In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! The second Sunday of every Lent is dedicated to the memory of St. Gregory Palamas—Athonite monk, hesychast, theologian, defender of the Orthodox faith and way of life, and ultimately Archbishop of Thessaloniki. St. Gregory reposed in 1359, and was canonized in 1368. That’s only 9 years after his death. It’s almost unheard of for a Saint to be recognized that quickly after his repose. And not only was St. Gregory recognized very quickly to be a Saint, but his contributions and defense of Orthodoxy were considered to be so important that the commemoration on the Second Sunday of Lent was changed from St. Polycarp of Smyrna to St. Gregory Palamas, as a second Triumph of Orthodoxy. A Saint who’s held is such a high regard by the Church, who lives a life so wholly given to Christ, gives us so much to learn from. It’s worthwhile simply to learn about the life he led, his severe asceticism and prayer and dedication to God and a life without sin. In addition to his holy life, he also combated several heretical ideas and tendencies being taught by various people. In fact, when some of these false teachings began, St. Gregory was chosen by the communities on Mt. Athos to go into the world and offer correction. He lived a wonderfully holy life, he defended the Truth of the Faith, and as a priest and later a Bishop he taught people how to live a Christian life. And it’s from the well of his teaching on prayer that we’ll draw a little this morning. Most of St. Gregory’s teachings—his dogmatic treatise, and his homilies alike—most of what he writes deals in some way with prayer. St. Gregory lived a life dedicated to prayer while a monk on Mt. Athos. For many years he struggled as a hermit, and the focus of his struggle (as was the struggle for all the Saints) was pure prayer. To offer himself totally to Christ, and to commune with God in his very being. To live the promise of Christ—the Kingdom of Heaven is within you. And as he moves away from his own will, and as he moves closer to living totally in God, he’s granted the gift of unceasing prayer and communion with Christ. As Christians we’re called to always be in prayer, and to pray within the closed closet of our own hearts. To constantly be in communion with Christ. And St. Gregory is given the grace to do this. And so he brings his dedication to solitude, to time alone with God in prayer, he brings this lifestyle with him wherever he goes. You know the desert Fathers say that you can take the desert with you wherever you go. You can be alone with God in prayer even in the midst of a crowd in the city. It’s what’s going on in the closet our heart. When St. Gregory’s in the city fighting the heretics, he’s all the time in prayer. As the abbot of one of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, he’s all the time in prayer. Even as the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, he spends the majority of his time in a little hermitage outside of town, living as a simple monk in prayer. So we’re not going hear a word about prayer from a learn-ed theologian or professor or philosopher or licensed prayer expert. We’re going to hear teachings on prayer from one who prayed. From one who shared in the experiences of the Apostles and the Saints while in this life, and was generous enough to share those experiences with the rest of us. So, from St. Gregory Palamas, very briefly, a few points on prayer to help us this Great Lent. One of the conversations that St. Gregory was forced to get involved in and to defend the ancient teachings of the Christian Church in was a discussion that’s very relevant today. In the 14th century the question wasn’t really “is there a God?” but “can man know God?” And if he can, “how much—generally or personally?” And if personally, “how would man know God?” Prevalent ideas in Greece at this time were very similar to what we see today—pantheism (everything is God, so God is fully revealed and known in the created world); agnosticism (man can’t know if there’s a God so he certainly can’t have a relationship with what He doesn’t know). And then there was the Christian teaching, that God was real, a person who was partially seen in His creation, but more fully known in the context of relationship, especially through prayer. And it’s this Christian teaching that St. Gregory has to leave his solitude on the Holy Mountain to defend. There was an Italian priest, Barlaam, who came to Thessaloniki as a university professor and taught about man’s knowledge of God. Barlaam taught that our soul’s relationship with our body inhibited any experiential relationship with God. He was basically influenced by Platonism, and thought that since our bodies were evil, in this life we kept from a real relationship with God by our evil flesh. So in Barlaam’s theology, reason reigned supreme. He actually taught that the modern philosophers and theologians were higher than the Prophets and the Apostles. He thought the revelations and the experiences of the Saints were tainted by the flesh, so they really didn’t know anything about God. God was unknowable in such a way, to Barlaam’s thinking, that man couldn’t have a relationship with Him. But the philosophers learned about God, and thought about God, and studied about truth and reality and God, and in doing this they gained real knowledge of God. These views also made him opposed to Traditional Orthodox teaching on prayer. Man couldn’t meet with God and commune with God in prayer, because God was totally other and unapproachable. So Barlaam ridiculed the monastics and their prayer lives (in essence rejecting the center of all Christian life, which is prayer) and encouraged all Christians to learn as much as they could by intellectual study. When word of Barlaam’s teachings reached Mt. Athos, the Fathers knew that the proper Orthodox position had to be put forth, and they chose St. Gregory Palamas to do so. St. Gregory offers correctives to these false teachings of Barlaam very easily. [The dispute with Barlaam is actually over more than we’ll talk about here, and goes on for several years, but this portion of the debate is fairly easily solved by St. Gregory.] From Genesis on, the entire received Tradition upholds the goodness of creation. Our bodies don’t hinder our relationship with God; it’s our sinful and worldly minds that keep us from God. So St. Gregory would teach that the way to genuine knowledge of God is by purifying our lives of sin. And entering a relationship based on prayer. St. Gregory will partially agree with Barlaam that education and reason are gifts of God that can be used wonderfully when used properly. But the human mind can’t conceive of God. What we know of God, the way we really have personal knowledge of God, is by God revealing Himself to us. Nothing we can learn can come close to this reality. The fullest source of understanding about anything, most especially God, is experience. And St. Gregory will say what all the Saints and the Scriptures say, to know and experience God the Christian must set out to follow the commandments of Christ. We must engage the ascetic life of the Church for the purpose of purifying our lives of all sin. And the Christian must pray. And so, with the pitiful arguments of Barlaam so easily brushed aside, St. Gregory offers us teaching on how to begin to pray. His life was dedicated to prayer, and he insists that our experience and relationship with God come primarily through prayer. So how do we begin to pray? In his teaching, St. Gregory is specifically referring to the Jesus Prayer and to the struggle to have unceasing remembrance of God, which is the goal of all Christians. But his guidance helps even those of us who aren’t there yet with our rules of morning and evening prayer. The first step is to find some hesychia—some stillness. In order to pray we have to step out of the hustle and bustle of daily life. We have to still our physical surroundings and then still our minds. So he suggests that we find a quiet place where we can pray undisturbed. And then we stand or sit in stillness and quiet, and use our surroundings to help still our minds. Many people will either close their eyes or have a single point of focus-like an icon, and as we relax our breathing will become slow and regular, and our minds will slow down and much more easily be able to focus on the prayer we’re preparing to say. Notice—we don’t just run to the icon corner and squeeze in a prayer—we have to dedicate the time to prepare ourselves to pray if we’re serious about this relationship with God that we’re pursuing. And again, this is for those of use who are beginning to learn to pray, to build a solid foundation for growth in prayer. So once we find some stillness in our surroundings and our mind, we can begin to recall our minds from scatteredness back to ourselves. We can begin to focus on ourselves—from the mouth of Christ and the Fathers we learn that our job is to see to our own souls salvation, and whatever else we need to be involved in will be directed by God. The Fathers call this reclaiming of the mind’s energy “bringing the mind into the heart.” In other words, all of the things we let control our lives—sin, situation, people—we take control back for our minds, or more specifically, for our nous. Nous is the theological and patristic term for the aspect of our soul that sees God. We’re created to know God, and this takes place with our nous. But our minds and our nous are so clouded by sin that it becomes very difficult to perceive God. So we work on purifying our lives of sin, and in prayer we struggle to re-orient, to return control of our lives from our passions to the nous. This is why True Prayer, as the saints describe is, is called noetic prayer. Prayer that perceives God. So we find stillness, we recall our scattered mind to focus on ourselves and on God, and then we begin to pray. And now we can pray with focus, with purpose. And every word that we pray can have an impact on our lives because we’re attentive to what we’re saying. St. Gregory particularly encourages us, in our time of stillness and recall and prayer, to spend some time in monologistic prayer. Saying the Jesus Prayer. Beginning to learn to call on the Name of Jesus for life and mercy, making the prayer a part of our lives. As we initially begin to pray, finding some stillness will take some time. Calming our minds and recalling them to ourselves will take some time. And effort. But with God’s grace and our persistent struggle, some of the first fruits of prayer will be that preparing ourselves for prayer becomes easier. It’s really a miracle and a gift of God that He puts people like St. Gregory Palamas on earth. Men and women who are totally dedicated, uncompromising in the life of the Gospels. And then from their lives in Christ they can offer us teaching, like this teaching on prayer from St. Gregory. Through the prayers of St. Gregory, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Here is a link to an amazing book you can read online about St. Gregory Palamas–St. Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos HIEROTHEOS

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