SUNDAY OF ST. GREGORY PALAMAS
St. Gregory Palamas lived from 1292 to 1359, a tumultuous hundred years before the fall of Constantinople. He was the last of what we now call the fathers of the Christian Church, including St. Basil the Great whose liturgy we celebrate during this season, and St. John Chrysostom whose beautiful Easter sermon we anticipate. St Gregory arrived at an hour of need – nearly 600 years after the last of the earlier fathers, St. John Damascene. At least one commentator [Robert Payne, The Holy Fire, Athens Printing Co., NYC, 1957] writes that the church believed its dogma was perfect after St. John Damascene, and sat on its laurels for the next six hundred years while theologians and monks opined and elaborated upon the Bible and the early fathers’ writings. They opined and elaborated to such an extent that what they wrote was often obscure and incomprehensible, even to many within the church. While Orthodox worship went on as beautifully as always, the joy of it became muted.
There was a need for freshness and simplicity. It is for bringing to the Orthodox Church this needed freshness and simplicity – and bringing back the joy – that we celebrate St. Gregory Palamas on this Sunday of Lent.
For St. Gregory, the gospel of the Transfiguration was central. Matthew, Mark and John all recount Jesus going to Mount Tabor, bringing with him Peter, James and John [Matthew 17: 1-8; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 23-27]. Jesus was transfigured before them, with his face shining like the sun, and his garments as white as light. A voice came from the heavens and said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” The disciples fell down in awe. Jesus touched them and told them to have no fear. When they looked, they saw only Jesus. He admonished them to tell no one what they had seen until after he was risen from the dead. The disciples were unable to understand what they were to have learned until after the Resurrection, when its significance must have brought them both great wonder and gladness in that they then knew they had seen God in Jesus.
The great light of the Transfiguration was, for St. Gregory, the divinity or energy of God in Jesus. Jesus assumed human form because humans were made in the image of God. As Jesus is divine, and in human form, so humans have divinity within them which may be touched and experienced. St. Gregory held that we experience this divinity in the form of seeing the incomparable light of the Transfiguration.
St. Gregory was a monk for much of his life. He was gifted to explain and defend, against great odds, his belief, and that of many monks, in the ability to see the light of the Transfiguration. He believed that simple and continued prayer could suffuse the mind and spirit, allowing the incomparable light into the heart and soul – and in that light, man could see God.
St. Gregory never taught that humans could comprehend God – certainly we cannot. The difference between knowing God and seeing the light, the energy of God, was likened to knowing the sun – no man can stare at the sun, yet we see its light. St. Gregory knew, because he had experienced the energy of God, what exaltation and joy and peace of soul it brought. His many and profound writings praised the light, the peace, the beauty, as almost too much to be borne. The light extended to everything around one. The earth was beautiful. People, God’s image on earth, were beautiful. The joy of participating in God was, like the light of Transfiguration, incomparable.
When thinking of simple and continued prayer, which St. Gregory says is the path to the light, the Jesus prayer of St. Symeon comes most readily to mind. “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The monks said this, or similar prayers, over and over, until they became more than a prayer from the lips or mind, they slipped unconsciously into the heart and became the light of the Transfiguration. This is why the beliefs and practices of the monks are often called part of the essential mystical tradition of the Orthodox Church.
Can we only experience the energy of God in the way St. Gregory and the monks did, by repetition of prayer until it, in effect, becomes one with us? We have not chosen, or been granted, lives of monks. We work. We have families. We live in a world which seems constantly to be speeding up its demands. It is difficult for us to find a quiet place and time for such prayer. Yet, we can seek inner quietude even when shutting out the demands of the world seems an unattainable goal. We can all find more time than we thought possible if we really try. Our church would be the first to tell us that there are no rules which, when followed, lead to the light of the Transfiguration. There are things the church teaches, that it believes will help on every journey to God. But, God’s ways are a mystery.
Can we experience the light of Transfiguration? Yes. Prayer and fasting, the purifying and freeing of our physical selves, asking for forgiveness of our sins and forgiving all those whom we have sinned against, will help us on this journey. St. Gregory’s path to the light is one way, but each person’s honest, feeling prayer is heard by God. The path to God is a journey of faith. Experiencing the light of the Transfiguration is a gift of God. Only God, who is always reaching out to us, knows when we will have opened our hearts enough to let the light of the Transfiguration shine, so that we too can feel God’s presence and energy within ourselves. So that we can feel that spark of divinity which is within us, and is within every human.
If that happens, we will know that it has happened. We will feel the peace of God, for which we say petitions in every liturgy, “For the peace of God, and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” It is an incredible feeling, and we pray, that for each of us, particularly during this Lenten and Easter season, we are able to experience the peace of God, the light of the Transfiguration, with great faith and great joy. And we thank St. Gregory for teaching us that we may seek the light of the Transfiguration, and reminding us that we are all divine as well as human.