Hello. I’m Sister Vassa, and I’m having my coffee before going to work today here in Vienna in Austria. I’m sorry: I know this episode is coming out a bit late, but, you know, our writers are a little bit overwhelmed with all the church services during Lent and their usual Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and everybody’s come down with a case of the mid-Lent blues [despondency], so they’re a little bit tired, and we are grumpy and so on.
But the good news is that it is the third week of Lent, and I’m happy to announce that I’ve already lost three kilos, a little bit over six pounds. [Applause] Please hold your applause. And my nutritionist and personal trainer, Edeltraut, is very happy.
Today as usual, I’ll be taking some food with me to work. [Close-up of refrigerator magnet: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”] We have a lentil salad with chopped tomatoes. Lentils are high in fiber and keep you full long after you’ve had them. And then there’s [oil-free] hummus, which is also very good for you, and some rice cakes we will take as well. They’re low in calories. And then we have radishes for a snack. Radishes are high in vitamin C and are good for your skin.
You see, in this ascetical exercise we are all engaged in called Lent, asceticism means in Greek “training” or “discipline,” and it is helpful to approach the physical side of this exercise with some healthy dietary discipline, as if we were training for some kind of a sport. [Theme from Rocky]
This third week of Lent begins with the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas [+1359], a theologian of the 14th century, who taught us a great deal about the theology of the body, that is, the importance of our bodies in our prayer life. So today our award-winning show—and I remind you that this is an award-winning show—will be dedicated to St. Gregory. [Grandiose music]
Gregory Palamas—and “Palamas” is his family name—was born in Constantinople [today’s Istanbul in Turkey] in the year 1296. His father, who was a courtier at the Byzantine imperial court, died when Gregory was only six years old, and the Byzantine emperor himself, Andronikos II Paleologos, provided for the boy’s education. So Gregory was educated in the Hellenistic secular education of his time, which included physics, logic, and philosophy, mostly Aristotle in Gregory’s case, but not Plato, because Gregory decided to leave school at age 17 before studying Plato. He had decided, you see, to become a monk, and Gregory considered secular philosophy and secular education incompatible with monasticism. (It’s suddenly gotten hot in here…)
At age 20, Gregory went to Mount Athos [a mountain and peninsula in Greece, populated only by monks], where he began a monastic life under the direction of an elder named Nikodemos who taught him the way of hesychasm. This is a word that comes from the Greek hesychia, which means “stillness” or “quiet,” and hesychasm is an ancient tradition of inner prayer, or a constant focus on prayer in one’s heart. This focus on inner prayer is often practiced through the constant repetition, in deep humility, of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” The point is to pray without ceasing in the heart, no matter what one is doing externally, according to the words of the Apostle Paul who tells us to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). “Adialeiptōs prosefchesthe,” says the Apostle.
St. Gregory eventually had to leave Athos because of Turkish incursions, and moved with other monks to Thessaloniki where he was ordained a priest at age 30 and also was part of a monastic community outside the city. In Thessaloniki, St. Gregory and the other hesychast monks preached also to laypeople that the practice of incessant prayer in connection with the sacramental life of the Church can and does lead to real communion with God, with God’s uncreated grace or his energy, both on the physical and spiritual levels. This was not just a teaching for monks, because, according to the hesychasts, there was no area of human activity, of human life, that was outside the reach of God when we strive to act in synergy with God, that is, when we work together with God’s grace.
St. Gregory explained that it was the energy of the Holy Spirit but not his substance, ousia, that comes down to us in prayer and in the sacraments. You see, otherwise it would be pantheism, as if God himself in his substance is in all things and in us. We don’t say that. It is God’s uncreated energy that transfigures and illuminates our world and our entire being—our mind, our soul, yes, and even our body—and transfigures us into divine beings in a process called theōsis in Greek.
This teaching of the hesychasts of theōsis met with the fierce opposition of certain teachers in Constantinople, most notably a man named Barlaam of Calabria, a philosopher who came from southern Italy, but actually spent a lot of time polemicizing against the Latin West whence he came [a condition known as “post-heterodox stress disorder”]. [Star Wars Imperial March]
Barlaam and others who opposed the teaching of St. Gregory could not accept the idea of the human body or even the human intellect really participating in God’s energy. You see, Barlaam was infected with the philosophical concept we talked about last week, the Platonic concept that the body and all things material are inferior to the spiritual and could not take part in the divine. Barlaam was also convinced that most things about the Holy Spirit were simply unknowable, so it was useless to even talk about them. This conviction is called agnosticism, when one says you can’t know anything really about God.
To make a long story short, St. Gregory spent most of his life dealing with much opposition to his teaching and was even imprisoned for several years because of this. But he was ultimately exonerated, and his teaching was proclaimed Orthodox at several councils during his life held in Constantinople, in 1341 and 1351. St. Gregory was made bishop—archbishop, excuse me—of Thessaloniki, and, as a well-known Church figure of his time, also acted as a peace-maker during times of civil strife within late Byzantium [like the Civil War of 1341-1347]. He died on November 14, 1359, at the age of 63.
[Chime: “Thought for Today”]
It is something of an irony in the life of this great teacher of hesychasm, or silent prayer, that he spent most of his monastic life in the midst of the theological and also political controversies of his time in the setting of a city and not of the desert. It is true that he certainly would have preferred to spend his life in a monastic cell in a monastery, but this is not how his life unfolded. He did maintain his inner focus with incessant prayer in his heart, his focus on Christ, and his prayers actually worked miracles already in his lifetime, but as it happened, he kept this focus on Christ and in Christ among the trials and tribulations of life, not outside of it. So the noise of everyday life was no obstacle to his prayer, to his focus.
This is why St. Gregory is given to all of us, but particularly those who live amidst the noise of the world, as a model of grace-filled prayer, as a model of an inner focus on Christ, on the second Sunday of Lent, reminding us and consoling us as we might experience the mid-Lenten blues at this point, that there is no area of our human existence, no walk of life, no activity that is outside the reach of God’s energy or grace. [Music: “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”]
That’s it for today: St. Gregory Palamas, ladies and gentlemen. [Applause and cheering] Thank you.