A Personal Experience with the Living God

Dcn. Michael's Homily on the Second Sunday of Great Lent:

The second Sunday of Great Lent is also known as the second “Triumph of Orthodoxy” Sunday, because on this day we commemorate the 14th century saint who fought to preserve the Church’s traditional understanding of our ability to communicate with the approachable, loving God and to thus share in His divine energies. 

St. Gregory Palmas was an Athonite monk and the archbishop of Thessaloniki.  During the mid-14th century, St. Gregory became embroiled in an event in the Church that would become known as the “Heyschast Controversy.”   This debate pitted those who believed that through inner peace and silence (heyschism) we could share in God’s divine energies, against those who believed that it was impossible for humans to know on such a personal basis an unapproachable God.  Even though the practice of heyschism was the focus of the controversy, the true issue at stake dealt with our ability to develop a personal relationship with God; to become one with Him and to thus share in His divine energies.  Just as with the earlier Iconoclastic Controversies from the 8th and 9th centuries, the root of the problem did not rest in the practice but rather in the belief.  In essence, the question becomes "how “approachable” is God?"  Is it even possible for us to achieve that perfect union of love with God, known as theosis, which will allow us, as mere humans to experience the tangible evidence of God’s presence in our lives?

The Heyschast Controversy began around the year 1337 when a Calabrian monk named Barlaam, living in Constantinople, was scandalized by the writings of St. Gregory describing the heyschast practices.  Trained in Western Scholastic theology, Barlaam believed that the heyschism practiced by the Athonite monk was heretical and blasphemous.  He especially took exception to the claims of their ability to obtain what was known as the uncreated light; the same visible manifestation of light witnessed by the apostles at Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.  Those who were familiar with the uncreated light believed that they were participating in the energy of God.  But to Barlaam, however, the physical manifestation amounted to nothing more that polytheism—the belief in more than one God—with the uncreated light representing a completely different and visible god which was not the same as the unseen Father Who is worshipped in heaven.

We can see here the parallels here between the Iconoclast and Heyschast controversies.  In both cases, those who were not familiar with the Eastern religious traditions mistakenly viewed the icons and the uncreated light as objects of worship, rather than the results of the worship.  Our worship of God is strengthened, not performed, through the veneration of icons.  The love is transferred through the objects to their rightful owner.  The images, or icons, are not themselves the focus of the veneration or worship.  And it is the same with the uncreated light:  Unlike what Barlaam understood, there was no worship of this light—it was not a “god” in and of itself.  Rather, it is a manifestation of God’s love which helps to direct our true worship to God.  There is still only one God being worshiped.

These types of misunderstandings often lead to controversies that have the power to divide the Christian faith.  While the Heyschast Controversy did not have the overall devastating impact on the Church as Iconoclasm, it still had at its base the same common element that we find with so many other theological issues throughout the centuries.  We find that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God as it applies to His Incarnation and thus His overall relationship with His creation, especially with humanity.  When God is seen as distant, unloving and merciless, and His human creation is seen as contemptible and unredeemable, then the mere thought of humanity’s ability to participate in His energies becomes incomprehensible.  We are then forced to accept a god who is a vengeful, merciless judge and executioner, rather than a loving Father Who is merciful to His whole creation.  We forget that “God so LOVED THE WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son.”  And then in the following verse of St. John’s Gospel, we are comforted by the fact that, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).  Simply put, God “gave” so that we might be “saved.”

To fully appreciate the significance of the impact of the Heyschast Controversy on a personal level, you will need to first develop a relationship with God, which can only be obtained through a personal, spiritual experience.  What this means is that we cannot build a personal relationship strictly through the scholastic approach, since the God of the living does not exist in books and lectures.  At some point we need to move from a mental to a spiritual experience in order to make the grace of God real within our own lives.  We can certainly rely on the lives of the saints as guides for our own spiritual journey, and we can certainly benefit from reading the writings by and about their lives.  But at some point along the way, we need to make their story our own.  We need to discover how to apply their life lessons.  In other words, we need to develop our own personal relationship with God.

Consider how the situation may have been different in our Gospel reading this morning from St. Mark’s Gospel if the friends of the paralytic tried to find a cure for their friend simply by relying on the scientific and medical knowledge of their time.  We do not know how the man in the Gospel lesson become paralyzed, or how long he had suffered in his condition, but we do know that the paralysis was so complete the he was confined to a bed.  And here we not only witness a deep level of love displayed to the paralytic by his friends, but we also see a deep level of faith in the ability for Jesus to perform the healing miracle.  The paralytic’s friends obviously had to go through a lot of effort and patience in order to get their friend onto the top of the roof of the building where Jesus was teaching, and then disassemble the roof and carefully lower the man and his bed down to the floor of the house.  Whether the paralytic understood it or not, his friends assisted him with having a personal experience with God.  It was not enough to explain to him all the great teachings and miracles of Christ; the sick man had to experience the Son of God for himself.

The personal experience—that ability to come into intimate contact with God through Christ—was, in reality, the act that Barlaam declared as blasphemous and heretical.  The Theological Scholasticism of the West had little room for understanding many of the mysteries of the faith, including the uncreated light.  This phenomenon was considered to be the product of the overactive imaginations of isolated and deluded monks.  But like the Desert Fathers before him, St. Gregory Palamas realized that there were certain things in this world that go beyond our earthly comprehension.  Our Creed declares such miracles as virgin birth and resurrection from the dead, and our faith asks us to believe in a risen and living Christ, whose body and blood we partake of during each Holy Communion.  So why is it so hard to believe that human beings, by the grace of God, may participate in His divine energy?  If God was willing to become incarnate to live and die among sinful men, why is it so hard to believe that He would not give us a small glimpse of His heavenly splendor?  With all the things that we have to consider when confronted with the evidence, I would contend that it would make more sense to accept the belief in the uncreated light of God than to not believe it.

In the end, the true Orthodox faith prevailed, and Barlaam with condemned and anathematized by the Council of Constantinople in 1341.  St. Gregory’s defense of the true faith was upheld with the council declaring that God, unapproachable in His Essence, reveals Himself through His energies, which are directed towards the world and are able to be perceived, like the light of Tabor, but which are neither material nor created.  And the heyschast tradition of silence and inner prayer continues to be part of the monastic tradition today.  Through the work of St. Gregory Palamas we too can proclaim that God is with us, and that we are able, through faith and His divine grace, to share in the energies of our merciful, righteous Father.