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2nd Sunday of the Great Fast - St. Gregory Palamas

Essence and Energies

To indicated the two ‘poles’ of God’s relationship to us – unknown yet well known, hidden yet revealed – the Orthodox tradition draws a distinction between the essence, nature or inner being of God, on the one hand and his energies, operations or acts of power on the other.


‘He is outside all things according to his essence’, writes St. Athanasius, ‘but he is in all things through his acts of power.’ ‘We know the essence through the energy’, St. Basil affirms. ‘No one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy.” By the essence of God is meant his otherness, by the energies his nearness. Because God is a mystery beyond our understanding, We shall never know his essence or inner king, either in this life or in the Age to come. If we knew the divine essence, it would follow that we knew God in the same way as he knows himself; and this we cannot ever do, since he is Creator and we are created. But, while God’s inner essence is forever beyond our comprehension, his energies, grace, life and power fill the whole universe and are directly accessible to us.


The essence, then, signifies the radical transcendence of God; the energies, his immanence and omnipresence. When Orthodox speak of the divine energies, they do not mean by this an emanation from God, an “intermediary” between God and man, or a ‘thing’ or ‘gift’ that God bestows. On the contrary, the energies are God himself in his activity and self-manifestation. When a man knows or participates in the divine energies, he truly knows or participates in God himself, so far as this is possible for a created being. But God is God, and we are men; and so, while he possesses us, we cannot in the same way posses him.


Just as it would be wrong to think of the energies as a ‘thing’ bestowed on us by God, so it would be equally misleading to regard the energies as a ‘part of God. The Godhead is simple and indivisible, and has no parts. The essence signifies the whole Goad as he is in himself; the energies signify the whole God as he is in action. God in his entirety is complet4ely present in each of his divine energies. Thus the essence-energies distinction is a way of stating simultaneously that the whole God is inaccessible, and that the whole God in his outgoing love has rendered himself accessible to man.


From The Orthodox Way. Archimadrite Kallistos Ware. A.R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd., Saint Thomas House, Becket Street, Oxford, OX1 1SJ





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