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To Understand the Cure We Must also Understand the Illness

March 30, 2013

An unfortunate consequence of our fallen state is characterized by our desire to be healed without an awareness or appreciation of the severity of our illness.  We view distractions during prayer as ordinary obstacles to be overcome rather than as symptoms of our spiritual illness and alienation from God, which call for more zealous and wholehearted repentance.  We seek easy and even painless solutions to problems that vex us, rather than cultivating stillness and asking God for mercy with a readiness for self-sacrifice out of love for Him Who sacrificed all for us.  We desire rational, logical, and all too superficial solutions to existential, ontological, spiritual problems that can only be healed by a radical openness to God’s holy love, uncreated light, and divine grace, an openness to a process not devised by the human mind, but revealed by God Himself.

In an earlier post concerning “image and likeness” I wrote, “According to the Holy Scriptures, we were created in the image and likeness of God. For the Church Fathers, this means that there is an unbreakable relationship between God and humanity inherent in man’s very being, that humanity and God are forever distinct as creature and Creator, and that a dynamic movement towards perfection, a movement from the image to the likeness, is an inherent part of the spiritually healthy life.  The Fall, like an ontological sickness, weakened man’s relationship with God and derailed the upward movement from the image to the likeness. This derailment, which meant erratic movements in every other direction except that of our ultimate goal, would affect the entirety of human life. Remaining unreceptive to the Divine Energies that should guide thought and action, forsaking the innate human drive of the image towards divine perfection in the likeness, man relies solely on the fruit of the tree of knowledge, meaning a static knowledge of created reality apart from God, apart from life, which ultimately causes man to misjudge reality. In other words, when we are ignorant of the meaning of the image of God in us, when we fail to base our thoughts and actions on it, and when we fail to strive to move towards the likeness, which comprises the infinite perfections of God in His goodness, simplicity, holiness, purity, blessedness, and other qualities, we are left to our own devices and predilections, we make catastrophic errors in judgment.  We mistake falsehood for truth, vice for virtue, and pride for humility.”

Our real problems have an existential, ontological, and spiritual depth that call for radical measures on our part and on God’s. This the second Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate our father among the saints, Saint Gregory Palamas whose life and teachings illustrate so perfectly what God offers us and what we are to offer God, so that we might become what we were ultimately meant to be.  Saint Gregory defended the perennial patristic ascetical praxis of prayer and fasting as a pathway of Light to Light in which the faithful see Light. When the psalmist and the fathers chant “In Thy Light we shall see light,” they are not referring to the light of the sun, or the moon, or the morning star, but that Light which is beyond light and darkness, before time and space, in the very ruling power of God that makes the image of God in man radiant with the splendor of Mount Tabor upon which Christ was once transfigured in Glory.  e7b279be6a862d254f0e7cc4dde2874e_XLAccording to Saint Gregory, what Peter, James and John experienced on Mount Tabor after praying long with the Master, after being perfectly obedient to Him, after forsaking all, every thought and desire, to follow Him, was the Uncreated Light—God revealing Himself in His energies.  This Uncreated Light that the Saints behold in them and around them in a manner beyond sight and sense can only purify, heal, and ultimately divinize those who seek God with their whole heart, which means seeking Him, precisely as the Holy Apostles did.  For those who do not seek God and refuse His love, the Uncreated Light is experienced as a blazing, all-consuming fire.   A prayer of St. Simeon the Translator reminds us of this:  “…Thou who art a fire consuming the unworthy, consume me not, O my Creator, but rather pass through all my body parts, into all my joints, my reins, my heart.  Burn Thou the thorns of all my transgressions. Cleanse my soul and hallow Thou my thoughts …that from me… every evil deed and every passion may flee as from fire”.

As Saint Gregory Palamas and the ancient fathers as far back as Saint Ignatius of Antioch taught, the ascetical practices of the church-constant prayer, vigilance, fasting, confession, and communion are indispensable if one is to experience the Uncreated Light as a loving, healing power.  As Peter Chopelas has described, “It means being healed, purified, illumined and transformed by God by His Divine Energy into a similitude of God [Jas 4:9], which will bring us into union with Him. It is the process in which humans are completed or “perfected” [see Heb 10:14 among others], “divinizing” us, making us “Christ-like” or more accurately “assimilated to God”, through the Energization of His Power.  When we are in perfect harmony with God [in the Gr. “synergy”–1Cor 3:9 ‘for we are God’s synergisers’], the Holy Spirit energizes within us, transforming us, and then we too radiate this Uncreated Light.”

Topics such as distractions during prayer and suffering are fine in so far as they lead to the real work of ascetical practice in daily life.  The struggle to control our thoughts, restrain our tongues, and curb our natural appetites can only take place in the context of the constant remembrance of God which is made possible through much fasting, persistent prayer, and devout reception of the Church’s mysteries.  No philosophical treatise or theological speculation can replace the efficacy of the purifying fire of lived repentance.

In Homily Six “To Encourage Fasting”, Saint Gregory Palamas, the theologian of the Uncreated Light and unceasing prayer reminds us, “Sensual pleasure causes ungodliness as well as sin, but fasting and self-control result in the fear of God as well as virtue.  Fasting must be accompanied by self-control.  Why?  Because eating our fill, even of humble foods, is a hindrance to the purifying mourning, godly sorrow and contrition in our souls, which bring about unswerving repentance leading to salvation.  For without a contrite heart we cannot really lay hold of repentance.  It is the restriction of self-indulgence, sleep and the senses according to God’s will that crushes our hearts and makes us mourn for our sins.  When that rich man in the Gospel said to himself, ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ (Luke 12:19), the wretch made himself fit for the eternal flames and unfit for this present life.  Let us, on the contrary, brethren, tell ourselves to be temperate, to fast, to keep watch, to be restrained, to be humble and to suffer hardship for our salvation.  Then we shall finish this present life in a good way pleasing to God and inherit the blessed life without end.  May we all attain to this by the grace and love towards mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory, might, honour and worship, together with His Father without beginning and the life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

  1. I really need to get his homilies as translated by Dr. Veniamin.

  2. susan permalink

    please help me to understand why year after year by the third week of Great Lent i feel as though i am spritually flatlining. it is a lack of both zeal & despair, which in years past has made me feel like i am on Lenten Autopilot.
    my question is where do i even begin to look for a way overcome these doldrums? i feel as though a heavy blanket is suffocating all of my intentions – both weak & strong.

  3. Susan,

    The Lenten doldrums, like the demon of noonday or akedia, is part of the Lenten struggle. We just need to try to do what we are called to do, irrespective of how we feel, and get out and do some good for others, when we feel unable to do the good we want to do for ourselves. And God’s grace descends, unexpectedly, and again we find wind in our sails. A great help is almsgiving in any and every form to someone who is need.

    Fr. Alexis

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