Gregory Palamas: Tearing the Roof Off

The Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent is the story about the four fellows who want to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. When they get to where Jesus is, he is trapped in a house, surrounded by hundreds of people. There is no way they are going to get in to see Jesus. However, some people have just got to have direct contact and will find a way. The way these fellows found was to tear off the tiles on the roof (I’m sure Jesus’ host was not very happy about that), strap their paralyzed buddy to the pallet, and lower him down on top of Jesus. “Hey, Jesus, here I am. Heal me.” The text says that when Jesus saw their faith(i.e. the faith for the guys who tore off the roof and lowered their friend down), he healed their friend.

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The second Sunday of Lent is also the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas. St. Gregory is a 14th century theologian who articulated the Orthodox Church’s rejection of scholastic theology. I am not an expert on Palamite theology, so if I get this wrong, please correct me gently. As I understand it, and put very simply, the problem with the scholastic approach to theology was that it was completely rational. Based on revelation, one would reason to deeper levels of understanding. Palamas argued that, while rational understanding had a place, knowledge of God came only through direct “noetic” (often translated “intellect”) contact with God through inner silence.

In a certain sense, these navel gazers (as they were derisively called by the West) were much like the fellows who tore the roof off to directly contact Jesus. Everyone else stood around respectfully, happy to learn (or at least hear) all that Jesus had to say. They were going to think about it, and perhaps extrapolate from what Jesus said something additionally profound. But these crazy guys who tear off roofs, what can you say about them. They went higher, deeper and quieter than everyone else. They tore apart the roof (which might be likened to the rational structures which may be useful in some contexts [keeping out rain] but merely hindrances in others [touching Jesus]), they went where no one else was willing to go. And they touched Jesus–or rather were touched by him.

The scholastic theologians said (say) it is impossible to really touch God. They say that the light that some hesychasts (the respectful name for those who pursue God in stillness) saw was not really the Light of God that shined from Jesus on Mt. Tabor, but just some natural experience. The Scholastics say this because for them it is rationally impossible for the creature to actually and directly know, experience, see, etc. the Creator. I guess like the crowd around Jesus, they are pretty sure they have it all figured out–except one thing: that paralyzed inner man is not helped by rational understanding. But a couple of old men and women who pray in stillness are showing signs of the life of Christ on earth.

A roof (like reason) is good, but when it keeps me from my Lord, it’s time to remodel.

 

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