On Saturday, we got up early and drove south. It was only a bit over an hour, but it’s interesting how quickly the landscape changes around here. The urban sprawl soon gave way to open fields waiting for spring planting, gentle rolls of hills, and horses pulling buggies. I sure do love the convenience of city life, but I really am still a country girl at heart. I was glad to get away.
The second Sunday in Lent is a day to commemorate St. Gregory Palamas. So, we went on pilgrimage to a monastery that bears his name. Last week, we remembered the triumph of the icons. This weekend, we remember a triumph of another kind.
St. Gregory was a monk and Bishop of Thessalonica in the 14th century. He devoted his life to simple, constant prayer…specifically the Jesus Prayer. There was controversy at this time between the East and the West over the Orthodox practice of prayer. St. Gregory defended the Orthodox position and clearly defined our dogmatic teaching on the subject. He is remembered at this time during Lent as a call to prayer. A call to holiness.
I eagerly anticipated this pilgrimage. Life has been insanely chaotic of late, and the peace…I crave the peace. Stepping into a monastery chapel is an instant ticket to another world. A taste of possibilities.
The devotion of the monks; the gentleness; the quiet. No extra, unnecessary words. No extra, unnecessary entanglements. Prayer. Peace. Pursuit of God. The icons on the walls are images of those who lived the godly life. These men in front of me are living icons of the Faith. This is what holiness looks like. This is what peace and love feel like. And it’s not just for them…it’s available to all of us.
I treasure all of the saints, but sometimes, you just connect with one particular saint. They seem to show up when you need them in ways you weren’t expecting. I met St. Gregory Palamas in that unexpected way yesterday, and I was so touched to make his acquaintance.
On the eve of St. Gregory’s repose, St. John Chrysostom appeared to him and encouraged him with the words, “To the Heights! To the Heights!” When I look at these monastics and the life of St. Gregory, I am moved to compunction. My prayer life recently has hardly been to the heights. I seem to be hearing more of the mantra, “To the plateau! To the plateau!”
Unceasing prayer. Not a mental exercise. Prayer of the heart. At times it seems impossible for me. At times I am tempted to despair in my failed attempts. So, I get into a satisfactory prayer groove, where I pray just enough to not feel too guilty, but nowhere near enough to move forward. I look around and realize that I’m just treading water. I’m staying in one place.
Lent is a challenge to step things up. Blow up the plateau. Reach for the heights. You might fall when you reach, but you’ll come back even stronger just for the attempt.
Orthodox prayer is not canned words with no depth. It is not a quota to be filled or a box to be checked. There is no such thing as praying enough. Every moment, every breath is calling on the name of Jesus. The prayer never ends.
Being on the plateau seems like a safe place. The surroundings are familiar. Not necessarily attractive or inspiring…but familiar. In reality, the plateau is a dangerous precipice. Treading water is an illusion. If you aren’t going forward, you just drift backward.
Inner prayer. The joy that never ceases. The petition that never wavers. The name of Jesus. So many words in one name.
St. Gregory, pray for me. Show me through your example how to pray. Let my “amen” not be a transition from one moment with God to a string of a thousand moments in my own passions. My own words. My own illusions. Rather, let my “amen” be not the end of prayer, but only the beginning. To the heights! To the heights! There’s nowhere else to go but up.