Lenten Reflections: Glow-in-the-Dark Monks

Welcome to my first guest blogger in the series, my friend David!

David J. Dunn holds multiple degrees in religion and a Masters in education. When he is not busy trying to turn his dissertation into a book more than six people will read, he sometimes blogs for the Huffington Post. Check out his website to see his vitae or photos of him at roller derby bouts and jujitsu tournaments. You can also follow him on Twitter at @DrDavidJDunn.

Glow-in-the-Dark Monks: The Point of St. Gregory Palamas

When modern archaeologists first discovered Christian graffiti in the catacombs (graveyards) of some cities, they assumed it was because they were hiding from their Roman persecutors. But we now know that early Christians were there to worship. The early church knew what we often forget: that no one and no thing are ever truly gone in Christ. The unity of the church means our past is made present in him who is our future hope.

That is why the Orthodox Church has a way of collapsing time in on itself. It is something we do on purpose. Images of Christ and the saints flicker behind vigil lamps because a great “cloud of witnesses” cheer us on through their prayers and intercessions (Hebrews 12:1). It is also why every Sunday of Great Lent commemorates a past event. Last Sunday, we celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which affirms that those flickering icons are not idols but windows into heaven and media of grace. The second Sunday of Lent commemorates light. Black light, to be specific!

To say what I mean by “black light,” I need to do a little history.

The Second Sunday of Great Lent calls St. Gregory Palamas to stand in the congregation of the faithful. Gregory died in the mid-1300s. He was embroiled in the Hesychast controversy for most of his adult life. Hesychasts were monks who prayed with their head bowed, concentrating on breathing deeply from the pit of their stomachs, they would pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,  have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This practice helped them focus all their thoughts and energies on the divine. They believed that through such prayer they could become transformed, enabled to see the very light of God’s own divinity – the light that “shone like the sun” from the face and clothes of Jesus on Mt. Thabor (Matthew 17:2).

A man named Barlaam mockingly called Hesychasts “navel-gazers.” He said that any vision of God was actually mere nature manipulated to represent God. St. Gregory defended Hesychasm and the doctrine of the uncreated light, eventually leading to the condemnation of Barlaam as a heretic.

St. Gregory’s theology is very Orthodox in the way it resists neat summary. His conceptual twists and turns can steer even the clearest minds into confusion. So I will not get into the subtle distinction he made between the “essence” and “energies” of God, save to say that Palamism was vindicated for the same reasons that the church venerates icons: we believe there are no more “gaps” where Christ Jesus is concerned. In him, God becomes “participatable.”

The first and second Sundays of Great Lent stand together as a unit. Not only does the worship of the Orthodox church blur the boundaries between heaven and earth, time and eternity, but we also insist that matter and spirit cannot be neatly separated, either. The curtain at the temple has been torn in two (see Mark 15:38).

We Orthodox kiss icons and pray the Jesus prayer – hoping one day to see God in this life – because we make the seemingly ridiculous assertion that matter can be divinized. Through the grace of the Spirit we believe that wood and paint and even our bodies can bear the weight of God’s own life.

Like I said, ridiculous! Right?

Then again, the Christian faith has always been a little ridiculous (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Maybe praying like a Hesychast or kissing a flickering icon is no more ridiculous than the idea that God can become a helpless infant, can weep, feel terror, sweat blood, and be executed like a common criminal. Maybe the idea of seeing God is no more ridiculous than believing on the third day Jesus Christ rose from the dead as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Maybe it is no more ridiculous than believing that in him we see ahead of time the eternal materiality of us all – resurrected bodies so alive in God that Paul only knows to call them “spiritual”(15:40).

We make our Lenten journey in the hope that the Resurrection was not just a localized event. If it was, then why bother? Probably the most Christian thing to do is to free ourselves from our irredeemable materiality by committing mass suicide.

We kiss icons and believe in glowing monks because we think otherwise. These first stops on our journey to the empty tomb are poignant reminders that the Resurrection ripples across the universe – past, present, and future.

Thus we believe that bread and wine, water and oil, and wood and paint are carriers of the kingdom. For that reason, an icon is not simply an illustration (like the felt board Bible stories of which we have tragically deprived our children). Icons have agency. They are living theology.

Thus many icons of the Transfiguration, like the one above, depict the light emanating from Christ in shades of black and dark blue to show us that the light of God is not something anyone can see. It is not a human light. It is visible to matter without being “merely” material. So Barlaam was wrong to think the Hesychasts were crass materialists. They were just people who were deeply aware of the power of the Resurrection in the present.

If I were standing in the presence of a glowing Hesychast, I probably would not see anything, because the vision of the uncreated light is not a human accomplishment. It is a work of grace. Thus, not everybody could see the body of Jesus, either. Those who traveled with him to Emmaus did not recognize him. They had to have their eyes “opened” by the Spirit (Luke 24:31). The same is true with Hesychasm.

The light of Thabor is not merely material but eschatological! It is the light of the kingdom of God happening ahead of time, shining through the holes the Spirit has pierced through the veil of the present. Like I said, in Christ that veil has been torn asunder. Usually we march to the drumbeat of time without much reflection. Holy hesychasm, icons, and the journey of Lent itself remind us that that drumbeat we think we hear is actually the slow “riiiip” of history being torn in half by the resurrection.


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