Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessalonika, is the first of three Orthodox saints commemorated on the Sundays of Lent. He is the latest of these three saints, living in the 14th century, a time of great upheaval in the Orthodox Church caught between the rising influence of the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church with its papal supremacy and insistence on certain false teachings (e.g., communion with unleavened bread, addition of the filioque clause to the Creed, and purgatory) and the threat of Muslim forces which eventually overwhelmed the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
This Second Sunday of Lent was originally dedicated to the Bishop-Martyr Polycarp of Smyrna (+156). Yet not long after St. Gregory's repose, this Sunday was dedicated to his memory, St. Gregory being exemplary for the genuine Orthodox faith and life perpetuated by the grace of the Holy Spirit from ancient times into the modern. When confronted with “modern,” contemporary challenges to the Faith, St. Gregory shows us how to identify error and to defend and confess this Faith authentically. Furthermore and most importantly, St. Gregory shows us how to practice an authentic Christian life so that what we believe translates directly into how we have communion with God, the ultimate goal of the Kingdom of God.
The theological error St. Gregory combatted – which persists to this day – was a system of Christian thought based on human philosophy. Known as scholasticism, this system exalted human reason as the method for obtaining truths about God and everything Christian; therefore, scholastics (lit., "schoolmen," scholars) were best suited to expound theology, and their knowledge of God was even greater than that of the Apostles and Prophets. Furthermore, the scholastics sought to liberate man's reasoning faculty (Gk., nous) from the body, considering the body an encumbrance and even harmful to pursuits of the soul. The scholastics denigrated the Orthodox practice of prayer of the heart and asceticism, claiming that the Orthodox experiences of the uncreated light were merely visions of created energies of God. So scholasticism was academic, speculative, and theoretical in nature, bound within the limits of creaturely reason and logic.
St. Gregory demonstrated that the Orthodox Faith is based on the experience of God's uncreated energies, which, like God’s uncreated essence are truly God, but unlike His very essence, are operations, or activities, of God given us for participation in the divine life of God: His light, grace, goodness, Kingdom, life, etc.
Thus the Orthodox Faith is based not on speculation about God, but on the same experience of God given to the Apostles and Prophets and all the saints through the ages. This experience of God is made possible in the Person of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, and shown to be true in such events as the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor in which Peter, James, and John were witnesses of the uncreated glory of Christ along with Moses and Elijah (see Matt. 17:1-9).
Thus the vision of God – knowledge of Him, life, and salvation – is not granted by human philosophy; instead, the vision of God is attained through purification from sin (which darkens our spiritual faculty), illumination through keeping the commandments of God (which enlightens our spiritual faculty), and finally communion, or union, with God in unbroken prayer and love.
To this end, St. Gregory above all else, practiced a life of hesychasm, that is, "quiet, or stillness" with God (Gk., hesychia). At the age of 20, St. Gregory entered the monastic life devoted to fasting, prayer, and vigil, remaining basically apart from social contact freed from the usual distractions of everyday existence. Even as a Priest he remained alone during the week and interacted with others in the Liturgy, at a meal, and in conversation only on the weekends. Highly intelligent, as evidenced in his writings and conferences with others, St. Gregory used his mental abilities to express in words only what he first encountered through direct experience in asceticism and prayer. The nous (reasoning/spiritual faculty) must descend into the heart which is purified through the grace of repentance before it can ascend to God and truly see the things of God without deception. The heart (and body directed by the heart) is the indispensable organ of spiritual perception, a fact confirmed by the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We consider these truths of faith and life on this Second Sunday of Lent, and St. Gregory Palamas is our guide. If we are to profit from this holy season of Lent which is a template for the entire Christian life, then we, too, must seek to purify our hearts through the stillness of fasting, vigil, and prayer, freeing ourselves from the unnecessary distractions of this world. We are to humbly and simply keep the commandments of God, especially those of repentance, love, and communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins and illumination of our souls and bodies in the uncreated operations of God’s Kingdom: His grace, His goodness, and His blessing.