St Gregory Palamas – Light for the World

ImageThe Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church observed the memory of St. Gregory Palamas as is customary on the second Sunday of the Great Fast (Lent).   St. Gregory who was born in the year 1296 to wealthy parents and grew up in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in a critical time of political and religious unrest. Constantinople was slowly recovering from the devastating invasion of the Crusades. From the west, it was infiltrated by Western philosophies of rationalism and scholasticism and by many attempts at Latinization. From the east, it was threatened by Muslim Turkish military invaders. The peace and faith of its citizens were at stake. It was a city under attack from all sides.

Upon finishing his studies in Greek philosophy, rhetoric, poetry, and grammar, Gregory, at only twenty or twenty-two years of age, followed a burning passion in his heart. Like a lover who strives to stay alone forever with his loved one, Gregory was thirsty for living water (Revelation 22:17). Therefore, no created thing could separate him from the love of God (Romans 8:39). He Imagewithdrew to Mount Athos, an already established community of monasticism, staying first at the Vatopedi Monastery and then moving to the Great Lavra.  In Athos, the novice Gregory took as his spiritual guide St. Nicodemos of Vatopedi Monastery. This holy man of prayer guided Gregory on the path of ascetic labor: prayers, vigils, fasting, continuous repentance, and monastic obedience.

The young novice Gregory was especially attached to the prayer of the heart, also known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:38).  Gregory taught people to pray without ceasing, as the Apostle Paul commands all Christians to do (1 Thessalonians 5:17), explaining that in prayer a person is filled from within with the eternal glory and the divine light beheld at the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. St. Gregory explained:

For, on the day of the Transfiguration, that Body, source of the light of grace, was not yet united with our bodies; it illuminated from outside those who worthily approached it, and sent the illumination into the soul by the intermediary of the physical eyes; but now, since it is mingled with us and exists in us, it illuminates the soul from within (Triads I. 3.38).

The Jesus Prayer is not a mantra, as in Eastern religions, but rather the “Jesus Prayer” is a call for mercy involving inner repentance within the sacramental life of the Church: a prayer combined with Holy Communion, confession, reading the Word of God, fasting, loving one’s neighbor, and so forth. Finally, it is not a prayer using “vain repetitions” or “babble,” but a prayer recited again and again, in persistence (Luke 18:1) from the inner heart of a person reaching the divine heights of glory, confessing Christ as Lord and Savior in sincerity, humility, and faith.  Such prayer was practiced from the early Christian period drawn by God’s unconditional graceful love (Romans 5:15) to fill a certain human need around them.

His unquenched thirst for God’s sweetness experienced in prayer moved the righteous Gregory to live as a hermit in a cell outside the monastery. In the year 1326, the threat of Turkish invasions forced him, along with his Athonite brothers, to retreat to Thessalonika. There he was ordained to the holy priesthood.  As a priest, Gregory did not abandon his spiritual labor and prayer. Spending most of the week alone in prayer, he celebrated divine services and preached sermons on the weekends, caring for the youth and calling them to discuss religious issues with him. Father Gregory was not concerned about abstract problems of philosophy, but about Christian faith experienced in prayer. He wanted to preach solely about problems of Christian existence, which are more attractive and meaningful to the young.

The Presence of God in Prayer

St Gregory PalamasSt. Gregory Palamas interpreted the experience of the Church by presenting logical arguments based on the Scripture and the writings of the holy Mothers and Fathers of the Church. Addressing the question of how it is possible for humans to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God, he drew a distinction between knowing God in essence or nature, but rather in the presence of energies and actions. To elaborate, he made a comparison between God and the sun. The sun has its rays, God has energies (among them are grace and light). By energy, God creates, sustains, and governs the universe. By energy, God transforms creation and deifies it, that is, God fills the new creation with energies as water fills a sponge. These actions or energies of God are the true revelation of God to humanity. So God is incomprehensible and unknowable in nature or essence, but knowable in energies. It is through God’s actions out of love to the whole creation that God enters into a direct and immediate relationship with humanity, a personal confrontation between creature and Creator.

St. Gregory was a living Gospel. God gave him the gift of healing, especially in the last three years before his death. On the eve of his repose, St. John Chrysostom appeared to him in a vision. St. Gregory Palamas reposed in the Lord on November 14, 1359. The Virgin Mary, the Apostle John, St. Dimitrios, St. Antony the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and angels of God all appeared to him at different times. Nine years after his repose, a council in Constantinople headed by Patriarch Philotheos proclaimed the sainthood of Gregory Palamas. Patriarch Philotheos himself compiled the life and services for the saint.

As taught by St. Gregory Palamas:

 Let no one think, my brothers and sisters, that it is the duty only of priests, monks and nuns to pray without ceasing, and not of the laity. No, no; it is the duty of all Christians to remain always in prayer . . . every Christian is called to pray always, and to pray without ceasing . . . this very name of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly invoked will help to overcome all difficulties, and in the course of time one will become accustomed to this practice and will taste how sweet is the name of the Lord. . . . For when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, when we drink, we can always pray mentally and practice this mental prayer—the true prayer pleasing to God (Homily on how all Christians in general must pray without ceasing).

 After more than six hundred years after his death, the earthly remains of St. Gregory Palamas are miraculously uncorrupted.  How is this possible? Indeed, St. Gregory’s life clearly explains these wondrous facts, illustrating the inspired words of the apostles that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and that we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).  Through the prayers of Holy Saint Gregory Palamas, may God fill us with sweet divine grace and light.

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