Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, March 27, 2016
Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today, on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, which is the second Sunday of Great Lent, we again ask our question in this fourth installment in our eight-part series: “Who is God?”
Today our answer to that question will focus on something that St. Gregory talked about quite a bit. This theology today will be a bit “meatier” (and I hope you’ll forgive that expression during Lent!). But it’s worth sinking our teeth into. So what is our answer today? Who is God? Today, the answer is: “God is Essence and Energies.”
That God is Essence and Energies is something that occupied St. Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century. At stake was the Orthodox Christian practice of hesychasm, which is the cultivation of spiritual stillness through contemplation in order to experience mystical union with God. Some hesychasts, including St. Gregory himself, were actually seeing the divine, uncreated light of God Himself—that is, they were seeing God, Who was manifesting Himself as light.
God manifest as light was nothing new in the fourteenth century. We recall how God’s glory shone from the human body of Jesus Christ at the Transfiguration and also how Moses’ conversations with God on Mount Sinai left his face shining with that same glory. And this has happened many times in history with other saints, too, such as the much-beloved St. Seraphim of Sarov in eighteenth century Russia and even saints of our own time, as well.
So what’s going on here? Why is it important for us to affirm that God is Essence and Energies? What does that mean?
We cannot go into all the details here, but we can cover the basics. We should ask first what these two words—essence and energies—mean when they refer to God. Let’s first talk about essence.
God’s essence is Who He is in Himself. The word essence comes from the Latin esse which means “to be.” In Greek, the word is ousia. So we can also say that it means “being.” God’s essence is God in His very nature. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all of this one essence, something that we affirm in the Creed, when we say especially that the Son of God is “of one essence” with the Father.
It is hard for us to say exactly what all that means. Why? Because God’s essence is beyond us. We cannot comprehend it. There is actually not even very much we can say about it. God’s essence remains a mystery to us, inaccessible and so wholly other that we really only have a name for it but not much else.
The Scripture witnesses to this with passages such as John 1:18, which says, “No one has seen God at any time.” God’s essence is beyond us. We cannot look at it. We can see the incarnate Lord Jesus, as we said last week, but we cannot see the divine essence. If I asked you to point to God in Himself, the essence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, where would you point? If I asked what God is, what would you say? There really is nothing to say.
Yet at the same time—and this is key—we also have passages such as 1 John 4:12, which says, “No one has seen God at any time, but if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us” (emphasis added). This is where it gets tricky. No one has seen God, yet God “abides” in us if we love one another.
It gets trickier, though, because even while we have these passages saying that no one has ever seen God, we also have this from the mouth of Christ Himself: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8, emphasis added). So what’s going on here? Can we see God or not? The Scriptures seem to be saying two different things—we cannot see God, and yet we can see God. Which is it?
This is why we also say that God is Energies. So what is God’s energies?
The word energy—in Greek, energeia—literally means “working in.” That is, God’s energies are His working in this created world, His activity, His operation. God’s energies are His presence among us and in us. The Energies are what we actually can see God doing. His energies are sometimes identified with His glory, His grace, the uncreated light.
The Energies are also God’s actions of doing things like healing, miracles, forgiveness of sins, the power in the sacraments, and so forth. The Energies are where we really meet God, where we have actual, direct contact with Him. We can say (and this is Scriptural language) that God is energizing in us. Sometimes, that term is translated as “working” or “at work,” but “energizing” may be better.
Now, it’s important to stress here that both God’s Essence and Energies are uncreated. That is, they are distinct ways of referring to God Himself. God is His Essence, and God is His Energies. And both Essence and Energies are common to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When it comes to the three divine Persons, there is one Essence and one Energy of God.
While it’s St. Gregory Palamas who is especially known for stressing the Essence/Energies distinction, it was nothing new. Some thousand years before St. Gregory, St. Basil the Great made this exact same distinction. He wrote this: “The energies are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach” (Letter 234).
Other Fathers of the early Church say similar things, such as Gregory of Nyssa (Homily on the Beatitudes VI), Cyril of Alexandria (Thesaurus 18) and Maximus the Confessor (Ad Thalassium 22). These are all pretty heavy hitters when it comes to historic Orthodox theology.
So we can say many things about the energies of God, but really very little about His essence. Why? Because the essence is beyond us—as Basil says, we “do not undertake to approach near to His essence.” Yet “His energies come down to us.” So God is both transcendent—that is, He is beyond us—and immanent—that is, He is available to us and even within us.
So why is this important? What does it have to do with our Christian life?
On the one hand, we have to maintain the unknowability of the essence of God. He wouldn’t be much of a God if we could say that we know His very essence. How can the mind of man ever dare to say such a thing?
Yet if we leave it there, if we affirm only that God is transcendent, where does that leave us? We remain apart from God. But separation from God is not the experience of the Church. Rather, Christians experience the very touch of God. We experience God in His divine energies, working in our world and even within us. We bathe in the energies of God, we participate in the energies of God, being made like God—this is called theosis or deification—which is possible through our adoption as sons and daughters of the Most High because of our incorporation into Christ.
So when we say that God is both Essence and Energies, we are in fact describing in summary why it is that the Christian life works at all. The God Who is beyond us and totally unlike us in His essence is nevertheless close to us and available to us in His energies.
Today, we ask: “Who is God?” And today, we answer: “God is Essence and Energies.”
To the God Who is both beyond us and also within us be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.