Running with St. Gregory Palamas
I do not run. I have friends who do, and they tell me the just love it. Imagine that!
They say anyone can do it. If you begin slowly, walking daily, then briskly walking, jogging and eventually sprinting throughout your jog, anyone can learn to run. It takes discipline and dedication. What interests me, however, is the fact that my friends tell me that when they begin to run regularly, they become quite addicted to the feeling they get when they do. When they don’t run, they miss it, and they even begin to dream of running, planning everything in their schedule around their run. They simply love the feeling. It’s a type of euphoria that they experience when they reach their peak speed and begin to coast along. Something carries them and this, they say, makes it all worth the effort.
Now, I do not run; but I pray…and I get it.
Matthew 17:2-4 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
Anyone can do it. You can begin slowly, in the Church perhaps, or even in your car on the way to work, or at home, reading spiritual material, praying verbal prayers such as the Jesus Prayer, or the Rule of the Theotokos (the Rosary), meditating on a mystery or two, or even on a single word. Once you do this for some time, you will find yourself sitting in silence contemplating the fact that He is there, and that you are looking at Him as He is looking at you, and it will become quite addictive. Soon you’ll miss prayer if you don’t make time for it. You’ll pray in your sleep (yes, you will!) and you’ll begin to plan everything else around your prayer time. The euphoric feeling, the sudden understanding of truths, the utter peace begins to carry you along and makes it all worth the time and effort and the grace of God will overwhelm your soul and you will say, “Lord, how good it is that we are here!”
The Church dedicates the second Sunday of the Great Fast to St. Gregory Palamas. He was born in the year A.D. 1296 and, at the age of 20, went to Mount Athos to enter the novitiate. After a few years, he entered a new monastery where the elders began to teach him about the use of mental prayer, a type of quiet contemplation, after a school of thought known as hesychasm. St. Gregory became quite fond of this type of prayer, and made it an essential part of his life. In 1326, St. Gregory fled to Thessolonika to escape the Turks and was there ordained to the priesthood, serving his community while continuing his practice of mental prayer. Monday through Friday were spent in silence and prayer as a hermit, and only on Saturday and Sunday did Father Gregory minister to his people. During this time, he was also able to establish a community of monks who practiced this same type of prayer. In 1330, a monk named Barlaam arrived from Calabria in Italy. He was quite well educated and was well known as an eloquent orator, but also as a serious critic of hesychasm. Barlaam asserted that the essence of God was unable to be understood and that mental prayer was pure heresy. He engaged the monks in countless disputes and attempted to explain the white light of Christ’s Transfiguration as a physical, not a mystical event. St. Gregory attempted to address Barlaam verbally in debate, but found it more successful to put his defense into writing and wrote Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts. In 1341, at the Hagia Sophia Cathedral during the Constantinople Council, St. Gregory formally debated Barlaam. Gregory proposed that while the essence of God was unable to be known, God reveals Himself to us by way of His energies, an example of which is the light seen on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration. These energies are not material in nature (physical), nor are they created like the light of the sun, but are part of God Himself. And yet by God’s will, these energies are able to be contemplated by man. On May 27, 1341, the Council accepted St. Gregory’s position and condemned Barlaam as a heretic, after which he fled back home to Calabria.
One would think that the battle was won and all would be well. This was not so. A Bulgarian monk named Akyndinos, along with several other patriarchs, refused to understand St. Gregory’s point and had him locked in prison for a while; eventually he was freed. Although St. Gregory Palamas was canonized a saint in our Church, and his defense of hesychasm has become the focal point of this Sunday’s message, there are many who, even today, fail to understand the nature of mental prayer and even refuse to believe that such a thing exists. Carmelite spirituality is based on the charism of mental prayer, its motto being “to know God so that He may be known”. The order originates from those who model their prayer lives after Elijah, when God appeared to him on Mount Carmel, in a still whisper.
1 Kings 19:11-14 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper, And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” That low whisper was God; not the strong wind, not the earthquake, not the fire.
Sometimes, because God speaks to us in exactly this type of whisper, it is nearly impossible for us to hear Him unless we try. Everything competes for our attention. This is the plan of the enemy.
Matthew 6:6 But 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.
Why do you think Christ gave us this directive? When you go into your room and shut the door, you leave the distractions of the world outside.
Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
Once again, such stillness takes practice, persistence, and patience. Yet the rewards are great. Soon, you will incorporate your dialogue with God into everything and practice it everywhere you can.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 … pray without ceasing
Colossians 4:2 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
During this time of the Fast, our Holy Mother Church knew that we would begin to grow weary and reconsider our commitment to fasting, alms-giving, and prayer. Last week, we were encouraged to look to the icons for education and support. This week, we are encouraged to look to deep contemplative prayer for help. The Church encourages us to try to discover the energies of God as He reveals Himself to us. We need not be afraid of heresy when we try. St. Gregory taught his monks to sit alone in silence, with their heads down, and their eyes closed, waiting for God to reveal his light to them. We can try it too. Once we see this light with the eyes of our soul, we will never be the same. We will have gotten one step closer to the goal that God has for us of total union with Him and we will know “how good is that we are here!”