I’m amazed every year when I’m reminded that St. Gregory Palamas was once called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church.” Now imagine that he was called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church” by the Patriarch of Constantinople himself. The year is 1344. This comment was made during a Church council and it caused this man to be thrown into prison for the next 4 years. The man who was “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church” was St. Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica. Yet the Church in her wisdom has set aside this the second Sunday of Great Lent as Palamas Sunday.
Why was this man called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church?” and yet why do we remember him on one of the Sundays of Lent? To simplify this I will say that St. Gregory was an accomplished monk who became the abbot or head of one of the monastic communities. In the course of his spiritual life, he had learned many things about our life in Christ, about true Orthodoxy. One of the things that he learned and taught was of great controversy and we better hear it and understand it because it is part of our theology and understanding of God. St. Gregory taught that we could know God intimately and personally. That we can commune with God and that when we do we actually partake of His energies. That we can, through heartfelt daily repentance and ascetical efforts, grow in purity. And when purity is coupled with true prayer, we can feel, know and be bathed in the presence of God by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
I have to tell you that even today, even now, that is a radical idea for many. I was recently speaking with someone who told me that they felt much better and achieved much more from meditation than they ever did from prayer. I replied that it was probably the case that no one had actually taught them what prayer is or how to pray apart from opening a prayer book and repeating what is in it. In addition, I told them that if we dedicated the same time to prayer that some people dedicate to meditation, the “results” would be quite positive.
We think of prayers as formal words. We sometimes think of prayers as speaking empty words into a blank space, never to hear anything in return. So we are often lucky to spend even 3 minutes praying before we get tired or bored. That is not prayer according to the Fathers of the Church. Prayer is living communion with God that is experienced in a genuine way and this always transforms us, even though we rarely sense it as it is happening. God is not far-away, He is not known only through mental knowledge and books. He is known in truth as we participate in His energies. Rather than say too much from my own words, I will share some of the words of our Fathers and what they had to say about experiencing God. As I share these things please note that we do not pray for to have similar experiences, but God sometimes gives them by grace. Either way, the grace of God is working in us, when we pray. Whether we have a dazzling experience or something far more subtle. Let us first hear the words of St. Gregory Palamas himself,
“…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.”
“That light, father, appeared to me. The walls of my cell immediately vanished and the world disappeared, fleeing I think from before His face, and I remained alone in the presence alone of the light. And I do not know, father, if this my body was there, too. I do not know if I was outside of it. For a while I did not know that I carry and am clothed with a body. And such great joy was in me and is with me now, great love and longing both, that I was moved to streams of tears like rivers, just like now as you see.” -St. Symeon the New Theologian
Finally, I will share with you the words of the modern, yet to be canonized saint, Elder Sophrony of Essex
“Towards evening at sunset I would shut the window and draw three curtains over it, to make my cell as quiet and dark as possible. With my forehead bent to the floor, I would slowly repeat words of prayer, one after the other. I had no feeling of being cooped up, and my mind, oblivious to the body, lived in the light of the gospel word. Concentrated on the fathomless wisdom of Christ’s word, my spirit, freed from all material concerns, would feel flooded, as it were, with light, from the celestial sun.At the same time, a gentle peace would fill my soul, unconscious of all the needs and cares of this earth. The Lord gave me to live in this state, and my spirit yearned to cling to his feet in gratitude for this gift. This same experience was repeated at intervals for months, perhaps years….Under the influence of this light, prayer for mankind and travail possessed my whole being. It was clear that the inescapable, countless sufferings of the entire universe, are the consequence of man’s falling away from God, our creator, who revealed himself to us. If the world loved Christ and his commandments, everything would be radically transformed, and the earth would become a wonderful paradise.”
I have shared these things with all of you because I want you to know that we do not fast and undergo lent for some outward ritual and symbolic observance, but for the opportunity to be purified and healed. God is not far away. We can have peace with Him. We can knowand experience God.How do we begin to know Him? We begin with heart felt repentance. When we repent, our sins are removed and no heavy weight will weigh us down as we climb up the mountain of prayer. Next,we pray patiently and as we begin to pray, we ask for the gift of prayer. There is no doubt that the Lord desires to give this gift to you. And like any good activity, it must be undertaken with discipline, as a daily part of our life. So continue to strive, because knowing Him is worth it. He desires to know you and to transform you completely, because He loves you. May the grace of the Lord be with you all! AMEN.