Theosis: Partakers of the Divine Nature
After the most recent post on Asceticism, it is appropriate to consider the goal of such discipline and aim of Philokalic spirituality. Simply put, it is the attainment of union with God and what the Fathers referred to as theosis or deification. St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain tells us that the Philokalia is the “instrument itself of deification.” Such a view is shared among contemporary Orthodox Christians: “Thus, the Philokalia, the single most important collection of Orthodox spiritual texts is, in effect, perhaps the best guidebook, next to the Bible, to the means of theosis. Its purpose is precisely to help us fulfill our calling to theosis or union with God” (Coniaris, “Philokalia: Bible of Orthodox Spirituality”, 132).
Theosis is the foundation, purpose and goal of life. This is expressed beautifully in Kenneth Leach’s introduction to Tito Coliander’s work “The Way of the Ascetics”: “Orthodoxy is not primarily a system or a correctness in doctrinal formulations. Doxa means glory. Orthodoxy is therefore concerned with ‘right glory,’ and it is therefore rooted in the sense of theology as inseparable from human transformation. The purpose of theology is nothing less than the transfiguring of human life ‘from glory to glory.’ At the center of Orthodox theology and spirituality is the theme of theosis, deification, the raising of manhood into God. This is the aim of the liturgy, the Eucharistic celebration which stands at the center of all worship and all life.” Thus, the “resourcement”, the return to the sources of our faith that was envisioned by Vatican II also and importantly includes rediscovery of the writings of the Philokalia. Such a rediscovery is important not simply in the quest for Christian unity. “It is essential if we are to recover that lost sense of the mystical and prayerful character of all theology. All theology is mystical theology; all theology is social theology. For it is rooted in ‘the life hidden with Christ in God’ and in the social life of the Holy Trinity. . .the way of the ascetics is not a gloomy, world-denying path; it is a way of doxa, of glory, whose aim is nothing less than our deification” (Colliander, “The Way of the Ascetics, ix-xi).
Sometimes in the busyness of life, which can include a kind of Christian activism, we can lose sight of our dignity and destiny: we can lose sight of the ultimate aim of God for sending his Son into the world to become man. We must return again and again to the words of the scriptures: “For God has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10) and “We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). God has created us for Himself and sharing in His life is our glorious destiny - to become, by grace, partakers of the divine nature. “In other words, the mystery of union between humanity, i.e., all of us and Christ is the ultimate aim of the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection - nay, of creation as a whole. Thus, union with God is the foundation of the Church and the mystery of the Gospel. It was this union with God that Christ petitioned the Father to grant in our behalf when He prayed in John 17:21, ‘. . . that they also may be one in us’” (Coniaris, 133).
Theosis is not just a beautiful word and we must not reduce it to a theological concept; rather, it must be allowed to speak to everyday life - to penetrate and illuminate our trials, burdens and struggles. “Theosis has everything to say to struggling humanity. It tells us that we have the capacity through the presence of God within us to transcend and overcome any and every difficulty in life, including the greatest of all: death. Theosis tells us that we are not paupers, or beggars but sons and daughters of God, sharing His glory, partaking of His Nature, destined to inherit His eternal kingdom. Theosis tells us that we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us. Theosis tells us to ‘hang in there’ no matter how hard the struggle or the temptation because God has great things in store for us. As St. Paul says, ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom. 8:18)” (Coniaris, 137).
The means to Theosis is the grace of God and all the ways that He provides to draw us close to Him and to share His life with us; the sacraments, repentance, obedience to the commandments, reading the Word of God, faith, hope, love, service of neighbor, constant prayer, and the struggle of sin and temptation.
As we embrace all of these things we come to see the preciousness of the gift of our life and why it is worth living. “It is worth living because Christ loves you. It is worth living because Christ died for you and rose again to give you life. It is worth living because with Christ, life is both eternal and abundant. But life is worth living, above all because in Christ your destiny is theosis, becoming Christ-like, god by grace. Therefore, choose Christ and live. With Christ, life can be lived meaningfully, divinely, royally, victoriously, and eternally” (Coniaris, 145).