Straight to the Source

I would guess that all Orthodox Christians have heard of the Fathers, but many don’t know who they really are and even fewer have read them. By “the Fathers” we mean those Christian writers who did what many great Christians did–live the Faith–but also wrote about their learning and growth, enabling others to benefit from their experience of lived faith.

One of the greatest of the Fathers is St. Gregory Palamas, whose lived faith, beautiful teaching and defense against the detractors of Orthodoxy catapult his stature above others. We reflect on his life and work every year on the Second Sunday of Great Lent, coming up this week. So instead of writing a reflection on the importance of the Lenten practices of fasting and attendance at the Divine Services with my own words, I thought I would present the source and share with you his beautiful and instructive words.

In the following excerpt from a sermon on fasting, St. Gregory assumes fasting is being undertaken by the Faithful, but shares some of the challenges we face when we fast. My hope is that it will encourage those of us who are not fasting to consider this invaluable practice, and to everyone who fasts, some important warnings and instructions. May our Lenten journey be blessed!

(For those whose appetite for more of the beautiful teachings of the Fathers, you can visit the parish Bookstore or Library, or visit the many Orthodox booksellers online.)



By Saint Gregory Palamas

In this time of fasting and prayer, brethren, let us with all our hearts forgive anything real or imaginary we have against anyone. May we all devote ourselves to love, and let us consider one another as an incentive to love and good works, speaking in defense of one another, having good thoughts and dispositions within us before God and men. In this way our fasting will be laudable and blameless, and our requests to God while we fast will be readily received. We shall rightly call upon Him as our Father by grace and we can boldly say to Him, “Father, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

Again, he who schemes against our souls uses another means to render our prayer and fasting useless: self-conceit. Because that Pharisee was conceited when he fasted and prayed, he was sent away empty-handed (Luke 18:10-14). We know, however, that people with proud hearts are unclean and unacceptable to God, and we are well aware that we owe God many large debts and pay back very little. So let us forget those things which are behind as worthless, and reach out towards those things which lie ahead (cf. Phil. 3:13). Let us fast and pray with contrite hearts, self-reproach and humility, that our fasting and our regular attendance and presence in God’s Church may be pure and pleasing to Him.

Another of the evil one’s methods of making our toil in fasting and prayer fruitless is to persuade us to accomplish them hypocritically for the sake of vainglory This is why the Lord commands us in the Gospel, saying, “Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:6).7. He did not say to encourage us to excuse ourselves from gatherings and prayers in church, because in that case the prophet and psalmist would not have said to Him, “In the midst of the congregation will I praise thee” (PS. 22:22), or, “I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations” (Ps. 57:9), or, “I will pay my vows before them that fear thee, Lord” (PS. 22:25). Nor would he have said to us, “Bless ye God in the congregations” (Ps. 68:26), or, “O come, let us worship and bow down and weep before the Lord our God” (Ps. 95:6). The Lord teaches, besides other, higher matters, of which there is no time to speak now, that if we are stirred up to pray alone in our houses and bedrooms this also encourages prayer to God in church, and inner prayer of the nous encourages spoken prayer. If someone only wants to pray when he attends God’s Church, and has no concern at all for prayer at home, in the streets or in the fields, then even when he is present in church he is not really praying.

The psalmist demonstrates this because after saying, “My heart is ready, O God”, he adds, “I will sing and give praise in my glory” (Ps. 108:1). Elsewhere he says, “When I remember thee upon my bed, I meditate on thee in the morning hours” (Ps. 63:6). The Scripture says, “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:16-18).

How incomparable is His love for mankind! With these words the Lord makes clear to us the distinction and decision He will make at the future Judgment, so that from now we might lay hold of the better choice and portion. To those who live for vainglory and not for Him, He will definitely say, in accordance with His words in the Gospel, “You received your reward during your lifetime,” just as Abraham said to that rich man in the flames, “Thou in thy lifetime receivest thy good things” (Luke 16:25). Those who look towards Him as they practice virtue He shall, it says, reward openly, which means that in the sight of the whole world He will give them in return His blessing, an inheritance, pleasure and pure joy for ever and ever. He wants nobody to miss this, and everybody to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), so He makes clear now, as I said before, His impartial and unalterable choice, showing that only those who despise the glory that comes from men are sons of God.