From Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes, sermon 6
Here again we see Gregory relying heavily on the difference between divine essence and divine energy. Essence “transcends every act of comprehensive knowledge, and it cannot be approached or attained by our speculation.” (98) Despite all human attempts to grasp the uncontainable, unknowable God, God remains unsearchable. How then shall we speak of God, if at all? “Yet He can be seen and apprehended in another way,” Gregory suggests. Gregory likens this way to looking at a piece of art. The artwork is left behind by the artist as an energy of him/herself. Suppose we walk into the Louvre and view the Mona Lisa. This painting is an energy of Leonardo Da Vinci. But simply viewing the piece of art will not give us access to the essence of Da Vinci. We cannot grasp who Da Vinci is (or was). But in the Mona Lisa, or any other work of art, “we see here…not the substance of the craftsman, but merely the artistic skill that he has impressed in his work. So too, when we consider the order of creation, we form an image not of the substance but of the wisdom of Him Who has done all things wisely.” (99) Thus, one would be able to call Da Vinci, by virtue of the quality of his work, a great master, a skilled artist, an astute observer and creator of human beauty. Likewise, we can speak of God by seeing God’s actions in the world and inferring appropriate language from them.
But here I find a problem. Are not descriptions of energies essentially descriptions of essence? When we speak about people like Mother Theresa or other people who engaged in benevolent acts of love and kindness, we might find ourselves saying “She is a very loving person,” or “She knows how to love,” or “She exhibits a loving spirit,” or some other statement. But aren’t we really saying that their essence is in some way ‘love’? I don’t know if that is the best example, so maybe I’ll go right to the example of God. If we call God’s actions loving, doesn’t that naturally assume that God’s essence is love; God’s essence exudes, emanates energies of love. If energies originate from essence, just like our human actions emanate from our essence as human beings, then in someway we are able to gain some sort of glimpse of essence. Thus the apophatic way, in order to be truly apophatic, must remain silent even in the face of actions. It appears Gregory wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Moreover, if God is incomprehensible and inconceivable, how are we able to comprehend and conceive of its actions. Why and how do energies emanate from the Divine in such a way that they become comprehensible? And what is the criterion for identifying which energies are of divine origin and which are from more sinister sources?
The Beatitudes that Gregory is commenting on, do promise a vision of God to those who are “pure of heart.” This sight is not a visible sight; the senses cannot sense the supra-sensible. Instead, Gregory notes, “He becomes visible only in his Operations, and only when He is contemplated in the things that are external to Him” (100) God’s operations are his energies. Gregory does believe, however, that the Beatitudes “does not merely indicate that we can infer the nature of the cause from its operations…” (100) which would seem to suggest an answer to my previous questions above. Instead, Gregory believes that the Beatitude affirming the goodness of the pure of heart who will see God counsels one to purify the heart so that they “will see the image of the divine nature in [their] own beauty.” (101) It is not that “it is blessed to know something about God, but rather to possess God in oneself…”(100)
But again it appears to me that Gregory is being a bit inconsistent here. For all the talk about incomprehensibility and the ‘wholly-other’ nature of God, it is almost as if lip service is paid to the utter transcendence of God because of Gregory’s belief that one can look at themselves for an imprint of divine nature. Created in the imago dei (image of God), humans were “imprinted [with] an imitation of the perfections of His own nature, just as one would impress upon wax the outline of the emblem.” But sin ruined this impression (the extent to which is hotly debated in Christian circles of course). Thus, “your perfection [is] useless…You must then wash away, by a life of virtue, the dirt…and then your divine beauty will once again shine forth.” (101) Here Gregory argues for an analogy which points to the “archetype” that humans are modeled after. Some knowledge of the archetype is then possible. But it appears Gregory is not saying that this makes God known in and of itself, in God’s fullness.
It is just like men who look at the sun in a mirror. Even though they do not look up directly at the heavens, they do see the sun in the mirror’s reflection just as much as those who look directly at the sun. So is it, says our Lord, with you. Even though you are not strong enough to see the light itself, yet you will find within yourselves what you are seeking, if you would but return to the grace of that image which was established within you from the beginning…Tghen because you have been purified you will perceive things that are invisible to the unpurified. The dark cloud of matter will be removed from the eye of your soul, and then you will see clearly that blessed vision within the pure brilliance of your own heart. And what is this vision? It is purity, holiness, simplicity, and other such brilliant reflections of the nature of God… (102)