On the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas
Sermon preached by Jennifer Nahas on Sunday, March 31, 2013
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ.
As the celebration of Antiochian Women’s month draws to a close, it is an honor to follow so many prestigious women and preach in a parish blessed with a bounty of theological richness. Don’t think of me as the designated hitter of an incredible line-up of all stars, but rather a short stop coming up to bat in the eighth. But, I am delighted to have this opportunity to give it my best swing.
Today is the Second Sunday of Lent. During the Lenten season in particular, the Church teaches us more about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Last Sunday, we commemorated the decision of the 7th Ecumenical Council — the understanding that we can depict God in material form because our God entered creation, becoming human. We celebrated with a procession of icons. Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, known as the Theologian of Hesychasm — the mystical tradition of experiential prayer in the Orthodox Church. Through the practice of continual prayer [contemplation], we believe that we can see the uncreated light—the energies of God.
Okay let’s start with some basic facts about St. Gregory: He was born in 1296 and, at the age of 20, entered the monastic life. St. Gregory, however, wasn’t just a monk; he had to leave Athos during the Turkish raids. He settled in Thessaloniki and was ordained to the priesthood. So, now he is out in the world. During the week, he lived at as monk working on spiritual perfection, but on the weekend, he would rejoin the community and minister – liturgically through the sacraments and personally to his flock. Over time, he demonstrated that being a monk (practicing prayer) was not at odds with being in relationship with others and being in the world. He brought the practice of continual prayer to those outside the monastery. He also came to realize that his own spiritual life was enhanced by the benefits of being in relationship with people. He recognized that we can have a relationship with God both through communal life and individual practice. And, he was instrumental in defending the practice of the hesychasts (practicing prayer) by articulating more fully the distinction between the energies and essence of God. While we can never know God in God’s essence, Gregory explained that one can become more God-like by experiencing God’s “energies.” I translate this statement like this: Just because God is not explainable, doesn’t mean we can’t experience Him. Yes, God’s essence is uncreated, beyond existence – but God’s “energies” are around us, we just need to tap into them so that we can share in His divine life here on earth.
Boy, there is lot to digest: 1) Monastic (prayer) and community practices (being in relationship with others) not just co-existing but integrated and 2) God has energies?
Now, for someone living in Cambridge, the idea that we know God through ‘energies’ was very intriguing to me … was it a mystical energy, a burning in your gut energy, was it through our shockras or more like arouna/vibes? That is just what St. Gregory’s opponents thought – this is touchy-feely religion; he is preaching magic. However, what St Gregory was talking about was that we all have access to Christ via the Holy Spirit and we can experience Him by clearing our minds and our hearts, allowing the Holy Spirit to be present in us. In addition, we can recognize Christ in and through our relationship with others. I think about it this way: We will never know the sun. And, if God is like the sun, His ‘energies’ are the sun’s rays. We know that the sun’s rays produce warm. Where do we find God’s warmth or touch? And, what are the set of conditions to feel God? Is our daily practice some combination of prayer and community like St. Gregory … is that the optimal set of conditions to feel God’s energies? And, how will I know that I have experienced God’s “energies.”
For me, the best modern day example of being touched by God was during the formative years at the Antiochian Village. Fr. John Namie’s monastic practices were at the heart of the Antiochian Village where he purposefully designed the day so that there were many moments for devotion and prayer. He used to say over and over “it’s quiet here so you can pray.” There was a time for prayer and stillness but it was a camp, so there are time for fellowship, deep theological discussions and debates that required us to question a and lots of communal fun and work. What resulted in the early days of the Village was a vibrant, intellectual, and spiritual community where God was present at the Chapel for sure, but also at every staff meeting, at every basketball game, every arts and craft project and every hike! We didn’t just experience God in Church, but everywhere. Now, how did we know that we were experiencing God’s energies? There is only one easy, self-evident way to know and measure this. Those who were blessed to be in the presence of Fr. John and during these years would say unequivollcaly, they experienced a joy unlike anything they have experienced before. It was an un-muted joy, intense and boundless and it came from a practice of both prayer and a vibrant, loud, accepting community.
Now that was the camp – isolated and idyllic. How can we find this joy in our every day lives, the way I believe St. Gregory did? For me and for others I would imagine, I have a relationship with God that expresses itself through joy with my children. As many of you know, I have been blessed with two children whose sole purpose is the challenge assumptions that I hold. I experience God here in this congregation through the beautiful liturgy. My son Lukas, however, doesn’t and he struggles to keep his active body and mind in control to make it through the hour and a half liturgy. It is very hard for him to experience God here in Church, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t experience God in other ways. Our job and joy as parents is to make sure that our children know God is present and that He is working in us and through us. So, when does this happen? Lukas trains as a competitive snowboarder, that is why you don’t see us here in the winter as much as we would like (and are thankful for live streaming!) Luke has spent the last two years trying to land a 360 off a jump. After watching him fall over and over, competing in competitions where everyone in his division is landing these, he took a different approach. He went inward to understand what his fears where and then focused intensely and quieting his mind (filtering out the noise), studying all facets of the turn, to better understand the size of the jump, his speed, the condition of the snow, and the strength and direction of the wind. It took an internal approach in the midst of a very supportive communal group of coaches, parents and riders to propelled him forward. No one was interested in Luke winning gold, but everyone was interested in him realizing his dream. So, when he finally pulled it off, he soared in the air and beautifully turned and landed, everyone experienced the collective, powerful energy of joy! Lukas couldn’t believe it, as his smile evidenced. But at a greater level, the community was brought together by the experience of relational and unbridled happiness. I know that example sounds a bit trite, but Christ was with us and the Holy Spirit among us, in the form of joyful energy! We shared the moment of bliss, a bliss that comes from being in relationship with each other and with Lukas. My job was to make sure that Lukas understood that Christ was with him and in him in this powerful moment through his intense contemplation and relationship with others.
Parents: we all have experienced the sense of overwhelming joy that our children bring to us, particularly as they work to overcame challenges. At the moment where they realize their dreams, we know that we are in the presence of God through His energies. And for our children who struggle with the language and length of our liturgy and may have difficulty feeling God’s warmth on Sunday mornings, they can become aware that the joy they experience in everyday life is really the hand of God, touching us, like the sun’s rays.
As we go about our day, taking time to quiet our minds and to build loving relationships with those around us, pay attention to those vibrant explosion of joy, where everything comes together and you see things perhaps a bit differently, a bit clearer and a bit brighter! That is our unmediated experience of God. He is everywhere – we just need to blend our mindfulness practices of prayer with our natural need to be in relationship with others. The combination of the two reveals God to us in our every day lives!