Second Sunday of Great Lent – St Gregory Palamas
Fr Andrew Gliga
One of the most important attributes sought out in someone's professional career is experience. We see that in order to get a job at a company one needs to have some sort of experience in that field. And when someone has a lot of experience in a given field, they are sought out much more from all the big companies. This makes sense, especially since those people with experience have had a first hand view of both failures and success, and they know exactly what they need to do in order to succeed in their given profession. School can bring some preparation to that, but studying in books is not the same as actually experiencing something firsthand. This is also true from the Church; our faith is an experiential faith, one that we have to live out to the fullest.
I want to start off with a story: There was a child who was somewhat illiterate and could not learn his lessons and keep up with his classmates. His father, Constantine, after several unsuccessful attempts for the child to learn properly, finally told him that every morning before going to school he would do three prostrations in front of the icon of the Mother of God and ask her aid to help him at school.
When the child was doing this, he would soon become the “first student” in the class. When he had forgotten to do the prostrations before the icon of the Mother of God, he was again the “last”. Thus, in addition to a great culture, the young child acquired very great piety towards the Mother of God. This experience grounds him in the faith and begins to transform his life. Unfortunately, while still young, his father dies, and the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaiologos took him under his protection and had high hopes that the young man would serve at his courtyard. However, he would be tonsured as a monk at barely 20 years of age on Holy Mountain of Athos and at the Monastery of Vatopedi under the leadership of Saint Nicodemus the Hesychast.
This child grew up to be St. Gregory Palamas who we commemorate today. St. Gregory lived in the 14th century. During that time, another monk named Barlaam began to say that the monks on Mount Athos were wasting time in prayer, since God is unknowable. He said that instead the monks should be focusing on studying about God. A council was convened in Constantinople in 1341 where St. Gerogry refuted Barlaam. Part of St Gregory's rebuttal was that he had lived the life of hesychasm (or stillness), and in that experience, he was able to see the uncreated light of God. This was also attested by other monks on Mount Athos who lived in constant prayer and hesychasm. This is what they had seen and felt, there was no denying that he had participated with the living God.
This great experience that Gregory had since his childhood cannot be explained in a book, it cannot be philosophized, it cannot be rationalized. It has to be lived. It has to be lived out. Someone who reads about saints in a book might have some understanding of what the saints went through, but until those people actually try to live out like the saints did, they really have no idea the struggles and hardships one has to endure in order to become sanctified. And these stories about saints are given to us as a model of how we should live out our life.
So for us today: I say as we are in the midst of Great Lent: if you have not gone through the experience of fasting or attending all the services, I urge you to do so. Living Great Lent to the fullest is unique and life changing. Once you go through the rigors of Great Lent, you truely come out a different person than before. Just as St Gregory Palamas experienced the uncreated light of God and was transformed, we too will be changed by participating in Great Lent. Our faith is not a philosophy; we don't just speak about it or theorize about what we should be doing. But rather it is something we live out and requires our complete participation. And this is the teaching of St. Gregory, that we experience God through fasting, through prayer, through repentance.
St Gregory Palamas says: "Let not one think, my fellow Christian, that only priests and monks need to pray without ceasing and not laymen No, no; every Christian without exception ought to dwell always in prayer.", so in the same token, do not think Great Lent services, prayers, and fasting are just for the Clergy, but they are for all of us, we all are called to participate as much as we can in them. And doing so, our lives will be transformed completely in Christ.