Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Constantinople. 2015

“What hymns shall we sing in honour of the Holy Bishop? He is the Trumpet of theology, the herald of the fire of grace, the honoured vessel of the Spirit, the unshaken pillar of the church, the great joy of the inhabited earth, the river of wisdom, the candlestick of light, the shining star that makes glorious the whole creation.” Vespers Tone 2

In 1316 at the age of 20, Gregory entered the Monastery of Vatopedi on the Holy Mountain. From the very beginning monk Gregory grew into the world of continual mental prayer known as hesychasm. In 1326, because of the Turkish invasions, Gregory retreated to Thessalonika. He was ordained priest there and eventually Abbott of the Esphigmenou Monastery – but he had to resign this position because it was felt that he was far too austere for the other monks. Gregory’s life was entirely devoted to Christ and his own personal regime was incredibly strict.

The “prayer of the heart” as the hesychast practice is also known, was severely criticised by many but no more constantly and offensively than by the monk Barlam who was a convert to Orthodoxy from Italy. Gregory was forced to defend the well established hesychast movement at least six times at synodal meetings in Constantinople. Gregory eventually won the heated debate over Barlam. Gregory had previously read some of Barlam’s scholastic works including one which focused on the addition of the filioque clause in the Creed. Although Barlam’s position was entirely Orthodox, Gregory pointed out that Barlam was incorrect in his assumption that God could not be defined and that it was impossible to tell where the Holy Spirit came from. The Creed quite clearly defines from where the Holy Spirit descends. Barlam quite often seems to be in denial and argumentative just to cause friction.

Naturally enough Gregory launched an attack of agnosticism on Barlam. There was much correspondence between Gregory and Barlam over the years, each one suggesting that the other was incorrect. The result was a legacy of essays and definitions from Gregory but the old war between Barlam was far from over. Gregory was summoned by Patriarchs and imprisoned for 4 years, even though majority verdicts had suggested that all of Barlam’s works should be destroyed.

Saint Gregory Palamas continued the struggle for Orthodoxy and this is why Orthodoxy Sunday and the Second Sunday dedicated to Saint Gregory are in many
ways, inseparable. The battles for the restoration of our ikons were as venomous, heretical and as difficult as the defense of faith through the written ikons of the Gospel and the Creed; the upholding of the truth. We need this important history to remind us of who and what we are today. These first two Sundays in Great Lent, together, show us that we now have a firm and stable Church in Christ to whom we give honour, worship and follow the Gospel and the teachings of the church. If we are created in His image then we must understand that when we give to others we give to Christ. If we fail to give then we fail to give to Christ. We must not allow doubt or argument to destroy our faith. Let the historical strength of the unshakable faith in right belief be a guide on our Lenten journey.

As Metropolitan Antony says “we are all ikons of Christ” – we have His image in each other but often we fail to recognise Him. Let us pray for strength that we will not deny Him.

Holy Saint Gregory, pray to God for us.

Father Christopher