This Sunday the Orthodox Calendar commemorates St. Gregory Palamas – perhaps the most significant theologian and teacher of the late Byzantine period. He particularly is important when considering the nature of the Christian experience of God. Orthodoxy believes that it is truly possible to know God though He remains unknowable. The mystery of this true knowledge constitutes the heart of St. Gregory’s work.
I first encountered St. Gregory’s writings when I was in seminary in the 70’s. Fr. John Meyendorff’s work on Palamas was pretty much all that was available in English. I read it and found what I saw to be exciting – it held the promise of true knowledge of God. I brought Palamas’ writings into my theology class – there I was told that there simply was no such thing as unmediated knowledge. There is only knowledge about God, not true participation and union with Him. The debate for theology, it seemed, was simply about the nature of mediation and reliability. We are all, clueless.
I realized then that I was in the wrong place – though the story of my tortured journey to Orthodoxy continued for another twenty years. It seemed to me at that time (and to this day) that a claim of unmediated knowledge of God was at least worth considering. How can it be dismissed out of hand?
The Sunday that commemorates St. Gregory is also known as the Second Sunday of Orthodoxy. The previous week marks the formal “Sunday of Orthodoxy” that marks the triumph of the Holy Icons and their return to the Churches. It is an occasion that serves as a summary of all that Orthodoxy teaches. But the “Second” Sunday of Orthodoxy is an occasion that serves as a summary of all that Orthodoxy practices – for Orthodoxy is ultimately a practice and not a system of ideas. It is said, “Orthodoxy is not a belief – it is a way of life.”
St. Gregory defended a distinction between the Divine Energies and the Divine Essence. They are both truly and fully God, but the latter cannot be known, while the former can not only be known but can be participated in. The Orthodox Church holds that true knowledge is not reasoning about something, or an encounter with an object. True knowledge is participation, a communion. It is in this sense that Christ says, “This is eternal life; that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
The most radical teaching of Orthodox Christianity is its assurance that such true knowledge of God is not only possible, but is, in fact, the true nature of salvation. As St. Irenaeus taught concerning Christ: “the Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom all things were made…was made man among men…to complete and gather up all things, to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man…” (On the Apostolic Preaching, 6).
It is this “community of union between God and man” that is the Church. The knowledge of the true and living God is the inner life of the Christian Church. Everything else reduces the Church to a man-made society for promoting and developing ideas. Only if the Church is truly united with Christ, truly a community of union, is it His Body. Nothing less will do. There is no other reason for prayer. We do not speak to God in order to convince Him to do what we wish, nor do we speak to God in order to pass along knowledge which He already has. We speak to God, we pray, in order to participate in Him. We pray in order to know God. There is no other reason.
Indeed, everything we do as Christians, we do for the sake of communion with God, this “community of union.” The sacraments are specifically union with Him. Even our acts of charity and alms are communion with Him (“inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these…you did it unto Me”). We do nothing for Christ – but we do everything through and with and in Christ.
This is the faith that sustains the universe…