the knowledge which is bestowed on him. He writes,

We do not see distant objects as if they were in front of our eyes, nor the future as if it were the present; we do not know the will of God concerning us before it comes to be. Yet the prophets knew the designs of God which eternally preexisted in God, even before they were accomplished.[2]

Do you not understand that the men who are united to God and deified, who fix their eyes in a divine manner on Him, do not see as we do? Miraculously, they see with a sense that exceeds the senses, and with a mind that exceeds the mind, for the power of the spirit penetrates their human faculties, and allows them to see things which are beyond us.[3]

This being “united” to God one may understand as “salvation,” yet the full force of its description is better expressed through the word “deification” which describes the whole of the Christian life, which is more than the forgiveness of sins and in which, Christ is more than just a friend. Christ spoke of this in His High priestly prayer (John 17) when He prayed, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us,”(vs. 21) “that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one,”(vs. 23) “that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me.”(vs. 24)

St. Gregory addresses what this union looks like in the life of a Christian when he writes:

The soul’s renewal… begins… with holy baptism through the remission of sins and is nourished and grows through righteousness in faith. The soul is continually renewed in the knowledge of God and the virtues associated with this knowledge, and will reach perfection in the future contemplation of God face to face. Now, however, it sees through a glass darkly.[4]

Our continual renewal is through this union which produces knowledge of God, the path of which, weaving through the whole of the Christian life, St. Gregory traces. The following are his conclusions.

The Heart—An Organ of the Soul Which Perceives the Things of God By His Grace

He begins by describing the organs of man’s perception. The five senses grant only a knowledge of this world and the intellect residing in the head offers the ability to reason, but the soul and its powers reside in the heart and to this organ, to this faculaty, the spiritual world is revealed.

Building on the words of Christ, who said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts” (cf. Matt. 15.19), St. Gregory says the heart is the “first rational organ of the body.”[5] He further quotes St. Macarius the Great saying, “The heart directs the entire organism, and when grace gains possession of the heart, it reigns over all the thoughts and all the members; for it is there, in the heart, that the mind and all the thoughts of the soul have their seat.”[6] But in our modern way of thinking, let us not to confuse the heart with the emotions. Instead, St. Gregory describes the action of this organ to be neither of the senses or of the intellect but describes its activity as an “intellectual sensation” or “spiritual sensation.”[7] This is the organ of spiritual perception, the place in which the grace of the Holy Spirit is communicated to each person and not by the material senses or the intellect.[8]

The Wisdom of the Intellect and the Wisdom of the Soul

The importance of noting the difference between how worldly and spiritual things are discerned, according to St. Gregory, has its foundations in the theology of the Apostle Paul. The wisdom of the world, or “profane wisdom” as he also calls it, does not bring one to God. It can be used for good once erroneous views have been removed, but it cannot be considered a gift from God or a “spiritual thing” because it pertains only to this world and are the means through which we know this world.[9] As St. Gregory says,

The soul that possesses the knowledge of secular wisdom is in no way borne thence to the Truth Itself, or even to the truth (with a small “t”), which is why those who boast about it do so in vain. Let them listen to Paul, who calls secular wisdom “fleshly wisdom” (2 Cor. 1.12), just as he calls “the knowledge that makes one arrogant” (1 Cor. 8.1) the “mind of the flesh” (Col. 2.18). How, then, can the “wisdom of the flesh” (2 Cor. 1.12) endow the soul with likeness to God? “For consider,” he says, “your call; not many of you were wise according to the flesh, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1.26).[10]

God is not known by way of ancient philosophy, worldly wisdom, profane philosophy. Instead, it is God who gives spiritual wisdom by His grace whenever He chooses, which turns Sauls into Pauls.[11] If philosophy was needed in any measure, St. Gregory says, “Why then were we not renewed by this philosophy before Christ’s coming? Why did we need, not someone to teach us philosophy… but One ‘who takes away the sin of the world,’ who grants us a true and eternal wisdom…[12]

Apprehension

The Apostle Paul tells us that for unenlightened men, their heart is darkened, to which St. Gregory adds, darkened by the machinations of the demons who were instructing them. “For if a worthy conception of God could be attained through the use of intellection, how could these people have taken demons for gods, and how could they have believed the demons when they taught man polytheism?”[13] For the enlightened and spiritual man, his soul is enlivened by the activity of the Holy Spirit and it is by the Holy Spirit that the spiritual life is communicated to the individual.[14] Therefore, this spiritual knowledge is not a product of reason or imagination and is not an opinion or the conclusion reached by a syllogistic argument.[15] Instead, it is the product of Divine illumination to those whose hearts are purified[16] and is more akin to union than to any kind of knowledge.[17]

It should be emphasized that all things in the spiritual life come to us not by our own efforts, and not without them, but by the grace of God. (St. Paisios) These things escape the intellect of one who seeks merely in a theoretical way, and not the knowledge that comes by practice and experience.[18]

The Illumined Know God Through Beholding His Glory

What is it that the illumined individual perceives? It is the glory of God. The goal of our faith is the knowledge of God which is bestowed through the uncreated light which is the glory of God, of Christ our God, upon those who have been conformed to Christ.[19]

Referring to the Psalmist when he writes that the Lord covers Himself with light as with a garment (Ps. 104.2), St. Gregory offers the example of the transfiguration of the Lord wherein the Apostle Matthew writes that Christ was transfigured before Peter, James, and John and His face did shine as the sun and his raiment was as white as light (Matt. 17.2, cf.Luke 9.32). And what is further, the chief of the Apostles also himself writes, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1.16), referring to his time with the Lord at the Transfiguration. St. Gregory adds that this vision of the glory of God was seen by Stephen when he was being stoned and indeed by the saints, that is, the pure in heart.[20]

This Glory is not the Essence of God but is of His Energy

What is this vision of uncreated light? It is not a vision of something created but of God who is not created. The understanding which results could be compared to the sense of sight in that when you see an object there is no mediation but a direct apprehension of that object. (example) Yet, at the same time, our passions and sins are like cataracts to our spiritual sight which prevents us from seeing and knowing the spiritual world.

As an example, St. Gregory speaks of the Scriptures as being obscure when compared to understanding reality through this vision of uncreated light, as much as a candle to the noonday sun. He writes:

Do you not see how this light shines even now in the hearts of the faithful and perfect? Do you not see how it is superior to the light of knowledge? It has nothing to do with that which comes from Hellenic studies… Indeed, this light of contemplation even differs from the light that comes from holy Scriptures, whose light may be compared to “a lamp that shines in a dark place”,(2 Peter 1.19) whereas the light of mystical contemplation is compared to the star of the morning which shines in full daylight, that is to say, the sun.[21]

When Moses ascends Mount Sinai to meet with God, what does he see? God says, “I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33.23). When the Apostle Paul is taken up to the third heaven, what does he see? He could not tell if he was still in his body or out of it and heard unspeakable words. The difficulty may be obvious. We understand things through reason and our senses but if God is beyond these and those things that are seen in his presence have no relation to things on earth, how are they to be described?

St. Gregory explains that God in His essence, in who He is in Himself, cannot be known, yet He can be known from what He does, that is, in his actions, or as St. Gregory describes, in His energies. Although we cannot know God’s essence, we do have true knowledge about Him through His energies.

Truly, St. Gregory, you are the light of Orthodoxy, support and teacher of the Church, glory of monks, and invincible protector of theologians.

Panagiotes Chrestou, the editor of the Modern Greek translation of the Fathers of the Church series, writes that for St. Gregory, God is not a substance so that we can only speak about Him. He did not say, “I am the substance,” but “I am that I am.” That is, “God is a personality that invites us; the personality whose presence we feel and to whom we press forward to meet. If the substance of God remains inaccessible, His operations become accessible to us.”[22] Despite how far God is from us, He has also condescended to us in His love.

CONCLUSION

Though what has been presented is only a summary of St. Gregory’s work, throughout his work, he articulates the whole spiritual life in all of its depth and mystery. At the same time, for those of us at the beginning of the spiritual life, he does offer advice. If you ask, “Where is one to begin? I know of no such things regarding essence and energy, let alone have any experience, I have never seen any lights, yet I want to love God and to know Him? What am I to do? And he answers, “Trust those who have experience in the spiritual life because you will obtain a certain ‘image’ of the truth.”[23] He also says, “Keep the commandments.” This is the means by which to acquire the glory and see it. As St. Gregory explains, “The Lord has promised to manifest Himself to the man who keeps [the commandments], a manifestation He calls His own indwelling and that of the Father, saying, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make our abode with him’ (John 14.23), and ‘I will manifest myself to him.’(John 14.21)”[24] By such means, we learn not to give way to evil passions and pleasures as St. Gregory says, and begin to acquire inner peace, stillness of thoughts, spiritual repose and joy, contempt of human glory, humility allied with hidden rejoicing, hatred of the world, love of heavenly things, or rather love of the God of Heaven.[25]

But not only this. It is not just you struggling by yourself, because God comes towards us, and as St. Gregory says, begins by illuminating the mind alone with obscure light, so as to draw you to Himself by that within Himself which is comprehensible, and so as to evoke your wonder at [that] which is incomprehensible, and through this wonder to increase your longing, and through this longing to purify you.[26]

Through the prayers of our holy father Gregory, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Amen.


[1] Mother Mary and Ware, Archim. Kallistos (trans.). The Lenten Triodion. (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002), 52.
[2] The Triads, 106.
[3] Ibid., 107.
[4] “Homily Sixteen” in Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, C. Veniamin, ed. & trans. (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), 131.
[5] The Triads, 43.
[6] Cf. Maloney, George A. (trans.). Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter. (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 116, as cited in The Triads, 43.
[7] The Triads, 37.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 29,69.
[10] Constas, Archim. Maximos. The Reception of Saint Paul and Pauline Theology in the Byzantine Period on his academa.edu site, accessed on 3/1/2018.
[11] The Triads, 30.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 26.
[14] Ibid., 35.
[15] Ibid
[16] Ibid., 34.
[17] Ibid., 37.
[18] Ibid., 52.
[19] Ibid., 67.
[20] Ibid., 68.
[21] Ibid., 63.
[22] Double Knowledge According to Gregory Palamas @ http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/english/christou_doubleknowl3.html accessed on 3/2/2018.
[23] The Triads, 87.
[24] Ibid., 61.
[25] Ibid., 90.
[26] Ibid., 108-109.




1 Response

Mary Bernardelli
Mary Bernardelli

March 21, 2018

Such a great article. I have a copy now and will go home to read it. Thank you.

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