The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE DOCTRINE
14th JANUARY 2010
So let’s now go to the main topic for today. As most of you know, in September I began a correspondence Theology course from America. Some of the questions that have to be answered for the exams deal with the History of the Church, others on Liturgical and others on Doctrine and Theology. Those on history I think you would find a little boring but the Liturgical and Theological I think you would benefit from them if I was to share them with you so today I will give you the first of the papers I have prepared. Much of what is in the paper we have covered during other talks especially during the series of talks on the History of the Church, but as these were in 2007 it would be beneficial to refresh our minds.
The question for the first paper is “Discuss the doctrine of deification or theosis. What is the importance of synergia in this process? There are a couple of words that you might not understand: the first is deification or theosis which mean the same thing and refer to a belief of the Orthodox Church that man can become a god. The second is synergia which means cooperation or working together and you will understand how this is used as we progress into the talk. The doctrine of deification is very important to understand because it is what makes us Orthodox different from other so called Christians who do not have this belief. It is unique to us and not even the Roman Catholic Church who we often hear is similar to us has this belief.
As a Priest I am often asked: “why do we need to attend Church? why do we need to fast? why do we pray? and many other questions similar to these. The answers to these questions can all be answered if we understand why man was created and the purpose of this life? As a quick and simple answer, Man was created for union with God and the purpose of this life is to attain this union. But what does this actually mean? The Orthodox Church believes that man, by using his free will in cooperation with God’s will can attain this goal of union with God and become a god by grace. This belief is not something invented by the Church: it is a solid doctrine based on scriptural testimony found in the New Testament. The quotes from scripture are many, but there is also an event in the Life of Christ which clearly tells us that man can receive deification.
The event is the Lord’s Transfiguration. From the Gospel of St. Matthew we read that Christ took with Him Peter, James and John his brother and went up into a high mountain [Mount Tabor], “and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun and his raiment was white as the light” [St. Matth. 17:2]. St. Mark, in his Gospel, says of the same event, “And his raiment became shining exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them” [St. Mark 9:3]. St. Mark tries to describe this light, but can only say that, “no fuller on earth can white them”. As created beings, we can only explain what we see, hear or understand, by other things in our life. We cannot begin to describe this light of the Transfiguration because it is not created, as is the light of the sun. St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica in the 14th century and the defender of the Hesycast movement which defended the belief of man’s deification, asserted that when the Apostles Peter, James and John witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor, they were in fact seeing the uncreated light of God; and that it is possible for others to be granted to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer.
The event of the Transfiguration in the life of Christ has never really been understood by the Western Churches in the same way the Orthodox Church understands the event. Christ appeared to His disciples as God, the light that they saw was the uncreated light of God. But it was the human body of Christ that shone with this light: in other words it was man’s nature that appeared in the divine glory. Thus not only can the uncreated light of God be seen by human eyes, it can also be received by the human body. It brings us to that renowned statement by St. Athanasius and repeated by so many fathers: “God became man so that man may become God.”
We find in the writings of the fathers and from the lives of some of the saints, that through inner peace, prayer and contemplation, they received while still in this life, this same uncreated light whereby man is transfigured and is united to God. They pursued perfection fulfilling Christ commandment: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. (Matthew 5:48) To be perfect as God means to be united to God and become one with him. The Gospel of St. John is much clearer on the subject of our deification. Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane said to the Father: “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one: I in them and thou in me that they may be made perfect in one”. (John 17:21-23)
Man was created in the image and likeness of God. By this we usually understand man’s free will and his ability to become one with God. This is what man was created for – to reach perfection and union with the Trinitarian God. We are thus called to dwell with God and become one with him, but we must be careful how we interpret this oneness.
The Church recognizes that many of her members have obtained through righteous living or martyrdom this oneness with God. It is these that the Church has promoted to the ranks of saints. By nature, these saints are still men, but they have been deified through the grace of God. To be deified by the grace of God means to be exalted and made as a god. The Holy Trinity is God by nature; when a man is deified, he receives deification as a gift from God. It is not something that belongs to him by nature because by nature he is a human being. God bestows upon man the greatest gift of His love and raises him to Himself by making him a god by grace. It is the final end for which man was created: to be united in oneness with God. This does not mean that man becomes an additional hypostasis [person] to the Three Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity. The divine nature is always inaccessible to all creatures that have their nature in something else. The mystical union between God and man is a true union, but the Creator and the creature do not become fused into a single being. Man partakes not in the nature of God, but in the divine energies that proceed from the divine nature. This is what the Apostle Peter meant in his 2nd Epistle when he said “that ye might be partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4)
Man becomes one with God, but still retains his free will and his personal characteristics. He continues to remain a created human being and is not absorbed into the divine nature just as Christ still remained God after he took upon himself the nature of man and his humanity was not absorbed by his divinity. The two natures were united without confusion or change, and the peculiar property of each nature was preserved and united in one Person, one hypostasis – the God-man Jesus Christ, as defined by the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon in AD 451. The difference we have with Christ is that he was God and remained God even when he took the nature of man; we on the other hand are created beings and always remain created beings even when we are deified. Also our full deification must wait until the day of Resurrection when our bodies are reunited to our souls because man is a unity of both body and soul. Salvation belongs to the complete man and not just to his soul.
But the divine energies that sanctify and deify man can in part be experienced by man in this life. This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church which can be found in the works of the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th Century and supported by St. Gregory Palamas and the Hesychast movement in the 14th century. But what was the Hesychast movement? Hesychasm is a spiritual practice which was and still is practice mainly by Orthodox monks. Hesychast comes from the Greek word “Ησυχία” meaning silence or peace. The Hesychastic practice has often been compared to the mystical prayer or meditation of Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism and yoga, although this similarity is often over-emphasized in popular accounts and is generally rejected by actual Orthodox practitioners of Hesychasm. The practice may involve specific bodily postures, and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns, however, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary by both modern Athonite practitioners of Hesychasm and by the more ancient texts from the Fathers. Today we know this practice as the Jesus Prayer that is practiced by both monks and lay people alike.
The Hesychast begins in solitude and retirement by repeating the Jesus Prayer – Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner. It should be noted that the Hesychast never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables without meaning, which would then just be repetitious and worthless. His pays extreme attention to each word of the prayer and collects his mind, not letting it wander, which is what usually happens when we start praying. In time the prayer is said continually 24 hours a day and the Hesychast’s aim is to bring his mind (his nous) into his heart. There are various stages to the prayer but eventually the goal is for the prayer to continue in the heart with the grace of God. At this stage, the Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God which is seen as light. It is this light that caused a controversy in the 14th Century between the Athonite monks who practiced the Hesychast spirituality and a Greek monk named Barlaam from Calabria Italy, who had come to Constantinople in 1330. What was this light? Was it just a physical light or was it a contemplation of God? Did the Athonite monks, as they claimed, have an experiential knowledge of God?
When Barlaam of Calabria encountered Hesychasts and heard descriptions of their practices, he was scandalized by Hesychasm and began to combat it both orally and in his writings. He had been trained in Western Scholastic Theology which is based on rational thought. He was therefore unfamiliar with Orthodox spiritually and could not comprehend the possibility of material eyes physically beholding the immaterial God. How can a man see God’s essence with his bodily eyes? The light which the Hesychasts beheld, in his view, was not the eternal light of the Divinity, but a temporary and created light. He also believed that philosophers had better knowledge of God than did the prophets, and he valued education and learning more than contemplative prayer. As such, he believed the monks on Mount Athos were wasting their time in contemplative prayer when they should instead be studying to gain intellectual knowledge.
Hesychasm was defended theologically by St. Gregory Palamas, who was asked by his fellow monks on Mt. Athos to defend Hesychasm from the attacks of Barlaam. Contrary to Barlaam, Gregory asserted that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. St. Gregory defended Hesychasm at several Synods in Constantinople in the 1340s and he also wrote a number of works in its defence. In these works, St. Gregory Palamas uses a distinction, between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God. St Gregory taught that the energies or operations of God were uncreated. He taught that the essence of God can never be known by his creature even in the next life, but that his uncreated energies or operations can be known both in this life and the next, and convey to the Hesychast in this life and to the righteous in the next life a true spiritual knowledge of God. It is the uncreated energies of God that illuminate the Hesychast who has been vouchsafed an experience of the Uncreated Light.
The doctrine of Hesychasm was eventually upheld as the doctrine of the Orthodox Church at a Synod in Constantinople. Barlaam returned to Italy where he became a Roman Catholic bishop. Up to this day, the Roman Catholic Church has never fully accepted Hesychasm, especially the distinction between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God, and the notion that these energies or operations of God are uncreated. In Roman Catholic theology, as it has developed since the Scholastic period, the essence of God can be known, but only in the next life; the grace of God is always created; and the essence of God is pure act, so that there can be no similarity between the energies or operations and the essence of God.
As mentioned earlier the divine energies that proceed from the divine nature of God can be experienced by man in this life. Everyone has the ability to experience God at some level and it is not something reserved only for monks. Deification must be the goal of every Christian and the process to theosis begins from this our present life. Although deification is a gift from God, it does not mean that we are entitled to it without our own efforts. Union with God involves a synergy or cooperation of two wills – the divine and the human for as St Paul says “We are labourers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). But our labour or contribution in the common effort is by far much less than God’s contribution and of far less importance. We cannot attain union with God without God’s help, but neither can God force this union upon us without the consent of our free will. The greatest example of synergy is the Mother of God. It was through the Mother of God that the incarnation became possible. God became a man voluntarily to save mankind, but to do this, He needed the free consent of His mother; thus the incarnation was the work of the will of God and the free will of man, a synergy [cooperation] of two wills: God’s and the Virgin’s. Without the one or the other, the salvation of man could not become possible and we would still live in the shadow of death.
God wishes for all men to be saved but forces no one to come to him. God is always there knocking at our door, waiting for us to open and let him in. He is always searching for the lost sheep, all that is needed is for the sheep to hear his voice and run to him. Our initial contribution to the common effort is to have faith in God and to allow his grace to guide us to salvation. God will then give us the strength to fight our passions which keep us earthbound. Fasting for example can seem difficult for someone who has not yet allowed Christ into his heart. He will see it as an obligation that the church imposes upon him, but for the Christian with faith, fasting is a means that he joyfully participates in, because he understands that fasting will liberate him from his dependence on food and other worldly things and will help him open the door and participate in Christ himself. His strength is not the result of his own doing, but the grace of God within him, which slowly teaches him the virtuous life. This is something that Christians practicing the ascetic way of life should never forget. They do not obtain the gifts of virtue by their own struggles and efforts: the will and the desire is theirs, but everything else comes from God.
Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians said: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) What Paul said comprises one of the basic truths of our faith, that our salvation is not the result of our good works or our virtues; it is not the fruit of our own efforts, but a gift and grace from God. Of course it also demands from our side that we believe. Faith is compulsory as the expression and response of our free will. If we do not want it, God does not save us by infringing on our independence, which is one of the greatest gifts with which he has endowed us with. Two verses earlier Paul says: “And God hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” What Paul is telling us is that the salvation of man has already come about, all that remains is for each of us to embrace it on a personal level, for each to became partakers of the divine gift. Christ’s human nature has been raised and because Christ is the head and we, the church, the body, we also have been raised with him. And as Christ sat on the right hand of God we also sit together with Christ who comprise his body. For as St. John Chrysostom said: “For where the head sits, there also sits the body.”
The honour which God’s goodness has reserved for us is beyond imagination – to be made co-reigners with his only-begotten Son. To sit on the right side is a show of honour which surpasses every other kind of honour and after this there is no other.