My attention was drawn to the event of the Transfiguration during my college years. It was then that I first read a book on St. Seraphim of Sarov, who himself was transfigured in a famous incident in his conversation with Motivilov. There, on a snowy winter’s day, the saint shown with a brilliant light, and Motivilov felt effused with warmth and joy. It caught my attention in the most obvious way. I thought, “I wish I could see something like that!” That desire was encouraged as I began to read and discovered the Orthodox teaching on the light of the transfiguration as being the “Divine Energies,” nothing other than the uncreated light of God. The teaching holds that we can see and participate in the Divine Energies, but not the Divine Essence. I took note of that and continued my research.
In hindsight, I think I wanted to see two things. First, I wanted to “see” something that reassured me of the existence of God. “If I could see such a light,” I reasoned, “I would no longer doubt.” Second, I wanted the experience itself, to somehow be effused with that light. This, I think, is as honest as I can be about my thoughts at the time. I am probably not alone in such thinking.
The doctrine of the Divine Energies and the Uncreated Light of the Transfiguration, received a dogmatic definition in the Palamite Councils of the 14th century. The Church affirmed the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas that the experience of seeing the light of Christ, sometimes vouchsafed in prayer, was, in fact, an experience of God in His Divine Energies.
Many years have passed since my early college reading and research. It has taken most of those years to understand in a helpful way the doctrine of the Divine Energies. To a great extent, my understanding was “blinded by the light.” By that, I mean that I was focused on the experience of Transfiguration and St. Gregory’s defense of the monks to such an extent that I let it encompass the entire scope of the patristic teaching on the energies.
There is a teaching on the energies that is far more prosaic even practical to be found in the early fathers . That teaching can be understood by simply looking at the meaning of the word, “energy” or “energeia.” In Greek “energeia” simply means “doings” or “actions.” The Divine Energies thus means the divine actions, everything that God does. What does God do? He creates; He sustains; He holds all things in his goodness; He moves all things and draws all things towards union with Him. What we must understand is that this holding in goodness, this moving, this drawing, this uniting, this sustaining, this creating, is in fact God Himself as the Divine Energies. And understanding this we must see that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”
But instead of understanding and contemplating this, for years I longed for an experience of Divine Light. As such, the idea was a distraction. The Transfiguration was something of a distraction for the disciples as well. St. Peter spoke of building three tabernacles on the mountain to mark or commemorate that wonderful moment. When Christ then spoke of His coming crucifixion, Peter rebuked Him! In doing so, he revealed that he still understood nothing of Christ’s work. Every action of Christ (including the Transfiguration) was a movement towards the Cross and the work (“energy”) of undoing death by death.
This remains a key in contemplating the Divine Energies (everywhere present and filling all things). The doings and actions of God are cruciform in nature. We proclaim that “in wisdom You have made them all,” while being told that Christ crucified is the “Wisdom and Power of God” (1Cor. 1:23-24). St. Maximus tells us that whoever understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.
St. Paul was deeply baptized into this mystery. (He cried out, “That I might know Him: the communion of His suffering and the power of His resurrection!” – Phil. 3:10). The sound of creation, sustained by the cruciform Divine Energies, was described by St. Paul as “groaning like a woman in childbirth.” The suffering creation, made manifest to us in every moment, suffers with Christ and groans with Christ.
It is interesting to me that in considering Peter, James, and John’s experience of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on Mount Tabor, it is the light that became of interest to me. And, in reflection, I see that I somehow treated the light as distinct from Christ Himself. Instead, we are told that Christ is the Light of the world and that this Light is life.
See how St. Dionysius speaks of the Divine Energies:
[God] in His providence is present to all things and becomes all things in all for the preservation of them all, while yet remaining in Himself nor ever going forth from His own proper Identity in that one ceaseless act wherein His life consists; and thus with undeviating power He gives Himself for the Deification of those that turn to Him. (The Divine Names, IX.5)
It is simply the case that the disciples on the mount of transfiguration saw as light what we all constantly see as Divine Providence. And just as they failed to recognize what they saw, so we also fail to understand and recognize what it is we ourselves see.
Christ stood speaking with Elijah and Moses, a saint who was assumed into heaven alive in a chariot of fire, and a saint who was bodily assumed into heaven after death (according to tradition). Parenthetically, this conversation utterly refutes those who would deny the communion of saints and our conversations with them. We follow the example of Christ. These saints understood the mystery of the Cross. We are told that their conversation with Christ was concerning His “exodus” (the Crucifixion). They spoke in union with the mystery of the light itself.
To celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration is, I think, to celebrate the mystery of the Cross at work in and through all things. The whole of creation is a shimmering garment that groans and gives voice to the Divine Energies that sustain us all – that “one ceaseless act wherein His life consists.”
The light of Christ illumines all.