When I grow up, I want to have a Sunday of Lent named after me! #ThingsSaintGregoryPalamasNeverSaid
And yet here we are, approaching the Second Sunday of Great Lent, which is aptly named after the revered saint, “the Star of Orthodoxy,” St. Gregory Palamas. Of the five Lenten Sundays, the Church deemed it fitting that this one, the second Sunday of the Fast, should be named after him.
St. Gregory was an ardent defender of the hesychast tradition in monasticism. Hesychasts practiced what is known as “the prayer of the heart” and taught that God could be known and experienced directly through his Energies, such as His grace, healing, and forgiveness.
This idea of knowing God directly was unacceptable, however, to an Italian scholar and monastic named Barlaam, who taught that God was altogether unknowable. For Barlaam, God’s utter transcendence keeps human beings from ever truly knowing God, especially since Barlaam approached God with a much more intellectualist bent.
Essentially, the controversy was this: “Palamas accepts that there is an immediate and personal communion between God and man, while Barlaam sets God beyond the world and rejects the possibility of there being any direct personal relationship or communion between Him and finite man.”1
Well, to make a long story short (which is something Orthodoxy is notoriously bad at), Palamas was right, Barlaam became Roman Catholic, and everybody lived happily ever after.
For Palamas, God is known sort of like the sun is known. We see the sun’s light and sense its heat. And though we may not be able to stand on the surface of the sun without melting, or be joined to its essence without disintegrating, we can nevertheless experience its energy.
So, too, God desires to be experienced. He wants to be in communion with human beings. He wants to be seen. He wants to be touched.
In the Gospel reading this coming Sunday, we see a paralyzed man who is brought to Christ by his friends – and by “brought,” I mean lowered through a roof. For this man and his friends, seeing Jesus Christ was the long-awaited solution to a chronic problem: this man needs to walk.
But the healing of the man’s body is not what immediately happens. Rather, Christ looks upon the paralyzed man and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5).
For the Jews, this was unacceptable. Since only God is capable of forgiving sins, they reasoned, Christ was a blasphemer. In their hearts, they believed Christ to be out of His mind, having claimed to be the unknowable and unapproachable God, whose name the Jews were afraid even to speak. Knowing their reasoning, Christ asks, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’” (Mk. 2:9)
To answer this question, I’ll turn things over to St. Gregory Palamas, who preached on this very Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent (before it was named after him). He writes:
It seemed to the scribes that the Lord was unable to heal the paralyzed man, so He had resorted to something obscure, forgiving his sins. Just to pronounce words of forgiveness, especially in such an authoritative and commanding way, was blasphemy; but it was also something easy that anyone could do.
That is why the Lord said to them, “If I wanted to utter empty words without any practical outcome, it would be just as easy to declare that the paralyzed man should rise from his bed as that his sins were forgiven, both statements being of no effect.
But so that you may know that my word is not ineffectual, and that I did not resort to forgiving sins because I was incapable of granting him healing of his illness, but that I have divine power on earth as the Son Who is of one substance with the Father in heaven, although, according to the flesh, I have become of one substance with your ungrateful selves,” He then says to the paralyzed man, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home. And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them,” (Mk. 2:11-12).2
For Palamas and for Christ, the healing of the paralyzed man’s body is a sign, a promise of God’s saving action. It is a sign that His grace, His uncreated Energy, has acted within the paralyzed man to grant him forgiveness of sins, affecting both the healing of his soul and of body. For the now ex-paralytic, coming to know Christ as God was not something that he understood with his mind, but something he knew in his bones.
So I guess Barlaam was right, at least in a sense. God cannot be known; or rather, God is entirely unpredictable! That this man, Jesus Christ, is the same God who alone has authority to forgive sins is the last thing that anyone could imagine or expect.
For who could ever anticipate that God would become a human being? Who could ever imagine that God would clothe Himself in mortality, and heal those stricken in soul and body? To observe Jesus Christ is to see God act in the flesh. To encounter Him is to feel him in our guts, and it is truly enough to leave us amazed, glorifying God, and saying “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mk. 2:12).
We must, therefore, ask ourselves: what in us is paralyzed? What in us demands that we be lowered (humbled?) before the Lord in order to receive forgiveness and healing?
In this sense, Barlaam was very, very wrong. It is possible to know God in a profoundly intimate and mysterious way, and thank God for this gift: for it is only by experiencing His healing that we can come to know Christ as the Physician of both soul and body.
The commemoration of St. Gregory’s life, theology, and victory over Barlaam should be counted as a second celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (which we celebrated only last week), for it is only by encountering the living Christ in His forgiving and healing Energies that Christ’s true and living icons are formed. May we also open our hearts to receive Christ who wishes to heal us in our innermost hearts that we may experience the warmth and energy of the Son.
1 Georgios I. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1984), p. 99.
2 St. Gregory Palamas, ed. Christopher Veniamin, The Homilies of Saint Gregory Palamas, Volume One (St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan: 2002), p. 107, partially paraphrased.
Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.
For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of St Gregory Palamas, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.
For more on our experience of and connection with God, rather than an over-intellectualized view of Christianity, check out this episode of Be the Bee: