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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • God and man
      • Partakers of the Divine Nature
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Partakers of the Divine Nature

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit

of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described man as a creature

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who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became

man that man might become god. ‘In my kingdom, said Christ, I shall be God with you as gods

(Canon for Matins of Holy Thursday, Ode 4, Troparion 3). Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox

Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis,

deification’ or ‘divinization.’ For Orthodoxy man’s salvation and redemption mean his deification.

Behind the doctrine of deification there lies the idea of man made according to the image

and likeness of God the Holy Trinity. ‘May they all be one,’ Christ prayed at the Last Supper;

As Thou, Father, art in me and I in Thee, so also may they be in us” (John 17:21). Just as the

three persons of the Trinitydwell’ in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so man,

made in the image of the Trinity, is called to ‘dwell’ in the Trinitarian God. Christ prays that we

may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine

persons; He prays that we may be taken up into the Godhead. The saints, as Maximus the Confessor

put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves. This idea of a personal and

organic union between God and manGod dwelling in us, and we in Him — is a constant

theme in Saint John’s Gospel; it is also a constant theme in the Epistles of Saint Paul, who sees

the Christian life above all else as a life ‘in Christ.’ The same idea recurs in the famous text:

Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature(2 Peter 1:4). It is important

to keep this New Testament background in mind. The Orthodox doctrine of deification,

so far from being unscriptural (as is sometimes thought), has a solid Biblical basis, not only in 2

Peter, but in Paul and the Fourth Gospel.

The idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between

God’s essence and His energies. Union with God means union with the divine energies, not the

divine essence: the Orthodox Church, while speaking of deification and union, rejects all forms

of pantheism.

Closely related to this is another point of equal importance. The mystical union between

God and man is a true union, yet in this union Creator and creature do not become fused into a

single being. Unlike the eastern religions which teach that man is swallowed up in the deity, Orthodox

mystical theology has always insisted that man, however closely linked to God, retains

his full personal integrity. Man, when deified, remains distinct (though not separate) from God.

The mystery of the ‘Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity, and those who express the Trinity

in themselves do not sacrifice their personal characteristics. When Saint Maximus wroteGod

and those who are worthy of God have one and the same energy’ (Ambigua, P.G. 91, 1076C), he did

not mean that the saints lose their free will, but that when deified they voluntarily and in love

conform their will to the will of God. Nor does man, when he ‘becomes god,’ cease to be human:

‘We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming

man by the Incarnation (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 87). Man does not become

God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god,’ a god by grace or by status.

Deification is something that involves the body. Since man is a unity of body and soul, and

since the Incarnate Christ has saved and redeemed the whole man, it follows that ‘man’s body is

deified at the same time as his soul’ (Maximus, Gnostic Centuries, 2, 88 (P.G. 90, 1168A)). In that divine

likeness which man is called to realize in himself, the body has its place. “Your body is a temple

of the Holy Spirit,” wrote Saint Paul (1 Cor. 6:19). “Therefore, my brothers, I beseech you by

God’s mercy to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice to God(Romans 12:1). The full deification

of the body must wait, however, until the Last Day, for in this present life the glory of the

saints is as a rule an inward splendour, a splendour of the soul alone; but when the righteous rise

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from the dead and are clothed with a spiritual body, then their sanctity will be outwardly manifest.

‘At the day of Resurrection the glory of the Holy Spirit comes out from within, decking and

covering the bodies of the saints — the glory which they had before, but hidden within their

souls. What a man has now, the same then comes forth externally in the body’ (Homilies of Macarius,

5, 9. It is this transfiguredResurrection body’ which the icon painter attempts symbolically to depict. Hence,

while preserving the distinctive personal traits in a saint’s physiognomy he deliberately avoids making a realistic

and ‘photographicportrait. To paint men exactly as they now appear is to paint them still in their fallen state, in

their ‘earthy,’ not their ‘heavenlybody). The bodies of the saints will be outwardly transfigured by divine

light, as Christ’s body was transfigured on Mount Thabor. ‘We must look forward also to

the springtime of the body’ (Minucius Felix (?late second century), Octavius, 34).

But even in this present life some saints have experienced the first fruits of this visible and

bodily glorification. Saint Seraphim is the best known, but by no means the only instance of this.

When Arsenius the Great was praying, his disciples saw him ‘just like a fire’ (Apophthegmata, P.G.

65, Arsenius 27); and of another Desert Father it is recorded: ‘Just as Moses received the image of

the glory of Adam, when his face was glorified, so the face of Abba Pambo shone like lightning,

and he was as a king seated on his throne’ (Apophthegmata (P.G. 65), Pambo 12. Compare Apophthegmata,

Sisoes 14 and Silouanus 12. Epiphanius, in his Life of Sergius of Radonezh, states that the saint’s body shone with

glory after death. It is sometimes said, and with a certain truth, that bodily transfiguration by divine light corresponds,

among Orthodox saints, to the receiving of the stigmata among western saints. We must not, however, draw

too absolute a contrast in this matter. Instances of bodily glorification are found in the west, for example, in the case

of an Englishwoman, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941): a friend records how on one occasion her face could be seen

transfigured with light (the whole account recalls Saint Seraphim: see The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, edited by

Charles Williams, London, 1943, p. 37). Similarly, in the east stigmatization is not unknown: in the Coptic life of

Saint Macarius of Egypt, it is said that a cherub appeared to him, ‘took the measure of his chest,’ and ‘crucified him

on the earth’). In the words of Gregory Palamas: ‘If in the age to come the body will share with the

soul in unspeakable blessings, it is certain that it must share in them, so far as possible, even

now’ (The Tome of the Holy Mountain (P.G. 150, 1233C).

Because Orthodox are convinced that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with

the soul, they have an immense reverence for the relics of the saints. Like Roman Catholics, they

believe that the grace of God present in the saintsbodies during life remains active in their relics

when they have died, and that God uses these relics as a channel of divine power and an instrument

of healing. In some cases the bodies of saints have been miraculously preserved from corruption,

but even where this has not happened, Orthodox show just as great a veneration towards

their bones. This reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs

from a highly developed theology of the body.

Not only man’s body but the whole of the material creation will eventually be transfigured:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed

away” (Revelation 21:1). Redeemed man is not to be snatched away from the rest of creation,

but creation is to be saved and glorified along with him (icons, as we have seen, are the first

fruits of this redemption of matter). ‘The created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s

sons to be revealed ... for the universe itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and

will enter into the liberty and splendour of the children of God. We know that until now the

whole created universe has been groaning in the pangs of childbirth’ (Romans 8:19-22). This

idea of cosmic redemption is based, like the Orthodox doctrine of the human body and the Orthodox

doctrine of icons, upon a right understanding of the Incarnation: Christ took flesh

something from the material order — and so has made possible the redemption and metamorphosis

of all creation — not merely the immaterial, but the physical.

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This talk of deification and union, of the transfiguration of the body and of cosmic redemption,

may sound very remote from the experience of ordinary Christians; but anyone who draws

such a conclusion has entirely misunderstood the Orthodox conception of theosis. To prevent any

such misinterpretation, six points must be made.

First, deification is not something reserved for a few select initiates, but something intended

for all alike. The Orthodox Church believes that it is the normal goal for every Christian without

exception. Certainly, we shall only be fully deified at the Last Day; but for each of us the process

of divinization must begin here and now in this present life. It is true that in this present life very

few indeed attain full mystical union with God. But every true Christian tries to love God and to

fulfil His commandments; and so long as a man sincerely seeks to do that, then however weak

his attempts may be and however often he may fall, he is already in some degree deified.

Secondly, the fact that a man is being deified does not mean that he ceases to be conscious

of sin. On the contrary, deification always presupposes a continued act of repentance. A saint

may be well advanced in the way of holiness, yet he does not therefore cease to employ the

words of the Jesus PrayerLord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ Father

Silouan of Mount Athos used to say to himself ‘Keep your mind in Hell and despair not;’ other

Orthodox saints have repeated the words ‘All will be saved, and I alone will be condemned.’

Eastern spiritual writers attach great importance to the ‘gift of tears.’ Orthodox mystical theology

is a theology of glory and of transfiguration, but it is also a theology of penitence.

In the third place, there is nothing esoteric or extraordinary about the methods which we

must follow in order to be deified. If a man asks ‘How can I become god?’ the answer is very

simple: go to church, receive the sacraments regularly, pray to God ‘in spirit and in truth,’ read

the Gospels, follow the commandments. The last of these items — ‘follow the commandments

— must never be forgotten. Orthodoxy, no less than western Christianity, firmly rejects the kind

of mysticism that seeks to dispense with moral rules.

Fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a ‘socialprocess. We have said that deification

meansfollowing the commandments;’ and these commandments were briefly described by

Christ as love of God and love of neighbour. The two forms of love are inseparable. A man can

love his neighbour as himself only if he loves God above all; and a man cannot love God if he

does not love his fellow men (1 John 4:20). Thus there is nothing selfish about deification; for

only if he loves his neighbour can a man be deified. ‘From our neighbour is life and from our

neighbour is death,’ said Antony of Egypt. ‘If we win our neighbour we win God, but if we

cause our neighbour to stumble we sin against Christ’ (Apophthegmata (P.G. 65), Antony 9). Man,

made in the image of the Trinity, can only realize the divine likeness if he lives a common life

such as the Blessed Trinity lives: as the three persons of the Godheaddwell’ in one another, so a

man must ‘dwell’ in his fellow men, living not for himself alone, but in and for others. ‘If it were

possible for me to find a leper,’ said one of the Desert Fathers, ‘and to give him my body and to

take his, I would gladly do it. For this is perfect love’ (ibid, Agatho 26). Such is the true nature of

theosis.

Fifthly, love of God and of other men must be practical: Orthodoxy rejects all forms of Quietism,

all types of love which do not issue in action. Deification, while it includes the heights of

mystical experience, has also a very prosaic and down-to-earth aspect. When we think of deification,

we must think of the Hesychasts praying in silence and of Saint Seraphim with his face

transfigured; but we must think also of Saint Basil caring for the sick in the hospital at Caesarea,

of Saint John the Almsgiver helping the poor at Alexandria, of Saint Sergius in his filthy cloth-

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ing, working as a peasant in the kitchen garden to provide the guests of the monastery with food.

These are not two different ways, but one.

Finally, deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments. Theosis according

to the likeness of the Trinity involves a common life, but only within the fellowship of the

Church can this common life of coinherence be properly realized. Church and sacraments are the

means appointed by God whereby man may acquire the sanctifying Spirit and be transformed

into the divine likeness.




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