Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN MANY PARISHES, the Great Fast means an increase in activity: added services, Lenten Dinners, missions and other programs. It is ironic that we celebrate today a saint identified with the spirituality of stillness. St Gregory Palamas’ main contribution to the life of the Church is his articulate and definitive presentation of Hesychasm, what he called “Sacred Quietude,” the monastic ideal of withdrawal and silence in order to focus on union with God.

Who Is St Gregory Palamas?

This future saint was born in Constantinople in 1296 into a family of some standing at the imperial court. Despite the emperor’s attempt to groom him for imperial service, Gregory went to Mount Athos and became a monk. After spending ten years on the Holy Mountain, Gregory and the other monks of his skete withdrew to Thessaloniki, because of the threat of Turkish invasion. He continued in his monastic calling there and in Berea before returning to Athos in the 1330s.

It was upon his return to Mount Athos that Gregory first encountered Barlaam of Calabria, an Italo-Greek monk and humanist who was head of the Monastery of Our Savior in Constantinople. Barlaam was involved in several diplomatic missions for the emperor as well as in discussions with the legates of Pope John XXII aimed at the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. Barlaam had written 21 treatises critical of Latin theology, particularly the Filioque and the doctrine of papal primacy which came to the attention of Gregory Palamas. While Barlaam had upheld the traditional Byzantine thinking on these issues, Palamas criticized him for teaching that the Filioque was wrong because it is impossible to determine from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds, since God is ultimately unknowable. Thus began a rivalry that would affect the Church in both East and West until our own day.

What Is Hesychasm?

The Filioque controversy was simply the preliminary. The “Main Event” concerned the practice of Hesychasm, a style of contemplative prayer observed in many Greek monasteries of the day. Inspired by the Lord’s words, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6), Eastern monastics had long seen the heart as the “inner chamber” to which we must go for prayer. Communion with God becomes possible when the mind, with its memories, concerns and plans for the future, is subjected to the heart that loves God above all. The Jesus Prayer had become the means for silencing the mind and thus entering this inner chamber of the heart. To this the Hesychasts added certain psycho-physical techniques such as rhythmic breathing and a particular way of sitting. Barlaam objected to these methods, calling the Hesychast monks he met “navel gazers.”

The heads of the Athonite monasteries asked Gregory Palamas to respond to Barlaam’s critique, which he did in a series of treatises. The controversy soon centered on the theological basis of Hesychasm, the possibility of experiencing the Uncreated Light of God as the apostles did at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ. Hesychasts believed that through ever deepening prayer the monk could experience this Light which they believed to be a divine energy. Barlaam, an intellectual trained in Aristotelian scholasticism, attacked this teaching as heretical and the entire Hesychast method as anti-intellectual, holding that philosophy was the true means of attaining the knowledge of God.

The controversy so affected the Byzantine Church that several local councils were held in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351 to discuss the issues raised by Barlaam and Gregory. They ultimately affirmed the teachings of St Gregory Palamas, namely that:

1. The light which shone at Tabor, during the Transfiguration of the Savior, is declared to be neither a creature nor the essence of God, but His energy: the uncreated and natural grace springing eternally from the divine essence itself;

2. There are in God two inseparable things: His essence and the natural and substantial energies flowing from His essence in line with the relationship of cause and effect. We cannot enter into His essence but we can participate in His energies. Both the one and the other are uncreated and eternal;

3. This real distinction between essence and energies or operations does not destroy the simplicity of God…;

4.The word θεότης (godly) does not apply solely to the divine essence, but is said also of its operation…;

5.The light of Tabor is the ineffable and eternal glory of the Son of God, the kingdom of heaven promised to the saints, the splendor in which He shall appear on the last day to judge all mankind.

After the Councils

The patriarchs of Constantinople spent the rest of the fourteenth century sharing this teaching with the other patriarchs and local Churches, securing their assent. Gregory Palamas became archbishop of Thessalonika where he died in 1359. He was glorified as a saint in 1368 by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople, who composed the service for his feast. Barlaam left Constantinople in 1341 after the council which condemned his teaching. He was received by the Pope of Rome at Avignon and was consecrated bishop of Gerace, a Greek diocese in Calabria. He died in 1348.

Hesychasm and the West

Palamas’ teaching was long considered suspect, if not heretical, in the West, which had embraced Aristotelian scholasticism as adapted by St Thomas Aquinas as its official theology. It was only in the twentieth century that St Gregory’s teaching was seen positively by Western Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. In the 1930s Danielou wrote how excited he was to read of Palamas’ “vision of humanity transfigured by the divine energies”.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II commented positively about the underlying doctrine behind Hesychasm: the possibility of theosis. He wrote, “In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquility of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus. There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method, that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of ‘theosis’ (‘divinization’).

“Precisely in this regard Eastern spirituality has amassed a very rich experience which was vigorously presented in the famous collection of texts significantly entitled Philokalia (‘love of beauty’) and gathered by Nicodemus the Hagiorite at the end of the 18th century. …

“How many things we have in common! It is time for Catholics and Orthodox to make an extra effort to understand each other better and to recognize with the renewed wonder of brotherhood what the Spirit is accomplishing in their respective traditions towards a new Christian springtime” (John Paul II, Eastern Theology Has Enriched the Whole Church).
 
IN MANY PARISHES the Great Fast means an increase in activity: added services, Lenten Dinners, missions and other programs. It is ironic that we celebrate today a saint identified with the spirituality of stillness. St Gregory Palamas’ main contribution to the life of the Church is his articulate and definitive presentation of Hesychasm, what he called “Sacred Quietude,” the monastic ideal of withdrawal and silence in order to focus on union with God.

Who Is St Gregory Palamas?

This future saint was born in Constantinople in 1296 into a family of some standing at the imperial court. Despite the emperor’s attempt to groom him for imperial service, Gregory went to Mount Athos and became a monk. After spending ten years on the Holy Mountain, Gregory and the other monks of his skete withdrew to Thessaloniki, because of the threat of Turkish invasion. He continued in his monastic calling there and in Berea before returning to Athos in the 1330s. It was upon his return to Mount Athos that Gregory first encountered Barlaam of Calabria, an Italo-Greek monk and humanist who was head of the Monastery of Our Savior in Constantinople. Barlaam was involved in several diplomatic missions for the emperor as well as in discussions with the legates of Pope John XXII aimed at the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. Barlaam had written 21 treatises critical of Latin theology, particularly the Filioque and the doctrine of papal primacy which came to the attention of Gregory Palamas. While Barlaam had upheld the traditional Byzantine thinking on these issues, Palamas criticized him for teaching that the Filioque was wrong because it is impossible to determine from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds, since God is ultimately unknowable. Thus began a rivalry that would affect the Church in both East and West until our own day.

What Is Hesychasm?

The Filioque controversy was simply the preliminary. The “Main Event” concerned the practice of Hesychasm, a style of contemplative prayer observed in many Greek monasteries of the day. Inspired by the Lord’s words, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6), Eastern monastics had long seen the heart as the “inner chamber” to which we must go for prayer. Communion with God becomes possible when the mind, with its memories, concerns and plans for the future, is subjected to the heart that loves God above all. The Jesus Prayer had become the means for silencing the mind and thus entering this inner chamber of the heart. To this the Hesychasts added certain psycho-physical techniques such as rhythmic breathing and a particular way of sitting. Barlaam objected to these methods, calling the Hesychast monks he met “navel gazers.” The heads of the Athonite monasteries asked Gregory Palamas to respond to Barlaam’s critique, which he did in a series of treatises. The controversy soon centered on the theological basis of Hesychasm, the possibility of experiencing the Uncreated Light of God as the apostles did at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ. Hesychasts believed that through ever deepening prayer the monk could experience this Light which they believed to be a divine energy. Barlaam, an intellectual trained in Aristotelian scholasticism, attacked this teaching as heretical and the entire Hesychast method as anti-intellectual, holding that philosophy was the true means of attaining the knowledge of God.
  1. The controversy so affected the Byzantine Church that several local councils were held in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351 to discuss the issues raised by Barlaam and Gregory. They ultimately affirmed the teachings of St Gregory Palamas, namely that: The light which shone at Tabor, during the Transfiguration of the Savior, is declared to be neither a creature nor the essence of God, but His energy: the uncreated and natural grace springing eternally from the divine essence itself;
  2. There are in God two inseparable things: His essence and the natural and substantial energies flowing from His essence in line with the relationship of cause and effect. We cannot enter into His essence but we can participate in His energies. Both the one and the other are uncreated and eternal;
  3. This real distinction between essence and energies or operations does not destroy the simplicity of God…;
  4. The word θεότης (godly) does not apply solely to the divine essence, but is said also of its operation…;
  5. The light of Tabor is the ineffable and eternal glory of the Son of God, the kingdom of heaven promised to the saints, the splendor in which He shall appear on the last day to judge all mankind.

After the Councils

The patriarchs of Constantinople spent the rest of the fourteenth century sharing this teaching with the other patriarchs and local Churches, securing their assent. Gregory Palamas became archbishop of Thessalonika where he died in 1359. He was glorified as a saint in 1368 by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople, who composed the service for his feast. Barlaam left Constantinople in 1341 after the council which condemned his teaching. He was received by the Pope of Rome at Avignon and was consecrated bishop of Gerace, a Greek diocese in Calabria. He died in 1348.

Hesychasm and the West

Palamas’ teaching was long considered suspect, if not heretical, in the West, which had embraced Aristotelian scholasticism as adapted by St Thomas Aquinas as its official theology. It was only in the twentieth century that St Gregory’s teaching was seen positively by Western Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. In the 1930s Danielou wrote how excited he was to read of Palamas’ “vision of humanity transfigured by the divine energies”. In 1996 Pope John Paul II commented positively about the underlying doctrine behind Hesychasm: the possibility of theosis. He wrote, “In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquility of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus. There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method, that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of ‘theosis’ (‘divinization’). “Precisely in this regard Eastern spirituality has amassed a very rich experience which was vigorously presented in the famous collection of texts significantly entitled Philokalia (‘love of beauty’) and gathered by Nicodemus the Hagiorite at the end of the 18th century. … “How many things we have in common! It is time for Catholics and Orthodox to make an extra effort to understand each other better and to recognize with the renewed wonder of brotherhood what the Spirit is accomplishing in their respective traditions towards a new Christian springtime” (John Paul II, Eastern Theology Has Enriched the Whole Church).
 
WHAT DO FASTS, METANIES, PROSTRATIONS, and standing through long church services have to do with prayer? Isn’t prayer the conversation with God we have in our hearts? Why is Eastern Christian spirituality so physical? On the First Sunday of the Fast we proclaimed the Orthodoxy of incorporating material creation (sacred images) in our worship because the living Word of God assumed matter in becoming fully man. On this second Sunday of the Fast we affirm our use of the material in worship for a similar reason. We worship using matter because to be fully human is to be physical. The physical, we believe, will not be left behind in eternal life. The resurrection of the body is the transfiguration, not the elimination, of our physical side. Fully human worship, then, must involve the material as we as the non-material. Two commemorations observed on this Sunday help us reflect on the physical dimension of the life in Christ. The first is the remembrance of St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who championed the Greek Fathers’ teaching on the way we have communion with God. Brought up in the Byzantine court, Gregory entered the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos when he was 20 years old. A threatened Turkish invasion of the holy mountain in 1325 brought several monks including Gregory to Thessalonika where Gregory was ordained to the priesthood and, in 1347, chosen as Metropolitan of Thessalonika. The icon of his enthronement shows him surrounded by Greek Fathers of the previous millennium whose teachings he affirmed.

Gregory and the Light of God

Gregory became involved in a controversy with another Greek monk, Barlaam of Calabria, over how we can know God. The West was just getting reacquainted with the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and others of the classical era. Many adopted their view that dialectics and metaphysics were the highest form of knowledge. Some, like Barlaam, taught that the highest possible knowledge of God that anyone could have was through the intellect. Gregory countered with the teaching of the Fathers that the highest knowledge of God comes, not through reasoning and the application of classical philosophy but through an experience of God gained through application to a life of prayer. The theologian is the person who knows God through experience, not through intellectual study. Doctrinal statements are fully meaningful only for those who have encountered the living Christ. You can study the makeup of a city all you like, he observed, but you will not know what a city is until you visit one. Gregory further taught that a life of prayer can bring us to experience the uncreated light of God, as Peter, James and John did on Mount Tabor. God’s divine actions or energies, which are to God as the light is to the sun, can touch us physically as well as spiritually. This transformation of the whole person, or theosis, comes about by true participation in the very life of God. The whole of human existence becomes permeated by the Divine Presence. Barlaam countered that the grace of God we may receive is something created, distinct from Him. In this Gregory was following the Greek Fathers while Barlaam was more in the tradition of Augustine. The issue thus became part of the East/West controversy of the Middle Ages. In the West theology became increasingly influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and tied to academic study. Piety came to be divorced from theology and even from liturgy, and focused on devotional practices such as the rosary and the Stations of the Cross. In the East theology remained connected to liturgy, prayer and ascetic endeavor: the fruit of a personal experience of God involving the whole person. Gregory’s teaching was upheld by several local councils in Constantinople which were eventually accepted by the other Byzantine Churches. While Gregory himself is remembered on the day of his death, November 14, today’s commemoration focuses on the place his holistic teaching has in our understanding of the Christian life. We can directly experience the action of God in us through the Spirit who dwells in us. We can bring our whole being into contact with God through physical prayer (fasts, vigils, prostrations, etc.) as well as interior meditation. And we may, as some have done, experience the uncreated light of God in this life as well as the next.

God’s Presence in “Mere Bones”

A second observance today points to the presence of the divine energies of God experienced in the very remains of the saints. In the Melkite Church holy relics are solemnly venerated today as “the pledge of the glorious resurrection of sanctified bodies” (exapostilarion at orthros). Thus we venerate the relics of saints in anticipation of their future incorruptibility and their complete transformation after the resurrection. The Second Council of Nicea which affirmed the veneration of icons also spoke about the remains of the saints: “Our Lord Jesus Christ granted to us the relics of Saints as a salvation-bearing source which pours forth varied benefits on the infirm.” What are the “varied benefits” which come from the relics of the saints? In some cases miracles, particularly healings, have taken place at the tombs or reliquaries of the saints. As St Ephrem the Syrian observed in the fourth century, “Even after death they act as if alive, healing the sick, expelling demons, and by the power of the Lord rejecting every evil influence of the demons. This is because the miraculous grace of the Holy Spirit is always present in the holy relics.” In some cases the bodies of the saints have been preserved incorrupt (without decay). In other cases relics have emitted a pleasing fragrance or exuded ointment. Believers see these occasions as evidence that deification is something that involves the body. The physical can be touched by the energies of God and participate in holiness. In the words of the kondakion, “It is a great marvel indeed that healing should come forth from mere bones. Glory to the Creator, to God alone!” Fragmentary relics are place in the holy table when a church is consecrated. They are also found in every antimension used for the Divine Liturgy. Some icons have similar fragments in a small case embedded in them. Largely intact relics (skulls, limbs or even entire bodies) are generally preserved at the place where the saint lived. Thus the reputedly incorrupt relics of St. Gregory Palamas are kept in Thessalonika where he was bishop. Every year on this day they are brought forth in procession and placed before the bishop’s throne in the cathedral for veneration. A Feast of the Holy Relics was formerly celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church on November 5 (or the Sunday after All Saints). It is still observed in the older rite but not in the ordinary (modern) form. It has been said that “the work of the Church is to ‘produce relics,’” because the primary work of the Church is to lead us to theosis, to communion and union with God. By venerating the relics of the saints the Churches of East and West proclaim its commitment to that work and to the presence of the Holy Spirit in it enabling it to bear fruit.
 
WHAT DETERMINES whether someone is a Christian? In our society there are a number of groups which claim the name although they do not believe that Christ is the Son of God or One of the Holy Trinity. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses they may believe that He is a son of God or a God, who is Michael the Archangel incarnate, but does this mean they are Christians? Mormons believe that Christ is the son of God the Father and His wife, the heavenly Mother, but does this mean they are Christians? Many Unitarians call Jesus “the dearly beloved son of God” because they believe He was a man led by the Spirit of God more constantly and entirely than anyone else, but does that mean they are Christians? Others, like Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson espoused the moral teachings of Jesus as the greatest human philosophy while denying His divinity and miracles, but does that mean they were Christians? There is another group which believes that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God and born of the Virgin Mary, that He is the Messiah who ascended into heaven and will come again as Judge. Are they Christians? They call themselves Muslims. The historic Churches of East and West uphold the view of Jesus as described in systematic terms in the Nicene Creed which we recite at every Divine Liturgy. Its vision is in turn based on passages from the Scriptures such as the selections from the Epistle to the Hebrews read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sundays of the Great Fast. These selections focus on different aspects of the Church’s understanding of who Christ is for us. Read to us during this season they remind us of the wondrous greatness of the life we receive through Him.

Image of the Father

Within the first two chapters of this epistle seven Old Testament texts are cited as proof that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is, we are told, God’s “Son whom He has appointed heir of all things” (Heb 1:2). Christ is “the brightness of [the Father’s] glory and the express image of His person and upholding all things by the power of His word” (Heb 1:3). Christ is far superior to the angels because He is begotten of the Father (see Hebrews 1:5), the One who “in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth” (Heb 1:10) and who is seated at the Father’s right (Heb 1:13). The high view of Jesus expressed here echoes the words of St Paul to the Colossians that the incarnate Lord Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col 1:15-17). We find the same depiction of Christ in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. There He is the eternal Word who was “with God” and who “was God” (Jn 1:1) “All things were made through Him,” the Gospel continues, “and without Him nothing was made and without Him nothing was made” (v. 3). “The only-begotten Son, the One Who Is in the bosom of the Father” (v. 18) is “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14). The Scriptures are not presenting doctrine in the abstract. The authors do not seek in presenting this picture of Christ, simply to say what they believe He is. Knowing Christ must lead us to action. Christ is not just another teacher, not even just another prophet, they argue, so do something: believe in Him wholeheartedly. This is not just another preacher, not even a holy man, or a living saint – this is the Son of God. Put everything else on a back burner and listen to Him! The climax of this vision of Christ as the eternal Word of God is the conviction that this Word has come for us, to remake our nature. God is not aloof, removed from us, but present among us and doing the ultimate work of God for us. “Pay even more attention… Don’t neglect so great a salvation” (Heb 2:1, 3), we are reminded, but grab hold of it by uniting yourselves to Christ.

Approaching the Fast

During the Fast, as we know, catechumens are readied for baptism in a more intense way. “Pay even more attention,” they are told, “you are at the entrance to the baptistery where you will receive eternal life. Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” The push is also on for penitents to be reconciled before Pascha and these words apply to them too: “Here’s the chance to wipe the slate clean and start over - Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” As for the rest of us, we were told after our baptism, “You are baptized, you are illumined, you are anointed with chrism. You are sanctified, you are washed in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” You have become the temple of God – the Spirit of God dwells within you. And so the Church also applies these words to all of us the faithful: “Don’t neglect so great a salvation” by letting the Fast slip away without drawing closer to your Savior during this season. Discussing our state after baptism Nicholas Cabasilas wrote, “Once we have received our new existence through baptismal washing, it is by this Bread that we live and by the Chrism that we are moved…The Bread of Life Himself changes the one who feeds on Him, transforming and assimilating him into Himself.” (The Life in Christ 1.6; 4.8). You have the possibility to be transformed in Christ - “Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” In most parishes the Great Fast is a time when people have more frequent opportunities to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is generally served on Wednesdays and Fridays during the Fast as well as some other days. In it we are given the Eucharist in the midst of our fasting as a pointer towards the “inheritance of the heavenly kingdom” that is ours through the death and resurrection of Christ. Uniting with Christ in His Eucharistic Body and His Body, the Church, deepens our life in Christ and calls us even further in our relationship with Him. Christians ought always to pray and fast and read the Scriptures, but those who receive the Eucharist with increased frequency during the Fast should expect to do so more so in response. Don’t neglect the chance to root yourself more deeply in Christ who makes Himself so accessible for your sake. Even many who are not comfortable with prayer or fasting find that they come closer to the image of God within themselves through almsgiving. As we open ourselves to others, sharing our material gifts or our inner selves with them, we are encountering the One who identifies Himself with the least of His brethren. Don’t neglect the great salvation of serving Christ in others. Increasing these or any other aspects of our Christian life demands that we make time in our schedules to do so. Don’t neglect to cut down on your hours before the TV or other entertainment activities – not as a deprivation – but to make room for the One whose great work for our salvation gives meaning to all that we do in response.

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