Cultivating Creative Listening: Homily on the Sunday of Gregory Palamas


Sermon preached by Claire Koen, PhD Candidate, Fordham University, on Sunday, March 31, 2024

Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Over the last few weeks of Antiochian Women’s month we have heard about forgiveness and healing, mercy and judgment, and the sacraments that the church offers us to aid us in our paths towards theosis. Today, on the Sunday of Gregory Palamas, we remember this great saint and his defense of hesychastic prayer and theology, and we reflect on how his teachings illuminate for us the process of drawing ever closer to both God and neighbor.

St. Gregory Palamas, born in Constantinople, lived during the 14th century. He came from a wealthy aristocratic family with ties to the imperial court, and received the comprehensive education expected of his rank. Rather than pursue a political career Gregory became a monk on Mount Athos, where he entered into a period of intensive study of Scripture and patristic authors. It was during this time on Athos that he was introduced to contemplative prayer, a practice that he would become a great defender of against humanist critiques. He was ordained a priest, and much later, elected bishop of Thessaloniki. Gregory is most well-known for his 25 year-long disputes with scholastic scholars over whether or not mystical prayer, or divine-human communion, can be communicated through rational concepts. Gregory maintained that we could encounter God through prayer directly. Barlaam, Gregory’s main interlocutor, composed a satirical work that mockingly referred to hesychast monks as “navel gazers,” a disparaging nod to the practice of focusing one’s attention at a point just below the chest, while invoking the Jesus prayer. Gregory responded by composing what would become his most well-known work “Apology for the Holy Hesychasts,” in which he articulated a theological justification for mystical experience that involves the entire person, mind, body, and soul.

To make this defense of whole-person mystical experience, however, Gregory first needed to explain the distinction between the divine energies, which humans interact with, and the divine essence, which cannot be comprehended by created beings. So, what is this distinction between divine energies and divine essence? In short, this is a way of speaking about God that both affirms the potential for human-divine communion (theosis), while also maintaining that there is a uniqueness to the Godhead that created beings cannot approach. As Kallistos Ware, of blessed memory, notes, Palamas speaks of these two aspects of God as both well-known (the energies) yet unknown (the essence), but also stresses that God is within us, immanent: the energies are not abstract, they are God’s personal presence, God in action, God as the life at the heart of every created thing. The thing that keeps everything in existence. These energies are not an intermediary- they are eternal, divine, uncreated: “Each power and energy is God Godself - God is wholly present in each of God’s energies.” As we sing in the prayer to the Holy Spirit, God is “everywhere present and fills all things:” we encounter God’s energies, as grace, in both the everyday aspects of our lives, as well as in the highs and lows.

There’s an anecdote about Evelyn Underhill, the English mystic, who, when she was preparing to visit the holy site of Iona in the Northern British Isles, was told that Iona was a “thin place,” where God was never far away. She responded that the whole world is a thin place! As Kallistos Ware put it “the whole world is like one great cosmic burning bush, incandescent with the divine energies, burning, yet unconsumed!” But what does it mean for us, at a practical level, that God can be described as having divine energies and essence, and that the whole world is suffused with God’s divine energies? It means that we are invited to see each other and the whole world as sacred, as sacrament, as full of the energies of God: every encounter is thus a potential encounter with the eternal God! For Gregory, cultivating an attentiveness to the other, both the human other, but also to God, requires a practice of silent prayer that involves what Kallistos Ware describes as a “creative listening,” an awareness of the other, and a sense of the presence within the silence.

To achieve this state of “creative listening” St. Gregory prescribes the repetition of the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” with inner attentiveness and love. This practice of the Jesus prayer brought about a vision of the divine, uncreated light, the same light that was witnessed by Christ’s apostles when he was transfigured on Mt Tabor. The Gospel reading for matins today recounts Jesus’s meeting with his disciples, who are out fishing, after his resurrection. He instructs them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat, so that they catch something. This passage is one of my favorites because it shows such a tenderness and mutual attentiveness between Jesus and his disciples. Simon Peter, perhaps because he remained in a state of silent reflection on Jesus, recognized Jesus and leapt off the boat with all of his clothes on because he was so excited to see his friend. But perhaps most strikingly, it is in the midst of focusing on his mundane work that Simon Peter encounters Jesus. When the disciples get to shore, they find that there is a charcoal fire with fish cooking on it, and Jesus invites them to sit and eat with him. My father, who is an orthodox priest, loved to preach on this Gospel passage because it demonstrates how Jesus is aware and attentive to the most pressing needs of his disciples: he realizes that they have been out fishing all night, are probably tired and hungry, and need a good meal before being ready to become the great fishers of humanity that they will one day become. Jesus models the quiet attentiveness to the other, the creative listening, that brings about communion. As we move into the third week of great lent, I suggest that we follow the example of Jesus and his disciples in this passage and practice the creative listening that allows us to be open to encountering both our fellow human beings, but also the presence behind the silence, in the midst of our everyday lives. For it is in listening for the still, small voice that we begin to grow closer to our neighbor and to God.





Ware, Kallistos. Silence and Glory: The Message of St. Gregory Palamas for the World Today. A Lecture sponsored by the Hilandar Research Library. Ohio State University, April 9th, 2002.

Pino, Tikon. Essence and Energies: Being and Naming God in St Gregory Palamas. Routledge, 2022.