Theosis, an all-encompassing vision of Christian life

Last night I lectured on St Gregory of Nyssa in my course “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”. A certain amount of time had to be spent on his Trinitarian theology not least because my own interpretation has changed as a result of Fr John Behr’s detailed analysis in The Nicene Faith, Part 2, contrary to my previous understanding as informed by Met. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (a book I’ve mentioned here many times).

I wanted, this time, to expand it outwards from triadology to that which we call “mysticism”, partly because mystical questions keep arising in question time, partly because St Gregory of Nyssa is chiefly famous of late for his “mysticism”, partly because one of the first patristic texts I read was The Life of Moses.

And as I thought about mysticism and the Trinity and the Life of Moses, I couldn’t get the little word theosis out of my head. Theosis, the Greek word for “deification”. You’ll meet this word everywhere in Orthodox circles. Its foundational statement is in Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius: God became man so that man might become God. Theosis, however, is more than just a slogan or saying. And it’s more than just the mystical activities of ascetics like the Cappadocian Fathers and the monks of the desert or mediaeval Mt Athos. It is, ultimately, the all-embracing soteriology and endpoint of all Christian theology for the eastern tradition.

For Gregory, it is stated in terms of participation (he rarely actually uses the word theosis), which is how a modern Orthodox will describe its meaning. We are called to participate in the divine life—the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning on high of the God Word whose life now continues in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the central act of the drama of theosis. Not only are our sins washed away through the waters of baptism and by the blood on the cross—which St Gregory and the rest of the Fathers affirm—we are enabled and empowered to be united to God and to know him more and more fully all the time.

St Gregory argues that the pursuit of perfection, the path of sanctification, is itself part of this participation, not just activities we today would call “mystical” or “contemplative”. Sanctification itself, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a participation in the divine life. And, as I’ve stated here before, twice in fact, since perfection and holiness are attributes of God, and God is infinite (St Gregory is one of the first to actually argue for the infinity of God), then the path to perfection is itself infinite. This endless journey of perfection is called in Greek epektasis (acute accent on the second e). Epektasis for Gregory is what other Greek thinkers would call theosis, I would wager.

Whereas contemporary Protestant ideas of salvation tend to parse it into helpful categories such as: justification is God setting us free from the penalty of sin; sanctification is God setting us free from the power of sin; glorification is God setting us free from the presence of sin—theosis sees it as all of these and more. Salvation is entering into and participating in the life of God most high through the intervention of God in the incarnation. God is present and available to us today because Jesus died on the Cross. We meet with him through righteous acts, through prayer, through the Eucharist, through meditating on the words of Scripture. And we will never cease growing in perfection and getting to know Him more because He Himself is infinite, and our perfection itself is merely a participation in His life.

What it’s all about

The point of the Collect for Purity, the end point of justification by faith, sanctification by whatever means necessary, of the means of grace, of any ascetic life or holy living, is not merely “to be good.” The end point — the telos — of all this God himself. Reading about Richard Hooker, reading The Cloud of Unknowing, thinking about historic asceticism — in all of it I need to keep this in mind.

It is expressed most beautifully by John Cassian, Conference 10.7:

And this will come to pass when God shall be all our love, and every desire and wish and effort, every thought of ours, and all our life and words and breath, and that unity which already exists between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father, has been shed abroad in our hearts and minds, so that as He loves us with a pure and unfeigned and indissoluble love, so we also may be joined to Him by a lasting and inseparable affection, since we are so united to Him that whatever we breathe or think, or speak is God, since, as I say, we attain to that end of which we spoke before, which the same Lord in His prayer hopes may be fulfilled in us: that they all may be one as we are one, I in them and You in Me, that they also may be made perfect in one; and again: Father, those whom You have given Me, I will that where I am, they may also be with Me. (John 17:22-24)

(The Orthodox call it theosis.)

Saint for now: St. John Climacus

Things are busy with writing my own papers and marking other people’s papers right now, so no saint went up last week. So today, since I have time on Sundays, last week’s saint will come up this week; whether this week will have its own saint remains to be seen. And on to our saint, a mystic, John Climacus (who is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox Church today).

St. John Climacus (c. 579-649 and thus a contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor) was a monk of the monastery of Sinai, at the foot of the Mount of God, the mountain which Moses ascended and where the Lawgiver entered the Cloud, saw the back of YHWH, and received the Law of God, from which Moses descended with shining face from his encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The spot is pregnant with meaning.

At this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, John, aged sixteen, took preference for the semi-eremitic life — a life halfway between the ‘total’ seclusion of the hermit/anchorite and the total community of the ‘coenobite’ (most Western monastics — e.g. Cistercians and Benedictines are ‘coenobites’ living in a coenobium). All three forms of monasticism were practised within the walls of this monastery, founded by Justinian (556-57).

In this middle way, one pursues the monastic life of prayer and stillness under the supervision of an elder; John’s was one Abba Martyrius. Abba Martyrius, after John had demonstrated his worthiness over a few years of pursuing the monastic vocation, took John up the Mountain of God and had him tonsured, admitting him into the fullness of the monastic life.

Shortly thereafter, Abba Martyrius died, and John pursued the life of the hermit, entering into seclusion to enter hesychia and the stillness of God’s presence. He retired to Tholas and spent 40 years there, admitting the occasional visitor who came for spiritual guidance.

At the end of his 40-year stint he was elected to be abbot of the coenobitic community. In good monastic form, he resisted (one also typically resists being ordained priest or consecrated bishop if a monk), but was overcome by the brethren. He lived out the rest of his life as abbot of the monastery at Sinai. Whilst abbot, he wrote down his famous work Scala Paradisi, The Ladder of Paradise.

As with our last mystic (Bonaventure here), it is not the exterior as found in these details but the interior that matters; it is the mystic’s encounter with God and the things of God that really matters.

From John’s Ladder we learn of the ascent of the soul to God. As with many mystics, this ascent is gained through askesis, or asceticism, through the training and labours undertaken by the one seeking God in order to purify the soul/mind/heart so that union with God and the vision of God are possible, so that the contemplative can see Him clearly (though never in His fullness or essence, as God is ultimately incomprehensible).

The thirty steps of the ladder’s ascent unto God are divided into three sections (this is also common, as we saw Bonaventure’s six levels divided by two into three; it is at least as old as Origen — cf. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition 58-59).

The first seven steps are about acquiring general virtues that are necessary for the ascetic life (cf. Origen’s ethike or ethics). These days, I think few Christians are inspired to climb any higher than these seven. I believe that we need to reclaim holiness and see a life beyond simple virtue. John Climacus can help.

The second series of steps runs from 8 through 26. These nineteen steps are about even greater ascent in virtue as the ascetic learns to overcome the vices and acquire virtues in their place. Indeed, cultivation of virtue is the only way to fully extirpate vice and cleanse the soul so that we can draw near to God and theosis, deification.

The final steps are the higher virtues. How many in our day even draw nigh to these virtues? I know not. I think they tend to be those imperturbable people who seem to radiate peace, calm, and a certain gentleness of spirit. They are also often wise. If you haven’t met such a person, it is your great loss.

At the top of the ladder, we go beyond everything we do, everything we know. We encounter the living God. He is far beyond anything we could ask or imagine. And he alone is all we want and all we need.

NB: I haven’t yet read John Climacus (I wanted to, but the copy in the library is missing), so if there are any inaccuracies, I gladly welcome critique in the comments! 🙂