Monday, 7 February 2011

The Divine Energies in Eastern Christian Mystical Thought

In an earlier post David lay down this challenge: “By using the language of the icon I hope and pray that Ian can in some way realize this idea of the Sacred Heart as the centre of divine light and energy: the light and energy of the love of God .”  This reminded me of the profound spiritual experiences of some of the mystics of the Eastern Church, such as St Simeon the New Theologian and the hesychasts such as St Gregory Palamas. ‘Divine energy’ and ‘light’ are both crucial terms which have a powerful and precise meaning within the theological thought of the eastern churches, especially in the teaching of the hesychasts about the idea of deification, originally found in the early Church Fathers.

This got me dusting down one of my favourite books, one of the very few I still retain from my time as an undergraduate: Vladimir Lossky’s ‘The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church' (1957, James Clarke, ISBN 0 227 67536 3), in particular chapter four, 'Uncreated Energies'.

How can we say that God is unknowable yet revealed? The answer which the eastern churches give is to say that God in His essence is unknowable and unknown, but that in His energies He makes Himself known and is known. The energies are not creations but of the nature of God, and proper to each Divine Person of the Holy Trinity. This distinction is that between the essence of God, or His nature, properly so-called, which is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable; and the energies or divine operations, forces proper to and inseparable from God’s essence, in which He goes forth from Himself, manifests, communicates, and gives Himself. ”(p.70) This exterior manifestation is what theologians call God’s economy, His oikonomia.

Lossky quotes St Basil: “It is by His energies that we say we know our God; we do not assert that we can come near to the essence itself, for His energies descend to us, but his essence remains unapproachable”. Epistle 234 while St John Damascene writes ’all that we say positively of God manifests not His nature but the things about His nature”. He uses such images as ‘movement’ or ‘rush of God’ to describe these Divine Energies. Many Fathers from Pseudo Dionysius onwards speak of ‘rays of divinity’ penetrating the created universe.  St Gregory Palamas uses the phrases ‘uncreated light’, ‘grace’ and divinities’:  “The divine and deifying illumination and grace is not the essence but the energy of God…a divine power and energy common to the nature in three.”  It is through these divine energies that creation is formed and sustained, and directly experienced by those who enter deeply into the process of sanctification as a mystical experience.

This provides, I think, an interesting context in which to understand Theilhard’s mystical experience and to give a more profound theological context for his talk about energy and creation. Here is an excerpt in which he describes something of his friend’s mystical experience of the Sacred Heart:

“First of all I perceived that the vibrant atmosphere which surrounded Christ like an aureole was no longer confined to a narrow space about him, but radiated outwards to infinity. Through this there passed from time to time what seemed like trails of phosphorescence, indicating a continuous gushing-forth to the outermost spheres of the realm of matter and delineating a sort of blood stream or nervous system running through the totality of life.
“The entire universe was vibrant! And yet, when I directed my gaze to particular objects, one by one, I found them still as clearly defined as ever in their undiminished individuality.
“All this movement seemed to emanate from Christ, and above all from his heart. And it was while I was attempting to trace the emanation to its source and to capture its rhythm that, as my attention returned to the portrait itself, I saw the vision mount rapidly to its climax.” (From Hymn of the Universe, published in 1961 by Harper & Row)

His friend then explain another such experience with the Exposed Host in the monstrance. Reflecting on all of this Theilhard makes this observation: ‘As I listened to my friend my heart began to burn within me and my mind awoke to a new and higher vision of things. I began to realize vaguely that the multiplicity of evolutions into which the world-process seems to us to be split up is in fact fundamentally the working out of one single great mystery; and this first glimpse of light caused me, I know not why, to tremble in the depths of my soul. But I was so accustomed to separating reality into different planes and categories of thought that I soon found myself lost in this spectacle, still new and strange to my tyro mind, of a cosmos in which the dimensions of divine reality, of spirit, and of matter were also intimately mingled.’

Interestingly, the concern of the Orthodox about Western theology about the nature of God is that they break things up into, effectively, cause and effect, tending to see a greater distinction between theology and mysticism while the Orthodox don’t have such heavy demarcations.  Lossky explains things well. These energies are not creations but ‘outpourings of the divine nature which cannot set bounds to itself, for God is more than essence’; that ‘flow eternally from the one essence of the Trinity’ Lossky p73. “The energies might be described as that mode of existence of the Trinity which is outside of its inaccessible essence”. Though the energies ‘penetrate everything that exist’ they are intrinsic to God’s nature and do not exist because of creature. Language here is very inadequate and we have to be careful about it. “We are dealing with a strictly concrete reality of the religious order”p.76

Orthodox critics of western theology declare that any the real distinction of energies from essence becomes ‘a derogation of the simplicity of God’ which implies polytheism and ditheism. The definition of God as pure act limits God by His essence, implying that that which is not essence does not belong to the divine being.  Palamas makes the following criticism: if you recognise the divine essence and its created effects which have the divine essence as its cause, then given how Western theology understands essence as created rather than Divine, you end up either relegating the glory of God and the light of the Transfiguration to the status of creation or deny the distinction and have to identify the knowable and the unknowlable, the incommunicable and communicable, the essence and grace. Either way deification is impossible.

This may misunderstand the western handling of the working of grace, but it is only fair to say that the Eastern theology of deification is much more profoundly worked through and the issues concerning the nature of God and His relation to Creation handled in this context which gives it a very Christo-centric rather than Causal feel.  God simply IS, and all that is in being comes from that reality. Contemplation is of the One who Is and deification is a reality experienced in the actual life of the Church and its members. “In deification we are by grace…all that God is by nature, save only identity of nature” cf St Maximus.  This is different from the union of the two natures of Christ which is hypostatic, and different from the union of the three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity which which is substantial.  ‘It is union with God in His energies, or union by grace makes us participate in the divine nature, without our essence becoming thereby the essence of God’p.87

While there is a firm distinction between God and His creation, nevertheless there is a clear sense of continuity without rupture between God and His creation. “In the order of the economic manifestation of the Trinity in the world, all energy originates in the Father, being communicated by the Son in the Holy Spirit” p82 The Trinity dwells in us by means of that in itself which is communicable…by the energies which are common to the three hypostases…by grace-for it is by this name that we know the deifying energies which the Holy Spirit communicates to us.”p.86

Here we have, I think, a good theological model for understanding the ideas of  energy perceived mystically by Theilhard, and a context which puts it deep within the mystical tradition of the Christian Church, especially that of the east.  This is important, iconographically, because this art form has been profoundly influenced by this theological mysticism, especially hesychasm. Icons of the Transfiguration, as well as such luminary saints as St Seraphim of Sarov and St Simeon the New Theologian have already begun to explore how we can represent this divine energy at the heart of all creation, emanating from the very nature of God in Himself.

1 comment:

  1. Ian, such a lot to think about here. I always wanted it to be an icon which could have a ecumenical purpose, so you have captured my thoughts perfectly. Thank you. Will get back in due course.