This Sunday in the Orthodox Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas. His work represents the triumph of reality over theory – of true knowledge of God versus scholasticism. This is an article written in 2008, following my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
For Elder Sophrony [Sakharov], theology was the state of being in God….theology was for him the description of the event of his meeting with Christ when he was caught up and saw the divine Light. [as described earlier in the text]. (For him theology was the narration of an event.) According to his writings, authentic theology consists not in the conjectures of man’s reason or the results of critical research, but in the state of the life into which man is brought by the action of the Holy Spirit. Theology is then a grace of the Holy Spirit which rekindles the heart of man. Whoever has acquired this gift becomes as a light in the world, holding forth the word of life.
The Archimandrite’s description of the Elder Sophrony’s understanding of theology is similar to the well-known saying in Orthodoxy that “he who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” At its very heart there is a steadfast allegiance to the traditional stream of Hesychast theology (as taught by St. Gregory Palamas) which insists that theology must be grounded in reality – in the experience of the Divine reality – and not simply in the creations and syllogisms of human reason. The point of theology is not to speak about God, but to speak with God.
This is always the difficult (and even frustrating) aspect of Orthodoxy. Unlike the inventions of the human imagination it is, instead, the gift of God, and therefore not under our control. Thus we are counseled to pray, fast, repent, forgive, give alms – all in the context of the remembrance of God. The Liturgy is a mystery in which God is truly among us and truly gives Himself to us – and yet we struggle even there to give ourselves to Him.
St. John in the beginning of his Revelation greets his fellow believers with these words:
I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
In a very few words he sums up the common experience of the Christian life: “to share in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Our individual circumstances can differ greatly – but none of us escape the “tribulation” [he is here referring to the trials we all suffer and not the dispensationalist notion of a “great tribulation”], none of us are excluded from the Kingdom except by our own choosing, and for all of us there is the daily life of patient endurance.
I thought much about this during my pilgrimage in the holy land. Some places are more interesting than others for someone nurtured in a modern environment. My visit to the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert, carved and perched on the sides of a sheer cliff, in a sun and heat that clearly belonged in a desert – with a landscape which, though beautiful, is still largely uninterrupted rock and sky – was thrilling for the hour or so we were there. But the American monk with whom I had conversation had been there for 15 years. I found myself thinking back over the previous 15 years of my life – 15 years of serious change – 15 years, busy enough in “God’s service” that you can ignore prayer and forget that you are ignoring it.
In the desert and monastic rule of Mar Saba there is prayer, and the chores of the day – but mostly prayer. It is unavoidably part of the “patient endurance.”
For many of us in our contemporary settings, we find it difficult to stay put long enough to have “patient endurance.” I think the length of Orthodox services is one of the first experiences many people have of Christ saying to us, “Slow down.” Or in Biblical terms, “Be still, and know that I am the Lord.” There is a “patient endurance” that is an inherent part of Orthodox prayer. Some days we endure more patiently than others.
But the faith does not ask patient endurance of us, or tribulation itself, except for the sake of the Kingdom. God is not a taskmaster – we have been freed from the slave masters of Egypt. But just as the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness for two generations in order to become the people of Israel – so we travel in patient endurance, the Kingdom and the tribulation in order to become conformed to the image of Christ.
Standing on a ledge of Mar Saba, it is easy to feel the romance of the caves. But the reality of the caves bears more similarity to whatever it is in our lives that we must endure than it does to any romantic fantasy. Saints are real and are forged in reality by the Spirit of God. There is nothing that separates our lives from that of the saints – for we are one body. Their endurance is part of our inheritance as our endurance must become the inheritance of generations to come.
It is in that day to day remembrance of God that becomes our patient endurance that we ourselves become theologians, or at least catch a glimpse of true theology from time to time.
I was not surprised to hear from the monk who had endured 15 years in the desert, “I have no enemies,” (as I shared in an earlier post). He is a theologian and knows the truth.