SERMON 2ND SUNDAY OF LENT, ST. GREGORY PALAMAS, 2019
God has given us so many gifts! And all of these gifts have one purpose, one goal: to help us see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, as the song from “Godspell” has it. In other words, all of God’s gifts He gives for our salvation. One of His greatest gifts is the gift of the saints. Concerning our relationship with the saints, St John of Kronstadt says this:
“We ought to have the most lively spiritual union with the heavenly inhabitants, with all the saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, prelates, venerable and righteous ones, as they are all members of one single body, The Church of Christ, to which we sinners also belong, and the living Head of which is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is why we call upon them in prayer, converse with them, thank and praise them, It is urgently necessary for all Christians to be in union with them, if they desire to make Christian progress; for the saints are our friends, our guides to salvation, who pray and intercede for us.”
In today’s second epistle from Hebrews we heard the following words:
“Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.”
Today the Church wants us to pay particular attention to the things we have heard from St. Gregory Palamas. Now I realize that many of us have never read anything that St. Gregory either wrote or preached. That’s OK. As long as we grasp the essence, the heart of his teaching, we will be doing well, we will be honouring his memory, and we will save ourselves from drifting away from Christ. And what is this teaching? The truth is, St. Gregory, who lived in the 14th century, did not introduce anything new! St. Gregory simply re-presented what had always been the “good news” of Christ. And what was that? It’s what St. Paul said nearly 2,000 years ago: “to know (Christ,) to know the power of His resurrection, the communion in His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I might attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3: 10-11). This means that St. Paul desires nothing more than to be a Christian “experientially,” not academically; to know God in his heart and not in his brain. This is exactly what St. Gregory was teaching, or rather, reinforcing. A dangerous and destructive system of theology was sweeping through the Latin West. We call it “scholasticism” today. It teaches that God cannot be known other than through the intellect. Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos wrote: “Scholastic theology tried to understand the Revelation of God logically and conform to philosophical methodology. Characteristic of such an approach is the saying of Anselm: 'I believe so as to understand.’” We Orthodox do not believe in order to understand. We believe in order to acquire the Holy Spirit and be saved! St. Symeon the New Theologian says: “The aim of all those who live in God is to please our Lord Jesus Christ and become reconciled with God the Father by means of the reception of the Holy Spirit,...Every path of life which does not lead to this is without profit.” Illumination by the Holy Spirit, participation in divine glory, this should be the only goal of a Christian; not merely knowledge about God, but a real experience of God, a real relationship with God.
So, how can we begin to enter into this kind of authentic, Spirit-filled Christianity? First, by saying “no” to sin and “yes” to virtuous living. St. Symeon the New Theologian again says: “Through repentance the filth of our foul actions is washed away. After this, we participate in the Holy Spirit, not automatically, but according to the faith, humility and inner disposition of the repentance in which our soul is engaged.” These are some of the things we are trying to focus on during Great Lent. It’s not just a change of diet: no meat, no dairy, no wine, etc. It’s about changing our behaviour, our lifestyle, our thinking and our relationships. These are the things that “attract” the Holy Spirit. The opposite drives Him away and instead attracts other spirits!
Second, we must do what Abbess Makrina says in the new book Words of the Heart, “we should have our nous (focused) on God and pray unceasingly, so that the grace of God can make us radiant” (page 176). What do we sing at the Paschal Canon? “It is the Day of Resurrection, let us be radiant, O people!” That’s what it literally says, “let us be radiant!” There is no divine radiance, there is no “partaking of the divine nature” without unceasing prayer and a nous, that is a heart, that is set on God (see 2Peter 1:4). This is the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas. This is the teaching of the holy hesychasts. St Gregory was a hesychast. A hesychast is someone who practices quietness, stillness, in order to hear God and to know God. The Lord Himself says: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 45/46:10). St. Gregory wrote: “...the grace of the Spirit takes possession of the quiet soul, and gives it a taste of the unspeakable good things to come, which no passionate and negligent eye has seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of such a man (cf. I Cor. 2:9). This taste is the earnest of these good things, and the heart which accepts these pledges becomes spiritual and receives assurance of its salvation.”
Along with quiet and stillness comes the requirement of unceasing prayer. Gerontissa Makrina mentioned it, remember? St. Paul commands it in the Bible: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). And St Gregory himself says: “Let not one think, my fellow Christian, that only priests and monastics need to pray without ceasing and not laymen No, no; every Christian, without exception, ought to dwell always in prayer.” So, how are we to accomplish this? How are we, who live in the world, have jobs, have families, how are we to pray without ceasing? Well, nobody was busier than St. Paul! So busy-ness is not an excuse. Unceasing prayer does not mean the formal prayers from the Prayer Book or the liturgical services. It means the practice of the Prayer of the Heart, or the Jesus Prayer. This short, easy-to-remember prayer is based on the prayer uttered in humility by the publican in the Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” The Prayer of the Heart is addressed to Christ, along with a confession of Who Christ is. Remember what St. John wrote in his first Epistle: “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).
So the Jesus Prayer, or Prayer of the Heart is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” In the Russian tradition the words “a sinner” is often added to the end but is not essential. We should memorize this short prayer and incorporate it into our daily routine. Say it slowly, and quietly. Say it after your morning prayers for a few minutes. Say it during your commute. Say it quietly or mentally at work. Say it when times get stressful. Say it at night before you go to sleep. The point is to say it, to use it.
I’d like to share some words of my late Geronta, Archimandrite George (Kapsanis) Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Grigoriou, Mount Athos:
“Through the continuous invocation of the most sweet and holy name of Christ, (believers) will feel Christ in their heart, they will avoid sin, they will cultivate feelings of love for God and their fellow human beings, they will themselves become peaceful and in turn provide peace to those in their surrounding environment. Allow me, if I may, to provide a brotherly piece of advice from the spiritual tradition of Mount Athos: the more times a day we say, with desire, the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,’ the closer to God we’ll be and the more Grace and strength we’ll receive so as to be able to deal with the various difficulties and temptations of life.”
For us, this is the legacy of the holy hesychasts. For us, this is the tradition of St. Gregory Palamas. Amen.