04 November 2015

The Uncreated Light of St Gregory Palamas

Icon of St. Gregory Palamas

For St. Gregory Palamas, whose feast we will celebrate on Saturday, November 14, the Transfiguration is much more than simply a supernatural event in the life of Christ and the Apostles James, Peter and John.  For St. Gregory, the unveiling of the uncreated light of the Logos within us is both a historical event and an existential experience.

Born in Constantinople in 1226, the son of an imperial courier, Gregory’s father died at an early age and his welfare and education were taken up by the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282–1328). He was well educated in Greek philosophy and administration by the imperial adviser Theodore Metochites.[1]  Gregory was a very austere and ascetic monk who began his spiritual path as a novice on Mount Athos in 1318. He later relocated to a skete, which is a small hermitage meant for religious who were extreme ascetics or preparing themselves for martyrdom.  There he wrote and taught about the technique known as the prayer of the heart, or Hesychasm. It is not his austerity, which was no doubt extreme by any standard, but his writing and teaching that lives on today as a great gift to those whose spiritual lives have improved as a result of the prayer of the heart.

After retreating to the Greek city of Thessaloniki as a result of an invasion by the Turks, Gregory was ordained a priest and established himself as a leader in the community in 1326.[2]  Although Gregory was later consecrated as Archbishop of Thessaloniki, he would be hounded by the Calabrian abbot-theologian Barlaam of Seminara, who insisted that the process of divinization known as theosis in the Hesychast tradition, was Bogomilism and therefore, heretical.  While the controversy with Barlaam must have been very difficult for Gregory to bear, it produced the quintessential Hesychast treatise, Triads for the Defense of Those Who Practice Sacred Quietude, which Gregory wrote as a rebuttal to Barlaam’s accusations of heresy.  Hitherto the tradition had not been systematically described and theologically defended in one document.[3]

Gregory’s theology finds its crux in the example of the uncreated light of the Transfiguration, which he referred to often.  This metamorphosis of Jesus is recounted in Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36, and very briefly in John 1:14. On Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were not seeing something that was new: they were able to behold that uncreated light within their master as it had always existed.  They had eyes to see.  In the words of the great Syrian Saint John of Damascus, “I have seen God in human form, and my soul has been saved.”[4]  The Apostles present at the Transfiguration realized that what they were seeing had always been there in Christ, yes, but as the Gospel of John recalls, “Abide in me, and I in you.”[5] The revelation of the uncreated light of the Logos is something that is both a historical event and an event that happens within us.

St. Gregory calls us to be one in spirit, always recognizing that uncreated light that is within us all, and which for us must be united as a Temple of Living Stones, the Body and the Blood of the eternal Logos.  That’s you. That’s me. 

[1] Fr. Bassam A. Nassif. Light for the World: the Life of St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
[2] Orthodox Wiki “Gregory Palamas.”
[3] Saint Gregory Palamas (1999). Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite. Global Academic Publishing. p. 3.
[4] John of Damascus. On Divine the Images, I, 22.
[5] John 15:4

20 October 2015

The Gnosis of Fire

It is with books as with the fire in our hearths; we go to a neighbor to get the embers and light it when we return home, pass it on to others, and it belongs to everyone. – Voltaire

In that Voltairian spirit which sees wisdom in order, but also in disorder, fire represents knowledge and change; something to be shared.  Through the advancements and conflicts of the Enlightenment, Science has taught us the only thing which is eternal is change. Fire is therefore a most appropriate metaphor for the eternal in all of us.  The Sacred Flame.

Heraclitus wrote that “All things change to fire, and fire exhausted falls back into things, the crops are sold for money spent on food.” As much as the notion presents itself as rather foreign to my temperament, it might be very naïve of us to avoid conflict, and to misunderstand the divine engine which is propelled through the combustion of opposing forces.  Maybe.  Still, I would not champion the idea of creating conflict for its own sake. It will come.

Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of Luke (12:49) as having said “I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, but that it be kindled?”  These words are spoken by every Johannite priest as the Mass begins and the central pillar candle, representing the Sacred Flame, is lit.  There is a necessary violence, a cosmic tension and an ultimate attraction to the purification by fire contained in this ritual.  
Turning back to Heraclitus, we can find that he had much to say on the cycle of conflict that rages all around us.

 The poet was a fool who wanted no conflict among us, gods or people.  Harmony needs low and high, as progeny needs man and woman.

So I gaze into the fire and in it I see an eternal flame which is always new and different. I see in its perpetual combustion something akin to my Being.  I see in this flame a commonality with everyone around me.  One and indivisible, the Sacred Flame.  Amen.


[1] Voltaire, “Lettre XII: sur M. Pope et quelques autres poètes fameux," Lettres philosophiques (1756 edition)

28 September 2015

Apocalypse of the Siren

"Hear me Calling" by Catrin Welz Stein
“Your ingenuousness touches me, your unconcealed carnal intrigues amuse me, and it seems to me that, as is sometimes the case with the best kind of Sicilians, you have managed to achieve a synthesis of the senses and reason.”

The wizened and eccentric Classics professor, Rosario La Ciura, spoke these words to his young friend, Paolo Corbera, before revealing the greatest secret of the old man’s life: He had been in love with a Siren.  Yes, a real Siren is the divine spark which ignited the marvelous book, The Professor and the Siren, originally published in Italian as La Sirena, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampesdusa.

As a young Greek scholar studying in Sicily, La Ciura had a divine––and yet also terrestrial––encounter with a sea Siren, who climbed up into his boat one summer afternoon.  Once La Ciura had tasted the sublime confluence of the immortal and erotic transcendence of his Siren lover, he would repudiate the common experiences of humanity, spitting on them as dirty and utterly devoid of beauty.  One of the only things that the old professor would allow himself to enjoy was a plate of sea urchins, briny and reminiscent of the kisses he once shared with his mythical beloved. 

It seems to me most important at this stage in my spiritual and physical development, to dwell on this gift of achievement that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa reveals in this, one of his only published works.  I find these words of his to ring true to my own experience of those who have begun to master the delicate balance between life as a corporeal being, and the inner Being which is lit by an uncreated light.  This is the struggle of St. Antony of Egypt, the fetish of every desert hermit and heretical flagellant, yes, but it is also a milder grove inhabited by the more moderate spirits among us who also seek out the gates of paradise.  Cicero, Dionysius, Benedict, Hildegard, Ficino and Rabelais; they too have something to say about this balance––in fact they might have a bit more to say to us today than those who so quickly turned their human existence into some sort of sacrificial holocaust.

The reason I say these people might have come closer to giving us a glimpse of the Real is because they, each in their own way, focused inward in their quest for the Beloved.  Saints and sages such as Gregory Palamas kept that ancient knowledge alive by focusing their attention on the inner light which can be revealed in the human heart through prayer, meditation and that experiential knowledge we call gnosis.

Even before the Nag Hammadi papyri were found, this hidden spiritual path was right in front of every Christian in the world.  If we weeded our way through the “otherness” of an anthropomorphic mythology, there was at the end of the canonical Bible, a book of Mediterranean mysteries even more beautiful and profound than Tomasi di Lampedusa’s La Sirena.  This ancient enigma is known as the Apocalypse of St. John, a.k.a. the Book of Revelation. 

Three and a half decades before the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels in Egypt, a gentleman by the name of James Morgan Pryse would put forth his exposition of the Apocalypse as an esoteric interpretation of the Christos-myth. Pryse published his Theosophical research on the Apocalypse in 1910, rejecting the exoteric teachings of an anthropomorphic God, and showing a path to eternal life using that uncreated light within.  The key to this path is Gnosis, and the nature of the New Jerusalem and each of the acts in the Hellenistic mystery play that is played out in Revelation is the subject of Pryse’s Apocalypse Unsealed.  

Reminiscent of the ecstatic union of Professor La Ciura and his Siren, Pryse puts forth the ancient Hermetic matrix of energy and vibration which resonates between our three microcosmic bodies: The spiritual body (soma pneumatikon), the psychic body (soma psychikon), and the physical body (soma, or sarx, “flesh”).  Pryse takes this primordial microcosmic Being and places it within the context of an initiation which is present in an absolutely complete form, in St. John’s Apocalypse.

The initiation contained in Pryse’s summary unleashes the latent light of the Logos within us, into conscious energy which travels as the speirema, which is Greek for “serpent coil”,  through the apocalyptic cycle of initiation up the ladder of energy points in the human body; finally unveiling a solar body, the immortal Augeoides, in Greek called the soma heliakon. This initiation leads us to become self-luminous in the way Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor. 

In this scenario, the material forms of our body are important, and have much to contribute to our enlightenment.  Working as a whole, the initiate, like Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “best kind of Sicilians”, learns to manage a synthesis of senses and reason, which leads not only to balance and service to others, but to a relationship that leaves the pleasures of earth lacking in the seductive charm of our spiritual youth.