Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas

Introduction

On the Second Sunday of Lent the Orthodox Church commemorates our Holy Father Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, the Wonderworker. The feast day of Saint Gregory Palamas is November 14, however, he is commemorated on this Sunday as the condemnation of his enemies and the vindication of his teachings by the Church in the 14th century was acclaimed as a second triumph of Orthodoxy.

Life of the Saint

Our holy Father Gregory was born in Constantinople in 1296 of aristocratic parents who had emigrated from Asia Minor in the face of the Turkish invasion, and were attached to the court of the pious Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282-1328). Despite his official duties, Gregory's father led a life of fervent prayer. Sometimes as he sat in the Senate, he would be so deep in prayer as to be unaware of the Emperor addressing him. While Gregory was still young, his father died after being clothed in the monastic habit; and his mother for her part wanted to take the veil, but delayed doing so in order to take care of the education of her seven children. Gregory, the eldest, was instructed by the most highly reputed masters of secular learning and, after some years, was so proficient in philosophical reasoning that, on listening to him, his master could believe he was hearing Aristotle himself. Notwithstanding these intellectual successes, the young man's real interest lay only with the things of God. He associated with monks of renown in the city and found a spiritual father in Theoleptus of Philadelphia, who instructed him in the way of holy sobriety and of prayer of the heart.

About the year 1316, Gregory decided to abandon the vanities of the world. His mother, two sisters, two brothers and a great many of his servants entered upon the monastic life with him. He and his two brothers went on foot to the holy Mountain of Athos, where they settled near the Monastery of Vatopedi under the direction of the Elder Nicodemus, who came from Mount Auxentius. Gregory made rapid progress in the holy activity of prayer, for he had put into practice since childhood the fundamental virtues of obedience, humility, meekness, fasting, vigil and the different kinds of renunciation that make the body subject to the spirit. Night and day he besought God ceaselessly with tears saying, "Lighten my darkness!" After some time, the Mother of God, in whom he had put his trust since his youth, sent Saint John the Theologian to him with the promise of her protection in this life and in the next.

After only three years, the early death of his brother Theodosius, followed by that of the Elder Nicodemus, led Gregory and his second brother, Macarius, to attach themselves to the Monastery of the Great Lavra. Gregory was appointed chanter. His conduct in the cenobitic life was beyond reproach, and the brethren admired his zeal for putting into practice all the holy evangelic virtues. He lived with such abstinence as to appear unburdened by the flesh to the extent of being able to go three months without sleep. At the end of three years of common life, his soul thirsting for the sweet waters of the wilderness, he retired to the hermitage of Glossia, under the direction of an eminent monk called Gregory of Byzantium. With the passions purified, he was now able to rise up in prayer to the contemplation of the mysteries of the Creation. Solitude and inner stillness enabled him to keep his intellect fixed at all times in the depths of his heart, where he called on the Lord Jesus with compunction, so that he became all prayer, and sweet tears flowed continually from his eyes as from two fountains.

The incessant raids of Turkish pirates soon obliged Gregory and his companions to leave their hermitage. Together with twelve monks, he wanted to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Places and to seek refuge at Mount Sinai; but this did not prove feasible. Instead, he spent some time in Thessalonica, where he joined the group around the future Patriarch Isidore, who was endeavoring to spread the practice of the Jesus prayer among the faithful so that they might profit from the experience of the monks. In 1326, Gregory was ordained a priest, having understood in a vision that this was indeed the will of God. He then departed to found a hermitage in the area of Beroea, where he practiced an even stricter ascesis than before. For five days of the week he remained alone, fasting, keeping vigil and praying with abundant tears. He only appeared on Saturdays and Sundays to serve the Divine Liturgy, share a fraternal meal, and converse on some spiritual subject with his companions in the ascetic life. He continued thus to rise up in contemplation and to enter into closer union with God in his heart.

When his mother died, he went to Constantinople to fetch his sisters, whom he settled in a hermitage near his own. But as Serbian raids in the region became more and more frequent, he decided to go back to Mount Athos. He settled a little above the Lavra in the hermitage of Saint Savas, where he lived in greater seclusion than before, and could converse alone with God. He went to the monastery only infrequently and would receive his rare visitors on Sundays and feast days. Going on from that contemplation which is still outward, Gregory then attained to the vision of God in the light of the Holy Spirit and to the deification promised by Christ to His perfect disciples.

One day in a dream, he saw that he was full of a milk from heaven which, as it overflowed, changed into wine and filled the surrounding air with a wonderful scent. This was a sign to him that the moment had come to teach his brethren the mysteries that God revealed to him. He wrote several ascetic treatises at this time, and, in 1335, was appointed Abbot of the Monastery of Esphigmenou. But the two hundred monks who lived there understood neither his zeal nor his spiritual expectations so, after a year, he returned to his hermitage.

At that time, Barlaam, a monk from Calabria, won a great name for himself as a speculative thinker in Constantinople. He 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. 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.

He showed that ascesis and prayer are the outcome of the whole mystery of Redemption, and are the way for each person to make the grace given at Baptism blossom within himself. He also defended the authenticity of the methods which the Hesychasts used to fix the intellect in the heart; for since the Incarnation we have to seek the grace of the Holy Spirit in our bodies, which are sanctified by the Sacraments and grafted by the Eucharist into the Body of Christ. This uncreated grace is the very glory of God which, as it sprang forth from the body of Christ on the day of the Transfiguration, overwhelmed the disciples (Matthew 17). Shining now in the heart purified from the passions, it truly unites us to God, illumines us, deifies us and gives us a pledge of that same glory which will shine on the bodies of the Saints after the general Resurrection. In thus affirming the full reality of deification, Gregory was far from denying the absolute transcendence and unknowableness of God in His essence. Following the ancient Fathers, but in a more precise manner, he made a distinction between God's imparticipable essence and the eternal, creative and providential energies by which the Lord enables created beings to participate in His being, His life and His light without, however, introducing any division into the unity of the divine Nature. God is not a philosophical concept for Saint Gregory: He is Love, He is Living Person and consuming fire, as Scripture teaches (Deuteronomy 4:24), Who does everything to make us godlike.

Saint Gregory's brilliant answer to Barlaam was first accepted by the authorities of Mount Athos in the Hagiorite Tome and then adopted by the Church, which condemned Barlaam (and with him the philosophical humanism that would soon inspire the European Renaissance), during the course of two Councils at the Church of Saint Sophia in 1341.

Barlaam's condemnation and his departure for Italy did not bring the controversy to an end. No sooner had Gregory returned to his Athonite hermitage from Thessalonica where he had been writing his treatises in seclusion than Akindynos, an old friend of his, restated the substance of Barlaam's arguments and condemned Gregory's distinction between essence and energies as an innovation. Akindynos, who at first aspired to be an umpire between Barlaam and Gregory, was the kind of rigid conservative who does no more than repeat set phrases without seeking to enter into the spirit of the tradition. At the same time, a dreadful civil war broke out as a result of the rivalry between the Duke Alexis Apokaukos and Saint Gregory's friend, John Cantacuzenus (1341-47). The Patriarch, John Calecas, sided with Apokaukos and encouraged Akindynos to bring a charge of heresy against Gregory, which led to the excommunication and imprisonment of the Saint.

During the four years of Gregory's confinement, there was no slackening of his activity. He carried on a huge correspondence, and wrote an important work against Akindynos. When John Cantacuzenus gained the upper hand in 1346, the Regent, Ann of Savoy, came to the defense of the Saint and deposed the Patriarch on the eve of Cantacuzenus' triumphal entry into the City. He nominated Isidore as Patriarch (1347-50), and summoned a new Council to vindicate the Hesychasts. The controversy was not finally resolved until 1351, at a third Council which condemned the humanist Nicephorus Gregoras. In the Synodal Tome the doctrine of Saint Gregory on the uncreated energies and on the nature of grace was recognized as the rule of faith of the Orthodox Church.

Among Isidore's new episcopal appointments, Gregory was named Archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347; but he was unable to take possession of his see as the city was in the hands of the Zealots, the party opposed to Cantacuzenus. After finding shelter for a while in Lemnos, where he showed heroic devotion during an epidemic, Gregory was eventually able to enter the city acclaimed as if Christ Himself were coming in triumph, with the chanting of Paschal hymns.

During a voyage to Constantinople, he fell into the hands of some Turks, who held him for a year in Asia Minor (1354-55), but allowed him a measure of freedom. This, and his openness of spirit, enabled him to engage in amicable theological discussions with the Muslim doctors of religion and with the son of the Emir Orkhan. When he was set free, thanks to a ransom from Serbia, he returned to Thessalonica to take up his activity again as pastor and wonderworker. He suffered a long illness and, some time before his death, Saint John Chrysostom appeared to him with the invitation to join the choir of holy hierarchs immediately after his own feast. And, indeed, on November 14, 1359 the Saint gave up his soul to God. When he died, his countenance was radiant with a light like to that which shone on Saint Stephen (Acts 6:15). In this way God showed, through the person of his servant, the truth of his doctrine on the reality of deification by the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit. The veneration of Saint Gregory was approved by the Church in 1368. The Saint works many miracles even to the present day and, after Saint Demetrios, is regarded as the Protector of Thessalonica.

Orthodox Commemoration of the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas

The feast day of Saint Gregory Palamas is November 14, the day of his repose, however the Orthodox Church commemorates the Saint on the Second Sunday of Lent. As a Sunday of Great Lent, the commemoration is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, which is preceded by a Matins (Orthros) service. A Great Vespers is conducted on Saturday evening.

Hymns of the Feast

Apolytikion (Plagal of Fourth Tone)

O Gregory the Miracle Worker, light of Orthodoxy, support and teacher of the Church, comeliness of Monastics, invincible defender of theologians, the pride of Thessalonica, and preacher of grace, intercede forever that our souls may be saved.

Kontakion (Plagal of Fourth Tone)

With one accord, we praise you as the sacred and divine vessel of wisdom and clear trumpet of theology, O our righteous Father Gregory of divine speech. As a mind that stands now before the Primal Mind, do you ever guide aright and lead our mind to Him, that we all may cry: Hail, O herald of grace divine.

Seasonal Kontakion (Plagal of the Fourth Tone) - Sung during Divine Liturgy

O Champion General, we your faithful inscribe to you the prize of victory as gratitude for being rescued from calamity, O Theotokos. But since you have invincible power, free us from all kinds of perils so that we may cry out to you: Rejoice, O Bride unwedded. (Translated by Father George Papadeas)

References

Meyendorff, John. A Study of Gregory Palamas. London: Faith Press, 1964.
The Lenten Triodion. Translated by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1994), pp. 52-53, 314-333.
Schmemann, Alexander. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1969), pp. 73-75.
Barrois, Georges. Scripture Readings in Orthodox Worship (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977), pp. 62-63.
Farley, Donna. Seasons of Grace: Reflections on the Orthodox Church Year (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002), pp. 103-105.
Icon of Saint Gregory Palamas provided by Theologic and used with permission.

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Let Us Pray to the Lord

In peace let us pray to the Lord,” is a refrain that continually echoes in our ears as Orthodox Christians. What are we to pray for, once we have found peace? “For the peace from above, and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” And again, “For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.”

Truly, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a pure testament to the life in Christ, the Spirit-filled life, the summation of worship and praise of the Triune God. And this Liturgy shows us the importance of peace as both a prerequisite to prayer, and as one of the most important objects of our prayer.

If it is hard to pray in our day and age, it is because we have only partially the peace upon which prayer depends, and because we have only a small portion of the belief that God can restore our inner world and our outer world to peace. We lead full lives, but lives that lack certain dimensions of freedom; we describe ourselves as servants, who “have so much to do.” We seem to know so much about the complexities of the world’s sorrows, the obstinacy of others and the practical difficulties of addressing both. We may actually not believe that it is prayer above all that brings peace.

Where are we to find the peace that precedes prayer, as well as the faith that prayer itself will bring peace? For each person, the answer is somehow different. For one Christian, it is the memory of a treasured elderly relative whose devotion to Christ was unshakeable. For another person, it is reading the Gospels and the Epistles that brings such peace. Another person takes comfort in the lives of the saints, or in miracle stories, or in nature’s mute yet overpowering testimony to God’s goodness. Still another person looks upon the stories of those who do good in the world, while yet another finds that the key to a prayer life is to light the oil candle, prepare the incense burner and gaze upon holy icons. For other people it is the chanting in the Church that brings them the peace they need to pray. Some of us find that fasting is an indispensable aid to prayer. Or we may find that, for us, the key to prayer is communal support, that we need another person to push us along.

Whatever preparation it is that helps us toward prayer is always a blessing, as St. Porphyrios said, “to warm up the heart before prayer.” It is good to gather our thoughts, arrange our surroundings, and allow our troubled minds to descend into our deepest heart. There we find Christ, the object of our prayer, and the author of our hope. In our hearts we find the treasure of the grace we each received at baptism, a treasure that the more it is spent, the more it increases, and which can never be exhausted. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” says our Savior.

Prayer then becomes a simple and artless affair. “We look at him, and he looks at us,” said Anthony Bloom (who is considered by many to be a saint). We are tempted to bring up all our problems at once, to insist on describing them in detail and to press for immediate answers. We should try to resist this urge, and sit quietly with our Lord. Soon enough—within just a few minutes—the peace that had been fleeing us returns. We are “saved,” for the moment, for this day and in this present struggle. The Lord may bid us to work and to make good use of our time. But He also blesses us to rest, and this is our pure Sabbath: to sit quietly with God, allowing the world to run itself without our assistance for just a few moments.

Thereafter everything is different. Out of this mini-retreat, this small pilgrimage to Christ, we bring with us an atmosphere of prayer. We may not be saying any particular words, but we cultivate the peace that prayer has brought us, and we remain mindful of God, of His gracious goodness, and of our own smallness.

Fr. Roman Braga, who passed from this earth several months ago, used to say that prayer is more than concrete words. Rather, it is living our lives in Christ, living always in the presence of his mercy, that constitutes the condition of “praying without ceasing” (although some add to this the practice of reciting the Jesus Prayer at all times).

Prayer can become a way of life, once we have tasted its sweetness, and once we finally begin to understand the futility of so many of our thoughts. In time, we learn to long for the ultimate source of existence on an ongoing basis, and to make the awareness of God part of the fabric of more and more of our moments. No other person can fill us with life as God does, and it is for Life that we were created.

Yes, we, each of us, are sinners and strugglers, each with our own weaknesses. But by the same token, whatever the spiritual life is supposed to be, it can’t be meant only for those who are so perfect that they are beyond all temptation.

Somehow, it is in the midst of our confusions, fears, distractions, temptations and habitual mistakes that we are meant to pursue that “one thing needful”: a living relationship with the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, and to love Him who is “the express image of the Father,” and who is also the one “upon whom the Spirit of the Father descends and remains.” Even those saints who reached the blessed state of apatheia, of no longer sinning even while in the body, still continued to face the trials of this life.

Let’s discuss, then, some insights that can help us to succeed at this most important of all our kinds of labor. We all want to pray; we all face the same obstacles that prevent us from praying. How are these to be overcome?

Making Time by Prayer

The first challenge we each face is that we don’t have much time to pray. Or, so we think. Of course, we have plenty of time when we want to do less-fruitful things. And on some days, time even can seem to go on and on, with no purpose and no movement.

So, the first issue is to turn the matter around and use prayer to “make time.” Once we begin to pray regularly, we find that the challenges of daily life often go more smoothly. Things might even seem to slow down. We aren’t spending as much time in frustrating pursuits and thus are freer. Rather than making time for prayer, we have made time through prayer.

But how do we start this habit?

A First Prayer if We Feel Stuck

Every day for thirty days, kneel in front of your icons before God, and ask Christ to grant you “a spiritual awakening” by the power of his Holy Spirit. Do not permit yourself any mental picture or image of what a “spiritual awakening” would look like—leave that to Him.

St. Gregory Palamas prayed in a similar way, asking God continually, “Enlighten my darkness!” But St. Gregory prayed in this way for more than twenty years…

Return from Work Well-Rested

In our cars on the way home from work, we frequently are too tired to think of anything serious. We may switch among radio stations, looking for something to renew us, but we come up empty. So why not devote some of those minutes to four simple prayers: Thanking God for all He has given you; praying for all the enemies and others who have hurt you; praying for your friends and family; and asking God for your own needs.

Because these four requests can become quite vast, I always just count. First, I praise God for ten things. Then, I thank God for ten things. Then I pray for ten “enemies” (“enemies” is a technical term, meaning “people whose faults have momentarily distracted me from my own, greater faults”). After that, I am at peace, and I pray for ten people whom I deeply love (there is usually some overlap between the list of “enemies” and this second list, so some people get prayed for twice, the second time with more warmth). Then I pray for myself, and after that I am ready to drive on in peace, and walk through the front door from work well-rested.

In peace let us pray to the Lord!

Timothy Patitsas, PhD, is Assistant Professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, where he also plans and leads the annual St. Helen’s Pilgrimage to Greece, Mt. Athos and Constantinople. Educated at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, his research interests include social ethics, economics and theology. He is currently working on an introduction to the mystical ethics of the Orthodox Church.