Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God. Matthew 5:8-12
By Fr. Shnork Souin, Pastor of
Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Church
During Lent, I was invited by a local Presbyterian Church to present a talk to their senior citizens about any unique aspect of orthodox theology that may be unknown by most Protestants and western Christians. I decided to speak to them about the little known but distinctive theological doctrine that came about predominantly through a controversy in the 14th century which was centered in the surpassing intention of mankind, the beatific vision promised to the pure in heart.
As Lent is the prescribed period through which we corporately and personally examine ourselves and in repentance, seek that which was lost and turning from the darkness of sin, toward a renewed vision and union with God in the newness of life through Christ, I chose to base my presentation from our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, where He says, in the Gospel of St. Matthew 5:8; “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”
To see God, to live in his light, to apprehend true and ultimate wisdom, to have union with the divine! This has been humanity’s ultimate and primordial desire. The restoration of what humanity lost in the Fall—the Beatific Vision.
But, as bishops, priests, deacons, as theologians, as pastors who recognize the challenge with which Satan daily tries to deceive us making this promise seemingly impossible, we may ask ourselves, “who, after all, is pure in heart and who thus can see God?”
On one hand we question the possibility given our human weakness and while on the other hand we are challenged by theological principles which seem to prohibit any such vision. In the biblical tradition, no one could view God’s divine face and live, and no one but a permitted few like Moses ever got to view and talk to God in His divine glory, for as it is written “Never will man see My face and live”.
The answer lies in the “little known but distinctive” theology which I referred to. It has been expressed throughout the history of the church from its inception having its roots in the biblical revelation and unpacked theologically by the church fathers. It is our understanding of the distinction between the energy and the essence of God. While some may at first say, “what is the difference and why does it matter?”, the crucial feature of the theology is that some denied and today still deny, that the energies or “supernatural activities” of God manifested in Creation have their origin in creation whereas in orthodox thought we confess that God is manifest through his good pleasure, even in His uncreated energies.
God in spite of being essentially, absolute transcendence, is not alienated from creation. God remains therefore essentially“unchangeable, incomprehensible, unknowable, unsearchable and unfathomable”,truly beyond history and creation spoken of in only apophatic terminology, yet immanent in His uncreated energies. It is through His interaction with humanity and in creation therefore, that there is the possibility and potentiality of divine human union.
The distinction between God’s uncreated essence and energy lies at the root of theological perspectives in East and West. In the East, obviously, we have a deeply entrenched notion of the absolute and concrete historical reality of God’s very Incarnation and thorough union with His creation through the birth, death and resurrection of God the Second person of the Holy Trinity. Through Jesus Christ, complete union, for mankind, with God is made possible. Two perceived incompatibilities, material and spirit, divine and human are made whole and thoroughly united in the Person of Jesus God, our Lord.
Contrasting two spokesmen from east and west, John Calvin, rejecting the apostolic tradition says; Finitude non est capax infiniti –the finite is incapable of the infinite, or in other words, that which is created in time cannot have intimate or indissoluble union with the infinite or the divine. His theory is that the divine and created are like oil and water unable to share in each other’s properties without change and yet, St. Paul making a startling assertion says; “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen.”
When I was a child, visiting my Nene, I was intrigued by this open socket at the corner of the living room. One day growing bolder and my curiosity getting the better of me, I reached into it. The shock sent me across the room. I didn’t weigh 230lbs at the time but it was still a jolt! Being typical Armenians, seeing that I was still alive and no worse for the wear, my mom and grandmother yelled at me, “Khent!” I learned that day that you don’t have to see the essential character or power of something very real and present to apprehend its energy. This analogy should give pause to our understanding of the experience of Moses on the holy mount before the burning bush, or the apostles Peter, John and James, who hit the deck and cowered before the Transfigured Christ on Mt. Tabor. It is as if Jesus showed them a vision that was a distinct message and privilege- a partial glimpse of His true messianic glory as the God-Man and a foretaste of the heavenly Beatific Vision. Like the Apostles and prophets, we need also to likewise approach God with humility and never arrogantly.
While Jean Calvin’s theological premise was intended to deny Catholic sacramental theology and the doctrine of Transubstantiation, ostensibly, he denied the Incarnation! The infinite God can have no union with the finite, man!
Our champion of orthodox incarnation theology, on the other hand, St. Athanasius confessing the hypostatic union of God with created humanity and the communicatio idiomatum says; in bald contradiction to any Calvinistic notion of ultimate separation between heaven and earth, God and man, finite and infinite says of God’s Incarnation, birth, death and resurrection; “God became man so that man can become god.” Of course this assertion seems preposterous to the Protestant mindset, embarrassing and as foolish an assertion as the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, or even blasphemous and audacious as the trisagial hymn where we confess in profoundly cataphatic language the death of “Holy God, Holy and mighty, holy and immortal God.” These things are absurd to most people and yet, from the very beginning of time, man seeks the vision of and union with God! What is more absurd, a desire for the impossible or the rejection of Christ’s promise, “Blessedare the pure in heart, for they shall see God”?
A couple of years ago, I made a trip to meet a friend with whom I’d become acquainted. Over pizza, our conversation turned to God. I began sensing that her experience of God was a class apart and that she was always in God’s presence. I asked her to describe what her relationship with God felt like, and she whispered in awe-struck amazement, “It feels . . . like there’s no difference between us!”
What was it that she had? I asked her. Her answer was as amazing as the initial assertion. She said that she made a willing effort to fill all her hours, both when she was busy doing her work, when she was with friends, doing charity work in the hospital or in quiet and restful times, with the practice of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. She went on to say, “I ask Him to replace with Himself the stuff that sours my relation with him, to place His Heart in me!”
How can we become like God or to attain theosis, union with God and the beatific vision? Is it in me accomplish this, is it in the will of the flesh? No.
Who after all, can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?
If I examine myself, I come back with one conclusion, like our fathers and saints of the church, “I am a wretched sinner, the greatest of sinners,“For out of my heart proceeds evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, blasphemy.” Anything I do or accomplish dependent on my own ability is fruitless, for as says the psalmist,“Surely in vain have I kept my heartpure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.”
The fact is that we are challenged however by a number of things which bind and blind us. Many are the obstacles which blemish the purity of heart distracting our attention to the light of our life. The pressures and concerns for the day. Disorientation, a focus on the material pleasures of life where the devil always tries to divert our focus from God. A withdrawal from God’s time and from his Presence—focusing on the chronos rather than the kairos.
The fathers of the church teach us that through a disciplined, modest, ordered and religious life we are able to perfect quietude of body and mind and to arrive at a vision of the Uncreated Light of the Godhead. Within a life of humble prayer, they teach us also that the true theologian is the one who prays and the one who prays is the true theologian. Repentance springs forth from a broken heart which is replaced in Baptism and kept beating through Communion with Christ’s. Jesus through His sacraments and in prayer, can and will “Create in us a pure heart, and renew a steadfast spirit within us.” Jesus listens to the prayers of the broken hearted.
In repentance and dependence on Christ my brothers, is the divine light and the beatific vision made manifest. In a humble reorientation to the life in Christ, who Himself is the icon, the Divine Image in whom “dwells all the fullness of God”. Not so much in seeking to have Jesus in your heart, like many of our evangelical friends prescribe, but desiring for Jesus to BE our heart, because Jesus IS the Heart of God. He is both the Pure Heart and the Beatific Vision.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus possesses the vision of God. His human intellect was perfected, not only by virtue of the personal union, but by the attainment of the purpose of every human being — to see God and to love him. He tells His followers that this vision is available to them also through fellowship with him, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.”
My fathers and brothers, we are privileged beyond comprehension with an ineffable divine promise. Our Lord has come to us in the flesh and continually comes to us in His Holy Eucharist, even revealing himself to us as he did to Cleopas and another disciple on the Road to Emmaus, when “He took bread, and blessed it, and broke, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.” Let us pray that He create in each of us a new heart, and to make His dwelling with us that we might together “taste and see how sweet is the Lord”.
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you all,”“and may the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, now and always and unto the ages of ages, Amen.”
 The Palamite controversy between Barlaam and Gregory Palamas raged in the early 14th century. Barlaam saw education as a higher virtue than prayer and mocked the monks of Mt. Athos who led a life of disciplined and contemplative prayer calling them “Navel Gazers”. Gregory victorious and vindicated for his orthodoxy proved that the “light” of the beatific vision seen by some monks, was the same uncreated light as witnessed by the apostles at Christ’s metamorphosis on Mt. Tabor.
 Exod. 33:20
 Romans 1:20
 Matthew 17:1-6; Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:28-36.
 A technical expression in the theologyof the Incarnation. It means that the properties of the Divine Word can be ascribed to the man Christ, and that the properties of the man Christ can be predicated of the Word.
 Thrice Holy
 Proverbs 20:9
 1 Timothy 1:15
 Matthew 15:19
 Psalm 73:13
 created, temporal time
 Divine, eternal or sacred time.
 Evagrius of Pontus, From The Armenian Writings of the Desert Fathers.
 Psalm 51:10
 Collosians 2:9-10
 John 14:7-8 7
 Luke 24:30-31
 Psalm 34:8
 Numbers 6:25
 Philippians 4:10