Tag Archives: theosis

Purification, Illumination, Theosis, Discipleship

Sunday, March 26, 2017: Sunday of St. John Climacus; Synaxis in honor of the Archangel Gabriel, 26 Martyrs in Crimea, Irenaeus the Hieromartyr of Hungary

Epistle: Hebrews 6:13-20
Gospel: Mark 9:17-31

The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent_Monastery_of_St_Catherine_Sinai_12th_century.jpgGlory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates our father among the saints John Climacus. He is also called John of the Ladder because he is the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In Orthodox monasteries, this work is read daily throughout the Great Fast. It traces the “rungs” or steps in the monk’s spiritual life from his initial repentance to union with the Holy Trinity.

Unfortunately, we don’t have time this morning to go through all 30 rungs on John’s ladder. But he’s not the only Church father who saw the spiritual life as a journey with concrete steps or stages.

St Dionysius the Areopagite, for example, offers us a simpler, more compact, three-step process by which we grow in holiness. These steps or stages are purification, illumination, and theosis (or in the West, union). He also sees a tripartite structure reflected in the three grades of the priesthood that mirrors the soul’s progress in holiness.

To help us understand his teaching on the spiritual life let’s look briefly at what Dionysius says about holy orders.

As the one who calls the Church to lay aside the “cares of this life” and enter into prayer, the deacon embodies purification. The presbyter (priest) in and through his ministry of teaching, counseling, and administration, embodies illumination. This means that the priest is charged by God with helping the faithful see things as God sees them.

Finally, the bishop.

Because of his intimacy with God and his commitment to both the doctrine of the Church and to love, the bishop is called by to preside at the Divine Liturgy. Moreover, and as an expression of his liturgical role, the bishop is the guardian of the bonds of charity that unite the members of the Church to God and to each other.

Given that Holy Tradition cannot envision the office of bishop apart from the local church, Dionysius says that the bishop is called by God to embody theosis, that intimate friendship with God, through which the soul comes to share in divine life. It belongs above all to the bishop to be certain that all things in the Church are rightly ordered so that all the faithful can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

It is also important to stress that the deacon, presbyter, and bishop are not independent of each other. Rather each office assumes the other two and depends on them for its own, proper functioning. So while the Church is hierarchical, it is not a hierarchy of power but of mutual support and dependence; it is a hierarchy of loving, mutual service. The Church is a community held together by mutual love and service. This why St. Paul says, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, NKJV).

This also means that the proper functioning of one member of the Body of Christ depends upon the proper functioning of the rest of the Body. So for the deacon to fulfill his ministry, he needs the bishop and the presbyter. Likewise, the presbyter needs the deacon and bishop and the bishop needs the deacon and the presbyter. Each assumes the existence of the others, each supports the others, and each is supported by the others in their exercise of their respective ministries.

And all three, the deacon, the presbyter, and the bishop need the whole of the laity. We grow in holiness together through our mutual love for each other. So let’s turn now from ecclesiology to our spiritual lives.

For St Dionysius, there is a symmetry between the internal life of the Church and the hidden life of the soul in Christ; they mirror each other. The tripartite structure of holy orders–as I said a moment ago–reflect the stages through which we pass as we grow in holiness: purification, illumination, and theosis.

In our psychological and individualistic culture, to call the threefold structure of the spiritual life “stages can be misleading. Just as, with ordination, this threefold process isn’t strictly speaking sequentially. Yes, at any given moment in my spiritual life one part of this process will be more pronounced, say purgation.But I need to keep in mind that this is the fruit of the other two.

In the purgative moment, even if all seems dark and God far away, I know that I’m a sinner because God by His grace has illumined my soul. And this illumination, this light, what else is it but the experience of God drawing close and sharing His life with me? As for repentance, what is this except the Bright Sadness that comes from knowing God love for us? It is this love, that the hallmark of theosis and which leads us to say, with St Antony the Great, “I no longer fear God, I love Him!”

In response to their very public failure, the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to cast out the demon. He tells them that some demons can only be conquered “by prayer and fasting.”

In other words, the disciples hadn’t yet sufficiently purified themselves for the task before them. Their lack of faith, their powerlessness against the demon, are symptomatic of an immature life of prayer and ascetical struggle.

Realizing this is for the disciples (and the boy’s father) is a moment illumination. They see their sins. But at the same time, they see the cure for their sins. And, in seeing these, they also experience the “strong consolation” of those who, with a mature faith, “who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” in Jesus Christ.

Purgation, illumination, and theosis are all given to us, as they were to the disciples, at once. And this why, to return to today’s epistle, we are able to look to Jesus Christ as an “anchor … sure and steadfast.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we come to the last half of the Great Fast, if we can, let us increase the time we give to prayer and decrease the amount we eat and drink. But whether we can do this or not, we should be mindful that we fast and pray so that on Pascha we are able to greet our Risen Lord and together with the apostles, disciples and all the saints, are able to go out to the world and proclaim boldly and with joy the Gospel:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Vessels Overflowing With Divine Love

Sunday, October 4, 2015: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Second Sunday of Luke

Hieromartyr Hierotheos, bishop of Athens; Hieromartyr Peter of Capitolia in Syria; Martyrs Domnina and her daughters of Syria; Gurios, first archbishop of Kazan and Barsanouphios, bishop of Tver; and Martyrs Stephen (Stiljanovich) and Elizabeth of Serbia

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 9:6-11

Gospel: Luke 6:31-36

“But I say to you,” says the Lord, “love your enemies…do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Matt 5:44).

St Maximus the Confessor writes that Christ commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us so He can free us “from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor.” We are commanded to love Maximus says, so that love can free us from sin can make us worthy of “the supreme gift of perfect love.” We “cannot attain such love” unless we “imitate God and love all men equally” (First Century on Charity, 61).

Love then is both the cause and effect of our salvation.

At least in the material realm, cause and effect are generally clear. In the spiritual life, however, cause and effect travel together. As St Maximus tells us, love is both the goal of the spiritual life, and it’s only rule. We are called to love so that we can love; love is simultaneously the road we travel and the destination of our travels.

This means that we need to be attentive to our own experience. I need to ask myself, are my thoughts, words and deeds truly loving? In asking that question I need to pay special attention to the word “truly.” I need to have a standard to test my experience so that I don’t relay myself and my own limited understanding of whether or not what I’m doing is really and truly loving. Good intentions certainly matter but they aren’t enough. I must instead evaluate my experience in light of Holy Tradition; experience, like good intentions, is an insufficient standard for my life in Chirst.

Today we remember the hieromartyr Hierotheos the first bishop of Athens. Hierotheos received the Gospel from Apostle Paul when the latter preached at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). But it’s the disciple of St Hierotheos, St Dionysius the Areopagite, who we turn to this morning to understand the place of love in the spiritual life.

St Dionysius says that creation is arranged hierarchically with some closer, others further, from God. And yet he says where ever we are in that hierarchy we are there as a vessel overflowing with divine love. The presence and the operation of God’s love is the very definition of who we are. This is why, and without prejudice to other biblical metaphors such as justification, the Church understands salvation as deification. This mean that we participate in the life of God; in St Peter’s words we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Put another way, we become by grace what Christ is by nature.

Following from this, we talk about salvation as a therapeutic process. Not therapeutic in the medical or psychological sense . While healing through these means is also a gift from God. they are based on the cause and effect relationship appropriate to the material realm. No spiritual therapy transcends the processes of material causality.

As I said a moment ago, the overflowing presence of divine love is the very definition of who we each of us is personally. Sin is anything that would seek to constrain that love. It is important to keep in mind here I didn’t say reject that love or abolish that love but constrain it. God’s love can’t be undone but I can try to contain that love, to keep it from overflowing the vessel of my own heart. Hatred, irritation, anger, rancor and above all fear are the symptoms that I am doing just that—that I’m trying to keep God’s love to myself.

Seen in this light, Christ’s words in the Gospel—and the explanation of them offered by St Maximus—reveal an anthropological depth that we might have at first overlook.

To love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us and to lend without expectation of return, is simply to become who we are, the vessels of God’s overflowing love. To become who I am requires from me nothing else but that I remove the dams that I have placed around the love God continually pours into my heart.

The Apostle Paul’s  words also now take on a new depth of meaning.

To sow sparingly, that is to try (however futilely) to constrain the love of God, means that I cripple myself. I don’t become, I can’t become, the person God has created me to be if I try to make God’s love as my exclusive possession.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God the Father has called us in His Son to be generous, cheerful, and even profligate in our love for Him and our neighbor. This can’t be forced—we are each of us only the size vessel that we are—but it is something that we can develop. What I mean by  this is that when we love we grow in our ability to love. And through love, we can become more fully ourselves. You see as we give ourselves away in love, our hearts becomes more expansive, they become larger vessels for God’s love. And a the vessel grows, God fills it more and more to overflowing.

So here’ s the choice.

Will I embrace life as a vessel and channel of God’s superabundant love? To do so means that I must accept myself and the life God gives me. Do I do this or do I instead embrace the lie that God’s love is for me and me alone?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us become the cheerful givers of God’s love. It is only in this way that we are healed of every sin, freed from every compulsion and are “enriched in every way” because it is only, in by way of love, that we become the friends of God and apostles of His great and overflowing love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Natural Law & the Christian Life

Sunday, August 16, 2015: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost & Eleventh Sunday of Matthew; After-feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; Recovery from Edessa of the Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands: ‘The Holy Napkin’

EPISTLE: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
GOSPEL: Matthew 18:23-35

Some Christians, even some Orthodox Christians, will reject out of hand the objective character of moral life. Some base their rejection of natural law on an appeal to our freedom in Christ. In doing this they that our liberty is not license to do as want but so that we can do God’s will (see 1 Peter 2:16; Galatians 5:13).

Others will point out that Christians are called to participate in the divine natural (2 Peter 1:4). Here again, though, we need to be careful that we not overlook what the Apostle Peter actually says. Yes in Christ, we have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust”—including the tendency to use morality to control others or exalt ourselves—but this is “for this very reason” that in “all diligence” we foster the life of real virtue (v. 5) to which we must add “knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (vv. 6-7).  Echoing a theme that we hear not only in Paul this morning but also James (2:8-26), St Peter goes so far as to say that “he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:8).

While he doesn’t use the language of natural law, the Apostle Paul certainly affirms the notion. This natural moral law—while not sufficient for our life in Christ—does exist and obedience to it prepares the human heart to receive Christ (see Romans 1:18-32). In today’s epistle the Apostle goes beyond what he says in Romans.  As does Jesus in the Gospel, Paul appeals directly to this natural moral sense not simply as a preparation for the Gospel but as normative for the life of the Church. He says that he and Barnabas have a “right to our food and drink” and, like the other Apostles, “the right to be accompanied by a wife.” His argument though isn’t just based on the Gospel or his apostolic office. As he makes clear in the subsequent verses, these are rights that we know not only from revelation but also human experience.

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?  Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?  Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?  Do I say this on human authority?  Does not the law say the same?  For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.”

There is a harmony between natural law and the moral teaching of Scripture. Contrary to what we might think, the latter—revealed morality—doesn’t minimize or negate what we know from natural law. Rather they are related analogically. What I mean by this is that while there are differences between them, they also share a striking similarity.

We can understand something of the Kingdom of God by looking at everyday experience. To be sure, everyday life isn’t  sufficient—we are always dependent on divine grace poured out in the sacraments, the Scriptures and Holy Tradition—but we ought not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And an understanding and obedience to the “laws of nature and nature’s God” dependent not on revelation but reason is a good, if imperfect, thing.

Turning to the Gospel, Jesus draws a parallel between an earthly kingdom and the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t dismiss or negate the demands of earthly justice—a debt owed is a debit that must be re-paid. He also makes clear that, in the affairs of men, justice is not the only concern.

Even among the powerful of this life justice can, and often is, tempered by mercy. Forgiveness is not unheard among the children of men. Justice, mercy and forgiveness are available in sufficient measure in this life so that we can see in them if not “the very image of the things to come” at least “a shadow” (see Hebrews 10:1).  Again in all this it is important to remember that natural morality points beyond itself to Christ Who is Himself the “substance” of the things to come (Colossians 2:17).

So what does this mean for our own spiritual lives?

There is a tendency among some Orthodox Christians, and let me be frank it is a Gnostic tendency, to dismiss or minimize everything that happens on the other side of walls of the church as unimportant, a distraction and even sinful. Concretely this takes the form of reducing the Christian life to attending liturgical services. Now the Church’s liturgy is essential to our life in Christ. So too however, are the Scriptures, the Fathers, philanthropy and evangelism. And all these must be found in us together with prayer and ascetical struggle. These are the essential elements of a fully developed Christian spiritual life. None of these, however, can come at the expense of the rest of life. The spiritual life in not an escape from this world; it is rather about our personal transformation and the redemption of the world.

As we are transformed, we are able to transform the world around us. Marriage and family life, the life of commerce and work, the arts and sciences, and every single human encounter becomes, for the heart transfigured by grace, a sacrament of God’s presence, a revelation of His grace and of His love for mankind.

The words of the ever memorable Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh about the person are equally applicable to natural law. He writes

One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty.

To embrace the natural law, to be faithful to it personally and in the life of the Church, is to do nothing more or less than to embrace with joy those often obscure glimpse of beauty in the world of persons, events and things. Seeing this natural beauty is to live as God meant us to live, it is a preparation for faith in Christ and, most importantly, for the life of the world to come. Amen.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory