All human beings have a desire for union with God. In some Asian religions, union with God means the dissolution of the human person into God. As the saying has it “The dewdrop (the soul) falls into the shining sea (God).” But in Christianity we say that we never “merge” with God, we have a personal relationship with God. However, In Orthodox Christianity, we hear about the process of theosis (divinization), which means becoming God. We also hear the saying “God became a human being that human beings might become God.” So it seems we have a paradox here – we never dissolve into God, yet we genuinely undergo the process of divinization. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? We do so by studying the saint of the day, Gregory Palamas.
St. Gregory was born in 1296 in Constantinople. He was educated at the imperial court with the idea that he would become a court official. However, he felt the call to become a monk. He left behind his life at court and become a monk on Mount Athos, where he learned the practice and theology of the Jesus Prayer (i.e., Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). Later on St. Gregory became archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347 and died in 1359, and was canonized soon after his death. His contribution to the theology of divination is as follows.
The monks on Mt. Athos claimed to have an experience of God himself in prayer. They said the light they sometimes saw as an uncreated light, the light of God Himself. In other words, in prayer they genuinely had an experience of God. However, an Italo-Greek name Barlaam said that human beings can never have such direct contact with God, that they were deluding themselves. The Athonite monk asked St. Gregory Palamas to defend them. He wrote a book “The Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts” (those who practice the Jesus Prayer). In the book he explained and defended the ancient Eastern Orthodox teaching on essence and energy in God. The idea is that we can never know the essence of God as God is Himself. However, we can know God and can participate in Him through His energies. The energies of God are God himself acting beyond the divine essence, but still God. Or to put it another way, God’s energies are his uncreated, divine grace. So we truly participate and are united to God through his energies, but we never “dissolve” into the divine essence. It is important to remember that St. Gregory did not invent the energy-essence concept. It was there in early Eastern tradition. St. Gregory rather organized and defended the teaching which was declared as Orthodox doctrine by several synods of the church in Constantinople.
So the essence-energies distinction shows us how we can never “merge or dissolve” into God, but as human persons we can be united to the tri-personal God by participation in the divine energy.
Troparion — Tone 8
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation, / O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians, / O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace, / always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion — Tone 4
Now is the time for action! / Judgment is at the doors! / So let us rise and fast, / offering alms with tears of compunction and crying: / “Our sins are more in number than the sands of the sea; / but forgive us, O Master of All, / so that we may receive the incorruptible crowns.”