March 26, 2017

Homily on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (St. Gregory Palamas)




By St. Gregory Palamas

I have spoken often to your charity about fasting and prayer, especially during these holy days. But so far I have imparted nothing to your devout ears and souls about the gifts with which they honour those who love them, and the many benefits they bring about for those who make use of them. These matters are confirmed above all by the Lord’s words in today’s Gospel reading. So what are these gifts? They are great, probably the greatest of all. Among other things, they can bestow authority against evil spirits, to cast them out and drive them away, and to free those possessed from their cruelty. When the disciples, referring to the deaf and dumb spirit, told the Lord that they could not cast him out, the Lord told them, “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17.21).

Perhaps that was why, when the Lord descended after His prayer on the mountain with its accompanying manifestation of divine light (Matthew 17.1-9, Mark 9.2-9, Luke 9.28-37, 2 Peter 1.16-18), He immediately came to the place where the man possessed by that demon was (Mark 9.14-17). He had taken His chosen disciples, it says, “and went up into a mountain to pray, and he did shine as the sun. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him” (cf. Matthew 17.2-3 and Luke 9.28-30). These two men practiced prayer and fasting more than anyone else, and their appearance while the Lord was praying shows the harmony and concord between fasting and prayer. In their talking with the Lord, it was as if fasting were talking to prayer. As we learn from Moses, the Lord told Cain that the voice of the blood of smitten Abel cried unto Him (Genesis 4.8-10). In the same way, all the parts and members of our body suffering hardship because of fasting cry unto the Lord and, joining their voice to the prayer of the faster, pray together with him. They make his prayer highly acceptable, and justify him for having voluntarily undergone the toil of fasting. So then, after having prayed and shone with the divine light,he Lord came down from the mountain and approached the crowd and His disciples, to whom the man with the demon had been brought. On the mountain He showed that the reward for fasting was not merely great but all-surpassing—for He revealed that their prize was divine radiance. Now that He had descended, He would prove that they also win power over demons.

Since it is customary on this Sunday of the fast to read about this miracle in church, let us start from the beginning and go through the whole of the Gospel passage which recounts it (Mark 9.17-31). When Jesus came to the disciples, and those with them, and asked what they were discussing, one of the multitude answered and said, “Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; and wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away” (Mark 9.17-18).

Why was he foaming at the mouth, gnashing his teeth and withering away? Of all the parts of the possessed man’s body, his brain suffers first and foremost, since the demon uses the spirit of the soul within the brain as a vehicle, and from there, as from a citadel, exercises power over the whole body. When the brain is afflicted, it emits a frothy, phlegm-like discharge to the nerves and muscles of the body, blocking up the outlets of the soul’s spirit. As a result, shock, convulsions and involuntary movements affect all the parts of the body capable of independent movement, especially the jaws, as they are nearest to the part originally afflicted. A lot of moisture is brought down into the mouth due to the size of its pores and its proximity to the brain. Since, because of the unruly movements of the body’s organs, it is impossible to breathe out in one long breath, and the breath is mixed up with the accumulation of moisture, those afflicted foam at the mouth. So the demon was foaming at the mouth and gnashing his teeth, clashing them together horribly and grinding them in a frenzy. The boy was withering away because of the demon’s extreme violence. The heat of the sun’s rays causes mist to form, but if this heat intensifies, it makes the mist disappear and disperses it completely. Similarly, the demon’s violence causes moisture to come from the internal organs, but if this violence intensifies, the body’s natural juices soon evaporate and the possessed person withers away.

The father of the man with the demon went on to tell the Lord that he had asked His disciples to cast him out, but they could not (Mark 9.18). Then the Lord, addressing not just the man but everyone, said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?” (Mark 9.19). I think it likely that the Jews who were present at the time had used the disciples’ inability to cast out the demon as an excuse for a few blasphemous comments. They did not cease speaking blasphemy when miracles were performed, so what would they stop short of saying if they had an excuse? The Lord was aware of their murmuring and reproaches, and, from afar, proved them wrong and put them to shame, not just with hard-hitting words, but with both deeds and words full of love for mankind. He ordered that the possessed man be brought to Him, and they brought him. When the demon saw the Lord, he convulsed the man, who fell down and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. For He gave the demon leave to demonstrate his wickedness openly (Mark 9.19-20).

Then the Lord asked the boy’s father, “How long is it ago since this came unto Him?” (Mark 9.21). The Lord asked this question out of charity, to lead the man towards believing and supplication with faith, since he was so far from believing that he did not even plead for his son to be saved. He had not entreated the disciples at all either. “I spake,” it says, “to them that they should cast him out” (Mark 9.18). He had not fallen down at their feet or pleaded with them or besought them. Up until then he did not seem to have besought the Lord either. So the Lord left the boy lying wretchedly in front of Him, and addressed the father, asking how long he had been afflicted, and eliciting a request from him. He replied that he had him from childhood and that he had often cast him into fire and water to destroy him. Then he added, “But if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9.21-22).

You see how lacking in faith the man was. Anyone who says, “If thou canst”, makes it obvious that the does not believe you can. The Lord replied, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9.23). He did not say this because He was unaware of the man’s disbelief, but to lead him step by step towards faith and to show that his lack of faith was the cause of the disciples’ failure to cast out the demon. Observe carefully the evangelist’s words. He does not say that the Lord said to the boy’s father “If thou canst believe” just as He almost always demanded faith of those who asked for healing, but as the Master and Guardian of souls, He also strove to heal them through faith. When the boy’s father heard that healing would follow upon his own faith, he said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9.24). See what excellent moral progress he had made! He not only believe that the boy could be healed, but also that the Lord could overcome his own lack of faith, if He was willing. At these words, the people came running together and the Lord rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, “Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him” (Mark 9.25).

This demon seems to have been extraordinarily savage and defiant, as proved by the severity of the Lord’s rebuke and His command that he should not return. Apparently, if it had not been for this order, he might have gone back again after having been cast out. He had a strong hold over the man and was difficult to detach. He was deaf and dumb as the man’s nature was inadequate to minister to his excessive madness, and had been afflicted with almost total deprivation of the senses. “And the spirit cried,” it says, “and rent him sore, and came out of him: and the man was as one dead; insomuch as many said, he is dead” (Mark 9.26). The demon’s cry does not contradict the fact that he was dumb. Speech means sounds which convey a meaning, whereas a cry is an unintelligible sound. The demon was allowed to convulse the man so severely as to make him like a corpse, so that all his wickedness could be openly seen. Nevertheless the Lord took the man by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose, showing in this way what great energy was His. Taking him by the hand was a manifestation of created energy like our own. Raising him up completely unharmed, however, demonstrated uncreated, divine, life-creating energy.

When the disciples asked Him privately, “Why could not we cast him out”, He told them that this particular demon “can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9.28-29). Some people say this must be the afflicted person’s prayer and fasting, but it is not so. Anyone in whom an evil spirit is at work, especially one like this, is his tool and completely in his power. So how can he pray and fast for his own good?

It seems that this terrible demon was the demon of licentiousness. Sometimes it casts its victims into the fire—that is, into strange loves devoid of affection—and sometimes it plunges them into the water by means of gluttony and excessive indulgence in drinking and parties. The demon in such people is also deaf and dumb, because anyone who has let himself be persuaded by the suggestion of such a demon can hardly bear to hear or speak of sacred subjects. When someone who does not have this evil spirit dwelling within him, but has been carried along by his suggestions, stands up ready to repent—for he still has his freedom of action—he has need of prayer and fasting. Through fasting he curbs his body and checks its stirrings, while through prayer he puts out of action and lays to rest the soul’s former preferences and thoughts which arouse this passion, and he overcomes it, having repelled the satanic assault and violence by fasting and prayer. If, however, he not only acts on the demon’s suggestions, but has him dwelling within him, he no longer suffers like other men. Nor can he himself do anything towards being healed. If those who are free, especially those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, do on his behalf what he would himself if his mind were at liberty, this can make a great contribution towards casting out the demon (compare James 5.16 and Acts 12.15).

Driving away demons, however, is not required of us, and even if we were able to drive them away it would be of no advantage to us if we lived carelessly. “Many”, it says, “will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7.22-23). It is much more profitable to us to strive to banish the passions of fornication, anger, hatred and pride than to cast out demons. Being delivered from bodily sins is not enough, we must also cleanse the inner energy which dwells in our soul. For out of the hearts “proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness” (Mark 7.21) and so on—these are what motivate people. Also, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5.28). Even when your body does nothing, sin can be active in your mind. When your soul inwardly repulses the evil one’s attack by means of prayer, attention, remembrance of death, godly sorrow and mourning, the body, too, takes its share of holiness, having acquired freedom from evil actions. This is what the Lord meant by saying that someone who cleans the outside of a cup has not cleansed it inside, but clean the inside, and the whole cup will be clean (Matthew 23.25-26). “Strive as hard as you can to ensure that your inner labour is according to God’s will, and you will conquer the outward passions” (Abba Arsenios, Apophthegmata Pateron 9). If the root is holy, so are the branches (John 15.5). If the yeast is holy, so is the dough (Galatians 5.9). “Walk in the spirit”, says Paul, “and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5.16).

Christ did not abolish the Jewish circumcision but fulfilled it. He Himself says, “I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5.17). How did He do this? It was a seal, a sign and a symbolic way of teaching about cutting off evil thoughts in the heart, something the Jews were not very zealous about. They were reproached by the prophets for being uncircumcised in their hearts (compare Jeremiah 9.26 and Romans 2.25), they were hated by Him who could look into hearts, and in the end they became outcasts. Man looks at the outward person, but God regards the heart, and if it is full of foul or evil thoughts, that man deserved to have God turn away from him. That is why the apostle exhorts us to pray without wrath and doubting (First Timothy 2.8).

To teach us to strive for the spiritual circumcision of our hearts, the Lord pronounces the pure in heart and the poor in spirit blessed. He stresses that the reward for this purity of heart is seeing God, and He promises the kingdom of heaven to the poor (Matthew 5.8, 3). By the poor He means those who live frugally and in need. But it is not only such people whom He calls blessed, but also those who are like them in spirit, those who, because of their inner humility of heart and their good purpose, have arranged their outward life accordingly. He forbids not just murder but anger, and commands us to forgive from our hearts those who sin against us. Nor will He accept the gift we offer unless we are first reconciled with one another and let go of anger (Matthew 5.21-24).

His teaching is the same in respect of the passion of fornication, since He declares that an idle look and the resultant desire in the heart is adultery (Matthew 5.27-28). Looking at the subject as a whole He says, “If the light that is in thee”, namely, the mind and the reason, “be darkness”, full of the unenlightened assaults of the rulers of darkness, “how much greater is that darkness”, of the body and the senses, which of themselves do not possess the noetic radiance that gives birth to both truth and dispassion? If the light within you is clear, unobscured by fleshly ways of thinking, your soul will be completely radiant, as though a lamp were illuminating you with its light (compare Matthew 6.22-23 and Luke 11.34). Such is the spiritual circumcision of the heart through which the Lord fulfilled the circumcision of the flesh according to the law, given to the Jews as a sign and a guide towards it (Romans 2.28-29). As they made no effort to acquire this spiritual circumcision, their own circumcision, as Paul says, “is made uncircumcision” (Romans 2.25), and they have been estranged from God who does not regard the person (Galatians 2.6, Matthew 22.16, Mark 12.14, Luke 20.21), that is, the outward signs of righteousness in the flesh, but looks into the heart, at the invisible movements of our thoughts within us.

Please may we too, brethren, be on our guard, and let us cleanse our heart from all defilement, lest we be drawn in the wrong direction with the condemned. If the law spoken by Moses “was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape if we neglect our own salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost” (Hebrews 2.2-4). Let us fear Him who examines hearts and minds. Let us appease the Lord of vengeance. Let us make ourselves the dwelling of peace, sanctification, and contrite prayer, without which no one will see God (Hebrews 12.14). Let us long with the full assurance of faith for that vision promised to the pure in heart, and may we do everything to attain it, for it is accompanied by eternal life, unfading goodness, inexhaustible riches, unchanging and unending delight, glory and kingdom.

May we all attain to these things in Christ, the King of the ages, to whom alone belong all glory, honour and worship, with His Father without beginning and the all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit unto endless ages. Amen.