Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. With Your help, Lord, I hope to explain the issues accurately.Catholic teaching
: Even before the Last Judgment, the saints see the essence of God "as a whole,"
but not "wholly;"
i.e., the saints see the Triune God's essence face-to-face and immediately but do not comprehend it. God's essence and energies are virtually or even formally distinct, but really identical.Orthodox teaching
: The saints do not see the essence of God at all
[Palamas, Theological Chapters
106; 109]; the saints see the uncreated light of God, which is an energy of God that is distinct, in some manner, from God's essence. Even in this life, Hesychasts can see, with their bodily eyes transfigured by grace (and not by natural powers), the uncreated light which is the Godhead, but "even if one gouges [his eyes] out, he will still see the light no less clearly than before"
It seems to me that this latter teaching, as explained by St. Gregory Palamas in Triads
III:i:22,35-36, can also be explained with these words of St. Thomas Aquinas [Summa Theologica
I, q. 12, art. 3, ad 2]: the light is "not seen with the corporeal eye, as a thing in itself visible, but as the indirect object of the sense; which indeed is not known by sense, but at once, together with sense, by some other … power."
While the Catholic Church teaches that it is heresy to posit a real distinction, in God Himself, between His essence and energy (consult any manual of dogmatic theology), there are a considerable number of experts who argue that St. Gregory Palamas intended to teach a formal essence-energies distinction, not a real essence-energies distinction. In this regard, Mgr. Gérard Philips of happy memory cites Palamas's Chapter 34 [PG
150:1141D-1144A] in "La grâce chez les Orientaux," Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses
, 48 (1972), p. 43:
the supreme mind is itself life, for life is a good and life in it is goodness. Wisdom too is found in it; or rather, it is itself wisdom, for wisdom is a good and wisdom in it is goodness; and similarly with eternity and blessedness and in general any good that one might conceive of. And there is no distinction there between life and wisdom and goodness and the like, for that goodness embraces all things collectively, unitively, and in utter simplicity.
[trans. Robert Edward Sinkewicz, pp. 117-119.]
Cf. Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite
32, where he says that the saints "call [God's essence and energies] one, but not indifferent, i.e., the same and not the same in different manners. ... you will find them saying in one place 'the same' and in another 'different,' because, in their view, they are both"
[trans. Rein Ferwerda, p. 71.]; and cf. his Letter to Daniel [Coislin 99, fol. 95]: "In a certain sense, essence and energy are identical in God, but, in another sense, they are different"
[trans. Fr. John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas
, p. 225].
Palamas, of course, did not speak in such philosophical (i.e., Scholastic) categories, but the Bl. John Duns Scotus's "formal distinction on the part of the thing"
probably corresponds to what he was trying to convey.