Sermon delivered March 23, 2008.
Two weeks ago we talked about traveling to warmer climates and swimming in the water and we should swim in the fast of Great and Holy Lent. We travel south, not only for warmer waters but to experience warm sunshine too. Even in Minnesota, despite the latest snowstorm, we can feel the increasing warmth of the sun, if it shines, as we enter Spring, which started two days ago. When we stay out or lay out in the sun we can get a nice suntan or if too long, a sunburn. The ultraviolet rays of light activate the serotonin in our skin so it begins to darken. If we are not careful, the ultraviolet rays can burn and damage our skin too.
Today is the Second Sunday of Lent in which we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas the Archbishop of Thessalonike (his regular feast is November 14). He lived in the 14th century, became a monk and eventually the champion of Hesychasm. What is "hesychasm"? It comes from the Greek word hesychia meaning silence and solitude. The Hesychasts were the monks and nuns who regularly and frequently practiced silence as part of their prayer life. Their practice centered on the Prayer of the Heart and especially the Jesus Prayer. Many of these hesychasts talked about their direct experience of God through seeing His uncreated Light.
At that time, Barlaam, a monk from Calabria, won a great name for himself as a speculative thinker in Constantinople. When this refined humanist learned of the methods of prayer of some simple monks of his acquaintance, who allowed a place to the sensory element in spiritual life, he was scandalized. He took occasion to calumniate then and to accuse them of heresy. The Hesychast monks appealed to Gregory who then wrote several polemical treatises in which he answered the accusations of Barlaam by locating monastic spirituality in a dogmatic synthesis.
At the center of the argument was the belief that God is wholly transcendent from His creation and therefore unknowable. God’s own words to Moses on Mt. Sinai seem to emphasize this, “But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). The other issue of debate centered on how a person could come to know God. Barlaam was particularly fond of expounding the mystical writings of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, which he interpreted in an entirely philosophical way, making knowledge of God the object of cold reason and not of experience. St. Gregory took a different approach saying it was the heart, not the mind and intellect, that was the pathway not only to know about God but to know Him through direct contact.
The result of Gregory’s approach was to distinguish between the essence and energy of God. God’s essence is inaccessible and unknowable to the creation including human beings. However, mankind can come to know God and experience Him through His energies or grace that radiate from His essence. Returning to our discussion about the sun can help us understand what St. Gregory is talking about. Our sun is a star about 93 million miles away, it is utterly inaccessible to us. Even if we were able to travel to it, we would be burned up long before we go there. From earth, we cannot even look directly at the sun otherwise we would become blind. So, the sun itself is like God in His essence. St. Paul even says, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Yet, the ultraviolet rays that radiate from the sun are like God’s energies that touch us and change us. Even Moses’ face shined after seeing God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:29).
Why is this important for us today? Is it important to know the difference between God’s essence and energies? We are not monks, nor Hesychasts. However, we have much to learn from monastics that can be incorporated into our own life in order to grow closer to Christ. This was the basic premise of our Lenten Retreat yesterday and of our Friday Lenten lecture series. St. Gregory and the Hesychasts knew well the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). They probably experienced similar visions as the Apostles Peter, James and John did when Christ was Tranfigured before them on Mt. Tabor (Matthew 17:1-9). They understood why St. Stephanos the Archdeacon and Protomartyr, why his face shined as he defended the Faith in Christ (Acts 6:15).
We also can know God, we also can have a direct experience of Jesus Christ in order to know His great love and care for us. How can this happen for us? Our retreat speaker, the esteemed Dr. Kyriacos Markides, related yesterday the Three-Fold Way of the Orthodox Christian Tradition.
It begins with purification or katharsis, continues with illumination or photisis and ends with deification or theosis. The grace/energy of God’s grace in baptism can be activated through askesis including prayer, fasting and almsgiving. No wonder the Fathers of the Church placed the commemoration of St. Gregory Palamas within the period of Great and Holy Lent.
We who live in the world, not just those who live in monasteries, must practice the Prayer of the Heart. Praying regularly throughout the day the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner and cleanse me,” we can allow our mind to descend into our heart. Our heart is our moral and spiritual center, it is the throne of grace and the dwelling place of God. Jesus Himself said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke17:21). It is there where we find Him. However, at the same time, we must guard the door of our heart, to make sure that ungodly, sinful thoughts do not enter and pollute it. We need hesychia, quietness, stillness in order to be more aware of the insidious devices of the devil and his demons.
If we try to approach God without repentance and purity of heart, we will get sunburned. So, askesis can be likened to diligently applying sunscreen and watching the time spent in the sun. Learning spiritual askesis is why we are here. It is within the life of the Church where we continue to receive the grace/energies of God in the sacraments, especially Confession, Unction and Communion, and worship. It is here that the energy/grace of the Word of God enters our hearts and minds through the prayers, epistle, gospel and sermon. As it says in the Compline/Apodeipnon service, “May God’s face shine upon us and bless us and have mercy upon us.” May His face cause our faces to shine as well.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.