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Saint Gregory Palamas and the Quintessence of Orthodoxy

An Extemporaneous Sermon by Archbishop Chrysostomos1

Glory

agios-grigorios-palamasIt is important on this Feast Day of St. Gregory Palamas that we reflect, more than six centuries after he flourished, on the meaning of Orthodoxy and those things that distinguish Orthodoxy from heterodox Christianity; that is, from other Christian confessions. This is an especially important theme at a time when ecumenism so threatens one of the basic dogmas of Orthodoxy: that is, that the Holy Orthodox Church is the κριτήριον της αληθείας, or the very criterion of Truth, and therefore holds primacy historically, theologically, and spiritually in the whole of the Christian world. 

By downplaying the mystical elements of our Faith and transforming it—as many are today, and especially in this country—into a kind of pseudo-mystical evangelicalism, we are in danger of taking away the very essence of Orthodoxy. Unwittingly at times, and sometimes in the name of missionary economy, we contribute to the decline of Orthodoxy in the modern world through the heresy of ecumenism. By looking at Orthodoxy through foreign, ahistorical, and non-traditionalist eyes, by looking at it in a simplistic way, so as to make it more palatable to the heterodox and to Christian fundamentalism, we forget what it is that separates Orthodoxy from the other Christian confessions.

The main theological and spiritual feature that separates us from other Christian confessions is the fact that the goal of Orthodoxy is not a superficial one: that is, living a good life here, so that we can go to Heaven and, in Heaven, enjoy whatever it is that Heaven has. The purpose of Orthodoxy is, by contrast, to transform us in this life, so that by our personal transfiguration on earth we might anticipate the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ, bearing witness to the Lord’s dominance over the world. By transforming ourselves, by conquering, through Grace, our passions, by conquering our shortcomings, by conquering, in union with Christ, our own fallen humanity, we recover once again the divinity bestowed on us by our Creator, transforming, in that discovery, matter, transforming the world, and transforming the whole of the universe into something new. Our hopeful search for this transformation of humankind and the world around us is intimately involved in the mystery of the Parousia.

This άποκατάστασις or restoration, as some Fathers call it, is at the core of Orthodox spirituality. Everything that we do is meant to restore us to the “other world” by transforming us in this one. In the beauty of our services, we recall the beauty of the other world. In the emotional affect that we invest in our services, we purify our senses and purify our emotions. Everything in the Orthodox Church, all of the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church, are aimed at this sort of transfiguration, this sort of change: a change from what is human to what is divine, from what is passionate to what is holy, from what is puerile to what is mature, lofty, and sanctified.

St. Gregory Palamas, our great Teacher, taught the monastic path of Hesychasm, which is a path to transformation belonging, though in a less emphatic application of its practices, to laypeople as well. Laypeople also, we forget, live a life that imitates— again, with somewhat less rigidity—the monastic life. Therefore, married couples are also celibate for a good part of the year, fasting from the flesh as they fast from certain foods, trying thereby to overcome their passions and to live a life which is aimed at the divinization of man, or his restoration to divinity. Both laymen and monastics (true Hesychastic monastics) follow this ancient way of life, which St. Gregory Palamas codified, wrote about in a systematic way, and brought into focus in the mosaic of Holy Tradition. He stands in a long succession of monastics and Saints who taught the way of human transformation and transfiguration. The Cappadocian Fathers, St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Photios the Great, the great enlighteners of the Slavic peoples, Sts. Cyril and Methodios, and countless others lived this tradition, fixed on the deification [theosis] of the human being.

What we emphasize above all in Orthodoxy, to summarize, is what St. Gregory Palamas made the cornerstone of his monastic and theological teachings: that our purpose on earth is to restore what we lost in our fall from Paradise, to make the human being divine by Grace and, in so doing, not only to participate in changing the people around us, but also in changing and deifying nature and the universe itself. We become, through the Archetype of the Perfect Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, “small Jesus Christs” within Jesus Christ; we resurrect through Him the divinity within us, thereby reestablishing the reign of divinity in the world, making the world fresh and reviving our universe.

This, as I noted earlier, is the one and principal difference between Orthodoxy and all other Christian confessions. Thus, salvation is for us Orthodox, as St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite affirms, enlightenment, illumination, and transfiguration. Sin is not simply something for which God punishes mankind and for which we must render compensation. There is no “god” who punishes us out of revenge. There is a God of perfect love, however, Who chastises with the goal of leading His children in the right direction. But this, once more, is not punishment as we understand it. Sin, in the soteriological scheme of the Orthodox Church, is more often understood as an illness that we cure by the actions of the Church, through the Medicine of Immortality—the Eucharist— and all of the other Mysteries of the Church. The transformation of man is, in effect, a cure of his spiritual illness, that is, sin, or our deviation from the “natural” path set out for us by God.

And, of course, our Orthodox Christian tradition, as taught and upheld by St. Gregory Palamas, does not preach that people who fail at this wondrous goal of transformation by Grace are relegated to Hell as an eternal punishment by God’s will. “God willeth not the death of any sinner.” It tells us that those who separate themselves from the path of restoration, from becoming what they should and were meant to be, live in the endless agony of exposure to the fullness of the love of God—Who pities their state—but are unable to respond to it, having lived life according to their free will, indulging the passions and following the ways of sin. Their inability to respond to what is holy in this life renders them unresponsive to God’s abundant love in the eternity of the next life. Failing to rise above the imperfections of fallen existence and its difficult trials, they are damned by a life focused on passions, darkness, and self-absorption. Their Hell is their willful alienation from God’s Light, Perfection, and Love.

Without a transformative focus on what lies beyond our fallen selves, we produce the superficial Christianity of our day, which affects even those many Orthodox unlearned in the genuine teachings of their Faith. We produce a Christianity based solely on recompense—God somehow “getting even” with man for violating His Law—and on the unthinkable idea that God exults in sending people to Hell and justly punishing them, there, eternally. This sort of Christianity is absolutely foreign to true Christianity, has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, and constitutes a theory of salvation that nullifies Christ’s transformation of the laws of the Old Testament through the triumph of transfiguring love: a love that brings the inner experiences of the Prophets to fruition. We do not fully realize this fact until we focus with care on what it is that Orthodoxy truly teaches about the world around us and about the transformation of ourselves, others, and the cosmos.

This, then, is the great contribution of St. Gregory Palamas. In his genuine expression of the inner essence, the quintessence, of our Faith and of its mystical and hidden traditions, he taught us how to connect this world to the next one and to commune with those who have lived and gone before us by sharing the common goal of Orthodox Christianity: the salvation of our souls by our personal transformation in Divine Grace. So always on this day, we should, in commemorating St. Gregory Palamas, who is called by some the “fourth” Theologian of the Church, remember it as a day especially centered on the primacy, the perfection, and the ascendant philosophy of Orthodoxy.

Λόξα Θεώ τω Τοιονποστάτω.3

Notes:

1 – Transcribed by Schemamonk Chrysostomos Hagiogregorites from a recording. The text has been only minimally emended, with His Eminence’s aid and approval, to correct the natural omissions and digressions of extemporaneous speech.

2 – In the All-Holy Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. (A traditional doxology.)

3 – Glory to God in Three Hypostases.

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Source: Orthodox Tradition, Volume XXX, Number 2, 2013

Saints Photios the Great, Gregory Palamas, and Mark of Ephesus

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