Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fr. Touma Bitar on St. Gregory Palamas

The original can be found here.

About Saint Gregory Palamas

The second Sunday of Lent is the commemoration of Saint Gregory Palamas. He also has a feast on the 14th of November, which is the commemoration of his repose in 1359. In the year 1368 the synod of Constantinople announced his sainthood and described him as “the greatest among the Fathers of the Church.” Who is he and what is his importance?

He was from a noble family of Anatolia that had immigrated to Constantinople and his parents were spiritually luminous. He had two brothers and two sisters, all of whom, along with the servants of the family, became monastics. Until the age of twenty, he was immersed in secular learning, studying the natural sciences, rhetoric, and logic, diligently studying philosophical thought. He mastered secular learning to the point that he became able to knowledgably disdain it. He found it empty and useless from the perspective of knowledge of God and of salvation, being one in whom the seeds of piety and sensitivity to things divine had been sewn from his childhood, so he renounced it and became a monk. Later on, in his First Triad, he advises that one should receive a small amount of training in the sciences of the world because they cause the eye of the soul to develop keen vision, but that he should put it aside and focus his efforts on what is more heavenly, more sure, and more useful by far, since God “generously recompenses the setting aside of [secular] literature.” (The First Triad, p. 32 of the Arabic edition).

He went out to Mount Athos first. He became a disciple of the elder Nicodemus near Vatopedi and would warmly pray to the Theotokos. He spent three years in firm prayer and fasting and vigil. He would constantly pray “Give light, O Lord, to my darkness! Give light to my darkness!” Saint John the Theologian appeared to him and informed him that the Theotokos had made him his helper in all things in this life and the next.

He moved to the Great Lavra for three more years. Through the grace of God and fierce asceticism he mastered his passions and even the natural necessities such as sleep. He would spend three months sleeping only a small amount. He went out to the wilderness, to a skete called Glusia and there he became the disciple of the famous ascetic Gregory of Byzantium and from him he learned mental prayer. He acquired profound humility and indescribable love for God and for his neighbor. Tears started to stream from his eyes like a constantly flowing spring of water.

At the age of thirty, he went to the region of Pharia, between Macedonia and Thrace. He practiced asceticism and self-denial in a cave there, and nearby there were monks and ascetics who looked upon him as a model of virtuous life. According to his biographer, his life was angelic: “It would surprise and enrapture all.” After five years he returned to Mount Athos. He had reached the vision of God in the light of the Holy Spirit and theosis. He became certain in his vision that the time had come for him to embark directly on writing that would benefit those whose hearts God moved. He wrote what he had experienced. He said: through seclusion and prayer and simplicity of heart, man may perform the supreme work for which he was created, which is to enter into the circle of light that shone atop Tabor.

Gregory nearly constantly saw being as being charged with the power of the divine incarnation and the beauty of the Theotokos Mary. The earth, as was clear to his eyes in the Spirit, was a divine place whose beauty was almost unbearable. The light of the transfiguration did not stop shining after the Son of God came in the flesh. He said: “In the holy name there is divine power that pierces the heart of man and transforms him once it permeates his body.” The Spirit of God moves and fills the material body. For this reason, he concluded, the body has the grace of making the human being more heavenly than the angels. Man becomes a god when he sees in the heart the light of the divine transfiguration aglow. God is the same as this light! God is seen in his person as the uncreated light, even if he cannot be seen in his essence. For him, “The light of Tabor is the Kingdom of God!” And he said, “It is not for us to participate in the divine nature, however, in a certain sense it is possible for us to participate readily in God’s nature because we enter into participation with him, insofar as God remains perfect, and at the same time unaffected by us. For this reason we affirm two mutually to be together opposed things at the same time, which causes us joy and which we both consider to be the standard of truth.” If we were to ask, how does man attain this light? The reply is, by repentance and calling upon the name of Jesus and asking mercy of the Holy Name.

Saint Gregory Palamas is the primary Orthodox spiritual theologian of the universal Church. What the Apostle Paul experienced before the divine light on the road to Damascus, and what Elijah knew in the flaming chariot before that, and likewise what Moses beheld in the burning bush, and what the Fathers in the wilderness experienced generation after generation, and what has been given to the Church of Christ, this is that in which Gregory participated and what he expressed in the clearest manner at a critical moment the Church went through in the 14th century. At that time, Orthodox spirituality was faced with a harsh challenge from within and without the sphere of Orthodoxy. After being swept over by currents of thought such as Greek and ancient pagan philosophical thought, the West, because the traditional spirituality of the Church had been toppled there, turned toward us in order to absorb us, attempting to replace our outstanding spirituality with rationalistic currents and humanistic movements which, at their base, glorify human thought and make man independent of God and establish worship of the self, ultimately arriving at contemporary worldliness and passing into the thought that “God is dead,” causing human things to take the place of divine things and moralism to take the place of spirituality. The 14th century was a turning point for us. Orthodoxy could be absorbed, and along with her the traditional spirituality, among what spread in the western consciousness. But, through the care of the Most High, and the watchfulness of the Orthodox Church, this spirituality is given a firm place and the experience of the monks and believers in general overcame in those days the dangers and fierce assaults which threatened her. Saint Gregory Palamas is the summation of the traditional spirit par excellence and the decisive word of the Church from the beginning of her history until that time. For the Church said, in two councils which took place in Constantinople in June and August of 1341 and July of 1351: what Gregory and the monks experienced, what they said and wrote about it, in the matter of seeing the divine is what the universal Church experiences and proclaims since the beginning and it is the undisputed teaching of the Fathers from generation to generation.

Thus the importance of Saint Gregory Palamas and his glorification by the Church!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)

Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite- Douma

February 28, 2010

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