God’s being and actions are one.
This is essentially the teaching of the Church on the topic of the Divine Energies. When I read discussions about the Divine Energies – things seem to get lost in the twists and turns of medieval metaphysics or pass into the territory of seeing the “Uncreated Light.” Both approaches are unhelpful for me, and both obscure something that should be far more transparent.
Some of the obscurity comes from the use of the word “energies.” It is the literal Greek term, but it conjures up some pretty problematic images in a post-Einstein world. When I first read about the Divine Energies, my mind wandered over to some vision of God sending out rays and beams of radiating light, etc. The focus on the Uncreated Light in the Transfiguration probably helped nurture that reading. It is also misleading.
Another simple term for “energies” is “actions” or “doings.” The root of the Greek word simply means “doing.” Indeed, it is most often translated as “deed” or “work.” “Workings” would be another accurate way of rendering “energies.” Understanding this points us towards the heart of the Church’s proclamation. Who God is, and what God does, are not two separate things. “God acting” is God. His actions are not a means of hiding Himself – they are the means of His self-revelation. Indeed, this is the heart of the Church’s teaching on the Energies. The Church says that God can be fully known in His energies but cannot be known in His essence.
We cannot pierce beneath the veil and see or comprehend the very essence (ousia) of God. He is God, “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…” However, He can be known (and participated in) in His energies, His actions. It is this that St. Paul references:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead… (Rom 1:20)
But how do we encounter God’s actions? Are we looking for Him to part the waters or move the Sun backwards?
Abp. Alexander Golitzin paraphrases Dionysius the Areopagite: “Providence is God so far as the creature is concerned.” And, “All things share somehow in Providence as their universal source and cause: ‘the divine Providence is in all things and no one of the things which are is without it.’”
Much of what Dionysius says about Providence is under the heading of the Divine Names. God’s creating, sustaining, working towards goodness, nurture, love, etc., and all the names by which He makes Himself known (Ancient of Days, King of Kings, etc.) are His Providence. And it is in these actions (names) that He makes Himself known to us.
I will now come down from the clouds and get quite practical. We live in the midst of the Providence of God. That we exist, and how we exist are His Providence. Everything around us reflects the working of His good will towards our well-being and salvation. St. Paul describes this:
the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph. 1:9-10)
Of course, we encounter any number of difficulties and hardships, things that seem to work the opposite of our well-being and salvation. Those actions of human freedom are not considered God’s Providence. But even with these things, God’s Providential working makes our well-being and salvation possible, such that St. Paul can say, “For those who love God and are called according to His purpose, all things work together for good.”
So, in every direction and every way, we encounter God’s Divine Energies, His working things together on behalf of all and for all. There is a path towards “seeing” these actions (energies): the practice of continual thanksgiving for all things. It is the giving of thanks that reveals to the heart the hidden work of God. It is a practice that silences the passions and, as an expression of our human energies, unites us with the very Providence for which we give thanks.
In Holy Baptism, when the candidate responds, “I do unite myself to Christ,” there is an agreement: my life is His and His life is mine. It says that God’s good will, manifest supremely and definitively in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, is my will as well. We confess that our lives, together with their purpose and meaning, are revealed in the good will of God as it unfolds.
This is hard. When what unfolds is pleasing, the giving of thanks is easy, almost meaningless: anyone would agree to their own pleasure. When circumstances run counter to our own wishes or pleasure, the giving of thanks becomes increasingly difficult (and provokes the passions within us). The difficulty and contradiction obscure and hide the good will that is at work.
Here it is useful to understand human energies. Though, unlike God, we cannot now make the identification between our being and our energies, our life and our actions, they are, nonetheless, potentially so. This comes when our actions, our energies, reflect and act in union with our being, that is, when we act in accordance with our true nature. In many ways, this is the heart of Orthodox moral teaching. Those things that we are commanded to do, are, in fact, the truth of our nature and being. St. Gregory of Nyssa stated this most profoundly when he observed that human beings are “mud, that has been commanded to become a god.”
All of the commandments of Christ are just so. “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Lk. 6:35-36)
When our actions are in true agreement with that which we are created to be, there is a wholeness and a harmony in our existence. We are transformed, for our being and our actions are themselves in agreement with the very actions (Energies) of God. It is in this transformation that we come to see ourselves as we truly are and to know God as He truly is.
The most fundamental action that we can offer towards Divine Providence (and thus towards the Divine Energies) is to give thanks, always, everywhere and for all things – or give thanks as much as our heart allows. As we offer thanks, from the heart, we unite ourselves with the gracious Providence of God. In doing this, our “doing” is indeed the energies of our existence, and they rightly express the true heart of each of us. For we were created to give thanks: it is the substance of our priesthood. We are all created to be priests of creation before God, through giving voice to the thanks that is rendered by all creation.
It must be understood that our energies are not just a mental concept (a thought). They are the true efforts, the union of mind, body and soul, acting in concert. Extended towards the truth they share and participate in that truth. Our “yes” to God and His actions sounds in harmony with the “yes” of all creation as it groans in travail. Indeed, the travail of creation (Romans 8:22) is precisely its own eager longing for the final “yes” of humanity to God.
St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity” (PG 44, 441 B). Indeed, he discusses the activity of singing, offering praise as a path to union with God.
Gregory likens the whole of the original creation to a dance and chorus, which looked to the one choirmaster, interpreting his song in harmony. Yet sin introduced disharmony, and removed human beings from this chorus. Only through Jesus Christ, and after trials of purifying hardship, are human persons restored to the chorus and the dance.1
This “purifying hardship” is, for me, an apt description of the initial contradictions we encounter in perceiving Divine Providence. St. Joseph the Patriarch endured terrible hardships: betrayal by his brothers, exile, slavery, false accusation. But in the final confrontation with his brothers, after his life has been used for the salvation of Egypt as well as his own family he says:
But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. (Gen. 50:20)
This very confession of faith has about it the mystery and paradox of Pascha itself. For the whole of our existence is the Lord’s Pascha, written into our lives, the world, and everything around us. Christ Himself, and His disciples, we are told, sang a psalm as they went from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane. It represents Christ’s own song to the Father, the hymn of His Pascha. It would have been Psalm 118, the last of the Passover Psalms. No doubt, creation sang with Him:
O give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.
Let Israel now say, “His mercy endures forever.”
In the mystery and misery of this day – remember to sing.