Homily – Saint Gregory of Palamas

 We have arrived at the second week of Great Lent. It is like the the second lap of a hard race, one we run to win. How are we doing? The sudden aches of the first week have receded, but we struggle to find our pace. My mirror. The real mirror is the prayer we say every evening and morning and every service during the week: the Prayer of Saint Ephraim. Have we grown in chastity, humility, patience, love, and introspection; or have we grown in laziness, despair, lust of power, idle talk, and the judging of others? Make this prayer a part of your preparation for the Pascha of Our Lord. 

St. Gregory Palamas

Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is effected not by the discharge, or release of certain natural energies implied in man’s own creaturely being, but by the ‘energies’ of God Himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man, and admits him into communion ‘with Himself.” George Florovsky “St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers”

Saint Gregory Palamas was not a speculative theologian; he was not writing words for the benefit of scholars or academic theologians. He was trying to understand and share the reality of the Christian experience. He was working out the terrible and wonderful consequences of following a God who desires unity with the creatures He has created with his own Word and hands. He embraced the Life in Christ in a way that none of us have, and then – like the the enlightened man of Plato’s parable of the cave- came back among those [us] who live in darkness to guide them [us] to the light.

Through his own experience and studies as a monk on Mount Athos and elsewhere, St. Gregory had learned first [second, and third] hand the fruits of contemplative prayer; specifically, the tradition of combining the Jesus Prayer; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (a sinner)” with the silence of the intellect and emotions. Through this discipline, practiced within the safe and salvific context of the Mysteries and ecclesial fellowship of the Church, St. Gregory and others encountered the same light that the three disciples (Peter, James, and John) saw when Our Lord was Transfigured on Mount Tabor.

This claim was scandalous to some. The theologian Barlaam opposed the practice and the theology behind it. He saw himself as a defender of the Sacramental reality of the Church; he feared that hesychasm would encourage the same kind of anti-clerical pietism that had misled and poisoned the souls of so many others (e.g. Bogomils “Those dear to God” or Mesialists, “Those who pray”). While his critique of hesychasm is complex, two of his main points were:

  1. The light that people see is prelest: spiritual delusion. One cannot see the radiance of God (and live). Here we have to give him partial credit. He gets points off, but his warning is still valid. One can be a true hesychast… but one can also be deluded. The devil can appear as an angel of light; without the Church there is no protection against him and no discernment to dispell his illusions.

  2. The sacraments are The Way God has given for salvation. Again, we have to give him partial credit. True hesychasts live an active life of repentance, confession, and communion… but the danger is still real. Especially if prelest has worked its way into the heart of the man. The demons delight in using delusions of prelestial prayer as a way to lead men away from the Church.

The resolution: hesychasm is possible: there is a difference between God’s essence (which cannot be known or experienced) and His energies (which, with a whole lot of synergistic grace and discipline, can be known or experienced). God’s energies can be experienced through contemplative prayer, but only if it is practiced within the fulness of the faith which is the whole of Orthodoxy. 

But what does this mean for us? Not much, I’m afraid. The twin dangers or temptations of hesychasm are:

  1. The heresy of the Bogomils and Universalist mystics, that is, that we will end up praying so much that it will lead us away from the Church and

  2. The heresy of Barlaam, that is, that we will take our participation in the Sacramental life in the Church so seriously that it will cause us to disregard the utility of prayer

Lets be honest: neither of these are even close to being on our radars. In order to be tempted in like this, we would either have to take either prayer or the sacramental and worship life of the Church seriously. And we don’t. Our temptation is not that we will overdue either prayer or worship as we seek theosis, but that we largely ignore both because we aren’t really seeking perfection at all.

This is because we have bought into the world’s religion – the religion of feelings and of “good enough”; and while we can call it Orthodoxy if we want to, that’s like calling a Twinkie bread or over-processed GMO soy a steak. It just isn’t true. And it isn’t healthy.

Theosis – unity with God through Christ, an end to our pain and division, a balm to the suffering people around us, and the only True Way to lasting peace and joy – awaits. God has given us the path and made it straight; He became man, suffered, died, resurrected, and ascended so that we might join Him in Glory. But in response to His sacrificial gift, we say [from our couches]; “no thanks, I’m good.”

Just give us enough Doritos and beer and a broadband internet connection and we’ve found all the perfect we need right here and now.

Christ and Christianity have nothing real to offer those who do not see the need to change; for those who do not recognize the brokenness of their own hearts; for those who do not feel the futility of the life they are living. The Church is unanimous in telling us that no amount of prayer, worship, going to communion, and coming up for confession can help such a person. This is because the first step on The Way to perfection, the catalyst that makes Communion and Confession work, the key to unlocking the mysteries of the Jesus Prayer is repentance. Without it, everything we do is just so much vanity and chasing after wind. Going through the motions of Church may be entertaining at times, but it is no better for us in the long run than the Doritos, beer, and broadband internet that we, in our brokenness, prefer.

The point of today’s Gospel (Christ absolving and healing the paralytic whose four friends brought him to Christ through the roof; St. Mark 2:1-12), that is to say, the reason it was put here for us on the Second Sunday of Great Lent, is to show us that no matter what we think we need, what we really must have – the very bottom of the true hierarchy of needs – is forgiveness of sins. The man and his friends thought that what the paralytic needed was healing – but God knew better, so he forgave the paralytic of his sins.

Our minds recoil even faster and harder than those of the scribes around Jesus. It hits us in our feelings (don’t trust your feelings!). The scribes were upset that Christ claimed the power to forgive sins, but we recoil that God overlooked the man’s obvious impairment when He had the power to heal him, and He had the nerve to imply that the was sinful. “That man is a victim – how dare you call him a sinner!” the modern voice cries. As if that which harms and even kills the body is of greater import than that which harms and even kills the soul. God knows what He is doing. Trust Him.

The scriptures and our prayers tell us that there is no one has not sinned, except Christ. I do not know what brought you here today. The paralytic had four friends – who were the four friends that brought you here? Perhaps your four friends were a combination of habit, guilt, a nagging spouse or parent, and a desire to feel better about yourself. The fact is that it really doesn’t matter what brought you here or why you came. Like the man in today’s Gospel, you have found yourself in the presence of God. And that God desires that you, like the paralytic, be saved. And so He offers you as the first step on the road to your salvation – forgiveness of sins.  

This is in His power, and it is yours if you want it. All you have to do is ask.

 Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.