Before considering St. Gregory and St. Paisius we should look at the Jesus Prayer, a form of prayer which influenced them and which they influenced. In its longer form it is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It can be shortened to “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” or “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” or finally “Lord have mercy”, which we is what we sing at the Divine Liturgy. For those of us living in the world, clergy and laity alike, can pray it by sitting or standing in one’s icon corner at home and repeating it five, ten or fifteen minutes. The time doesn’t matter, as long as one prays with attention and devotion, that is enough. It can also be repeated at such random moments as waiting for a train, being stuck in traffic, while walking and so on. It is also useful in fighting temptation, if we repeat it even as “Lord have mercy” before we speak or act. The whole culture of the Jesus prayer is theology and practice is referred to as hesychasm. This is from the Greek work for silence.
St. Gregory Palamas was born into a noble family in Constantinople in 1296 AD. In 1318 he became a monk on Mount Athos when he learned the traditions of hesychasm. With the aggressive action of the Turks, St. Gregory was forced to flee Athos to Thessalonica where he was ordained to the priesthood. He then returned to Mt. Athos in 1331. Six years later, at the request of the Athonite monks, he entered into conflict with Barlaam, and Italo-Greek monk. Barlaam said that philosophers had a better knowledge of God than the monks. For Barlaam, education and scholarship were the best way to know God. However, he believed that God was unlimited, unknowable for human beings. St. Gregory taught that monks had a greater knowledge of God because they had seen or heard Him. He said that God was indeed unknowable in His essence, but is knowable though his energies, which refer to God’s activities in the created world and humanity. St. Gregory wrote several books defending the theory and practice of hesychasm (the Jesus Prayer) and his teaching was vindicated by church councils in Constantinople. In later life, St. Gregory became Archbishop of Thessalonica and spent a year as a captive of the Turks. He died in 1368.
Much of the teaching of the hesychasts are contained in a series of books known in Greek as the Philokalia, meaning “the love of the beautiful or good.” It contains teaching on prayer from fathers of the church from the fourth to fifteenth centuries. It was first published in Greek in 1782 by Saints Nikodemos and Makarius on Mount Athos. It was translated into Church Slavonic by St. Paisius Velichkovsky and published in 1793. This was the book carried by the pilgrim in “The Way of the Pilgrim” and influenced the elders at Optina Monastery and throughout the whole Russian Orthodox Church. It was translated and published in Russian in the second half of the 19th century and published in English in the 20th century. It is said that the Philokalia is the most important book in the Orthodox Church after the Bible. However, its style and context arose in radically different times than our own so simply picking it up and trying to read it straight through is difficult. It is very helpful to read it with the guidance of someone, often a monk or nun who are steeped in it spiritually. There are also abridged editions with commentary which can help us to understand it.
As mentioned above, St. Paisius was the one who translated the Philokalia into Slavonic. St. Paisius was born in Poltava in 1722 and as a teenager entered the Kiev Theological Academy. Leaving the academy to become a monk, he eventually made his way to Mt. Athos. He gathered many disciples around him. After 17 years on Mt. Athos he and his fellow monks moved to Moldavia. Finally, St. Paisius and his brotherhood moved to a monastery in Niametz. This became a large monastery with over 700 monks. They maintained a hospital and house of mercy.
At this monastery St Paisius and his monks translated many books including the Philokalia into Slavonic and other languages. As befitting a translator of the Philokalia, St. Paisius revived and taught hesychast spirituality and the Jesus Prayer. St. Paisius’s translation and his practice of the Jesus Prayer led to a revival of this spirituality and influenced many monks and monasteries in the years to come. St. Paisius died in 1794.
St Gregory Palamas the Archbishop of Thessalonica – Troparion & Kontakion
Troparion — Tone 8
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation, O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians, O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace, always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion — Tone 8
Holy and divine instrument of wisdom, joyful trumpet of theology, together we sing our praises, O God-inspired Gregory. Since you now stand before the Original Mind, guide our minds to Him, O Father, so that we may sing to you: “Rejoice, preacher of grace.”
Venerable Paisius Velichkovsky – Troparion & Kontakion
Troparion — Tone 2
Having become a stranger on earth, you reached the heavenly homeland, venerable Father Paisius. You taught the faithful to lift up their minds to God, crying out to Him with all their hearts: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!”
Kontakion — Tone 8
Like a much-laboring bee, you were an elect zealot of the monastic life, supplying our souls with the writings of the Fathers through which you guide us on the path of salvation. Therefore we cry out to you: “Rejoice, truly-wise Paisius, for through you the tradition of spiritual elders has been restored to us!”