Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue IX

[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

As will be noted below, this is the last in this series of reflections.

On Participation in God

XLIV. O[rthodox]. Hence, when we know His activity but not His essence, we do not commit an outrage to the supernatural character of His simplicity. And when we participate in His activity but not in His essence, do we make the undivided divisible? You heard him [St. Basil the Great] also say: “The activities of God are manifold, but His essence is simple.” [Letters 234] Just as he who is manifold according to His activities is not manifold and divided according to His essence, so in the same way, He will not be participable according to His essence although He is participated according to His activities. And since we participate in Him differently—we will therefore participate in Him according to His activities, according to which He is also manifold. But we shall not participate in Him according to His essence; for according to His essence He is the least manifold in whatever way you look at it. No, but we kn ow His goodness and power and wisdom. How much can we know of each of them? For how can a limited knowledge grasp that infinity, or rather the infinities of that wisdom, that power, that goodness? But he says: “God also reveals Himself to people on the mountain itself, on the one hand by coming down from His proper watchtower, (and) on the other hand, by leading us up from our humble state here on earth in order that the Incomprehensible (“uncontainable”) is contained by a created nature in at least a moderate and most safe way.” [Gregory Nazianzus Orationes 45,11]
XLV. How then is He participated in and contained wholly when He is contained in a moderate way? And how is He not divided, when He is contained in a moderate way and remains altogether Incomprehensible (“uncontainable”)? . . . The great Basil stated well that “the activities of God are manifold but His essence is simple.” [Letters 234] And again: “The holy Spirit is simple according to His essence but manifold according to His activities.” [On the Holy Spirit 9,22] For all those things belong to the activities of God. And according to them we participate in God in a moderate way and, according to them, we see and think of Him dimly, one person more, the other less, one by his intelligence, the other by a godlike power; each of us participates in them in agreement with his own purity and reflects on them and on the basis of them draws his conclusions about Him who is altogether imparticipable and unthinkable according to His essence. Nevertheless, one could well state that God as a whole is participate in and though of on the basis of those activities according to a pious insight; for the divine is divided in an undivided way and not as bodies. But His goodness and His wisdom are not a part of Him and the greatness or the foresight are not other parts. But He is wholly goodness and wholly wisdom and wholly foresight and wholly greatness. For because He is one, He is not cut up in agreement with each of those activities, but in relation to each of them He is properly whole; through each of them He is known as one and simple and undivided, as being everywhere present and active as a whole.

XLVI. In that way those who participate in the activity of God participate in God as a whole, but not because we also participate in His essence in itself which is imparticipable and simple and undivided, and (we do) that all at the same time, but everyone differently. . . .
XLVII. . . . the things which are only sensible do participate and they participate in God as a whole because He is undivided, but only according to their being. But they do not partake of the vivifying power of God in whatever way, lest, when their own proper being is taken away, heaven itself is done away with together with the foundation of everything under the sky; i.e., the four elements and the beings without soul and perception which come forth from them. And things which have the property to live only according to perception participate through that perception in God as a whole, God who is participated in in every respect in an undivided way, but not also on the level of reason or intellect lest the irrational beings become rational. But because they do not participate on the level of reason, it is not true, therefore, that they do not participate in God as a whole. And the beings which participate in God on the level of reason or intellect do not all participate on the level of spirit as well, lest the wicked continue to be divine and spiritual people although they still abide in their wickedness. In that way, too, divine and spiritual people, participating in the grace of God but not in His essence, also participate in God as a whole. As a whole, because God, being present and active in them as a whole through the proper grace in a unified and simple and undivided way, is also known by them as a whole. But they do not in the least participate in His essence because they do not continue to be gods by their nature.
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XLIV-XLVI, XLVII (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

I began this series of meditations back in early 2007, some months before I was received into the Orthodox Church. It is not coincidental that my fulfillment of the plan of these reflections slowed to a halt after my chrismation. And I have struggled with whether or not to continue them at all. My struggle is not based on my (quite obvious) lack of capacity to handle these theological matters and the felicitous use of the technical terminology—though that is true enough—but rather with the obvious contradiction inherent in my penning them at all. That is to say, my struggle has always been my personal dichotomy of intellect and heart. So, for the last three or four of these reflections I’ve debated whether to write them at all, whether then to post them, and the relative usefulness of my continuing. I have, of course, answered those questions in the affirmative, though not without much uncertainty. That said, however, this is both the last of the planned reflections and given my decreasing conviction that I should continue, the last of these reflections in any case. And quite purposefully I have chosen to end on the topic at hand: the experience of God.

My reason for doing so is that it is Orthodoxy which has given me this gift. I would not say that I had no experiences of God prior to my journey to Orthodoxy, but I could not say it. Not, that is to say, on properly theological and philosophical grounds. Such experiences were necessarily individual, and, given the theological and philosophical foundations for such, such experiences were, at best, manifestations of something from God, but yet in some way not exactly God himself. Such experiences were, conceptually at least, something external to God. Such experiences may have produced favorable states within me (whether consciously felt or not), and such states, especially those consciously perceived, were often sweet and blessed. But there was no conceptual mechanism which would give me the sense that these were experiences of God.

For a Christianity that lacks the important dogmatic distinction between God’s essence and energies, indeed, for a Christianity for whom God is absolutely simple, there is no mechanism by which a Christian can experience God. God, being absolutely simple, and wholly Other, cannot be personally immanent to His creature. Or, rather, there can be no personal communion with his creature. He may be immanent in his activities, but those activities are themselves necessarily creatures and therefore other than God. This is not to say there are no true experiences of God, for God is not bound by the philosophical and theological chains to which some systems put him. It is to say, however, that such systems can give their adherents nothing of what they may so supremely desire.

In Orthodoxy, however, God’s activities, his energies, are God himself. They are distinguishable from his essence, and necessarily so. There can be no revelation of God’s essence. But God’s essence is so perfectly realized that it superabounds in being, spilling over as it were in the expressions of that essence which are the activities of God. This is why it is possible for God to reveal to us that he is love, and for us to be able to grasp, however always and only feebly, that reality. We know God is love because in his gracious and merciful acts which manifest his love to us, such actions communicate to us God himself. These are not Plotinian emanations from the One, but are indeed the outreach of God to us to hold us in communion with him by his Son in the Holy Spirit.

His energies, then, are distinct from his essence in ways it is not possible for us to comprehend, let alone articulate. For articulation requires reason, and human reason in itself is utterly incapable of this communication. It is an apophatic knowledge given us by revelation, which preserves the Mystery of the Godhead. God’s essence is forever always already unknown to us and never capable of our knowing throughout eternities of eternity. It is not some ever-receding horizon, for it is a distinction we can never see. But it cannot be that God is always ever receding from us, for this God is love, and love is always forever a reaching out for communion. So God extends himself to us, and truly himself and not some other, to achieve with us in his Son by his Spirit that apotheosis of love which is our union with him.

There is no division or separation between God’s essence and his energies, for if there were, God’s energies would be creatures and not God himself. But neither is there identity, for if there were, and if such were truly communicated to us creatures, we would be swallowed up into God himself, and all distinction between Creator and creature would be abolished. This is, as I said, apophatic knowledge. We know that God cannot be a creature. God has revealed himself to us as love. We know that this love must truly communicate God to us. The rest is setting fence.

This is how, then, Orthodoxy has given to me the experience of God. Not an experience of God’s benevolent emotional state to me, as it were, but God himself. I do not become him, he does not become me; our essences remain distinct. And yet, I share in him in reality, and he communes with me in that same reality. I am by grace transfigured and become his child, and he my Father, in this experience of his love for me. A real communion of real persons.

But of course all of the above is mere words, so far as I am concerned. I am aping and mimicking, and perhaps not well, as the theologians among us may discern. Which only means that my experience is so very paltry and thin, though his grace is thick and rich and lifegiving. So I do well to end this series with this. And seek further this eternal project his grace has given me.

Thanks be to God.

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