Mystical Communion with the Lord in his Energies

Dear Randall,

Thanks for your posting.

I was intrigued to learn about your spiritual journey.  It made me think of how our Orthodox professor at Oral Roberts University guided us through Robert Webber’s landmark book, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity, in 1978, the very year that book was published.  Webber’s summons to Evangelicals to enrich and deepen their faith through hearkening back to the ways of belief and worship of the Early Church resonated with many of us in the class, who were on a similar journey towards historic Christianity with its sacramental world-view undergirding the liturgical and sacramental richness of the worship and spirituality of the Early Church.

And as that professor continued to lead us in our studies of Christian history through the centuries, up to the present, it became crystal-clear that only the Holy Orthodox Church had retained the spirituality, the liturgical richness centered in the sacraments, the doctrines, the devotional practices, and the hierarchical/conciliar structure of the Church of the early centuries—especially the Church of the fourth century, when the Church was able to flourish in the open, in this era after the end of the persecutions of the first three centuries.  We saw that this was the case mainly because in the history of the Orthodox Church there never was an era of Scholasticism or a subsequent Reformation in reaction against that Scholasticism, as there was in Western Christianity.

Later in our studies, we learned that the possibility of reconciliation between the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church in some ways looked very promising during the 19th and into the 20th century.  After all, regarding Roman Catholicism, there was full agreement between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy on the rejection of Papal infallibility, and the rejection of Papal claims to universal jurisdiction over all of Christendom, and of mandatory clerical celibacy, and of only offering the Eucharist in one kind to the laity, and of allowing worship to only be in the Latin language rather than in the vernacular of the people.  And unlike most of the rest of Protestantism, there was between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy a strong common affirmation of liturgical/sacramental worship; of the great importance of beauty in religious art, architecture, and music; and of veneration of the Saints.  But now, so sadly, it seems that such reconciliation has been made impossible by the general allowance within the Anglican Church of widely disparate beliefs, including sometimes even a denial of Jesus’s real resurrection from the dead, and a questioning of God’s revelation of Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and the welcoming of radical, non-traditional innovations in Church life, such as the promotion of women as priests and bishops, and embracing various forms of sexual expression outside of heterosexual marriage as being compatible with authentic Christian living.

I was delighted to read of your appreciation for the “mysteries” of the Faith as over against the Enlightenment/Rationalist—and I would add, with more emphasis, the medieval Scholastic—efforts to reduce the mysteries of the Faith to the level of rational understanding.  Orthodox Christians are surprised at such efforts, which to us indicate a quite astounding hubris—as if men and women, no matter how intelligent, with their still very limited created intellects, could ever understand the utterly incomprehensible Essence of God, the Uncreated One, even while in His infinite compassion for us, and in His fervent desire to be in living communion with us, He grants us to comprehend various ways by which He chooses to reveal Himself to us in His Energies.

It’s this key distinction between God’s Essence and His Energies that allows us to understand how in mystical experience (which we believe every Christian—not just a few monastics—is invited by our Lord to enjoy; Rev. 3:20) we can become truly united with God, becoming “one spirit” with the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17 and 19), becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), yet without being absorbed into His Essence, which remains utterly beyond our participation or understanding.  St. Basil the Great, in the 4th century, said that “we know our God from His Energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His Essence.  For His Energies come down to us, but His Essence remains unapproachable” (Letter 234).

Surely there is mystery—and paradox—here!  Almost a thousand years later, St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), the Orthodox Church Father who wrote the most about the Essence and Energies of God, indicated the traditional Orthodox humble acceptance of, and reverence for, the mysteries of the Faith very succinctly in this way: “The antinomy (or paradox) is the touchstone of Orthodoxy.”

Thank you again for your interesting and helpful posting.

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford

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