"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday, 15 March 2014

2nd SUNDAY OF LENT, celebrating the TRANSFIGURATION in the West and ST GREGORY PALAMAS in the East


The Mass opens with the introit of the Feast of the Transfiguration:
My heart said to You, I have sought Your countenance; I will seek Your countenance again, Lord. Do not turn Your face away from me. Ps. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom will I fear?

All that is most authentic in Christianity takes place in the heart: the heart of Jesus in which God meets humanity, and from which eminates a love that is both divine and human; the heart of Mary which embraced the newly conceived Jesus in faith and humble obedience, from which eminates a love for Jesus and for the whole of humankind, a love which is a reflection of Jesus' love as the moon reflects the light of the sun; and, finally, the heart of each one of us,,  a temple made for Christ to live in and whom we receive in Communion. The more we seek his face in our heart, the more his presence will transform us, the more Christ's Transfiguration will become our mystery as well as His.   We seek Him through PRAYER and LECTIO DIVINA.
“Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.” – St. Ephrem of Syria
Reading 1 GN 12:1-4A
The LORD said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”
 Abram went as the Lord directed him.

Sin has made it necessary, if we wish to receive a blessing, to detach ourselves from what we were in order to become what the Transfiguration wants us to be.   Hence, to be authentic, we need this time of Lent.  To become heirs of God's covenant with Abraham, we must answer God's command to  "Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you."   The paradox is that we must become detached from this world in order to learn to love it as Christ loves it.  The more we love this world as Christ loves it, the more Christ is present in this world in and through us, the more we and the world around us share in Christ's transfiguration by Grace.  However, we cannot share in the Transfiguration without detachment, or fully share in the Paschal feast without Lent.

The call and sending forth of Abraham became a metaphor for the monastic life.   People are called by God to leave the superficial life of the "world" to go on an interior journey to find their deepest centre, the "heart" where Christ dwells.  First, they are accepted into a community of those who are called, the only real reason why they are together, and are given the benefit of experience of the community and are supported on their quest in the spirit of Abraham.   The Irish monks went even further: many of them chose to go on actual, physical pilgrimage, separating themselves from their own beloved communities and lands to seek God in a strange land. 
In the Celtic monks of Ireland the geographical pilgrimage and inner journey were more closely linked than was often the case with other wandering monks on the continent. They saw three forms of pilgrimage. Firstly, a geographical pilgrimage in body only where the spirit remains unchanged. Secondly, an inner pilgrimage, where, though the spirit and soul journey towards God, the body remains physically stable. Thirdly, the perfect pilgrimage where a man leaves his country in both body and soul and journeys in search of the absolute, the very source of being. So the ideal for the Celtic monks was both the geographical pilgrimage and the inner journey. Their pilgrimage was not a pilgrimage to a shrine and afterwards to return home, no, their ideal was the man who "for his soul's welfare abandoned his homeland for good or at least for many years." (5) The Celtic monk who withdrew "from home and kindred, even from the larger religious community" (6) to pass his life, or a period of his life, in solitude became one of the most important aspects of Irish asceticism and one of its chief legacies to later ages. 
(Celtic Monks and Thomas Merton)
 Reading 2 2 TIM 1:8B-10 


Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
In the Gospel we are going to meet Christ manifesting his glory as Son of God, as God incarnate on Mount Tabor. It is the second of three theophanies in the synoptic gospels, the first being at his Baptism, and the third being his Crucifixion; and all three are inter-connected.   In fact, the first and second show us the true glory of the Crucifixion in which the faithfulness of Christ, constant to the shedding of the very last drop of his blood, manifests the faithfulness of his Father, and reveals the true Nature of the Tri-une God as self-emptying Love.   It is impossible in this world to portray the Crucifixion as glorious, even though, from God's perspective, it was: hence the need for the Baptism and Transfiguration theophanies.   Only in the Resurrection will we see the self-emptying Love of God as the source of all divine Power as Creator and Redeemer and the source of all eternal happiness.   It is also the source of all power and authority in the Church; but that will have to wait for another post.

To share in the self-emptying Love of God, the very life of the Blessed Trinity, involves us having to accept radical changes in our own lives.   Hence, in the second reading St Paul bids us: "Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God."   The hardship that comes from our striving to live in harmony with Christ who lives in us shall be borne with a strength that comes from Christ.  Our status as Christians is pure gift and is made manifest in Christ.

The Transfiguration: Law Through Moses,

Grace &Truth Through Jesus Christ 

This is an excerpt from a homily by St. Leo the Great (Sermo 51, 3-4, 8: PL 54, 310-311, 313) explaining the meaning of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor.  Saint Leo contrasts the law, symbolized by Moses, with the grace of the gospel brought by Jesus Christ, providing a great Lenten reading used in the Roman office of readings for the 2nd second Sunday in Lent, given that the gospel of the day is the Transfiguration.

The Lord reveals his glory in the presence of chosen witnesses. His body is like that of the rest of mankind, but he makes it shine with such splendor that his face becomes like the sun in glory, and his garments as white as snow.

The great reason for this transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples, and to prevent the humiliation of his voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that lay concealed.

With no less forethought he was also providing a firm foundation for the hope of holy Church. The whole body of Christ was to understand the kind of transformation that it would receive as his gift. the members of that body were to look forward to a share in that glory which first blazed out in Christ their head.

The Lord had himself spoken of this when he foretold the splendor of his coming: Then the just will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Saint Paul the apostle bore witness to this same truth when he said: I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not to be compared to the future glory that is to be revealed in us. In another place he says: You are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

This marvel of the transfiguration contains another lesson for the apostles, to strengthen them and lead them into the fullness of knowledge. Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, appeared with the Lord in conversation with him. This was in order to fulfil exactly, through the presence of these five men, the text which says: Before two or three witnesses every word is ratified. What word could be more firmly established, more securely based, than the word which is proclaimed by the trumpets of both old and new testaments, sounding in harmony, and by the utterances of ancient prophecy and the teaching of the Gospel, in full agreement with each other?

The writings of the two testaments support each other. The radiance of the transfiguration reveals clearly and unmistakably the one who had been promised by signs foretelling him under the veils of mystery. As Saint John says: The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. In him the promise made through the shadows of prophecy stands revealed, along with the full meaning of the precepts of the law. He is the one who teaches the truth of the prophecy through his presence, and makes obedience to the commandments possible through grace.

In the preaching of the holy Gospel all should receive a strengthening of their faith. No one should be ashamed of the cross of Christ, through which the world has been redeemed.

No one should fear to suffer for the sake of justice; no one should lose confidence in the reward that has been promised. The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death. Christ has taken on himself the whole weakness of our lowly human nature. If then we are steadfast in our faith in him and in our love for him, we win the victory that he has won, we receive what he has promised.

When it comes to obeying the commandments or enduring adversity, the words uttered by the Father should always echo in our ears: This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him.Amen.

Light for the World: the Life of St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359)
On the second Sunday of Great Lent, there is a great feast in the blessed city of Thessalonika, Greece. It is the feast of St. Gregory Palamas. On this day, the holy relics of the saint are taken from the Church of St. Gregory in a procession throughout the city, escorted by bishops, priests, sailors, policemen, and thousands of faithful. One wonders why his earthly remains are still held in such great veneration. How could his bones remain incorruptible more than six hundred years after his death? Indeed, St. Gregory’s life clearly explains these wondrous facts. It illustrates the inspired words of the apostles that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) and that we are "partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

A Childhood Passion for the Eternal

St. Gregory Palamas was born in the year 1296. He grew up in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in a critical time of political and religious unrest. Constantinople was slowly recovering from the devastating invasion of the Crusades. It was a city under attack from all sides. From the west, it was infiltrated by Western philosophies of rationalism and scholasticism and by many attempts at Latinization. From the east, it was threatened by Muslim Turkish military invaders. The peace and faith of its citizens were at stake.

Gregory’s family was wealthy. His father was a member of the senate. Upon his father’s sudden death, Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Paleologos (1282–1328), who was a close friend of the family, gave it his full financial support. He especially admired Gregory for his fine abilities and talents, hoping that the brilliant young man would one day become a fine assistant. However, instead of accepting a high office in the secular world, Gregory sought “that good part, which will not be taken away” from him (Luke 10:42).

Upon finishing his studies in Greek philosophy, rhetoric, poetry, and grammar, Gregory, at only twenty or twenty-two years of age, followed a burning passion in his heart. Like a lover who strives to stay alone forever with his loved one, Gregory was thirsty for this living water (see Revelation 22:17). Therefore, no created thing could separate him from the love of God (see Romans 8:39). He simply withdrew to Mount Athos, an already established community of monasticism. He first stayed at the Vatopedi Monastery, and then moved to the Great Lavra.

Gregory’s departure was not a surprise to the rest of his family. Many priests and monks, friends of the family, frequently visited the family home. The parents were careful to pass on to their children the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46). Great wealth and high education were not a hindrance, but an excellent tool in their pursuit of salvation. As a result of their way of life and belief, Gregory’s mother, two brothers, and two sisters soon distributed all their earthly possessions to the poor and entered different monasteries.

Living the Spiritual Experience of the Church

In Athos, the novice Gregory took as his spiritual guide St. Nicodemos of Vatopedi Monastery. This holy man of prayer guided Gregory on the path of ascetic labor: prayers, vigils, fasting, continuous repentance, and monastic obedience. The young novice Gregory was especially attached to the prayer of the heart, also known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (see Luke 18:38).

The experienced practice of the Jesus Prayer, requiring solitude and silence combined with physical exercises and breathing methods, is called "hesychasm" (from the Greek hesychos, meaning inner stillness, peace, or silence). Those practicing it are called "hesychasts." Inner silence of this kind makes us capable of listening to the whispers of the divine within us. "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). Therefore, the Jesus Prayer is the prayer of the whole person, involving the human body, mind, soul, and heart.

The hesychasts spoke and wrote about their unique experience. They taught people to pray without ceasing, as the Apostle Paul commands all Christians to do (1 Thessalonians 5:17). They explained that in prayer, man is filled from within with the eternal glory, with the divine light beheld at the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. The hesychast Gregory explains:

For, on the day of the Transfiguration, that Body, source of the light of grace, was not yet united with our bodies; it illuminated from outside those who worthily approached it, and sent the illumination into the soul by the intermediary of the physical eyes; but now, since it is mingled with us and exists in us, it illuminates the soul from within. (Triads I. 3.38)

The Jesus Prayer is not a mantra, as in Eastern religions, and it cannot be taken as such. The prayer’s call for “mercy” involves inner repentance and change. It is also a prayer practiced within the sacramental life of the Church, a prayer combined with Holy Communion, confession, reading the Word of God, fasting, loving one’s neighbor, and so forth. Finally, it is not a prayer using “vain repetitions” or babble, but a prayer recited again and again, in persistence (Luke 18:1), from the inner heart of man reaching the divine heights of glory, confessing Christ as the Lord and Savior, in sincerity, humility, and faith.

For that prayer (the Jesus Prayer) is true and perfect. It fills the soul with Divine grace and spiritual gifts. As chrism perfumes the jar the more strongly the tighter it is closed, so prayer, the more fast it is imprisoned in the heart, abounds the more in Divine grace. . . . By this prayer the dew of the Holy Spirit is brought down upon the heart, as Elijah brought down rain on Mount Carmel. This mental prayer reaches to the very throne of God and is preserved in golden vials. . . . This mental prayer is the light which illumines man's soul and inflames his heart with the fire of love of God. It is the chain linking God with man and man with God. (Palamas, “Homily on how all Christians in general must pray without ceasing,” in E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, Early Fathers of the Philokalia, London: Faber and Faber, 1981, pp. 412–415)

Such prayer was practiced from the early Christian period. The hesychasts were drawn by God's unconditional graceful love (Romans 5:15) to fill a certain human need around them. Many hesychasts abandoned their solitude to serve their brothers, “since he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:21). Some cared for the sick in hospitals, like St. Basil the Great in Caesarea; others helped the poor, like St. John the Almsgiver in Alexandria; and yet others welcomed the faithful for confession. Nevertheless, they did not abandon the Jesus Prayer and their inner silence. In this sense, all Christians are called to follow this hesychast way leading to salvation.

Let no one think, my brother Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no; it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer . . . every Christian in general should strive to pray always, and to pray without ceasing . . . this very name of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly invoked by you, will help you to overcome all difficulties, and in the course of time you will become used to this practice and will taste how sweet is the name of the Lord. . . . For when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, when we drink we can always pray mentally and practice this mental prayer—the true prayer pleasing to God. (“Homily on how all Christians in general must pray without ceasing”)

In addition to his spiritual practice and daily scriptural readings, St. Gregory studied the works of the great Fathers, theologians, and ascetics of the Church. Just as a scientist builds on the evidence and data provided to him by his predecessors, Gregory made a fascinating synthesis of the scriptural and patristic teaching on the prayer of the heart, combined with his personal experience.

Although the monk Gregory in his youth had diligently studied Greek philosophy, he was not influenced by its views on matter. Ancient Greek philosophy believes that the body imprisons the soul, and thus it detests matter. Christians respect the body, since Christ made the flesh a source of sanctification, and matter (water, oil, etc.) a channel of divine grace. In his writings, St. Gregory affirmed that man, united in body and soul, is sanctified by Jesus Christ, who took a human body at the Incarnation. “When God is said to have made man according to His image,” wrote St. Gregory, “the word man means neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself, but the two together.” In another place, he added:

Thus the Word of God took up His dwelling in the Theotokos in an inexpressible manner and proceeded from her, bearing flesh. He appeared upon the earth and lived among men, deifying our nature and granting us, after the words of the divine Apostle, “things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:12). (A Homily on the Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary)

Father Gregory, Teacher

His unquenched thirst for God’s sweetness experienced in prayer moved the righteous Gregory to live as a hermit in a cell outside the monastery. In the year 1326, the threat of Turkish invasions forced him, along with his Athonite brothers, to retreat to Thessalonika. There he was ordained to the holy priesthood.

As a priest, Gregory did not abandon his spiritual labor and hesychasm. He spent most of the week alone in prayer. On the weekends, he celebrated divine services and preached sermons. He cared for the youth, calling them to discuss religious issues with him. Father Gregory was not concerned about abstract problems of philosophy, but about Christian faith experienced in prayer. He wanted to preach solely about problems of Christian existence, which are more attractive and meaningful to the young.

Soon, many of his spiritual sons expressed their desire to live in a monastic setting. So in the serene area of Vereia, near Thessalonika, he established a small community of monks, which he guided for five years. In 1331 the saint withdrew to Mt. Athos and lived in solitude at the Skete of St. Sabbas. In 1333 he was appointed abbot of the Esphigmenou Monastery in the northern part of the Holy Mountain. In 1336 he returned to the Skete of St. Sabbas, where he devoted himself to theological writing, continuing with this work until the end of his life.

But amidst all this, in the 1330s events took place in the life of the Eastern Church that placed St. Gregory among the most prominent teachers of Orthodox spirituality.

The Challenge of Rationalism

Around the year 1330, a certain monk Barlaam arrived in Constantinople from Calabria, Italy. He was a famous scholar, a skilled orator, and an acclaimed Christian teacher. Barlaam visited Mt. Athos and became acquainted with hesychasm.

Barlaam valued education and learning much more than contemplative prayer. Therefore, he believed the monks on Mount Athos were wasting their time in contemplative prayer when they should be studying. He ridiculed the ascetic labor and life of the monks, their methods of prayer, and their teachings about the uncreated light experienced by the hesychasts. Countering the traditional stance of the Church that “the theologian is the one who prays,” Barlaam asked: “How can an intimate communion of man with the Divine be achievable through prayer, since the Divine is transcendent and ‘dwelling in unapproachable light’ (1 Timothy 5:16)? No one can apprehend the essential being of God!” Barlaam was convinced that God can be reached only through philosophical, mental knowledge—in other words, through rationalism.

The words of Barlaam were not merely a challenge to a few monks. They defied the experience of the Church as a whole. The West, with its rationalistic tendencies, has associated the image of God with man’s intellect. Barlaam’s mind was full of rational arguments, but his heart was cold. Certainly, life with God is not just information, but also experience. Our living God cannot be conceived and described only by study, but must be spoken about from experience. “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

Journeying from Mt. Athos to Thessalonika and Constantinople, Barlaam clashed with the monks, refusing to test their way of vigils, prayer, and fasting, or to accept their spiritual experience. Unfortunately, many monks were swayed by his arguments and stood by his side. Deceived by considering the living faith as mere rational knowledge, Barlaam waged a war against the ascetics.

At the request of the Athonite monks, St. Gregory countered at first with verbal admonitions. But seeing the futility of such efforts, he put his theological arguments in writing. Thus appeared the Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts in the year 1338.

The Presence of God in Prayer

In his Triads, Palamas interpreted the experience of the Church by presenting logical arguments, based on the Scripture and the writings of the Fathers. Addressing the question of how it is possible for humans to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God, he drew a distinction between knowing God in His essence, or nature, and knowing God in His energies, actions, or the means by which He acts.

To elaborate more, he made a comparison between God and the sun. The sun has its rays, God has His energies (among them, grace and light). By His energies, God creates, sustains, and governs the universe. By His energies, He transforms creation and deifies it, that is, He fills the new creation with His energies as water fills a sponge. These actions or energies of God are the true revelation of God Himself to humanity. So God is incomprehensible and unknowable in His nature or essence, but knowable in His energies. It is through His actions out of His love to the whole creation that God enters into a direct and immediate relationship with mankind, a personal confrontation between creature and Creator.

Towards the year 1340 the Athonite ascetics, with St. Gregory’s assistance, compiled a general reply to the attacks of Barlaam, the so-called Hagiorite Tome. Since the heated arguments flared everywhere in the churches, a general council was held at Constantinople in the year 1341. In front of hundreds of bishops and monastics, St. Gregory Palamas held an open debate with Barlaam in the halls of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia. On May 27, 1341, the council accepted the position of St. Gregory Palamas that God, unapproachable in His essence, reveals Himself through His energies, which are directed towards the world and are able to be perceived, like the light of Tabor, but which are neither material nor created. The teachings of Barlaam were condemned as heresy, and he himself was anathematized and returned to Calabria.

Second Triumph of Orthodoxy

But the dispute between the Palamites and the Barlaamites was far from finished. Politics came into play, and the politicians used the disputed religious issue as a threatening tool against those who supported Palamas. The great turmoil led to five consecutive church councils. One of the many scholars who advocated Barlaam’s position was the Bulgarian monk Akyndinos, who wrote a series of tracts against St. Gregory. Emperor Andronikos III Paleologos (1328–1341) was Akyndinos’s friend. Fearing the emperor, Patriarch John XIV Kalekos (1341–1347) backed Akyndinos, calling St. Gregory the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church (1344). He had St. Gregory locked up in prison for four years. In 1347, John XIV was replaced on the patriarchal throne by Isidore (1347–1349), a friend of St. Gregory. He set St. Gregory free and ordained him archbishop of Thessalonika.

In 1351, a sixth and final council was held to settle the heated controversial issues in the church. The Council of Blachernae solemnly upheld the orthodoxy of Palamas’ teachings and anathematized and excommunicated those who refused them. The anathemas of the council of 1351 were included in the rite for the Sunday of Orthodoxy in the Triodion. This council was considered the second triumph of Orthodoxy (the first being the restoration of icons). Later on, the memory of St. Gregory Palamas came to be celebrated in the Church on the second Sunday of Great Lent.

Imprisoned by Muslims

Gregory’s suffering for Christ did not end here. Again, because of the political influence of the West in Thessalonika, its citizens were divided upon the issue proclaimed by the councils. They did not immediately accept St. Gregory as archbishop, so that he was compelled to live in various places. On one of his travels to Constantinople, the Byzantine ship on which he was sailing fell into the hands of the Turkish Muslims. They took Archbishop Gregory as a prisoner, but displayed tolerance toward him. Even in captivity, St. Gregory preached to Christian prisoners and even held many debates with his Moslem captors. His love and respect for all men made his captors admire him and treat him with reverence. A year later, St. Gregory was ransomed and returned to Thessalonika.

The Proclamation of His Sainthood

St. Gregory was a living Gospel. God gave him the gift of healing, especially in the last three years before his death. On the eve of his repose, St. John Chrysostom appeared to him in a vision. St. Gregory Palamas fell asleep in the Lord on November 14, 1359. The Virgin Mary, the Apostle John, St. Dimitrios, St. Antony the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and angels of God all appeared to him at different times. Nine years after his repose, a council in Constantinople headed by Patriarch Philotheos (1354–1355, 1362–1376) proclaimed the sainthood of Gregory Palamas. Patriarch Philotheos himself compiled the life and services for the saint.

When we hear in the Lenten Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, “The Light of Christ illumines all,” may we remember the call of the illumined Gregory for unceasing prayer and ascetic labor, that we be truly illumined by the light of the Resurrection.

This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 27 No. 1

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