Unmediated Grace?

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.

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25 Responses to Unmediated Grace?

  1. Lasseter says:

    I suspect, at the considerable risk of presumptuousness, that some of this may have to do with the busy duties of being a priest, and, to step away from such a personal assumption, I don’t doubt that some of it must pertain to the larger issues any of us faces of being men in the “real world.” St. Gregory Palamas and many other Church Fathers and mystics had the advantage of some periods of monasticism or retreat in their lives. Someone with a job that has a lot of busy responsibility has a great many cares of this world to lend him to feeling more attached to these material things. Add to that other immense burdens that befall us, and … well, none of it makes you come across as lacking in your Orthodoxy to my reading, Father.

    As for God’s imperceptibility in daily life and the desolation He permits …. Well, I think that in my own low moments I prefer to read a man remarking as you have here, rather than spouting some optimistic boilerplate. It’s quite right that God is a hard one to figure out, to put it in a somewhat vulgar way. He loves us, and yet we are often left to feel bereft of it. I see nothing un-Orthodox about contending with such an experience.

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  2. dino says:

    Father bless,
    I have no idea if this is relevant, but this instantly reminded me of a talk of Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra on the importance of night-time vigil (the heart of hearts of monastic Hesychasm). In a nutshell, he says that, during the day, in one way or another, we have God running to us, aiding us, helping out, saving, doing things for us (that is when we are sufficiently undistracted); during the night however!… in that complete silence and stillness often after a Jacobian struggle with Him we have God revealing Himself to us!

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  3. mary benton says:

    Thank you, Fr. Aidan, for posing this question. I do not have the benefit of having read St. Gregory Palamas but I too think I have had experience of encountering the living God, not just talking or thinking about Him.

    What I think is confusing is the term “unmediated” – is that to mean that we can know God directly, without benefit of Christ, sacraments, Church/Tradition? (i.e. not mediated by any of these). If that is what is meant, I would suggest that it is possible – as are all things with God – but why would we want to know Him independently of these, His gifts?

    Though certainly not for me to advise you, “the days when God seems utterly absent and my heart is desolate” I believe are part of all of our lives. It is part of our human condition and is accentuated during times of grief, tragedy, etc. If they exist at all, very rare are the souls who continuously experience God’s presence in this life. (I am reminded of what we learned about Mother Teresa’s experiences after her death – the world saw her as a saint, but she was plowing through the same kinds of spiritual doubt and darkness as the rest of us.)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “What I think is confusing is the term “unmediated” – is that to mean that we can know God directly, without benefit of Christ, sacraments, Church/Tradition? (i.e. not mediated by any of these). If that is what is meant, I would suggest that it is possible – as are all things with God – but why would we want to know Him independently of these, His gifts?”

      Mary, is it really possible for us to know and experience God apart from these “gifts”? Is there a God apart from the one who has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and died on the cross? Is there an incarnate Son apart from the Church that is constituted in Word and Sacrament?

      Do you see what I am driving at? If the question is, May we experience God? then of course we must answer, yes. This, as I take it, was the issue at stake in the Palamas vs Barlaam conflict. But if the question is, May we experience God apart from the incarnate Christ, apart from the Church, apart from Word and Sacrament, then that is where I have problems–hence my problem with the notion of “unmediated grace.” I do not know what that might mean for Christians. Why would we want an unmediated grace?

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  4. dino says:

    But unmediated Grace first and foremost describes the Light of Mount Tabor, the direct experience of the Uncreated Light of the Triune Light (in Palamas). The comprehension of the uncomprehensible energy of the Father in Christ through the Spirit is the most direct experience possible for a human being – it is unmediated in the sense that there is no created intermediate but the Uncreated communes directly with His creature.

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  5. Fr. Aidan,
    By “unmediated” grace is meant that when we encounter God’s grace – in whatever manner He gives it, we encounter God and not a created effect. God gives Himself to us, and not something else. I should have written in more detail (causing less confusion). The business of a weekend left me writing on the fly – not a good practice.
    In the sacraments we encounter God – not simply something “holy” in a lesser sense. The debate about created/uncreated grace ultimately touches on this point. The additional point that it is possible for the creature to behold the uncreated Light is also part of that debate, but we still encounter the uncreated when we encounter God.
    I do not so much think of the sacraments as “mediating” God. They are a means of receiving grace – but it is truly grace – God’s very life – that we receive. How we perceive that varies according to the measure of purity, etc., of a believer (“blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”).
    I struggle like most in drawing near the sacraments to perceive anything more than my senses yield to me. I’m more aware of my sins and the distractions of my broken brain than anything else. But I trust that what I receive is God Himself – and not a creature still at a remove.
    This also relates, I think, to the understanding of knowledge by participation, which, though originally a Platonic idea, is pretty common through the Eastern fathers (certainly among the teachers on prayer). To know God, requires participation (koinonia) and not something else. This participation ultimately has an unmediated quality – or it would not be participation.
    Is this helpful?

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  6. mary benton says:

    I, for one, find it helpful, Fr. Stephen. The created vs uncreated distinction makes the concept of “unmediated” make more sense. Thanks for clarifying.

    Fr. Aidan, what I was suggesting (based on my misunderstanding of Fr. Stephen’s original post) was that it is possible that someone could know and experience God without Christ – because God makes all things possible – but I agree that it would make no sense for a Christian to want or seek that.

    I was thinking more of people born into circumstances or cultures where knowing Jesus as the Christ might be nearly impossible, at least for a time. I do not believe that God would deprive them of knowledge of Him if they sought Him genuinely in the context of their own cultural limitation. Certainly such a knowledge would be incomplete – and yet all of us suffer from some degree of incompleteness in our knowledge of God who is unknowable to our finite selves.

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    • dino says:

      Mary,
      I don’t know how to put this into words correctly, but we agree in Orthodoxy that the whole of the Holy Trinity is present at any form of encounter we have with God, from the lower to the highest, but, in some sense for us humans, Christ the Divine Logos is ALWAYS the ultimate locus of our communion with God, He is not just there when we behold Him (as St Silouan did), He is there when we are “filled by the Spirit” and having a mainly “Spirit filled (subjective) experience” (akin to St Seraphim of Sarov’s) making us (the Spirit filled ones) into Christ, He is there when again we have His (Christ’s) experience (of Sons and Daughters), while hearing the Father’s voice… etc.

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  7. Isaac says:

    I tend to distrust claims of the experience of God. Maybe this is cynical, but I see the objective tests of the “unmediated grace” of God in things like control over the passions, sacrificing care for the “least of these,” forgiveness of enemies (not simply having no enemies due to a feeble existence), and fearlessness in the face of death. The problem is that a lot of people who have claimed the experience of God (almost always couched in emotional terms) do not demonstrate these objective measures of transformation so what does it amount to? I think it would be better to have no conscious experience of God whatsoever and to have these “signs” emerge in one’s life over time, than to have powerful experiences of God but experience no real transformation.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    As I get older I no longer know what counts as an “experience” of God. If we do indeed live in a one-storey universe, as so beautifully expressed by Fr Stephen in Everywhere Present, then it seems to me that for the person of faith, every moment is an experience of the uncreated Creator, however it is subjectively apprehended and processed. How could it not be? I think it would be a mistake to restrict our experience of God to a specific kind of experience according to specific mystical criteria. How could there be such criteria? The Holy Trinity is not an object within the universe. The Orthodox distinction between the divine essence and energies tells us that God does indeed communicate his being and life to us, but it cannot define what counts and does not count for an experience of God. That is not the purpose of the distinction–at least so it appears to me. Our life as believers is lived “in Christ,” and it comprehends everything.

    At some point in the near future, I want to put my hands on Denys Turner’s book on mysticism, The Darkness of God.

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    • I must rush to say that I think there is a world of distinction to be made between the encounter with unmediated grace (ultimately I do not think there is any other kind of grace) and conscious experience. Conscious experience covers a wide swath – most of which is questionable, laden with delusion, etc. I have very little regard for most things attributed to an “experience” of God. I agree with Isaac, that the most clear evidence of the work of grace is found in the diminishment of the passions and the establishment of the virtues (in the image of Christ). I would also agree that everywhere and at all times we encounter God. The work of ascesis is to cooperate everywhere and all at times. Christ is never not-saving-us (pardon the double-negative).

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  9. mary benton says:

    “…it seems to me that for the person of faith, every moment is an experience of the uncreated Creator, however it is subjectively apprehended and processed.”

    Very well said, Fr. Aidan. Faith enables us to know this, even in times that are subjectively most unpleasant – and therefore do not seem to our human sensibilities to be experiences of God.

    Isaac, for this reason I understand what you mean in your distrust of such claims. Are we just taking moments of joy and calling them experiences of God because they please us? Yet, if we never felt that we experienced God, I think it would be a great deal more difficult to believe in Him. It would be more like believing in an idea than being in relationship.

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  10. Isaac says:

    Mary,

    I truly understand what you are saying, but there is so much potential to go wrong with the idea of a “personal relationship” with God (I know that you didn’t use the word “personal” in your post). A lot of this stems from the tradition I was raised in, which put a premium on the individual relationship with Jesus over the communal experience of Christ in the Church. This turned church into a club of free association among those who had a personal relationship with Jesus rather than the “body of Christ” or “the ark of salvation” or “the vine” or all the other metaphors of “being as communion” to borrow the idea from Zizoulas. It reminds me of the warning in scripture that goes “If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” More and more I find myself distrustful of personal experiences of God because so much of it is clearly idolatry (i.e. creating a tin god in one’s own mind to worship and receive approval from). I don’t want to negate what is genuine in people’s experiences of God, but I find myself being agnostic about most of those claims when I hear them.

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    • mary benton says:

      I think I understand, Isaac, though I suspect I was raised in quite a different background. I tend to cringe at the term “personal relationship” – not because mine is impersonal, but for the very reasons you cite. I was trying to convey that God as idea is not enough – but neither is “experience of God” enough.

      I also agree with Fr. Stephen’s comment about about the potential for delusion in conscious experience (and certainly seems likely if one is proclaiming the experience but lacking in the “tests” you described).

      I also am connecting with what Fr. Aidan indicated in the initial post here – that we do not always/often experience God’s presence and may “experience” Him as absent. Neither experience is a proper gauge for God’s love for us – or our love for God. Lacking maturity is the faith that requires regular “feel good/God” experiences to sustain it. Yet having experiences of God (as best we can discern them) are cause for thanksgiving – preferably in private or judiciously shared. (IMO)

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      • dino says:

        “If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar” is always relevant and is given various expressions in the Saints who have had the epxerience of God in question.
        St Silouan might say that the fruit that distinguishes the authentic from the couterfeit is “love of enemies”, St Isaac might say that it is “seeing all as Saints and one’s self as the only sinner” etc etc.

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    • Hi Isaac;
      I see your issue with “personal”. I too was raised Protestant & grew up “accepting Christ as my personal Lord & Savior”. Protestants use the word “personal relationship” in the sense of “individual relationship”, thus their Churchless theology. This change from the Protestant sense to the Orthodox sense has taken me a long time to negotiate. Every once in a while my priest warns me, “…your former Protestantism is seeping through!” 😉

      Orthodox also speak of “personal relationship”, but it is always in the sense as a relationship between persons & this is accomplished through the Body of Christ, the Church. Orthodox also speak of “experience”. IMO we can have a personal experience, but not an individual one. Even the solitary ascetics that lived in the desert for years without human contact were still operating within the Church. They too had “personal experiences” (person to person) in the form of visions or dreams, but none of their visions or dreams ever conflicted with Church Tradition, or at least not in what I have read. Their “experiences” were given to them for a purpose that aided & bettered the Church & hence Christ, such as those of St. Mary of Egypt who the Orthodox commemorate in the 5th week of Great Lent.

      The “individual experiences” of the Protestants do not do this in my experience. Far too often the “visionary” ends up declaring he has been “called by God Himself” to “spread the good news which everyone else before him has gotten wrong”. After reinventing the theological wheel yet another Protestant group assumes its place among the 38,000+ already in existence. For this reason I also adhere to your wait-&-see approach with such claims.

      Thanks for your comments.

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  11. Fr Hermogen Holste says:

    I think the history of Christian mysticism provides for both a mediated and an unmediated experience of God, not as alternative paths to one another, nor as being in any way opposed to each other, but rather as being two necessary aspects of our relationship with God in Christ.

    Mediated grace – through the sacraments, the Church, the Gospel, the sacrament of the neighbour – is all about our experiencing God in and through the other, and thus, knowing Him as Other. But there comes a time in our spiritual journey when we recognise that God is not only Other, he is also Not Other. He is more intimately connected to me than I am to myself. He is the ground of my being and I find my truest self in Him. In that sense, every human being – indeed, everything that exists – has an immediate connexion to God, to which connexion all means and intermediaries and sacraments point. ‘The Kingdom of God is within you,’ says the Saviour, and the communion we shall know there surpasses even the communion we receive in the Eucharist. ‘Grant that we may partake of Thee more perfectly in the never-waning day of Thy Kingdom.’

    By the way, Turner’s book is marvelous. I also wholeheartedly recommend What No Mind Has Conceived, by Knut Alfsvag.

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  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I want to thanks everyone for their helpful comments. I especially want to thank Fr Stephen and Fr Hermogen for visiting my blog. As you can see, this is a topic about which I know very little. I just have a few inchoate intuitions with which I am struggling. I know nothing about the experience of God. I haven’t passed the first stage of beginner.

    Fr Hermogen, you may be right that “mediated grace” is about experiencing God as Other. This, I suppose, accurately reflects my own spiritual journey at this point, which is perhaps why I love Fr Alexander Schmemann’s writings on the sacraments. I have never been gifted with the kind of experience of which the Athonite monks speak, nor do I expect to in this life. I am really very much an ascetical failure (I’m not being modest–I’m speaking the absolute truth).

    But this makes it sound as if mediated grace is something less than optimal, whereas I look upon it as the normal spiritual way for the baptized hoi polloi. Is not the world given to us to be a means of communion with the living God? Did not the eternal Son become incarnate so that we might eat his sacred Body and drink his precious Blood? On Mount Thabor, were not the disciples given a vision of our Lord’s deified body?

    Please note that even with mediated grace we are still speaking of God’s uncreated life and energies.

    Fr Stephen, Fr Hermogen, Dino, and everyone else–any further thoughts?

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    • Fr Hermogen Holste says:

      Fr Aidan,

      I have a few thoughts, though, of course, I am no expert on these matters, simply a fellow student.

      In the first place, I think it very important to remember that we do not simply encounter God as Other or Not Other: He *is* Other, and He *is* Not Other. Every creature, from the earthworm to the archangel, receives God’s grace and knows Him through the intermediary of other creatures. This is the insight of the Pseudo-Areopagite. But at the same time, at all times, in all ways and in every place, every creature, no matter how lowly or how exalted, owes its existence directly to the immediate and unmediated operation of God, the eternal ground, not only of Being in general, but of every particular being as well.

      Were we without sin, we should always perceive God clearly in the mirror of our own soul, and likewise perceive Him clearly in others. In fact, however, we find ourselves alienated from our own selves, and can see God neither within nor without. Through ascesis – and here I don’t think we’re talking primarily about hair shirts and whatnot, but rather about all our striving after God – we can come to perceive God in the world around us. The danger here is idolatry, when we mistake the means of our encounter with God for God Himself. The spiritual life consists largely of shedding these various idols.

      However, here we encounter a further problem. No matter how far we advance in spiritual practice through our own efforts, we are always fuelling our own ego, the greatest of all idols, which means that we continue to be alienated from our true selves, which we can find only in God. Ascesis and spiritual practice of every sort can only bring us so far before they collapse, since they are not built ultimately on God, but on a falsehood.

      Contemplation is not a separate way or method alongside others, but rather the failure of every method. Only when all our efforts collapse and our ego is crushed can we begin to find God within, and only when we find God within can we truly find Him without. This is not some kind of mystical experience reserved for a few elites, but simply an ordinary and necessary stage of the spiritual life for every Christian. It is not something to do, but a way of knowing and being that embraces and transforms our entire lives.

      This is why Mary is superior to Martha: not because her inactivity is inherently better than Martha’s activity, but because her gift cannot be taken away. If Martha’s good works are stripped from her by circumstances – as must be the case for us all in the end – she has nothing left. But Mary is resting in God, and she can continue to rest in God no matter her external circumstances. Working or praying, alone or in community, healthy or sick, alive or dead, she is in Him, and nothing can take her out of His hand.

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  13. Everyone,
    Thank you for your comments & input 🙂 This is a most edifying thread!

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  14. dino says:

    I would agree as wel as differentiate my position from calling ” through the sacraments, the Church, the Gospel, the sacrament of the neighbour “, Mediated grace.
    In tht “state infered by Jesus” we do indeed come to live as “Mary” and not as “Martha”, even when doing the stuff of Martha. The fact that Man, in a humility that can only be granted us through the Holy Spirit, can say actually say nothing other than “I, Christ” while partaking of the sacraments, reading the Gospel, loving his neighbour points to this…

    p.ps: I think Father Stephen had talked about something of the sort but I cannot find it to plagiarise it at the moment. 🙂 So I am basing this on Elder Aimilianos…

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