A Story About How God Works

In the previous essay I talked about the incarnation being the pattern of all God’s activity in the world. God works in creation by working through the stuff of creation. Preeminently, God works through the Church. This reminds me of a saying about the monks. But in order to appreciate the saying, one must realize that eastern Christian monasticism is different than western monasticism. There are no monastic orders set apart to do specific tasks. Monks don’t teach school or pastor churches (unless they are released from their monastery to such a task). Monks pray; it is their specific vocation.

It is said that if the monks ever quit praying, the world will simply cease to exist. That sounds silly and arrogant on the surface, but the sentiment is rooted in this sensibility of the sacramental life and how God works in the world. The Church is a “spiritual house, a holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5); it is the primary means of how God embodies himself in creation as he sustains creation and builds his kingdom. If the monks quit praying (implying that the church itself has quit praying and thus quit being open to God) God has lost his sacramental link to creation, and poof, creation is no more.

Okay, it still sounds a bit silly and arrogant, but the story gets to the heart of how the Christian east understands the relationship between God and humans. God mysteriously enters into the created order so that the Church truly and actually becomes the Body of Christ. (It’s not a metaphor.) So too with creation. “In him all things were created” (Col 1:15) and “In him all things hold together” (v 17). God imbues creation, yet we will not find him if we go poking around the stars or the subatomic particles looking for him. His presence is humble and yet powerful, invisible and yet glorious.

The secret divine action throughout the created order holds it all together and moves it all forward. It is this action that is the essence of our calling and salvation as well as that which leads to the consummation of all things. The Church, the Kingdom of God, the Lamb of God, and the Divine Light are all different manifestation of Grace, the true Grace of God that is God himself expressed in creation. There is no “lending a hand” in this process, nor is there Divine coercion; rather, this is God how God works. “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 15:17).

Gregory Palamas and the Struggle of Lent

“God wants to reveal himself to the extent that we can bear.”

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, is Gregory Palamas Sunday in the Orthodox Church. I was attracted to Gregory’s theology long before I was Orthodox. He’s the guy who articulated the doctrine of the energies of God, providing the defense of Peter’s statement that we can be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4) at a time when that idea was being explained away as mere hyperbole.

But in today’s homily, Fr. Paul focused, not on his theology, but rather on his Christian life that made the theology possible. Gregory defended the idea that we can be partakers of the divine nature because he had experienced that very thing.

This is something very few humans have experienced. As Fr. Paul said it this morning, “God wants to reveal himself to the extent that we can bear.” The problem is that few of us have bothered training systematically and for any length of time to be able to bear God’s very person.” The problem isn’t with God’s desire to give it to us; it’s rather in our inability to receive the gift.

St. Gregory Palamas’ ascetical discipline was amazing. If he lived today, good Christian folk would no doubt have declared him nuts and had him committed. But spiritual struggle incarnated into human struggle was the root of his insights. Just as a weight lifter, through long and careful training can bear weight that is seemingly impossible, so the spiritual athlete can bear God’s glory to an extent that is seemingly impossible to those of us who are less disciplined.

This is the gift of St. Gregory to the Church, and a wonderful invitation to Lent.