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2nd Sunday of the Great Fast - St. Gregory Palamas


By John McMahon

One of the great gifts granted us at our creation is that of language. Often, though, we contemplate language only in its final activity of communication, and study only the lower orders of that activity. We usually neglect to our impoverishment the end or final goal of communication, language as an act of love, and the highest form of that act of love, ‘on target praise’ or orthodoxy

There are, however, prior activities of language. We can see these activities as works of creation, the image and likeness of the creative activity of the eternal Word. Like Adam we name the animals. We discover, investigate and structure. We do this in poetry fiction, science, philosophy, and theology. When we think at our best, we create languages.

While particular languages are idiomatically helpful, as Latin based languages have been in traditional science, we can become prisoners of a language we deify. We become like our idol, having eyes and seeing not. A number of contemporary biologists and physicists have found the mechanistic imagery of nineteenth century science binding and deadening and are looking for new eyes and a new tongue.

Theologies too have this problem of idolized and petrified language. I do not have in mind here the empty categories and slogans of ecclesiology nor the canonized hypotheses of those exegetes for whom the only true Gospel is that according to Q. It’s that the first things theology must do are the identification, examination and ‘rationalization’ of the phenomena of the Holy Spirit. Theology works from experience. Right here we are in trouble. We are examining our experience of the infinite with finite tools (not to mention that we are speaking of the Holy with unclean lips). What is more “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself”. It is a bit like the physicist trying to examine a subatomic particle that changes through being observed. But beyond the near impossibilities of our endeavor (fortunately it is also the case that “I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel”) life is further complicated by a dependence individual theologians have upon the philosophers they use to aid their work. Thus the adherence to a god that is unique, uniquely simple, transcendent and timelessly eternal, and is the unmoved-mover precludes a triune God who both reveals himself and who acts in history This adherence, however, has been eminently useful for ‘true praise’ in the Christological controversies, past and present. When Gibbon sneered at the blood shed over a single diphthong , he not only missed the boat, he didn’t understand the nature of the journey

The point of all this is that one of the experiences theologians try to deal with is the Light of God. There are two major events in scripture that have drawn the attention of Christians, the type in Exodus and the archetype in the gospels.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. ... And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; the people of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone; and Moses would put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him. And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.”


We find the Transfiguration experience echoed in the prologue to the Gospel of John and in the First & Second Epistles of Peter with their emphases on light and glory. (‘Glory’ is often a parallelism or synonym for ‘light’.)


John— He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Lumen de Lumine

Peter— So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. .. .For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory~ “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.


For many of the Fathers of the church this light reflected by Moses and cast by Jesus was understood to be a light neither physical nor intellectual but to be of the very nature of God, uncreated and eternal. Moreover this light is the way God not only communicates himself to man but unites man to God and makes man to participate in God’s nature.


Peter, again—His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may ... become partakers of the divine nature.


The concept of an uncreated light that belongs to the nature of God and, worse, has been seen by individual mortal men is, of course, a great scandal to many theologians. It seems to them to reek of primitivism and to attack the simplicity and transcendence of God. Peter’s proclamation that we are to become partakers of the divine nature would be scorned were it not, unfortunately, New Testament scripture (even if only part of one of those ‘epistles of straw’). I do not exaggerate. The sense of outrage these concepts have produced in certain minor theologians can be bemusing. I suspect that angels are sometimes entertained by seeing numbers of theologians dancing on the head of a pin. But for the most part, theological controversy is not based upon someone having a nifty idea and someone else disdaining it, but upon passionate explication of genuine experience. (Thus the dictum lex orandi lex credendi.) And there is a continuity of an experience of the divine light which goes far beyond a ‘poetic’ description of religious emotion. This experience crosses denominational lines. It ranges from St. Seraphim of Sarov, “the Russian St. Francis” to Jonathan Edwards, the New England Puritan divine.

Jonathan Edwards, who is unfortunately known to the man on the street only for his atypical Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God rather than for his gentle and humane corpus, wrote in his Personal Narrative: 


Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place,... I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God...I have, many times, had a sense of the glory of the Third Person in the Trinity, in his office of Sanctifier; in his holy operations, communicating divine light and life to the soul. God in the communications of his holy spirit, has appeared as an infinite fountain of divine glory and sweetness; being full and sufficient to fill and satisfy the soul pouring forth itself in sweet communications; like the sun in its great glory, sweetly and pleasantly diffusing light and life.


And in his sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light: 


Hence, what I would make the subject of my present discourse, from these words, is this doctrine that there is such a thing as a spiritual and divine light, immediately imparted to the soul by God, of a different nature from any that is obtained by natural means. And on this subject I would, I. Show what this divine light is. II. How it is given immediately by God, and not obtained by natural means. III. Show the truth of the doctrine. And then conclude with a brief improvement. ..[II] When it is said that this light is given immediately by God, and not obtained by natural means, hereby is intended, that it is given by God without making use of any means that operate by their own power or natural force ... There are not truly any secondary causes of it... [III] This light is such as effectual influences the inclination, and changes the nature of the soul. It assimilates our nature to the divine nature, and changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld. 2 Cor. iii. 18. “But we all with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”


St. Seraphim of Sarov [July 19, 1759 - January 2, 1833. canonized 1903] had healed a young nobleman Nicholas Motovilov who then became one of his most ardent disciples. He recorded an encounter he had with the saint: “How then,” I asked Father Seraphim, “am I to know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit?” Father Seraphim replied: “I have already told you, my son, that it is very simple and have in detail narrated to you how men dwell in the Spirit of God and how one must apprehend His appearance in us. What then do you need?” “My need,” said I, “is to understand this well!” Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both together, son, in the Spirit of God! Why lookest thou not on me?” I replied: “I cannot look, father, because lightning flashes from your eyes.

Luiuien de Lumine 

Your face is brighter than the sun and my eyes ache in pain!” Father Seraphim said: “Fear not, my son; you too have become as bright as I. You too are now in the fullness of God’s Spirit; otherwise you would not be able to look on me as I am.”


Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear:


“Give thanks to the Lord God for His ineffable mercy! You have seen that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself; Lord, vouchsafe to him to see clearly with bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou vouchsafest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy marvellous glory. And see, my son, the Lord has fulfilled in a trice the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. Surely we must give thanks to Him for this ineffable gift to us both! Not always, my son, even to the great hermits, does the Lord God show His mercy See, the grace of God has come to comfort your contrite heart, as a loving mother, at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. Come, son, why do you not look me in the eyes? Just look and fear not! The Lord is with us!” 


After these words I looked in his face and there came over me an even greater reverential awe. Imagine in the centre of the sun, in the dazzling brilliance of his midday rays, the face of the man who talks with you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone grasp your shoulders; yet you do not see the hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading several yards around and throwing a sparkling radiance across the snow blanket on the glade and into the snowflakes which besprinkled the great elder and me. Can one imagine the state in which I then found myself?


What then is the nature of this Transfiguration experience? How can a theologian respect the witness both of scripture and of individuals throughout the Christian age and still do justice to a philosophical tradition that has nourished and served him in his work and life? When we approach the work of theologians, if an attitude of critical reserve is appropriate, so too is one of humility and docility for we must keep in mind not only the difficulties of societal and ecclesiastical crisis they faced but the courage and genius they often brought to their work.


In the first part of the fourteenth century Barlaam, a Greek monk from Calabria, shocked the entire Orthodox world. In his attack on the hesychast tradition of prayer and mystical experience (best known to the West through literature on the ‘Jesus prayer’), he not only ridiculed the practice of the hesychasts but denied the validity of their experiences of an uncreated light. He went so far, since the essence of God is unknowable, as to describe the Transfiguration light as a creation belonging to the sensible world and lower than the world of the intellect. Thus, if you and I were at Mount Tabor, we might not have seen Moses and Elijah but we would have seen the light coming from Jesus. (Raphael in his extraordinary painting, the Transfiguration, presents us with a more orthodox view. Of all the crowd at the foot of the mount only one sees the events above, the struggling, possessed boy who with apprehension and hope looks up at Jesus.)


Barlaam’s challenge was taken up by an extraordinary theologian St. Gregory Palamas. Palamas defended and developed the tradition of the energies of God. (One must mention here the distinction between two ways of theology, the cataphatic or positive way and the apophatic or negative way The resolution of these two opposites or antinomies, impossible to man, is found in God. The cataphatic way is somewhat more comfortable to western theologians, the apophatic way to eastern theologians.)


Like all theological antinomies—like that of unity and trinity, which postulates a distinction between nature and persons—the antinomy of the two ways discloses to our spirit a mysterious distinction in God’s very being. This is the distinction between essence and divine operations or energies.


Holy Scripture as well as liturgical chants and all of patristic literature abounds in expressions relating to the divine light, to the glory of God, to God Himself, named “light.” Should we see in this only metaphors, only figures of speech? Or is this light a true aspect of God, a reality of the mystical order?


“God is called light not according to His essence, but according to His energy,” says Palamas. If the energies which manifest the nature of God are called light, this is not only by analogy with the material light (energy propagating itself from a luminous body, for example, from the solar disk); the divine light, for St. Gregory Palamas, is a datum of mystical experience.

Lumen de Lumine

It is the visible character of the divinity, of the energies in which God communicates Himself and reveals Himself to those who have purified their hearts.... Being the light of the divinity, grace cannot remain hidden or unnoticed; acting in man, changing his nature, entering into a more and more intimate union with him, the divine energies become increasingly perceptible, revealing to man the face of the living God, “the Kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1).


This divine experience, says Palamas, is given to each according to his measure and can be more or less profound, depending on the worthiness of those who experience it.

The uncreated light, then, is an aspect of the eternal God through which he reveals himself to us and makes us part of his nature. But what can all this have to do with us, quite ordinary folk living in a quite ordinary time, i.e. very busy and rather sinful people who are not monks getting by in a time without miracles? Yet this writer knows personally individuals who have seen light brighter than the lights in the room should allow at Easter vigils, in AA meetings, or in the faces of others. These individuals are shy about discussing this perception and somewhat skeptical of its import but reasonably sure of its reality. Perhaps we should contemplate those icons of the Nativity in which we see two distinct groups of individuals, one, the wise men travelling a great distance with considerable difficulty and following a remote star, and, the other, the shepherds, ordinary folk caught by surprise and surrounded by light, glory and music.





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