Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

Reflections on John 15:1-8

Here’s my reflection on this past Sunday’s Gospel reading, put together for my worshipping community, Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, during this lockdown season of weird church.

The word we use for ‘abide’ in today’s Gospel reading is a very basic word that means ‘remain’ in Greek. We need to stay put in Jesus Christ. If we do not, the Father will remove us, we will not bear fruit, and we will wither like the branches of trees that are bundled together and burned. If, on the other hand, we do abide in Jesus, we will bear fruit, we will be pruned (which sounds painful), and whatever we ask will be done. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing.

Remaining in Jesus is not a once-and-for-all event. Justification certainly can be, especially as it was articulated by Martin Luther in the 1500s. The great act of repentance, of turning away from the vile beasts of the world, the flesh, and the devil, of escaping hellfire, of deciding to follow Jesus—this initial conversion experience often is, whether one is sitting in a garden reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans and overcome, like St Augustine was, or whether one meets Jesus in a bar like bluegrass singer Jim Lauderdale. But the life after that, as Augustine and Jim both know, is a matter of daily faith, daily choosing Christ, and daily remaining in Him, with the result of bearing much fruit. In the immediate context of John 15, abiding in Jesus seems mainly to mean keep his commandments, and, in the verses follow, we see Jesus’ commandment: That we love one another (Jn 15:12). Somehow, keeping this commandment causes (helps?) us to abide in Jesus.

The theme of abiding in Jesus, of participating in Him, was a popular image of salvation for ancient Christians. We are not called to imitate Him, by and large, but to participate in Him. All those things we think about in the life of discipleship that have to do with ethics and morality—these all flow from the fact that we are abiding in and participating in the life of Christ. According to the fourth-century theologian St Gregory of Nyssa, we are called to participate in the divine life—the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning on high of the God Word Jesus whose life now continues in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the central act of the drama of the universe. 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 ancient church 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 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. By participating in the life of Christ through baptism, good works, and Holy Communion, we are joining here and now an adventure with God that will last for eternity.

Whereas contemporary 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—St Gregory of Nyssa 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.

Christ the Vinedresser, by Lawrence, OP, from from the Dominican sisters’ church in Stone, Staffordshire.

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.