The nature of grace has been a subject of theological discussion in the 14th century and the two or three Palamite councils has been devoted mainly to the subject. The argument, as it appears theoretically, as it appears without its context and the reasons that brought it out, seems to be futile. “Is grace created or is grace of divine nature?” In this form it seems that the answer is: we do not know and anyhow what does it matter? — In reality it stems from a discussion which is much far more reaching than this and which has a direct connection with our spiritual life. The discussion began between some representatives of the scholastic west and the monks of Mount Athos and the great archbishop of Thessalonique, Gregory Palamas, became the theoretician of the athenite attitude. The problem really was not an academic one of finding out what grace is made of, what it is, and just to have one more point in theological groups; the problem, for both the monks of Athos and their opponents, was one of the destiny of man. If grace is, as scholastics maintain, something created, then the gap that exists, ontologically, in nature, between God and man, between God and the created world, can never be bridged to any extent, because it is not by adding new links, which are created links, that one can bring God nearer to the created, or the created nearer to God; it is only if grace divine is really divine, if it is a way in which God communicates to us his own nature, makes us partakers to what He himself really is, that the gap between the created and the uncreated can be bridged. Not in the sense that what is created becomes uncreated, but in the sense that it becomes partaker of the life and some sort of quality which belongs to God alone, by nature. It is only if grace is divine that the words which I have quoted very often from the Epistles of St. Peter, that we are called to become partakers of divine nature, can come true. Otherwise, they can never come true and the gap between God on the one hand and we on the other hand is hopelessly unbridgeable. This of course is no longer an academic problem, this is a very concrete problem which has meaning for each of us. Are we to remain shut up, imprisoned, immured (?) as it were in our created state, with no outlet, no ability to move out of this prison of the created into a real knowledge of God, or are we able to know God? If there is no communication of life, communication of life and nature from God to us, then there can be no real knowledge of God, because the knowledge of God is not the same as the knowledge we may have of the outer world. God is not an object which can be investigated while we remain completely estranged to Him. God can be known only in a relationship and He can be known only by our participation in what his life is. God is never something outside us, the moment He begins to be known we can not know Him as an outsider. The image which again I have already given you in the past, of this outside knowledge and this intimate discovery is that of the ascent of Moses to Mount Sinai: for him, as long as he was ascending the mount and for the Jews assembled at the foot of the mount, the presence of God was darkness, thunderstorm, a darkness compared by the Bible to the darkness of a furnace, it was terror and darkness. And then we see that when Moses enters into this dark cloud, he is surrounded by the light of God; the same presence which was darkness as long as it was seen from the outside becomes light when it is entered into, and this also explains the terminology of the Fathers which, on the one hand speak of God in terms of the Gospel and say that there is no darkness in Him, He is all light, and on the other hand, speak of the divine darkness, signifying by this that God approached from the outside can not be seen by our eyes, there is too much light in Him, we are blinded and we are in darkness.
Now this argument began in an experience of life, and an experience which was rooted in a whole-world conception, or rather into conflicting world conceptions.
a) A western view that admits that God created a world that possessed a created nature which was insufficient in itself either to live or to grow and conditioned also in addition to this nature by grace which was necessary for the world to achieve its vocation.
The two of these world-conceptions, nature on the one hand, grace on the other hand, are radically (both of them) different from God. Nature belongs to us, grace is a link which unites us to God. Grace can be taken or given, grace is something which is graciously bestowed on us, from there comes also the word.
b) In the conception of the pre-scholastic world, of the early Fathers, of the apostolic and later age as well as in the commentaries given before the time of Christ, in the Old Testament by writers of the Hebrew tradition, we find another picture of things, we find that God creates a world which in itself has no root either in God or in anything else, it has a nature which is God given and this nature itself is not a static nature; the world is created already in motion, in motion from the naught out of which it is called toward the depth of divine life or the divine world, and grace is there, acting, effective from the first moments, offered and never taken away; and grace is given and can be received or rejected, but is there always around us. Grace is conceived as the very presence of God who gives, offers Himself to his creatures in order that his creatures should come to the knowledge of Him which is life eternal in itself.
If we consider the first world-conception we might ultimately come to what was described by a Dominican theologian of this century as the beatific vision. He says that mankind, at the end of time, will have the vision of God, but this vision of God will be a vision of the Incarnation, Christ, the Word of God made flesh perceived in His humanity, and the vision of the invisible God will be a pure set of faith; nothing will be able to bridge the gap that exists between the divine and the human and therefore all we will be able to see is the Revelation given in history and fulfilled by the knowledge which is given by faith. On the contrary the Greek writers of the Middle Ages insisted on the fact that our vocation is not a standing face to face with God who would remain estranged to us, alien, radically and for ever different; but an increasing communion, a sharing of life divine which God offers, which we can receive and which, filling us, pervading us, (in the words of St. Maxim the Confessor, as fire pervades iron) will make us partakers of life divine and gods by participation in the same sense in which Christ manhood became by participation, part of the mystery of the incarnate Word of God. It is deification which is at stake when we discuss the problem of the nature of grace, in other words it is the ultimate vocation of man and our ultimate hope; according to patristic tradition, man was created in process of deification. The moment he emerges out of naught he is already in motion toward his completion and fulfilment; he is never static, he can either fall or move ahead, and this motion is a gradual and increasing partaking to what belongs to God and which God generously, gratuitously, offers and gives; the aim of our spiritual life therefore is this mystery of divine communion, which is fulfilled for the individual and for the collective reality of mankind, in what we call the Church.
On the other hand, this deification of man is not the only and ultimate event in this created world of ours. St Maxim expounds in great details the thought of the Orthodox Church about it when he says that man was created able to partake to two realities, to the reality of the created material world, because in his body he is made of the material of this world, and also to partake to the spiritual world, the angelic world, because he possesses a soul immortal, undying, which is beyond matter and the vocation of man was, by growing into the grace of God, by assimilating life divine, both in his soul and in his body, to grow into the creature God had meant him to be, the image of whom we find in the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, in order that he should bring together the visible and the invisible. And here we find a point which is very important to remember, the link there is between the hallowing of the man and the hallowing of the created world. Very often when we think of holiness, we think of human holiness, of the increasing growth in spirit of a man, we see him in the context of his historical setting, we see that in a certain way his holiness affects the surrounding world, but what we fail to see much too often is that holiness befits not only man but the all created world and that we are to be instrumental in this gradual hallowing of the world of God, which was called to be in God, to rejoice and sing the glory of God, to shine with the glory of God, and which, by the fall of man, has gone astray.
I have already mentioned, in a similar connection, the icon of the Transfiguration painted by Theophane the Greek, who was the master and teacher of Roublov. What is striking in this icon in contrast with the icon painted later by Roublov is that on the icon of the Transfiguration painted by the latter (?), the light that falls from the person of Christ gives concreteness, relief, depth to everything it touches, but surrounds it, touches it, remains as it were, outside it, and what is so striking in the icon of Theophane is that what ever this light of the transfiguration, divine light, touches, is, as it were, penetrated by this light and begins not only to receive and absorb it but to shine back with the same light of the transfiguration. The transfiguration does not bring light to things, it calls out light of thing (?) and this image is what the vocation of the world is, what the world is called to be and to become. God created all things, material and not, in such a way that they should be able to be alive in Him.
What we mean by being alive is of course different for the various creatures and can be known only from inside as it were, known by God and known by the particular creature of God. We do not know what it means for a stone, or a tree or an animal to rejoice and to live in the knowledge of his Creator and with the touch of his grace, but this is the vocation of all things. Our world has gone dark because we were supposed, we are meant and called to bring light into it, and having become opaque as it were, having lost our transparency and our fragrance, we have blocked the way to this divine light. In the miracle of the transfiguration we see all that is around Christ, which is free from the guilt of sin, from the evil the personal responsibility of evil and sin, we see all things come to live again, shine and be in glory.
In our world which is fallen, a whole process of rededication and transfiguration has got to take place and this explains why the word of holiness is complex and applies to various degrees of dedication and sanctification. In the first place, this world of ours together with us has been delivered by human sin into the hand of the devil, it has been betrayed into his hand and the first action which Christ, the Lord, and Him within the Church, does, is to save, to set apart parts of this world by the participation of man to constitute on them some spots of the divine kingdom; this in holiness of dedication. When an object is taken away from the world not only in secular but sinful use and dedicated to the exclusive use of God, it enters into the realm of divine world and so when we dedicate to God a cross made of wood, or of stone, or of metal, when we dedicate to the service of God, a pattern or a cup or any object, they are taken out of a world that has not only became godless but is enslaved to Satan, has become his dominion and is brought back into the complete possession of God. As I have said before, it is the vocation and the place of man in this world that makes it imperative for him to act; God does not act Himself. This is if you wish, the mystery of history, the mystery of our salvation and the mystery of the connection between us and the rest of the created. But there is more than this simple setting apart. When it is a cup or a cross, an object dedicated to the use of God, dedicated to Him within the Church it is a simple act of dedication, but certain places are set apart to be God dwelling places; one may ask why do we need set apart humble man-made places while God has created a world so full of beauty, so much greater, so much fuller of majesty than anything human skill or devotion can produce. The answer is that there is not one spot in this world which God has made pure and perfect, which human sin has not soiled by blood, by sin, all the forms of impurity and has not delivered under the dominion of the devil. And when, by the power of Christ who acts in the Church, by the will, the free unconstrained will of man, something that belongs to God by right, is resituate to Him, restored to Him, it becomes a small portion of the kingdom of God already come to earth. This is why we dedicate with complex rites and prayers a church to the Lord God, we exorcise the place that no evil power should be able to come near it, we bless everything that is used to build it, it becomes a sacred place which is already the kingdom of God and the congregation of men who is to (?) assembled in this place have got a heavy, an earnest responsibility, because each of us by bringing sin into this place soils the paradise which we endeavour to build on this earth. In a special way a church dedicated to God becomes the dwelling place of God. God is there, the master and the lord. In the rest of the world He is like a pilgrim, like a stranger in his own kingdom, going from door to door, hoping for a place of rest. A church is not only a place of refuge for those who come to seek God’s mercy; it has become in our world a place of refuge for God Himself and this place is holy.
Connected with the two forms of holiness which I have already mentioned, the holiness of simple dedication and the holiness of the divine indwelling, there is the holiness of the icons. Every used part of the icon, the wood and the paint, all things used are blessed and dedicated to God, but when the icon is ready, it receives a special blessing in water and in earlier times also in chrysm, which made it a focus of real presence, some sort of mysterious real link between the person represented and us. This again, belonging to both forms of presence, dedication and participation, is a form of holiness. Further we find another one more mysterious to us: it is the holiness of the bread and wine, which are not only blessed in order to be dedicated or indwelled, they become, in a way which we cannot understand, but in a way which we know by experience, truly the body and blood of Christ; it is not an indwelling, it is a taking into the mystery of Christ of something which is nature. At the root of this miracle and of this mystery, there is the Incarnation of Christ. God became man by uniting Himself to the material and the sole texture of mankind.
This relatedness of the divine to the created could not be more intense and more complete, and there in the mystery of bread and wine we have another aspect of the same reality. Bread and wine is taken into the person of Christ, becomes Christ, not his past historical body, but his body as realistically, as truly as in the mystery of Incarnation. And here there is something that seems to be even beyond what I have said of the transfiguration, it is a participation more deep even than what we have said before. God comes and takes into his own personality something which is outside it. This bread and wine are holy, they are of the holiness of God.
And then we come to human holiness which is a complex thing because it begins with dedication, it grows by the mystery of the sacrament of baptism to a real integration to the person of Christ. In the mystery of chrysm, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the mystery of communion something that fulfils our integration to Christ by making us consubstantial with Him, one life with Him, but also one substance in our humanity indwelled with divinity. Here is the beginning of something which is more than transfiguration, which is partaking of the divine nature.
But everything which is in us and around us is called to be integrated to the degree to which it can bear it, into the mystery of the kingdom of God.
It is not only through the liturgy, the sacramental blessings of the waters of baptism and of the Holy chrysm that we are called to make this world into the kingdom of God and it does not consist in reaching a standard of human relationship worthy of the Gospel. It is something much greater than this, it is the bringing into contact with divinity of a world which can be alive only in God.
In the Holy Liturgy, when we bless this bread and this wine that they should become the body and bread of Christ, we have not yet fulfilled what we are meant to do. God comes down to us; He enters into what He has created under the visible form of bread and wine, it is the divine Presence accessible, not frightening and yet awe-inspiring that is in our presence, this is real, this is reality; and then at the end of the liturgy something happens which is no longer reality but symbols, the Holy Gifts are taken from the Holy Table to the table of preparation in a movement that remember (?) us of the ascension of Christ. But the Incarnation in the blessing of the Holy Gifts was a reality, the ascension remains a symbol. This bread and wine have been at two various moments, the lamb of God slain for the sins of the world and the Son of God risen; and it has been to the Risen Christ, the Christ that has overcome death, that is beyond death that He has conquered for us, that we take communion to. But the ascension is only signified. Why? Because this Holy Gifts, this bread and wine, the creature of God, can convey to us bring down to us, bring into us, the presence divine, but in themselves, if I may put it that way, they are incapable of ascending back, taking their place in the mystery of life, the Trinitarian life. It is in us, when we have become, by them and through them, partakers of the body and blood of the life and death of Christ, it is in us that these holy gifts can find their fulfilment by fulfilling us. They have made us into the body of Christ life and consubstantial, it is to us, freely, to grow into real fulfilment and perfect holiness and reach the time when God will be all in all because each of us will have entered into communion with Him and will be in Him as He is in us. Our vocation is to receive and our vocation is to fulfil and in this vocation of ours which consists in receiving life divine, participation to divine nature in becoming consubstantial to Christ and sharing His life and destiny on earth and in eternity we are called at the same time to fill with the mystery of God, to introduce, to bring into the mystery of the Kingdom all these things, which God has created, all these things with which we are profoundly, intrinsically connected because we are made of them and because in us and through us they can find fulfilment.
The Liturgy is the very core, the very centre of this miracle of cosmic fulfilment, of the fulfilment of the whole created world in God together with us and never without us. And this is why the liturgy has got a dimension which is far greater than any amount of personnel piety, devotion, or even hallowing, it has a dimension which is greater than mankind because it already involves the matter of this world filled with the divine presence in the mystery of consecration and it outgrows itself, embraces all things from the smallest atom to the last galaxy, in this mystery of all things becoming alive in God, when man becomes alive in God and bring them into this communion.
Answers to questions:
Q: And it is only through this uncreated grace that holiness is possible? –
A: Yes, because otherwise there is no holiness, otherwise there are high moral standards on the one hand and we are always on the other bank of the river. The fact that there is a bridge which you cannot cross is no link with the other bank and even if you can cross it and come close to the bank and can not set foot on it you are not any nearer because it is not a question of distance; it is a radical question of either, or.
Simeon the New Theologian, when he spoke of prayer said, if you want to pray you must find peace with God, with your conscience, with your neighbour, with all things you handle, because he had a very acute sense that you can not handle things without either bringing (?) it into the bliss of a divine relationship or letting it down; and the rules of how one should handle things respectfully are not simply a survival of a pagan attitude, it is something concrete: everything can be brought by our hands, our handling, into the kingdom of God, everything can be left out, and in that we are instrumental partly because we ourselves grow into the kingdom, partly because on the other hand, we belong to another world, we are a bridge: the more we grow, the more we move into the divine the more we take together with us everything we touch and handle, and I do not mean in any sort of magic, but in a way which implies love and freedom.
A.: Yes, everyone is free to reject and everyone is free to loose by carelessness, forgetfulness, but also so often we are surrounded by people who could take while we do not give, and I should say more often so that surrounded by people who would not take what you would give.
Q: About the “mood we are in when coming to church”…
A.: We should come to the door and at that moment drop all the things we are conscience of incompatibility with the Kingdom. Every time we walk into a church should be a moment when we peel of a layer (?) and leave it there. We can peel of a lot and if we cannot peel it we can give a good pull and know that we can not take it of because it sticks too hard.
I have a suspicion that in certain cases, grace is given to one because, unknowingly, he is ready for it. St. Paul was completely and unreservedly faithful to God. He was only mistaken in what he thought was God’s will and when God came into his field of vision and said: No you are persecuting Me (?) while you imagine that you serve Me. (?) The whole thing was done, because he was completely ready, prepared, from every point of view, apart from an error of judgement.
You cannot find an adequate answer if you think in terms of an individual and simply within the compass of his life between birth and death, but you can see more if you think in the terms which I have brought more than once, of an individual being a link in a chain of people, who fulfilled or destroy (?) one another’s destiny. The gift of faith is a grace and yet it is not an arbitrary gift of God, cannot be an arbitrary gift of God, but it may perhaps be that it cannot be received by everyone, but it can be received by one for others.