Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mother of God's Time in the Holy Of Holies

Saint Gregory Palamas gives us incredible insight into the mystical life of The Most Holy Mary. He tells us why she spent her early years in the inner sanctuary of the Great temple. He lifts the reader up to appreciate the holiness of the Panagia and the purpose of silence in spiritual development. Here are some excerpts:

Prior to all these events… there were pronouncements by inspired prophets, miracles which obscurely preshadowed the great miracle to come, spiritual ordinances which prefigured in various ways the truth that was to be, changes affecting nations and history which opened the way for the new mystery to be accomplished, the promise of which God made and kept to Joachim and Anna that they would have a child in old age, although they had been childless since their youth, and this admirable couple's vow to God that they would give back the gift of their daughter to the giver. In accordance with this truly worthy and most righteous vow, they went up to the holy Temple with their promised child, and the heavenly Queen made her extraordinary entry ion the Holy of Holies, the place reserved solely for God, where He once a year received the current high priests when they went in, and where the Virgin Mother entered at three years of age, and stayed for our sake.

The holy Maid took as her home for several years the place assigned to God alone, which was consecrated as His dwelling, and out of which He gave audience at infrequent intervals to Moses, Aaron and those of their successors who were equally worthy, and where He was also believed to reside continuously between those encounters.  In this way she made it clear, and declared in advance to as many as have understanding, that she was to be the true shrine and resting-place of God…

The Holy of Holies was out of sight of almost everyone, shut off from everybody, and protected by encircling walls and curtains, with veils and hangings before the entrances, which were never opened for anyone except the high priest according to the law, and only once a year for him, when he entered to gain God's mercy for himself and those outside…. how could this virginal treasure be kept anywhere else but in this innermost sanctuary, passing her life invisible to all?

The fruit of her righteous parents' vow and supplication… the Virgin was brought by her parents to the giver, like a beloved votive offering… She was brought, like a most holy shoot sprung from a holy root… to produce Him by whose word alone everything natural and supernatural sprang to life.

The Mother of God was led up to God by her parents, not as a young girl, nor as a child, nor just slightly younger than that, but as a three-year-old who had been weaned and taken from her mother's breast only a day or two before… When they were already near the outer doors of the temple, while noble young women, dressed in a fashion worthy of their race, were surrounding her with torches in their hands and eagerly escorting her in dignified procession, she demonstrated that she was more aware than anyone else of what was happening to her and what was gong to take place. Solemn, graceful and admired, she was making her orderly way among the others, with a wonderfully calm bearing, manner and purpose defying description. Then tempering decorum with eagerness and gently quickening her pace, she left behind the choir of virgins encircling her, taking the lead in front of them all, that it might become obvious that those words of the Psalm refer to her: "The virgins that follow her shall be brought unto the king. Her companions shall be brought with gladness and rejoicing: hay shall be led into the kings temple" (Ps 45:14-15 Lxx).

As soon as the priest came out to meet her, and surely spoke that prophetic verse to her, "Hearken, O daughter, and consider, incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and they father's house; so shall the king greatly desire they beauty" (Ps 45:10-11), she topped reverently for a moment, then, on hearing these words, she rose up again. Immediately…she separated herself from the assembled company and went forward to the high priest, absolutely alone and full of joy….

How can these events fail to inspire amazement: the three-year-old puts herself into the hands of him who can direct her course in accordance with higher providence…. She chooses God instead of her mother and father's embrace, and prefers God's temple and its high priest to being cosseted at home… valuing God and everything pertaining to Him above all else, she ran gladly towards his temple.

When God's high priest saw that the Virgin had dwelling within her from infancy such graces as hardly enter other people's souls in the fullest prime of life….he led her into the Holy of Holies and persuaded all those present to accept what had come to pass with God's assistance and by His most righteous decision.

She who is eternally the Holy of Holies entered the temporary Holy of Holies. The tabernacle, not made with hands, of the Word, the living human ark of the bread of life truly sent down to us from heaven, came into the place of the man-made ark, which consisted of morning dew transformed by God's creative will into a type of food…

Almost the whole Temple was covered in gold and that inviolable ark was overlaid with pure gold, and shone brilliantly on every side. Surely, therefore, the virgin's beauty must have been brighter still, as God HImself desired it… But angels themselves, not statues, surrounded this true ark, and what is more, they did not just keep watch but ministered to her, and served her with food… An angel came every day with the Virgin's food, as it was potent, full of mystery, proper to angels and akin to himself, and, naturally, as far superior to manna as angels are more excellent than any. The bringer of the Virgins's food is therefore a clear sign of her angelic way of life at this age...

The Virgin entered the Holy of Holies. At once she looked around and, when she saw that it pleased her, she felt it was a suitable place for her to stay. Through the beauty of what she saw, she immediately cast her mind's eye to unseen beauties, and no longer counted anything on earth delightful…. This holy Maid, alone of mankind, utterly despised all these delights while still an infant, and as a reward was rightly brought food from heaven by an angel, by which she was physically strengthened, and which served as a testimony that her way of life was worthy of heaven...

She lived as though in paradise, in a place removed from the earth, or rather, as though in the courts of heaven, for that sanctuary was a symbol of those courts. Thus she led an unencumbered life without cares or occupation, free from sorrow, with no share in base passions, above that pleasure which is inseparable from pain. She lived for God alone and was sustained and preserved only by Him who was to pitch His tent among us through her. Obviously she saw only God, making God her delight and continually waiting on Him.

With profound understanding she listened to the writings of Moses and the revelations of the other prophets when, every Saturday, all the people gathered outside, as the law ordained. She learnt about Adam and Eve and everything that happened to them; how they were brought out of non-being, settled in paradise, and given a commandment there; about the evil one's ruinous counsel, and the resulting theft; about their expulsion from paradise on that account, the loss of immortality, and the change to this way of life of pain. In addition, she saw that as time passed, life continued under the inherited curse and grew ever worse, God's creature made in His image was estranged from the Creator and become more and more closely associated with the one who had evilly schemed to crush him… When the Holy Virgin Maid heard and understood this, she was filled with pity for humanity…. She took it upon herself to represent, to constrain Him who is above compulsion, and quickly draw Him towards us, that He might remove the curse from among us, halt the advance of the fire burning men's souls, weaken our enemies, answer our prayers, shine upon us with light that never sets and, having healed our sickness, unite His creature with Himself.

The Virgin full of grace interceded for all humanity in an amazing way defying description… She eagerly examined every type of virtue, those proclaimed in the law and those discovered by reason… She considered every aspect of each, of the principal branches of learning as though they were impressions left by a seal, her intention being to discover which was most akin to God… she invented, put into practice, and handed down to those who came after her, a practice higher than any vision and a vision as far superior to that which was formerly so highly acclaimed as the truth is superior to imagination.

The goodness she practiced while shut away encompassed every kind of virtue: all those which had been discovered before her and were openly bestowed on those men we have mentioned, and adorned their characters…

It is absolutely impossible, however, to truly encounter God unless, in addition to being cleansed, we go outside, or rather, beyond ourselves, leaving behind everything perceptible to our ensues, to gather with our ability to perceive, and being lifted up above thoughts, reason, and every kind of knowledge, above even the mind itself, and wholly given over to the energy of spiritual perception, which Solomon calls divine awareness, we attain to that unknowing which lies beyond knowledge, that is to say, above every kind of much-daunted philosophy...

The Virgin found that holy stillness was her guide: stillness, in which the mind and the world stand still, forgetfulness of things below, initiation into the things above, the laying aside of ideas for something better. This is true activity, a means of approaching contemplation or, to state it more aptly, the vision of God, which is the only proof of a soul in good health… Contemplation is the fruit of a healthy soul; it aims to achieve a certain end and is of a kind that deifies; for it is through contemplation that a person is made divine, not by speculate analogies on the basis of skillful reasoning and observations – perish the thought (for that would be something base and human) – but under the guidance of stillness…

The immediate proof of this is the Virgin, who, having kept company with quietness form the earliest age, brings the greatest benefits to us, and commends to God those in need as no one else can. She alone lived in holy quiet form such early childhood in a manner surpassing nature, and who alone of the human race bore the Word, who is the God-man, without knowing man.

Once you've lifted your minds above the material concerns and resolved to meditate on the Mother of God's divine way of life in the holy sanctuary, eager to understand something of what happened there and to emulate her as far as possible, then perhaps you'll soon receive that blessed gift of those purified in heart, and indivisibly observe the honors proper to the immortal world.

She prudently understood what the apostle, too, said later: "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 2:14). She therefore looked for something higher, a truly spiritual life unadulterated with earthly concerns, and, in a way which goes beyond the limitations of created nature, she longed for God and heavenly union with Him.

She found that the purest thing in us, the holy perfect and indivisible essence that we have, is precisely intended by nature for this holy and divine love… Although the mind can come down to the level of human reasoning... it indubitably has another, superior mode of operation, which is capable of putting into action itself… It is enabled, by means of diligence, and assisted by divine grace, to leave behind this varied, complex and lowly way of living… If the mind did not wholly revolve without ceasing around base concerns, it should be given over to superior, more exalted activity, namely, that which is popper to it, and which is the sole means by which it can enter into union with God. This is , however, far more difficult, because it is by nature intertwined with the body, and entangled with material knowledge and all the different ties that bind this life to earthly matters, and are hard to lay aside.

The all-pure Virgin threw off those ties from the very beginning of her life, and withdrew from people.  She escaped from a blameworthy way of life, and chose to live in solitude out of sight of all, inside the sanctuary… She united her mind with its turning towards itself and attention, and with unceasing prayer… Intent upon this silence, she flew high above all created things, saw God's glory more clearly than Moses, and beheld divine grace, which is not at all within the capacity of men's senses, but is a gracious and holy sight for spotless souls and minds. Partaking of this vision, she became, according to the sacred hymnographers, a radiant cloud of the truly living water, the dawn of the mystical day, and the fiery chariot of the Word.

The Virgin, the Queen of the truly pious, lifted up her mind in the Holy of Holies, utterly withdrawn from everything below or, more accurately, never having been attached to such things at all, and, saying to God, "I beseech You with this mind, which nothing earthly has ever entered", made the whole world heaven.

More of Life of Theotokos

Above Exerpts taken from "Homily on the Entry into the Holy of Holies of our exceedingly Pure Lady Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary"(Homily 53) in Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing, Homily 53, pp. 414-444

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