The Heart of Tradition - A Sermon for the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas (2024)

The Heart of Tradition - A Sermon for the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas (2024) - Holy Cross Monastery

The feast of St. Gregory Palamas this Sunday is a second Triumph of Orthodoxy. It was first instituted less than 10 years after St. Gregory reposed in the Lord. This is a remarkable fact. This ought to tell us something. It says, our Fathers recognized something so important and essential in the life and teaching of St. Gregory that they did not hesitate to accord it public veneration and to praise it with sacred hymns, even while he was within living memory. This feast is about much more than St. Gregory’s personal sanctity. It is about his being “a pillar of Orthodoxy.” That’s why this Sunday is a second Sunday of Orthodoxy. And this Sunday is even more important than the first, because St. Gregory’s teaching gives us the key to unlock for ourselves all the riches of our holy Orthodox Tradition.

St. Gregory was the champion of hesychasm, which in his day came under attack by certain scholars who valued pagan learning and rational investigation as paths to God.

So what is hesychasm, and what exactly does it have to do with us? There are five lengthy volumes of the Philokalia that contain all of the details, but if we boil it down the essentials, we can say that hesychasm is simply a constant effort to recollect the mind into the space of the heart. As a result of the Fall, our minds are constantly dispersed in the illusory and ever-changing realm of created things. Alienated from God, we turn to these objects to fill the void and gratify our carnal desires. Our minds thus become “flesh”, carnal, constantly agitated by passions and never knowing a moment’s rest or the sweetness of divine consolation.

The task of the hesychast is to turn the mind away from the material, sensory world, and to turn it inward on itself. And the focal point of this process is our heart, which is the center of our entire being according to the word God Himself. This is nothing other than the laborious process of repentance, of turning our mind away from the external world and “coming to ourselves,” as Scripture says of the Prodigal Son. Only when we do this can we acquire the self-possession necessary to give our whole life into the hands of our loving Heavenly Father. Then and only then, as the Saints tell us, can we become capable of receiving spiritual gifts and the palpable experience of deification in this life. Then and only then does man become worthy to behold God’s uncreated light, which appeared to the Apostles on Mt. Tabor.

This might all sound lofty and out of our reach, whether we are monastics or not. When we think of hesychasts, we probably think of strict ascetics who lived lives of dedicated noetic prayer in the desert. But the hesychast tradition has relevance for coenobitic monks and laypeople too.

Don’t take my word for it—this is what Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex says, “Every Christian, whether he is a monk or not, should at least desire to draw near to this tradition.”[1] Fr. Zacharias sums up the entire hesychast tradition in one simple exhortation: “Go in and find rest.” In other words, constantly strive to turn your mind inwards and dwell in the heart. There you will find God and experience rest from the passions that constantly wrack your soul. The kingdom of God is within you, as Christ says.

Why is this so important? Why is it essential? Because this activity holds the key to everything else in Orthodoxy—to the Liturgy, to the Scriptures, to the dogmas, to spiritual fatherhood, to personal prayer, repentance, and salvation. All of these things will remain fundamentally alien to us unless and until we find our heart and put all out effort towards keeping our mind fixed there unshakably. Without hesychasm, the Triumph of Orthodoxy is simply a pious charade, because the Faith has not triumphed in our hearts.

Now we can see why the holy Fathers of the 14th century were so quick to canonize St. Gregory and his teaching. It’s because they understood that the preservation of living, active, and effective knowledge of God was at stake. They knew firsthand what things would ensure our salvation.

And when we survey the development of Western Christendom, which was cut off from the living wellspring of hesychast spirituality, we can see that St. Gregory and the holy Fathers were absolutely right to show such zeal in defending hesychasm. Because when the mind is not fixed in the heart, it becomes hopelessly engrossed in external things, and when it’s thus blinded, it is subject to spiritual delusion and becomes the plaything of the demons.

The history of the West for the last millennium gives ample evidence of the loss of spiritual knowledge and discernment, and a preoccupation with the material world and the passions of fallen human nature. Truly, everything—the ambition of the Popes, the triumph of Scholasticism, the humanism of the Renaissance, the individualism of the Reformation, the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the bloodshed of the Revolution, the stormy flights of Romanticism, the nihilism of Modernism, the atrocities of totalitarianism, the banality of consumerism, the absurdity of post-modernism. This sorry litany of human development, which we in our spiritual blindness often extol as a march of Progress, has only been possible because we have forgotten how to keep our mind fixed in our heart, in constant and intimate converse with God. We have forgotten that this is our only and true vocation as human beings.

All of us are the heirs and products of Western culture. But by God’s great mercy, we are also heirs of the spiritual riches of Orthodoxy. So how do we turn back? How do we undo the damage of a millennium of errors, and fully assimilate the truth of Orthodoxy? How can we draw near to the tradition of hesychasm?

The answer is—obedience. In Archim. Zacharias’ telling, obedience is the only means that tradition can be transmitted authentically. That’s because it is the most direct and surefire means to finding our heart. This is the whole purpose of monastic life. This carries us beyond the limited sphere of our personal accomplishments, ascetical disciplines, and individual ambitions. Fr. Zacharias expresses it most beautifully:

“…[O]bedience is what is needed for organising spiritual life according to the will of God, so that all our life can become a Divine Liturgy. No matter how wise and strong we may be, without obedience we will remain helpless with regard to ourselves and even more so with regard to our fellows. The strong may well prevail in their pursuit of discipline, but the weak will perish and there will be no real victory. If, however, we put our trust in obedience, humility will prevail and even those who are weak will be joined to the rest of the Body and function properly according to the divine purpose. Through obedience, each one finds his place in the Body. And whoever puts obedience first, and thereby crucifies his mind, will not fail to find his heart. It may not be among the most precious of vessels, but his heart will be filled. If not all of us can be true hesychasts, we can nevertheless be obedient and discover the harmony of place in the body that is the Church…”[2]

This beautiful image of the Body is one we should return to often. We are blessed to live in a place where we can experience this reality daily. Whatever our place, whatever our tasks and obediences, whatever our individual capacities and strengths, let us give thanks to God that we are part of the Body of Christ, and let us learn to value the gifts and wellbeing of others as our own. Let us never grumble about our station, but glory that we are members of the one Body. As King David sings, I had rather be an outcast in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of sinners (Ps. 83:11). This is only possible if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to obedience.

We should thank God that we have found this spiritual oasis of true life amidst the desert of the modern world. We should express our thanks above all by living a life worthy of our Fathers. Too often, we use the brokenness that we’ve inherited from our secular culture as an excuse to struggle halfheartedly and live a negligent life. But if we reflect more deeply, we should recognize that we have all of the resources we need at hand in order to walk the path of salvation that our Fathers have walked before us. We have so much: the writings of the Fathers and the hymns of the Church, all in our own language which we can understand; we have frequent access to confession and communion; we have a thriving brotherhood in which we can exercise ourselves in the commandment of love. We have absolutely everything we need to prosper spiritually, but it will all remain locked to us if we don’t apply ourselves wholeheartedly to obedience. Unless we struggle to decisively cut off our own will, we will remain forever spiritually barren and cut off from the Body. Without obedience, we are just a bunch of nice guys dressed in black who happen to live together. If we fail to be helped by all of this, we will have only ourselves to blame—God has given us everything. So let us struggle courageously in these remaining weeks of Lent, so that we can make Tradition our own, and like St. Gregory, we can pass it on to those who come after us.

[1] Archim. Zacharias, The Hidden Man of the Heart, p. 139.

[2] Archim. Zacharias, The Hidden Man of the Heart, p. 142.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.