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

Whenever the name “Saint Gregory Palamas” comes up in discussion with lay people, the first reaction is “which Gregory do you mean – there seem to be so many in the Church?”

 

St. Gregory Palamas, to whom the second Sunday of Lent is dedicated, defended thy mysticism of the Eastern Church against the rationalism of the Western Church of his day. In Gregory Palamas’ mind, nothing is more important than a ceaseless stream of prayer mounting upward to God: “Man ought always to pray,” said Jesus, “and not lose heart.”

 

Gregory Palamas was born in 1292 AD in Constantinople. His father was a member of the senate and a close advisor to the emperor of Constantinople. His mother died when he was seven years old, and he became a ward of the emperor along with his brothers and sister. The highest offices of the land were open to him. He studied deeply, especially the works of Aristotle. At the age of twenty, he went to Mount Athos and Mount Athos to live and meditate in mountainous caves and returned after ten years. He was recognized as a spiritual leader, devoted to the Mother God Mary and Christ. During this period, began to write his homilies on the light of the Transfiguration, which brought him to the forefront of the doctrinal battles.

 

In the early part of the 14th century, a prayer known as the Hesychast Prayer was the medium certain monks on Mount Athos used to try to have the mystical encounter/real unity with God. The Hesychast monks soon came under attach, first for the prayer method and secondly for “heresy” in the hope of what they wished to attain.

 

The Hesychast Prayer consisted of being in a disciplined body position and reciting the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner”. The monks who practiced this prayer claimed to see the Divine Uncreated Light which was seen by the holy apostles Peter, James and John, when they witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor, in the presence of Moses and Elijah.

 

A monk named Barlaam went to Thessalonica and Mount Athos where he came into contact with the Hesychast monks. Barlaam was of Greek Descent, but educated in the Western Church and influenced by humanism. He found the Hesychasts claims to be at odds with the scholastic theology that he was grounded in. He began assailing them with arguments and ridicule. He argued that God could not be known or experienced directly, only indirectly. Therefore, he maintained Hesychasm was a heresy, which proposed that one could experience the knowing of God in this life. He ridiculed the Hesychast prayer method and accused the Mount Athos monks of being “navel gazers”; this way his impression of their disciplined body posture. Barlaam had a following of monks who disagreed with Hesychasts, and one of them sent some of Barlaam’s writing to St. Gregory Palamas.

 

Essence and energy

St. Gregory restated what the early Church Fathers and defined in the 4th century. Man in this world as he really is, cannot see God’s essence. But God can be known or experienced is His essence. But the activities of God which can be experienced are know as His energies. St. Gregory used the sun and its rays as a metaphor of this distinction. The solar disc is compared with God in His essence, and the rays of the sun are compared to His energies.

 

When Jesus was transfigured with Moses and Elijah, Peter, John and James saw an indescribable light around them – that light was the energy of God. Barlaam claimed that the light they saw was created light, like the rays of the natural sun, and not God’s Uncreated light; that is to say, a light from God Himself. St. Gregory Palamas claimed it was God’s Uncreated Light, from God Himself; the same Light which Moses saw, the same Light Saint Stephen the first Martyr saw as he was stoned to death, the Light that Saint Paul saw on the road to Tarsus, when he was converted, and the very same light from which the saints came to know God through His divine energies.

 

Since God is thought of as light, the experience of God’s energies takes the form of light. If man can participate in God’s Uncreated Light, through His divine energies, then he can work more diligently on his salvation. The Holy Spirit conveys the Uncreated Light, through the divine energies.

 

United through Divine Energy

 

The Orthodox Church accepted the patristic thinking, first stated in the fourth century by the Church Fathers, and later clearly defined by Gregory Palamas, affirmed the man can encounter, experience, and be united with God through his divine energies. However, man must go through a process of prayer and meditation.

 

Gregory Palamas in his writings shows that the Christian God is neither the “unknown God” nor “the unapproachable God”, but a living God who reveals Himself in action.

 

This revelation is granted through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Gregory of Palamas was the last of the Fathers of the church. Nine years after his death, he was canonized and proclaimed “the greatest of the Fathers of the church” at a Church Council in Constantinople.

 
 

The Second Sunday of Lent is celebrated as the feast of Saint Gregory Palamas, the Archbishop of Thessaloniki in the fourteenth century. Like the restoration of the Holy Icons, this memorial has to do with historical events, but also relates to our understanding of the Christian vocation, and the possibility for every Christian to achieve genuine holiness. Saint Gregory taught that all a great master of the monastic life, but he teaches that this invitation to union with God is open to every Christian. This is the challenge of Lent, but which also faces us year round. It is the challenge of monasticism, but not just for the monks and nuns.

 

Pope John Paul II expresses it very well in Orientale Luman: “… in the East, monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized… it was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity” (§ 9c).

 

Saint Gregory Palamas has enjoyed an increasing popularity in the last fifty years or so, His spiritual theology is not absolutely binding, but he is an important and influential figure in patristic spirituality. At one time, his ideas were controversial and his memorial was removed from Catholic liturgical books. However, with recent studies of Saint Gregory and a deeper appreciation of the Christian East, the Holy See of Rome restored his memorial on the Second Sunday of Lent in the Anthologion published by the Oriental Congregation in 1974. The full liturgical service of Saint Gregory is also contained in the Lenten Triodion published by the Sisters of Saint Basil, Uniontown, PA. A renewed interest in his life of asceticism will help us all to an increased understanding of our spiritual and theological tradition, and the importance of monastic ideals, as we journey through the Great Fast toward the Glorious Resurrection.

 

The second Sunday of Great Lent is traditionally dedicated to Saint Gregory Palamas. Once again we are reassured, as we contemplate this man and reflect on his teachings, that we can indeed attain salvation and behold the “Light of Wisdom” by becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

 

Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) was a monk, archbishop and eminent theologian. He was also a major figure in fourteenth-century Byzantium. His greatest work, In Defense of Holy Hesychasts [commonly known as the Triads], was written between 1338-1341 as a response to the charges of Barlaam. Barlaam denied the legitimacy of the spiritual methods of Byzantine monastic groups known as hesychasts and discredited their claims to experience the divine presence. Hesychasm, a movement dating back to the Fathers of the desert, believed that since the body itself receives the grace of sacraments and the pledge of final resurrection it would properly have a share in “pure prayer”. They believed that God is accessible to personal experience because He shared His own live with humanity. It is from this tradition that we have the famous “Jesus Prayer”: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

 

Saint Gregory clearly teaches that, by cooperating with God who makes all things possible, we can attain eternal life. Thus, our Lenten efforts are confirmed, our resolve is strengthened, our frustrations at the end of the second week are overcome, and we are filled once more with the light of hope.

 


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