(NOTE: This transcription has been automatically generated through an AI program. Consequently, this transcript may not match everything you hear in the podcast episode, and it may contain errors such as spelling, grammar, word choice, etc., due to the limitations of current AI technology.)
Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s episode of Midnight Carmelite. I’m glad you’re all here. This episode is another metaphysics episode. This one is really important to me and what we’re going to be talking about is what’s called the essence-existence distinction. That sounds kind of esoteric, but actually it’s not. This distinction in metaphysics is super important for understanding the different modes of God’s presence in your life. So in this podcast we’re going to talk about what a mode is, what the essence-existence distinction is and how that relates to the doctrine of St. John of the Cross.
Let’s start with this. So St. John of the Cross’s doctrine on union with God shows that when we remove what’s contrary to God, God will unite closer and closer to us in love. The nature of this union isn’t one of essence: meaning we don’t become God, rather we’re so close to God that we become by participation like God. St. John of the Cross uses the analogy, he says, think of a window and imagine the windows full of smudges and dirt, and you know, you haven’t cleaned in a while, maybe there’s some bugs there crawling around and light has trouble getting through the window.
But when you clean the smudges and the dirt off, the light comes into the room much clearer because the windows clearer and in a way the window becomes light, meaning you look at a window and you don’t see the window and you see the light and you know, they’re essentially distinct and their existence is distinct, but they seem to be one. In fact, the light tends to become the window in a way, like you just say, oh, there’s light, but you really mean the light coming through the window.
This is especially obvious in a darker room. That’s kind of what St. John of the Cross’s getting at here with the idea of union; the closer and closer we come to God, the more and more clear God’s Light can shine through us and so we can be a light to the world and others. We need to understand the distinction between essence and existence and its relationship to God. So let’s start with the meaning of essence. We have to understand this.
So essence arises from conceptualization. Let’s say you have Andrew, me, an apple, and a computer, and you stand all of us next to each other in a line.
Me as Andrew, the apple, and a computer. So you would point to Andrew, me, and through abstraction, you would understand the concept “Andrew.” You point at the apple and through abstraction possess the concept “apple.” You point to the computer and through abstraction you possess the concept “a device that uses logic gates to follow a set of instructions.” These are three examples of the use of the term essence. Now these are quiddity, form, and nature, so quiddity, don’t be intimidated by quiddity. Just means “what-ness,” “what-it-is-in-itself.”
So in that example above when you look at me and say Andrew you are talking about my person, that’s what the essence of what you’re talking about. So that’s Andrew as Andrew. Okay. Form just signifies what each thing is limited or determined to be. So in the case of the apple, when you say apple, well, all apples have certain limits meaning you know, they have skin and the apples flesh, etc., and not only that, but the apple is an apple just as much as any person like Andrew or you is a human being or a human person.
So in nature is what signifies the operation of the thing. In our example, a device that uses logic gates to follow a set of instructions, speaks to the operation of a computer. So we’re talking about the computers, nature, they’re not its form and not anything about this particular what-ness of this particular computer. So in all three instances we have a conceptualization in the process of intellection, and intellection is just a fancy word for reading into something. So that’s all that means. And yet we can’t read into anything if that something has no foundation to be what it is.
What I mean there is, let’s say you have Andrew, the apple, and the computer. In those three ways we just defined are separate from the fact that they are meaning those things aren’t existence, they exist and they have a particular quiddity, form, and nature. There’s two parts to a being: there’s essence what it is, how it operates, what it’s limited and determined to be. However, you signify the term essence and then there’s the existence which is the fact that it’s even there. And now we’re getting into what’s called the essence-existence distinction.
So now we understand the meaning of essence. We need to understand the meaning of existence. So we compare them and see this distinction clearly. Let’s return to the scenario we used for understanding essence. We have Andrew, the computer, and the apple. All three are distinct things, yet there’s one thing they share in common to all. Like I said, all three exists. So we know the apples come from trees and computers come from supply chain processes and chips and cases and circuits. And we also know that when it comes to a human person like Andrew, there’s a chain of existence that traces back to before one’s parents.
So there’s your parents, your grandparents, and your great grandparents and on and on it goes. And until we finally arrive at the source of existence in life. Because we know that for example, I didn’t exist without being given existence by God and my parents and you didn’t exist without being existence by God, your parents and their parents and on and on and on. We go and eventually you have to come to some point that has existence by its very nature. Since the apple, Andrew, and the computer all have existence by the fact that they exist, meaning there’s no three, there’s no three senses of existence.
You exist. Then the same source of existence must hold true for apples and for raw materials and for the computer once it’s built from raw materials and trees and houses and roads and chairs, and we can go on all day and it would get really boring. But the point is, his existence underlies all of it. And, you know, one of my favorite jokes, you know, Church jokes that I’ve heard, is it’s about the scientist and he confronts God basically, the scientist says, you know, I could do a better job of creating life than you.
You got it all wrong God. And God says, okay, fine, let’s have a contest. You create life, and I’ll create life and we’ll see who is the better scientist. So the scientist immediately, you know, takes his hand and goes right to the dirt and starts digging, and God immediately chides him and says, “Whoa, get your own dirt.” This is obviously a call for the scientist to realize that God is the source of all that exists. So get your own dirt anyway, So now there’s we have existence. We have essence, but you need both. Right?
So there’s what’s called co-relationality meaning you can have existence being prior to essence, meaning it’s the foundation of essence and it retains priority. If a thing’s existence wasn’t prior to its what-ness, then the existence would not be the foundation. The principle; it’s a another metaphysical term of essence. And the word principle in this sense signifies motion. And this motion isn’t sequential in the real order of things. But it’s co-relational meaning. It’s giving something and also something’s relating back to it too. Co-relationality.
So co-relationality occurs when the dynamism of a thing or its powers are put to work or energized by another thing in necessary relation to each other. Sounds complicated. What it really means is that something that’s able to be is activated by another thing that’s already activated and there are in necessary relation with each other so that you can’t have one without the other. So let’s go back to the apple. The apple’s active existence is co-relational with the apple’s quiddity, meaning, remember, it’s the what-ness, it’s this particular apple, what it is the apples form which is its species, meaning it’s an apple and not a horse or human person.
And the apples nature, which is, it’s white fleshy fruit with skin and sometimes seeds in the middle, depending on what type you get. That’s the co-relationality and the existence of a thing seems external outside of the context of co-relationality. But when essence-existence are understood as co-relational, existence is seen as energizing the dynamism of a thing in its qualities. And this allows the thing to be what it ought to be. And that is really a crucial part about this. It allows the thing to be what it ought to be, not what it wants to be, necessarily.
We see this especially in human persons, we want to be X or Y. But oughtness, it’s this idea that there’s also a co-relationality with God and man, right? Like we want to do God’s will. So we ought to do certain things and ought not to do other things, whole separate podcast. But that does show up in this metaphysical distinction. So, anyways, let’s continue. So thus, if I say the apples read the subject of the sentence, the apple implicitly contains the existence of the apple as an apple. Why?
Because I’m saying there’s an apple and it’s the apple I’m talking about. It’s something, it’s what, but there’s also implied in that a judgment which is saying there is an apple there. So when I affirm that it’s red, I’m speaking of the quality of the apple, which is incidental, and all incidental means is it doesn’t have to be there for the apple to be an apple. Because you can have green apples, right? It’s not necessary that all apples are red and necessary. Necessity, by the way, just means one way.
Just think of it as if it’s necessary, it can only be that way. If it’s contingent, it can be other ways; we can have green apples, red apples because it’s incidental to an apple to have what color its skin is. But regardless, this quality has existence through the act of existence given to the apple, meaning the quality of red has its existence based on the act of existence that the apple has in itself as an apple. So therefore, now we get to the fun part. Now we’re ending with existence here.
Existence is, per St. Thomas, est actualitas omnium actuum, et propter hoc est perfectio omnium perfectionum. And what he means, that is existence is the actuality of all acts. And on account of this, the perfection of all perfections. Fancy. You know, like what’s actuality you didn’t mention that actualities. It’s something that’s in a state of something that can act on things that are in a state of can-be-something. Again, existence is existence and it can act and becoming co-relational with form and with nature and as with an essence of a thing that makes you your own person or me Andrew or the apple as the apple or computer as the computer.
And so therefore it’s the top perfection, meaning it’s the top completion. Perfection is a funny word because you’re like, what does that mean? It just means it’s the top completion of things, meaning what completes all things the most and what’s common to all things in the greatest sense is existence. An existence underlies all things. So whether it’s an apple, computer, or Andrew, existence is the act of all acts and on account of this the perfection of all perfections. Okay, now God has existence himself. So back to what I was saying earlier about the parents, you have to go back and you know, your parents didn’t have existence per se.
They got existence from their parents and God and you go back and back and back. And obviously, if you keep going back eventually, there has to be a place where there’s first parents and God being existence himself. As such, God doesn’t need to be put to work. God is. I can’t say this enough God is. In Exodus 3:14, traditionally, we say God is pure act. When God says, you know, it’s normally translated as I am who I am. I would say it qualified a little bit said I am who presently actively always is.
So God,ὁ ὤν, who presently actively always is, or St. Thomas said ipsum esse subsistens which in Latin just means subsistent being itself; here’s something super important. God is not a being since all beings abide by the essence-existence distinction. And since God is existence itself, God’s nature is existence. So He is existence. There is no distinction in God. So all things abide by this distinction because they’re being comes not from themselves but from God. God gives all beings His Being and each being’s active.
Existence is the co-relational principle of that being’s essence, which is what we said earlier, right? They become in co-relational; essence and existence. God, being itself, is and therefore he has no dynamism to energize, no potency to activate, say it however you want. God is simply pure act. So it’s kind of do a quick recap, make sure we’re on the same page because now we’re getting to the punch line, essence can be said in three ways: quiddity, which is what you’re talking about what I am which is human person name and you’re right, the particular human person, you have form, which is species. So, I’m a human person, right? So that’s my species. Human being and nature is how I operate which would be as a human person. I’m rational and I act hopefully rationally most of the time, you know we can argue about a definition at a later date but the point is that those are the three ways of using the term essence-existence.
Remember it is the fact that Andrew is which underlies those three things. So however you know when whatever since you’re talking about essence, so you need existence there and God is existence itself because Andrew can not exist on his own. He doesn’t have existence by nature because remember my essence is separate from my existence. So therefore existence is given as a gift which means that God has to maintain my existence because remember existence, this is kind of a more nuanced point. Existence is not a what it’s a that, it’s a verb so don’t think of existence as like in essence as one noun and one noun kind of forming some sort of compound noun. There’s essence is the what it is as the noun; existence is the verb, it’s the activity.
The fact that your existing is an activity. It’s not a noun. So think of it kind of like you know I like to think of it. This is I’ll probably get a lot of flak, people yelling at me about this, but I like to think of it as have you ever seen sci-fi movies where they’re like “quick turn on the energy beam” and the energy beam comes out of the machine and create some sort of force field or some sort of activity that encloses them and protects them from you know, opposing enemy photon beans.
But the point is that the the shield is actively being maintained. Its not something on its own. It needs the machine to power it and to be a shield and that that’s kind of a way of understanding existence is not noun because you could then make the argument that the shield is something and but the point is, God’s constantly maintaining our existence by activity. Our existence, our very existence is activity. So it’s a verb. Okay, now this is the punchline now.
So we did the review. Here’s the punchline. St. John of the Cross talks about three modes of God’s presence and the first mode of God’s presence, which is present to everybody, is existence. In fact, St. John of the Cross speaks about God giving us active existence and I’m going to kind of summarize what he said says that God’s first way of being present to all of us is by the fact of our active existence, because this is the presence gives us what life and being and should this, and St. John of the Cross calls it essential presence be lacking.
We would immediately be annihilated thus, at no time as God’s presence in the first mode ever wanting to a soul. So again, right now your existing. So God is present to you by the mere fact that your existing. Well, this may be kind of a metaphysical point, if you’re ever feeling like God is far away from you, he’s not, he’s actually intimately united to you by maintaining the fact that you’re even there in the first place. Now, you may not think of that when you’re upset, but maybe you could try to I’ve never tried it and might work.
You know, let me know how that goes. And again when discussing with God, Saint John of the Cross speaks about the mode of presence and he says, this union always exists and it conserves their being. So if something should end between this union, you would be immediately annihilated and cease to exist. And the word annihilated is not like, you know, you’ve seen a horror movie where like I don’t even want to describe it. But the point is you would disappear. You just be nothing without existence.
It’s nothingness; it’s nothing. This is the absence of anything. So it’s like a void. So St. John the Cross is not saying that God exists naturally in our quiddity, form, or nature. That would be pantheism. And this is a super important point where people will say, “well, God exists in the apple;” by existence by maintaining an existence existentially, yes, God maintains a presence with apples, trees, houses, chairs, people, yes, but not essentially by quiddity, form, or nature. And that is super, super, super, super important because God is other.
He is not present to a rock by essence, he is not, he is existence maintains a rock, but he is not a rock. So he provides the act of existence to our substance. And if God stopped giving it to us this active existence personally, and that’s a key point, especially human persons. We stopped giving it to us personally, we would, you know, like I said, be annihilated, cease to exist. However, there are more modes of God’s presence beyond existence. And St. John of the Cross talks about this, which is what we know from the previous podcast and union is that in the soul by grace, supernaturally, God can be present.
He distinguishes clearly between what’s called the natural mode of God’s presence and the supernatural mode of God’s presence, which is the two others, which is Baptism. Once you have Baptism, you have the theological virtues. So God’s presence is now within you supernaturally and the supernatural union between you and God and then further as you grow in love of God and remove what’s contrary, then that’s loving union. That’s the third mode of presence. Human persons can lack love and grace and St. John of the Cross basically says that two things are the cause of God’s presence to the soul in the supernatural order: baptism and loving union.
Now, this is where it gets interesting is: love causes likeness. So without love, a person remains an image of God, but may not be as much like God as the person should be. And so to become like God, to grow in this third mode of presence, a person needs to love God more and to love God at all. A person must first believe that God exists. So see. So what’s happened here is we’re saying, okay, if I want to become closer to God and move into the 2nd and 3rd modes of God’s presence, and Mode is just a fancy word for way the way God is present.
Ok, I want to move from a natural way that God is present to me to a supernatural way you have to be baptized. That’s step one and step two is to love God more because love causes likeness because you go out to that, which you love, you unite to it. You serve what you love. St. Paul in the Hebrews 11:6 1 says,
now without faith, it is impossible to gratify God. It is necessary for one drawing close to God to believe that he exists. And to those earnestly seeking him out, he becomes a wage payer giving what is due.
What that just means is he gives what to do to you. Again, back to oughtness.
This is kind of speaking to the oughtness part. He gives you what you need to do what you ought to do. You have to believe God exists to move into the supernatural order. And once you’re there, you will grow in love with God through faith and love. But the first step is to say God exists. So then the light of faith enables you to believe that God exists, right? So now it’s faith and love. So consequently a person who has faith can love God; a person who has more faith can love God more because you trust in God more.
Therefore you love God more and you move closer to God. The way to union with God is not by knowing through abstraction, but from this, through this knowledge gained from love, this kind of contact knowledge. Without baptism, person is deprived of the 2nd and 3rd modes of God’s presence, but the soul still has the act of existence, meaning the natural mode of God’s presence, which we discussed earlier. The 2nd and 3rd modes of God’s presence which are also discussed by Saint john of the Cross presupposed this first mode of presence.
So, the essence-existence distinction provides an important foundation for understanding St. John of the Cross and the three modes of God’s presence to us. So the first mode is by maintaining our act of existence. That’s the natural mode. Second by grace. Now, we’re entering the supernatural. That comes from baptism. Third by loving Union. That’s growing in the theological virtues, growing in faith, removing what’s contrary to God. We are removing disorder attachments, what we’ve discussed on this podcast quite a bit. God cannot dwell in us by quiddity, form, or nature since that’s pantheism.
There’s the pantheism again. Rather, God maintains are act of existence through this substantial union without which we would cease to be. And so from this point, meaning the act of existence maintaining it and through baptism, we received God’s second mode of presence and through love and grace on a foundation of humility. We grow in ἀγάπη, real love becoming more and more like Christ our God whom we love.
So thanks for listening today, this is a pretty heavy.
I will see you next week.
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I have been informed by a very reliable source that we do not really know whether St. Paul is the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. I have only seen the letter attributed to him. Given that fact, at the time of this podcast’s recording, I spoke under the understanding that St. Paul is actually the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Regardless of the author, the book is and remains part of Scripture and tradition. ↩︎