Saturday, March 03, 2007

St. Gregory Palamas Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

I know many of us are familiar with a little book called, “The Way of a Pilgrim”. It’s a delightful first-person account of an anonymous 19th-century Russian peasant who became captivated by St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and would not rest until he found someone who could teach him how to accomplish such a thing. Eventually he found a spiritual elder who taught him the Jesus Prayer and how to use it continually until it became quite literally the unceasing prayer of his heart. By this, the Pilgrim was able to maintain the constant remembrance of God, and found his life transformed from the inside out.

Prayer of this sort goes way back to antiquity. Throughout the centuries many saints have practiced this kind of prayer and have kept the tradition alive within the Church. One such man was St. Gregory Palamas, who we commemorate each year on this second Sunday of Lent.

St. Gregory was a 14th century monk of Mt. Athos, and later the Archbishop of Thessalonika. By his time the elements of hesychasm were already well-established. Hesychasm is the discipline which aims at an inner stillness through the continual use of short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer combined with certain other techniques, the ultimate goal of which is to enable the practitioner to perceive the presence of God in the midst of a quieted soul.

If you’ve ever tried to sit down for as little as five minutes and say the Jesus Prayer without any other thought invading your mind, you have certainly discovered what an incredibly difficult thing that is to do, and just how noisy your soul is on a daily basis. If God is perceived in the midst of a quiet soul, it is no wonder that so few people ever truly become internally aware of Him.

The scriptures instruct us to, “Be still, and know that I am God”. But inner stillness is something that most of us know nothing about. Our souls are filled with a seemingly endless supply of thoughts, fantasies, cravings, and sins. Listen to your soul sometime; it will frighten you to hear all that goes on in there, and how seldom it finds rest in God. Not only are our souls noisy enough in their own right, but we constantly import noise through the TV, the car radio, or our iPods, as if we lived in dread fear of experiencing so much as a moment of inner quiet.

Newcomers who visit an Orthodox Church for the first time are often struck by the relative silence of the services. For some this is a wonderful experience; for others, rather strange. There are no loud praise bands to entertain, no colorfully-lit stages or jumbo-screen TVs, no shouting preachers dancing about, waving bibles over their heads. By contrast, Orthodox churches are often dimly-lit, the musical tones understated, the movements restrained, the prayers chanted simply. The whole environment is one of spiritual quiet, which many people find unnerving or frankly boring; others find holy. This atmosphere of “holy boredom” is by design, for it is exactly what man needs in order to learn to become still, and experience the presence of God.

However, if we do not attempt to practice some degree of inner stillness in our daily lives, we likely will not find it here either. We will bring our noisiness in with us, and wage a constant battle of distraction. We make things all the more difficult for ourselves if we don’t read the prayers before coming to church or if we skip Orthros and just “show up” around the start of the Liturgy. By such neglect, we simply don’t give our souls the opportunity to quiet down a bit and begin to incline themselves toward God in peace.

What is the whole point of trying to establish this inner quiet? Is it not to help us perceive the presence of God within us and come to know Him?

The question of how it is that people can know God was once put to St. Gregory Palamas. Others suggested that it was through a detailed and life-long study of religious and philosophical writings that one could come to know God. St. Gregory said, no, but it is through acquiring stillness of heart and pure prayer that a soul can experience God and thus begin to know Him.

Imagine someone who is the world authority on Abraham Lincoln. Over the course of his long career, he has studied every scrap of information in existence on the 16th President. At the end of all this learning, what is he likely to conclude except, “I wish I had known the man”. You see, studying and learning about some person, even to the point of becoming an authoritative expert, is not the same thing as actually knowing that person. There are plenty of theologians today who demonstrate that sad truth. And when it comes to God, it’s not how much we know about Him, but whether or not we really know Him that decides eternal life, for Jesus said, “And this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent”.

Thus the Church puts before us the memory of St. Gregory Palamas today to remind us of what we are supposed to be doing during Great Lent. Why is it that the Church directs us during this holy season to pray more, to come to more services, to pray some more, to fast and give alms, and to pray yet some more? Is it not because our Mother the Church wants to present Her children with at least the opportunity to begin to know God?

Our Lenten services in particular are very quiet, reflective, and penitential. We are even asked to come and leave in silence; though often once out the door we fall back into our old habits of noisiness and empty chatter. Perhaps after socializing outside we then hop in our cars and crank on the radio, and any little residue of spiritual peace that may have formed during the service soon vanishes. It could be that we simply aren’t yet aware of the rare and precious opportunity that we are being given to change ourselves internally.

During Great Lent, our Church increases Her efforts to help us find a certain inner quiet so that we might draw closer to the God who dwells there, commune with Him, and come to better know Him. We can’t get much out of Lent by accident; unless we intentionally adopt this period as a time of change, a time of greater repentance, deeper devotion, and more attentive prayer with fewer distractions, we won’t get from it what we could. We have certainly all seen how quickly Lent can pass. Let us try to take advantage of it while it is still here. In addition to the few simple things I’ve already suggested, each of us can also talk to our pastor to get his counsel on what else we might be able to do to create a little time of spiritual quiet in our lives.

Through the prayers of St. Gregory Palamas, may our Lenten efforts be blessed that we too may find the inner quiet that leads us unto the saving knowledge of our God.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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