On the Second Sunday of Lent we commemorate St Gregory Palamas. Gregory was a writer from the 13th and 14th Centuries, living in Thessaloniki or Thessalonica – which most Americans will know vaguely as a city where St Paul sent a couple of Letter. His writing solved a crucial problem in Church theology and, perhaps most especially, drove a sort of wedge between East and West in terms of our understandings, at least on the surface. There is a lot to read about him on the web staring with the Greek Archdiocese’s webpage on the topic.
Today I’d like to point out two cures from Gregory and also point out a caution for us.
Gregory is the cure for the Mental Masturbation we like to call “Theology” today.
I fancy myself a church geek: I know all kinds of liturgical actions, I know minute sillinesses about when to bow and when to prostrate. I know Byzantine liturgical piety ok – and western liturgical piety very well. I can tell you why the little offices are replicas of the Eucharistic liturgy – and therefore should not be tampered with. I know how to clean up the spill after the wine has been consecrated and I know how to play an obscure game in the Roman rite called “Paten, Paten! Who’s got the Paten?” Sometimes I think I even understand Thomas Aquinas and Gregory Palamas.
But I fail at prayer.
When I get up in the morning I sleep through the offices. I mostly forget at night.
Gregory Palamas… brings us here.
Modern folks like to think that theology is all in the head. All in the mouth. We tinker with theology – trying to iron it out, make it smoother, logical and crisp. We think that the latest cultural trends must show up in theology. So we have “God is dead” and “Postmodernism”.
Let me tell you about your marriage.
Imagine sitting down with your spouse – whom you have loved and fought with and feted and fasted with lo these many years. You tell your spouse – him or her – that you’ve read a new book: we’re all just children of primates, apes with less fur and bigger vocabularies. What does it change? DO you still love her? Argue with him? Feast and Fast the seasons?
Imagine you’ve read another book that says we all have three parts in our personality or that we’re nothing but electrons, or that in the end we’re only dust in the wind.
What does it change about the relationship you have?
If you value the relationship. If you value the person of your spouse more than yourself, more than anything else in the world. Will any book change them? If the book is true it may tell you something you need to know about the relationship – but if it is true it is written by someone who, themselves, has such an intimate relationship. But no book can ever replace the experience of laying in your lover’s arms and whispering secrets. No expert can tell you a thing is true if you know it is not – and how do you know? Because in your dance of Love you know the truth.
So it is with God.
And so it is that the Orthodox say that the “true theologian is the one who prays”.
Gregory Palamas saw this 800 years ago: the man who has only head knowledge, logical arguments and book learning knows nothing about God.
The Church knows her husband. She has lived in various levels of intimacy with him for the last 4000+ years – from the covenant with Abraham to Sinai to Babylon to Hannukah; from the Forerunner to Pascha to Pentecost to Nicea; from Boris and Gleb to Innocent to Raphael to you. He has whispered sweet knowledge in her ear on their bed after lovemaking and sent her love letters of wisdom. And nothing that is not-true will be accepted.
We can no more know God through book knowledge and debate than you can know your own spouse through sitting in a bar and “figuring him out” while watching Oprah. You can learn new things and try them out – yes. But they stand or fall on the results. On the experience. On the relationship itself.
You have to go home and live in intimate relationship before experience gives you the knowledge needed.
So it is with “Theology”. We know that “truth” is not a mental proposition but rather is Jesus. Any mental proposition claiming to be “truth” that is not Jesus… well: I hope the mental orgasm was good.
Gregory Palamas requires some Caution here – especially for us converts. I certainly include myself here. God became man in Jesus. Exactly that we might know God. Might touch God. Might hold God and breast feed God – the God in dirty diapers, as I like to say. Jesus as the Divine Lover of the Church, of Humanity. Palamas’ sharp distinction between “essence and energies”, between the parts of God, if you will, that we can know and the parts we can’t, can trip us up. It can become nearly Gnostic of us if we fail to balance his teachings with the reality of the Incarnation. His arguments are not prescriptive but rather descriptive. He’s talking about what Mystical experiences are open to us in prayer and meditation – not about what is closed to us, nor what limits us. He’s talking about the intimacy we can have and pointing out the parts that don’t work. He is not telling us what we can’t do to get there.
And, like any relationship: this is not a one-sided marriage. Do you know the classic comedy image of a husband and wife sitting at the breakfast table? She’s talking while he is reading a newspaper. Imagine that same thing in your bed. How long would you make love to your spouse if they just laid there? Like a dead fish? Maybe even reading a book?
There is in Gregory another cure: one for a VERY common error today. Gregory is the Cure for Cheap Grace.
Especially in America where we are too-heavily influenced by countless layers of “reformation” coming in attempted (or supposed) isolation from that 4000 marriage-bed conversation, where we are not willing to listen to our elders and all too willingly break with tradition exactly because it is tradition: we have come to think of Grace exactly the same way we think of finding a $100 on the street. We think of Grace as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” (as my Sunday School teacher taught me). We imagine that all we have to do is sit here and showers of “grace” will fall on us.
Gregory points out that “grace” is God’s actual presence in our life. As this bread and this wine that we are about to consume is Jesus, Body and Blood, present with us, so to is Grace the actual energy of God moving through you. It is the light of God radiating from him, through you to others. It’s an actual thing. A presence. It’s not a “transaction” made for Free. Jesus paid for lunch: You’ve Got Grace! Your boss gave you a free vacation – grace! No.
Grace is God in your life.
When I hear good Irish music I start to tap my feet and bang my fingers. I play the Irish drum, the bodhrán, and when I hear goood Irish music, I start to play air drum. When I hear exceptionally good music, I’ll grab a notebook and a pen and start to be really annoying, playing. Barring all that, I’ll get up and dance. We dance a lot here at that house – especially in the kitchen.
Gregory points out that grace is the music calling you to dance.
But the rest of the Orthodox teaching on Grace is that Grace is TOTALLY wasted if you don’t get up and dance. More on that in a couple of Sunday, but that’s my parting shot for today. This idea that we can just sit down and “get graced” is not what Grace is. That idea of a free lunch… let it go.
Jesus didn’t buy us a “get out of hell free” card – he gave us a way to dance our way out. But we have to get up off our asses and do it. When our Divine Lover calls us to the marriage bed, we are not to “lay back and think of England”. He will leave us as cold as we deserve.
AS I said at the top of the mark, this is where I fail. I know all the technicalities, all the “official” goods, but I fail at this intimacy. I’m working on it – but I’m sure those people who think Grace is a free lunch will get it before I do.
Asking your prayers….