The Great Fast is supposed to be a yearly revisitation of one’s catechumenate, and it is more than fair to say that I am revisiting mine. It was, after all, during the Great Fast of my catechumenate that I finally stopped being unserious about my possible conversion and got serious. Much of this was because of my attendance during that Great Fast of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, during which the life of St Mary of Egypt was read.
My friend tells me that through some strange wonder, he was browsing through musical scores today and came across John Tavener’s opera on Holy Mary of Egypt. He was bewildered by how erotic the story of Holy Mary of Egypt is – it really is – and he asked me what I thought of it.
I replied to him that Holy Mary of Egypt is everything to me. I’ll explain more as we get down to the fifth week of the Great Fast which is all about her, but suffice it to say that it was she who reached out from heaven and grabbed my heart and tossed me to the ground in the prostrations of the Great Canon. It is not too much to say that it was Holy Mary of Egypt who transformed my body into the body of a hesychast, where every prostration, every bow, and every reverence cries, Lord, have mercy.
It was indeed for this reason, which I will get into more later on in the Great Fast, that I had to join the Byzantine church that I joined on the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. Prior to that, I had thought that joining an Eastern Catholic Church would get me all the sacramental perks of the Latin Church without having to be a Latin. But through the Great Canon and the life of Holy Mary of Egypt, my body became that of a hesychast, negating my selfhood and my restless imagination by constantly prostrating for G-d’s mercy in order to possess the Holy Spirit. I will explain this further in future posts, but since I want to keep on this theme of hesychasm for the Sunday of St Gregory of Palamas, I will simply conclude this section by saying that the way I understood my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit changed that night. It may sound weird to say this, but I had to join a Byzantine church because my body automatically began to move ahead of me in terms of hesychastic practice. For this reason, I keep icons of Holy Mary of Egypt and the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in my icon corner, especially in the corner where I gaze upon them in wonder at my body’s hesychastic conversion during my Great Fast catechumenate.
It occurred to me, though, that as I was recounting this to my friend that if it is true that my body is that of a hesychast, it is also true that I am one terrible hesychast. I certainly pray on the chotki that my spiritual father gave me and that my bishop blessed, and I pray the prayers before the icons from the Jordanville Prayerbook.
But it is also true that I am a working academic frequently overwhelmed with work and frazzled by deadlines. Because of this, I often miss my prayers, and my body suffers for it. My heart is not still, my nous does not go into my heart, and my body ceases to say, Lord, have mercy.
I talk a good game about hesychasm, then, but I am a terrible hesychast. And yet that is precisely the thing about me being a convert to a Byzantine church. Holy Gregory Palamas reminds me that the hesychastic body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that is precisely what I know my body to be. If my body is a temple, it follows that – in Byzantine logic – that it is overlaid with icons, as a person in Christ is an icon reflecting in my body the light of Christ such that I may shine one day with the Uncreated Light.
But I am a bad icon, and my body is like that one Byzantine temple you may be thinking of where the carpet smells, the icons are dusty, the heat doesn’t work, the singing is bad, the people are few and unenthusiastic, and the homily is so unintelligible that even the English-only parishioners wish the guy were speaking actual Ukrainian.
And yet, nothing about such a temple makes it any less than a temple, and nothing about an icon where the paint is coming off and the dust is settling makes it any less of an icon.
That is me. I am a terrible hesychast because it seems that I am never still and always stressed, constantly tired and seldom calm. All the things that Holy Ephrem the Syrian describes in his prayer – the spirit of indifference, despair, lust for power, and idle chatter – describe me to a tee. All the things he asks the Lord to bestow – the spirit of integrity, humility, patience, and love – are characteristics that I wish I had.
What the Sunday of St Gregory of Palamas means to me, then, is that as Palamas himself taught, hesychasm is for everyone, for it is in the work of our everyday lives that we can practice the Jesus Prayer as the prayer of the heart and come to the point of stillness by bringing the nous into the heart. I am part of that everyone, and I am the worst of sinners among that lot. My body is that of a hesychast, the most terrible kind. To paraphrase a friend who tells me he is a practicing Catholic because he isn’t good at it yet, I am a practicing hesychast because I too am not good at it, and one part of the reason I am not yet good at it is because sometimes I even neglect to practice it.
And yet, Holy Gregory Palamas still tells me that hesychasm is for me. Let me not only respond in this time of reliving my catechumenate by doing some housecleaning in this temple that is my hesychastic body. Let me also, as I am no longer a catechumen, participate in communion as I did today, and in so doing, receive into my body the precious, most holy and most pure Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of my sins and life everlasting. Filled with the Spirit, let me work out my salvation as I relive my catechumenate once again this Great Fast in fear and trembling.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of G-d, have mercy on me, a sinner.