The Experience of God - A Homily on the Second Sunday of Lent: St. Gregory Palamas (2021)

March 28, 2021

The Experience of God - A Homily on the Second Sunday of Lent: St. Gregory Palamas (2021)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

Introduction

We experience the joy of the Resurrection of Christ to the degree in which we have prepared for it throughout Lent. It is by means of this preparation – the external fasting and increase in vigils, the internal repentance, confession, humility, and love – (It is by means of this preparation) that our hearts and minds are cleansed of passions and sins and are opened to perceive the Resurrection more fully, to enter into the reality of the Resurrection, a reality which altars everything we perceive and everything we are.

The Pedagogy of Lent

Each week, if not each day, we are instructed on how to correctly understand Lent and our place in it. There is a theme, a leitmotif, to each Sunday in Lent, the aim of which is to direct each of us in the way we should go. Whether we look for it or not, we are offered tools that, when used correctly, aid our spiritual growth. The reason for this is because we are combatants against the passions who seek to don armor appropriate for battle; we are runners in a race who desire not to be sated by food or weighed down by bulky and heavy clothing that impedes our stride.

The Sundays of Lent – The Three Sundays of Saints

There are three Sundays dedicated to Saints, two men and one woman, none of whom were born saints, but through the path described through the Lenten Services, they attained to that holiness, drawing near to perfection. St. Mary of Egypt is an example of repentance because it was through repentance that she exchanged a thoroughly dissolute life for the life of an earthly angel. St. John Climacus is the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which details the spiritual life, from the hurdles faced by beginners, to the obstacles of the intermediate, to the narrow path of the perfect. He could only write such a manual because he had already navigated the same course and therefore wrote from experience.

Today is the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, whereon we commemorate St. Gregory as the defender of the Christian’s experience of God. St. Gregory became involved in a confrontation wherein his opponent claimed that Christians (specifically hesychast monks) did not experience God directly. St. Gregory defended the opposite position and affirmed that this is how the Orthodox Church’s theology came to be - by direct revelation from God to holy men and women in the Church whom the grace of God had transformed.

Each of these Lives describes someone who applied themselves to the ascetic life and, when assisted by the grace of God, had been transformed by God, as evident by the Life of St. Mary of Egypt and the knowledge of St. John disclosed in his familiarity with the spiritual landscape. It is the same in regards to the life of St. Gregory Palamas, who spoke and wrote plainly and unambiguously about the experience of God.

On the Significance of St. Gregory Palamas

The Theologian of the Experience of God

I. It is no coincidence that the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas follows the Sunday of Orthodoxy on which the Synodicon of Orthodoxy is proclaimed (usually in a monastery where a bishop resides). The Synodicon is a text that articulates the truths of the Faith (doctrines), as well as the heretics and heresies that have arisen throughout the centuries. The Synodicon anathematizes the heretics and heresies and proclaims “Memory eternal!” to all those who have stood for the truth. The Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas affirms how these truths are known.

It may be confusing, though, to try to equate what we do with the results that St. Gregory indicates, which, to be clear, is the lot of only a few. The ascetic path is to be trodden by all Orthodox Christians, yet we all end up at different distances along that route for many reasons. As St. Gregory notes,

There is a starting point and perfection, and an intermediate stage in between. The grace of baptism… inaugurates this action in us, providing remission of all our sins and of the guilt of the curse. Perfection will come with the resurrection of life for which believers hope, and the promise of the age to come. The intermediate stage is life according to Christ’s gospel, by which the godly person is nourished, grows, and is renewed, making progress day by day in the knowledge of God, righteousness, and sanctification. Gradually he reduces and cuts away his eagerness for things below, and transfers his longing from what is visible, physical and temporary to what is invisible, spiritual, and eternal.[1]

Although the type of knowledge St. Gregory highlights is loftier and more exalted than most of us will ever experience, the principle, which he also emphasizes, is also the same: by using the tools God has given us to live the ascetic life, Orthodox Christians come to know God by their experience of Him.

St. John Cassian describes these more common experiences which are had and notes that God is clearly perceived not only through nature and the grandeur of His creation or our marvel at His awareness of the number of grains of sand in the sea, but He is also recognized intimately and personally through His daily assistance and providence as is evident through the lives of the Saints, His rule over the nations, or when we contemplate with wonder His ineffable gentleness, His unwearying patience, and in the many ways he brings salvation to His children.[2]

On the Christian’s Experience of God

II. Moreover, why would we not come to know and experience God, even in some small way. Christ teaches us, His children, that we live in a reality in which He also lives. That is why, when we pray, He urges that we should not be discouraged and fainthearted but should pray always and not tire because our Father in Heaven hears our prayers (Luke 18.1-8). However, so that we do not think that the distance to Heaven is too far for us to traverse, Christ Himself says that to those who love Him, those who keep His commandments, will be loved by the Father, and the Father and the Son will come and make their abode with him (John 14.23). The Apostle Paul repeats the same saying that those who are spiritually minded are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and Christ (Rom. 8.1-9). Christ will be with us, even until the end of the age (Matt. 28.20). Therefore, we should expect times of solace and times of being aware of God’s presence and help even despite long periods of dryness and silence.

On Verifying One’s Experiences with Fathers

III. Continuing on the topic of the Christian’s experience of God, perhaps you will not mind if we borrow a theme from last Sunday’s homily and place it in a new context. We cannot add to the importance and warning that we stay far away from “knowing better” than our Fathers in the Faith and our spiritual fathers; they have trod further and longer on the path than we have, and sometimes in a shorter period of time, and have been placed in their position by God to guide us and not to be abused by us. It is they who help us to determine the value, the weight, and the importance, or lack thereof, of our experiences, of what is from God and what is from the Devil.

Who, being deceived, or in prelest, or in delusion, knows that they are? Their first error, as our homilist noted, was to trust their own opinion. To not trust ourselves is an ascetic feat and is part and parcel of the Christian life.

St. Isaac the Syrian writes,

Many have accomplished mighty acts, raised the dead, toiled for the conversion of the erring, and have wrought great wonders; and by their hands have led many to the knowledge of God. Yet after these things, these same men who quickened others, fell into vile and abominable passions and slew themselves, becoming a stumbling block for many when their acts were made manifest. For they were still sickly in soul, and instead of caring for their soul’s health, they committed themselves to the sea of the world in order to heal the souls of others, being yet ill in health; and they lost their souls and fell away from their hope in God.[3]

St. Gregory Palamas addresses the same concern saying: “Trust those who have experience in the spiritual life because you will obtain a certain ‘image’ of the truth [by doing so].”[4]

Conclusion

At Optina, there was a monk who struggled to get out of bed for the morning services. In time, the monk grew lazy and stopped trying and arrived whenever he wanted to. Despite much encouragement, persuasion, and admonishings, Elder Moses, who was the Abbot, could not convince this young monk to attend to this discipline. One morning, at the end of Matins, upon seeing that the young monk was not in his stasidi, the sickly elder, with swollen and bandaged legs, made the trek to the young monk’s cell. Upon entering, with the young monk lying in bed, the elder prostrated himself before him, and as he did, the blood and pus that pooled in his boots which continuously seeped from his legs, poured out onto the floor. Such was the care and concern for this monk’s soul.

May we have the same care for our own souls and that of our neighbor; and may we know what is that one thing needful in our lives, direct all of our energies on attaining that, and taste the fruit of our labors.

THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF ST. GREGORY PALAMAS, LORD JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.

 

[1] The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas. Christopher Veniamin, ed. and trans. (Waymart: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2008), 97.

[2] The Conferences, First Conference, XV.

[3] Ascetical Homilies, Homily Four, 145.

[4] The Triads, 87.




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