There are many aspects of Orthodoxy that I do not understand and do not expect to understand in my lifetime. Orthodoxy is too rich and deep to be comprehended in many lifetimes, for it is nothing less than the trinitarian life of God.
One thing that I still do not understand, despite all I have read (and I have read a lot), is the notion of “unmediated grace.” I understand the crucial point asserted by St Gregory Palamas’s distinction between the divine essence and energies: we are truly given to participate in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we genuinely share, not in a created reality, but in God himself. As Fr Stephen writes, “Orthodoxy believes that it is truly possible to know God though He remains unknowable.”
But what does it mean to say that the gift of grace is “unmediated”? What of the Church and her liturgical life? What of baptism and the Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood? What of the sacraments? What of the preached Word? What of my brothers and sisters with whom I am united in Christ? And perhaps most importantly, what of the risen and glorified body of the eternal Son of God? Is our experience of God to be understood as ultimately independent of all of these? Are we to transcend and leave behind the eucharistic bread and wine, the cross, the Scriptures, the humanity and corporeality of Christ, the heart-rending sunset on the beach, the exhilarating red and orange foliage of autumn? I do not understand. Perhaps one of you can explain this to me.
As I think about my “spirituality,” whatever that means, I guess I would describe it as sacramental. Perhaps it is best captured in Charles Williams’s expression “This is Thou; neither is this Thou.” I do not think of myself as a mystic, except perhaps a mystic of the divine absence. Yet there have been (all too few) moments when God has seemed (was it only a figment of my imagination?) very real: celebrating the Holy Eucharist, eating and drinking the Body and Blood of the Lord, preaching at the funeral of my son, praying on a mountain on a beautiful autumn day in the Smokies, sitting on my deck and reading St Gregory of Nazianzus–and others too private and intimate to share. But these moments are far outnumbered by the days when God seems utterly absent and my heart is desolate. But presence or absence–all is mediated for me. I do not think of trying to escape this creaturely and ecclesial mediation. Does this mean that I have not begun yet to be Orthodox? Perhaps. I am confused.