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Question 25

Hi Father,  God said to Moses that no man shall see Him and live. Also in the book of Isaiah, the angels which accompanied God covered their faces with their wings in the presence of God. Is this due to the fact that no creature can bare to look at the Almighty and live or what does this mean exactly?



Answer to Question 25


When describing or referring to God, the Old Testament uses anthropomorphic images. When Moses asked to see Godís face he was told ďThou shalt not be able to see My face: for there shall no man see My face, and live.Ē (Exodus 33: 20) But he told Moses that he would put him into a cleft of the rock ďand will cover thee with My hand, until I shall have passed by. And I will take away Mine hand, and thou shalt see My back parts: but My face shall not appear unto thee.Ē (Exodus 33: 21-23)


God is spirit but here we have anthropomorphic images of face, hands and back parts.  In New Testament theology we understand these as referring to Godís nature (essence) and Godís energies that proceed from his nature. So the face is referring to Godís nature with is inaccessible to all creatures and the back parts is referring to the energies of God which can be experienced by creation.  No single thing of all that is created, whether man or angel, has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the Supreme nature. That there is a God is clear, but what He is by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge. God is above and outside His creation, yet He also exists within it. As a much used Orthodox prayer puts it: ďThou art in all places and fillest all thingsĒ.


Orthodoxy therefore distinguishes between Godís essence and His energies, thus safeguarding both divine transcendence and divine immanence: Godís essence remains unapproachable, but His energies come down to us. Godís energies, which are God Himself, permeate all His creation, and we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light. The divine energies that sanctify and deify man can in part be experienced by man in this life. This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church which can be found in the works of the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th Century and supported by St. Gregory Palamas and the Hesychast movement in the 14th century.  But what was the Hesychast movement?


 Hesychasm is a spiritual practice which was and still is practiced mainly by Orthodox monks. Hesychast comes from the Greek word ďΗσυχίαĒ meaning silence or peace. The Hesychastic practice has often been compared to the mystical prayer or meditation of Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism and yoga, although this similarity is often over-emphasized in popular accounts and is generally rejected by actual Orthodox practitioners of Hesychasm. The practice may involve specific bodily postures, and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns, however, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary by both modern Athonite practitioners of Hesychasm and by the more ancient texts from the Fathers. Today we know this practice as the Jesus Prayer that is practiced by both monks and lay people alike. The Hesychast begins in solitude and retirement by repeating the Jesus Prayer Ė Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.


It should be noted that the Hesychast never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables without meaning, which would then just be repetitious and worthless. His pays extreme attention to each word of the prayer and collects his mind, not letting it wander, which is what usually happens when we start praying. In time the prayer is said continually 24 hours a day and the Hesychastís aim is to bring his mind (his nous) into his heart. There are various stages to the prayer but eventually the goal is for the prayer to continue in the heart with the grace of God. At this stage, the Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God which is seen as light.  It is this light that caused a controversy in the 14th Century between the Athonite monks who practiced the Hesychast spirituality and a Greek monk named Barlaam from Calabria Italy, who had come to Constantinople in 1330.


 What was this light? Was it just a physical light or was it a contemplation of God? Did the Athonite monks, as they claimed, have an experiential knowledge of God? When Barlaam of Calabria encountered Hesychasts and heard descriptions of their practices, he was scandalized by Hesychasm and began to combat it both orally and in his writings. He had been trained in Western Scholastic Theology which is based on rational thought. He was therefore unfamiliar with Orthodox spiritually and could not comprehend the possibility of material eyes physically beholding the immaterial God. How can a man see Godís essence with his bodily eyes? The light which the Hesychasts beheld, in his view, was not the eternal light of the Divinity, but a temporary and created light. He also believed that philosophers had better knowledge of God than did the prophets, and he valued education and learning more than contemplative prayer. As such, he believed the monks on Mount Athos were wasting their time in contemplative prayer when they should instead be studying to gain intellectual knowledge.


Hesychasm was defended theologically by St. Gregory Palamas, who was asked by his fellow monks on Mt. Athos to defend Hesychasm from the attacks of Barlaam. Contrary to Barlaam, Gregory asserted that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. St. Gregory defended Hesychasm at several Synods in Constantinople in the 1340s and he also wrote a number of works in its defence. In these works, St. Gregory Palamas uses a distinction, between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God. St Gregory taught that the energies or operations of God were uncreated. He taught that the essence of God can never be known by his creature even in the next life, but that his uncreated energies or operations can be known both in this life and the next, and convey to the Hesychast in this life and to the righteous in the next life a true spiritual knowledge of God. It is the uncreated energies of God that illuminate the Hesychast who has been vouchsafed an experience of the Uncreated Light. The doctrine of Hesychasm was eventually upheld as the doctrine of the Orthodox Church at a Synod in Constantinople. Barlaam returned to Italy where he became a Roman Catholic bishop. Up to this day, the Roman Catholic Church has never fully accepted Hesychasm, especially the distinction between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God, and the notion that these energies or operations of God are uncreated. In Roman Catholic theology, as it has developed since the Scholastic period, the essence of God can be known, but only in the next life; the grace of God is always created; and the essence of God is pure act, so that there can be no similarity between the energies or operations and the essence of God.