Liturgy is in essence worship: praise and glorification of the Holy Trinity. It also serves to glorify the saints and to convey to us the significance of their lives within the Church of their time and ours. This includes important aspects of their teaching. Liturgical services dedicated to the saints provide us with theological understanding, just as they offer us models of moral rectitude and pious conduct.
This season has just brought us through one such cycle of services, served on the second Sunday of Great Lent and dedicated to the life and work of St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), sometime Archbishop of Thessalonica and one of the most significant of the Byzantine theologians. His most familiar and important work is the Triads in defense of the Holy Hesychasts, a defense of Athonite monks who claimed to have direct experience of God, including visions of the Uncreated Light.
With the exception of the matins canons, the services of this Sunday were composed by Patriarch Philotheos Coccinus of Constantinople in 1368, the year of Gregory’s canonization. They focus particularly on Gregory’s triumph over the Calabrian theologian Barlaam, who denied that direct knowledge of God is possible and held that the experience of the Athonite monks was mere delusion.
These services, however, including the second canon dedicated specifically to Gregory, are largely limited to terms of praise that exalt the person of the saint rather than his teaching. They are replete with language such as we find in the verses of “Lord I Call” (Vespers). There Gregory is described as “the trumpet of theology,” “the river of wisdom and candlestick of the light,” “the well-tuned harp of the Spirit,” “the glory of Thessalonica,” and so forth. They say practically nothing of Gregory’s teachings. Only in the Ikos of matins do we find allusions to his insights concerning the Divine Light, a distinction between God’s “essence” and “energy,” together with mention of his victory over heresy.
These exalted expressions of praise certainly have their place in our worship. Yet they can only leave us with a desire for more. Just after the final Pascha he celebrated with us here on earth, I asked Fr. John Meyendorff—the most outstanding of contemporary Palamas scholars—if he would attempt to compose further services to the saint which would bring out the significance of his theology for the life and faith of Orthodox people. He replied that such a project required someone who was both a poet and a specialist in liturgy. I am neither, so until now the idea has rested quietly on an upper shelf.
Unlike the fixed canon of Scripture, liturgical services can and should expand whenever inspiration and creativity combine to offer the Church new expressions of its belief and worship.
If some gifted person cared to elaborate on the existing tradition for Palamas Sunday, perhaps he or she could include, among many others, the following elements of Gregory’s teaching.
Palamas is particularly associated with the “hesychast” tradition of mental prayer that is a natural expression of the human mind, popularized in the form of the “Jesus Prayer” or “Prayer of the Heart.” More broadly, Palamas taught that through inner, mental prayer—which is a possibility for everyone by virtue of our creation “in the image of God”—the human person can participate directly in the very life of God, through the “divine energies” that are expressions of the divine nature or essence. Essence and energies are to be understood not as distinct “parts” of God, but (in Lossky’s terms) as “two different modes of the existence of God, within His nature and outside His nature; the same God remains totally inaccessible in His essence—and communicates Himself totally by grace” (The Vision of God, SVS Press 1983, p. 157). The aim of hesychast prayer, then, is ultimately theosis, deification of the human person. This signifies that through our experience of God it is possible for us to “know” God, and to “participate” in Him both in this life and beyond: here and now through our baptism into Christ, and after death through our resurrection in Him. “
Without entering into the finer points of Gregory’s dispute with Barlaam, or overwhelming our faithful with technical theological language, the inspired, creative poet we are seeking could easily find material for new services dedicated to this remarkable theologian whom we celebrate on Lent’s second Sunday. Another canon, other verses for “Lord I Call” and the aposticha, new troparia: all are possible.
The Liturgy, once again, is a living expression of our faith and our life in Christ. It is appropriate, even necessary, that we strive continually to deepen and enrich its content. Far from violating Holy Tradition, this kind of creative contribution can make the Liturgy “live” in the fullest way. And thereby it can serve its most basic purpose: to enrich our life just as fully, by guiding us along the pathway toward the Uncreated Light.