Today, on the second Sunday of Great Lent, the Holy Church has appointed us to keep the feast of St. Gregory Palamas, the great 14th-century archbishop of Thessalonica. He is almost certainly the most famous of the Church Fathers who lived after the first millenium of Christianity. Although he was extremely well-educated in his youth under the patronage of the Emperor himself, nevertheless — like all true theologians — his real formation was in “the art of arts and the science of sciences”: the ascetic life of prayer. At just 20 years of age, he left behind a position of power, wealth, and privilege at the Imperial Court, and fled to the desert of Mount Athos. There, he gradually progressed from the life of a novice in a large cenobitic monastery to the life of a hermit in one of the small sketes of the Holy Mountain.
There this great saint might well have remained unknown to all of us save God Himself, had divine providence not allowed the threat of Turkish invasion to drive him and his brethren to take refuge in the city of Thessalonica in 1326. There, having been ordained to the holy priesthood, his public ministry began. Many of the sermons St. Gregory subsequently preached have been preserved to this day, and they remain among the most beautiful and profound theological writings that can be found anywhere in the entire history of the Holy Orthodox Church.
But despite all this, we might well still wonder what St. Gregory Palamas has to do with Great Lent in particular; that is, why has the Church appointed his feast to be kept specifically today — the second Sunday of the Fast — in addition to the anniversary of his repose on November 14? The answer might not be so obvious; certainly, there is not nearly so obvious a connection between Great Lent and St. Gregory as there is between Great Lent and the Cross, or Great Lent and the Ladder of Divine Ascent, or Great Lent and St. Mary of Egypt — she who lived a life of repentance par excellance. In contrast to these clear and obvious themes of repentance, St. Gregory — for all his wonderful and sublime theology — does not quite seem to fit the mold.
For an answer to this question — I do not say the answer, because in the Holy Orthodox Church it is impossible to come anywhere close to exhausting all the rich layers of meaning and truth in even the simplest of questions — for an answer to this question, we should consider the theology for which St. Gregory is most famous: his teaching on hesychasm and the Uncreated Light.
In the 14th century a monk named Barlaam, educated in the Western Scholastic tradition, began to viciously mock and attack the ascetic practices of the hesychast monks. He taught that the hesychasts were deluding both themselves and the people, that it was impossible for them to directly know and experience God through the unceasing practice of the Jesus Prayer, since —according to Barlaam — God is fundamentally unknowable. He claimed that the Light of Tabor — the Light seen by those of the hesychasts who had reached the heights of prayer and contemplation — was not the uncreated light of divinity, but instead a more ordinary miracle belonging to the created order of things.
It has famously been said that: “A theologian is the one who prays, and the one who prays is a theologian.” As I mentioned already, St. Gregory had lived on the Holy Mountain not just as a monk, but as a hesychast: someone who has withdrawn from the cares and distractions even of monastic life, in order to focus above all on silence and the prayer of the heart. And so when he took up the fight against the teachings of Barlaam, he did not do so merely as a brilliant and well-educated clergyman; he did so fundamentally as one who prayed. He knew, not just from abstract knowledge of the teachings of the Church, but from his own lived experience of the mystical tradition handed down by the Fathers, that God does allow Himself to be known and experienced in truth by those who love Him. He knew that Christ our God has opened to mankind not just the Kingdom of Heaven, but His own divine life itself. He knew that the very heart of our Christianity is not just the resurrection of the dead, but the incomprehensive act of divine love, of divine adoption, by which we become nothing less than gods by grace — in the words of the great Apostle Peter: “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
And this, I think, is why it is so important that we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas on the second Sunday of Lent. Not just because he defended the ascetic traditions of our Church — the ascetic traditions in which all of us are striving to participate, according to our strength, during the Great Fast — but because he understood and revealed the true purpose and meaning of these ascetical practices. Through the teachings of St. Gregory, we understand that all our ascetic striving — during Great Lent and throughout all our lives as Christians — is not for the sake of mere external righteousness, nor is it even for the sake of the forgiveness of our sins alone: it is above all for the sake of the great truth spoken by St. Athanasius: “God became man so that man might become god.”
St. Gregory reminds us today — just as he reminded the Christian world during his debates with Barlaam — that this truth is real. Through our grace-given life in Christ, it really is possible for us to see and know and even to unite perfectly with God Himself. Barlaam was right about one thing: such things really are more than our rational minds can comprehend. But our rational minds are not the final measure of truth. When we finally become willing to leave behind our own opinions, our own attachments, and our own pride, and begin to enter with humility and silence and prayer into the inner chamber of our hearts, then — and only then — will the truth of our Savior’s words be revealed: “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
But the Church, in appointing this Sunday’s commemoration, does not only remind us of St. Gregory’s teaching, but also that this most sublime teaching of the universal Church is for all of us. It is not just for a handful of monks and ascetics, not even just for those whom the Church formally recognizes as saints. This great promise is for all Christians. For it was not just to hermits but to the entire Church that St. Paul wrote:
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory. Colossians 3:1-4
This promise — the promise that each one of us will one day share in the life and the resurrection and the glory of Christ at His great and terrible Second Coming — is true reason for which we are spending these Holy Forty Days in fasting and almsgiving and prayer. This promise is the reason why we are all striving ascetically to “set [our] affections on things above, not on things on the earth.” And so, my dear brothers and sisters, it now falls to us to imitate during these holy days —insofar is is possible — our Savior, “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
May each of us keep the promise of such joy always before our eyes. For truly, it is only by our faith in the great and joyful promises made to us that we will be able, like St. Paul, to
count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ… That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead…. press[ing] toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Phil. 3:8-14
Through the prayers of St. Gregory Palamas and of all the saints, may God grant us to struggle well, — with faith and with hope and with joy — “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ“ (Eph. 4:13). Amen!