The Orthodox Church, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, commemorates St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonika in the 14th Century. St. Gregory taught that genuine fulfillment, fulfillment beyond earthly riches and rewards is life with God. His central teaching was, that with faith, prayer and the Sacraments of the Church, we share in the life of God. Two themes summarize the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas: Theosis, which is to become God-like and Hesychasm which is prayerful stillness towards God. St. Gregory’s “verbal imagery” provides the second piece of the puzzle.
Prayer is an important dimension of our Orthodox Christian Life. How can we pray with any depth? For most us, prayer means little more than standing in the pews for an hour or so on Sunday morning. We recite prayers in a mechanical manner. Our prayer life, and ultimately our life as Orthodox Christians, lingers at this superficial level.
But this approach to the life of prayer has nothing to do with the Christianity of St. Paul, who urges the Christians of first century Thessalonica to ‘pray without ceasing’. And in his letter to Rome St. Paul instructs the Christian Community there to ‘be constant in prayer’. He not only demands ‘unceasing prayer’ of the Christians in his care, but practices it himself. “We constantly thank God for you”, he writes in his letter to the Thessalonians, and he comforts Timothy with the statement that he ‘always commemorates him in his prayers’. In fact, whenever St. Paul speaks of prayer in his letters, two Greek words are frequently mentioned: “pantote” which is defined as “always”; and “adialeptos” define as “without interruption or unceasingly”. Thus, prayer is not merely a segment of life which we may conveniently lay aside if anything we deem more important “comes up”. Prayer is as essential to life as breathing.
This raises some important issues; how may we be expected to pray “always”? We are, after all, very busy people. Work, a spouse, children, school; all are heavy demands. How therefore, may someone “fit” prayer into an already overcrowded lifestyle. These issues set up a false separation in our lifestyle. To pray means to contemplate and live an entire life in the Presence of God.
St. Gregory Palamas teaches, “The power of prayer fulfills the sacrament of our union with God.” The relationship between prayer and Theosis is the essence of Hesychasm, which offers a rich spiritual tradition about prayer, especially prayer with the heart.
In order to enter deeper into the life of prayer and to conform with St. Paul’s challenge to pray “unceasingly”, the Orthodox Tradition offers The Jesus Prayer, which is sometimes called the “prayer of the heart”. The Jesus Prayer is offered as a focal point for the Orthodox Christian’s inner life. St. Gregory Palamas was the greatest exponent of the Hesychasm method of prayer. The Greek term, “hesychia” is defined as silence, quiet. The Hesychast practice focuses on awareness within, and the repetition, first verbally, then, in the depth of one’s being, of the Jesus Prayer. Though there are both longer and shorter versions, the most frequently used version of the Jesus Prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Prayer is an essential focus of the Lenten Season. St. Theophan the Recluse, a 19th Century saint and spiritual writer distinguishes three levels in reciting The Jesus Prayer:
- First, it starts as Oral prayer, a simple recitation, which St. Theophan defines as prayer’s “verbal expression and shape”. Although very important, this level is external and only the first step. According to St. Theophan, the soul of prayer is within the heart;
- Second, entering a deeper form of prayer, we attain a level of praying without distraction. St. Theophan comments that at this point you are focused upon the words of the prayer, speaking them as if they were your own.
- Third, and final level is the prayer of the heart. At this level prayer is not a labor or action, but who we are. This prayer, which is a gift of the Spirit, is a restoration of relations with the Father.
Quietly we pray. We have removed ourselves from the earthly sounds. We have actually turned off our phones, iPods, game screens, Facebook page, cable and satellite television. We are in utter silence in our Kat’ oikon Ecclesia, our home prayer corner, with our Bible, Icons, and a candle burning or vigil light flickering. This is the time we reflect on the day’s events; our spiritual virtues and our vices and sins. Our prayers may seem as a rambling of words. We seem to try to get everything in one prayer, can’t find the right words.
On this the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, as we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, it might help us to use the verbal imagery of this puzzle piece. This piece of the puzzle evokes two themes Theosis and Hesychasm. St. Gregory believed that we must always strive to be Christlike. Our prayers are to follow Christ’s teachings and be like Him. Regardless of who we are, we must always make an effort to strive to be like Christ. It was St. Gregory’s belief that we all need a positive “time-out” with God. This means a quiet place, where we sit peacefully praying to God; A peaceful time. “Prayer…uplifts and unites human beings with God”, according to St. Gregory Palamas.
Theosis and Hesychasm become our next puzzle piece. Hopefully one we will continually use in our Orthodox Christian Identity. In their verbal imagery they lift us up as we approach the mid-point of the Lenten Season.