Theosis and the Holy Spirit  

Posted by Joe Rawls

A bit in advance of Pentecost, we have some words on the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of deification by Greek Orthodox priest and theologian Christoforos Stavropoulos.  It first appeared in Partakers of Divine Nature (Light and Life 1976); I found it in the excellent compendium Eastern Orthodox Theology:  A Contemporary Reader, 2nd edition, Daniel B Clendenin, ed,  Baker Academic 2003, where it appears on pp 188-189.

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The Holy Spirit is the great resident of the church.  It is there that the Holy Spirit exercises all of his sanctifying and deifying power.  The work of our theosis, which our Lord Jesus Christ accomplished objectively, is completed by the Holy Spirit, adapting it to the life of every faithful Christian.  The Holy Spirit is the main and essential beginning of sanctification.  The Fathers of the church specifically teach that the theosis of human beings is attributable to the Holy Spirit.  The essential place of the Incarnate Word of God is matched by that of the Holy Spirit.  The divine Spirit that proceeds from the Father divinizes us.  The Spirit is "divine and divinizing".  The Holy Spirit is a divine bond which harmonizes and draws the mystical body of Christ, that is, the church, together with its Lord.  It is the Holy Spirit who makes the faithful into other Christs, and thus creates the church.  Our incorporation in the mystical body of Christ and our theosis are not exclusively the work of the incarnation of Christ.  They are also the work of the creative Holy Spirit, who creates the church with his spiritual gifts.

Through the Holy Spirit the faithful become sharers of divine nature.  They are formed in the new life.  They put off corruption.  They return to the original beauty of their nature.  They become participants of God and children of God.  They take on the shape of God.  They reflect the light of Christ and inherit incorruptibility.  Thus, the contribution of the Holy Spirit is always a finalizing action.  God the Father, before all ages, conceives of the work of salvation and theosis.  He realizes it in time, in the Son.  The Holy Spirit completes and perfects and adapts this work to people.  In the sphere of the church, the Holy Spirit mystically sanctifies and unites the faithful with Christ, thus creating and giving life to the mystical body of the Lord.  Here, in this  mystical body, the Holy Spirit's sanctifying energy shines forth.  These divine energies and the variety of graces of the Holy Spirit and the gifts which he mystically transmits to the soul of the believer, all shape and form the new Godlike human nature.  The Holy Spirit consequently has a power which re-creates, renews, and causes a rebirth.  Basil writes, "From the Holy Spirit there are the foreknowledge of the future, the comprehension of mysteries, the understanding of hidden things, the distribution of graces, the heavenly way of life, association with angels, unending happiness, residence in God, the likeness of God, and the highest of all things to be desired, to become God."  This re-creative power of the Holy Spirit is what is known as divine grace.  It comes and meets people.  It does not force.  It strengthens them in a spiritual way to walk the road leading to theosis.  However, it is absolutely necessary that people receive divine grace willingly and without coercion.  It is absolutely necessary for individuals to freely cooperate with divine grace in order to be able to travel the blessed road of union with God.

Alan Watts, Anglo-Catholic Roshi  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Many people with only a casual acquaintance with Alan Watts (1915-1973) are probably unaware that he was an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church earlier in his life.  As a boy he was a somewhat nominal member of the Church of England, but for a time he attended Canterbury School (adjacent to the Cathedral) at a time when the Cathedral dean was a strong Anglo-Catholic.  The young Watts was an acolyte under the dean and was exposed at an impressionable age to the glories of bells and smells.  After his first marriage, he and his wife moved to the United States where he came back--for a time--to the active practice of Christianity after an intense involvement with Buddhism.  They attended St Mary the Virgin (aka "Smokey Mary's") in New York City which further strengthened his love of high-church ritual.  Watts decided to become a priest and was accepted as a postulant for Holy Orders by the Bishop of Chicago, despite his lack of a university degree.  He was able to enroll in Seabury-Western Seminary and was ordained in 1945.  Following this, he was assigned to serve as Episcopal chaplain at Northwestern University.  For a time his ministry flourished; liturgies in the chapel featured lots of incense and Gregorian chant performed by Northwestern music students.  He became a popular lecturer and attracted many in the university community.

This all came crashing down in 1950 when his marriage failed.  He and his wife were unfaithful to each other, in both cases with Northwestern students.  His wife informed the bishop of the situation, and that was the end of Fr Watts. (the sordid details are recounted by Monica Furlong in her biography Zen Effects [1986, Houghton Mifflin]).  But before Watts self-destructed as a priest, he was able to publish Behold the Spirit:  A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (Vintage 1971; orig 1947).  This amazing book was a reworking of his seminary master's thesis, and must be considered a minor masterpiece of Christian spirituality, all the more so considering the author's dedication to Zen and other Eastern traditions.  The book reveals a thorough knowledge of the Western Christian spiritual tradition.  Had Watts remained a priest, he might well have become one of the leading Anglican spiritual masters of the 20th century.

The final part of the book contains his thoughts on liturgy, some of which is excerpted below.

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On the whole...it is probably safe to say that it impresses [the modern person] as less awkward when the form of worship is very frankly archaic and symbolic.  It may still seem unreal and remote from life, but this will only be true so long as the Church fails to complement symbolic religion with mystical religion.  Given an understanding of mystical religion, we shall not need or desire to mix formal religion with everyday life or make any compromise between secular forms and religious forms.  On the contrary, we shall keep our forms separate and realize complete harmony of inner meaning.  It is highly probable, therefore, that as the mystical understanding of Christianity increases, as union with God is realized more and more in everyday life, our forms of worship will become unashamedly archaic and symbolic.  We shall keep the ancient symbols of the Christian religion in all their original purity, for our spiritual progress will not consist in a development and adaptation of symbolism, but in an increased understanding of its meaning.

By and large, a prayer meeting in a modern living-room leaves one with nothing but a bad taste in the mouth.  The characteristic mentality of our time finds this kind of thing totally awkward and absurd, not because it "brings religion home" or too close for comfort, but because it smacks of exhibitionism.  Yet at Christmas intelligent pagans go by thousands to Midnight Mass in the local Roman or Anglican church and enjoy themselves immensely...Of course, they go in part to "see the show" and to hear fine music, but there is also the attraction of the numinous, the infectious fascination of the holy which delivers the soul from its own futility.

Isaac the Syrian on Repentance  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hat-tip to the Glory to God for All Things site.

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 Be crucified, but do not crucify others.

Be slandered, but do not slander others.

Exult with those who repent.

God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.

That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion:  remorse.  But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.

Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God.  That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance.  Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it.  By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.

God's recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.


Gregory of Nyssa  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Gregory of Nyssa (ca335-395) was the brother of Basil the Great and the friend of Gregory Nazianzus.  Collectively, they are known as the Cappadocians, after the region in Anatolia where they spent most of their lives.  Gregory of Nyssa had a strongly philosophical bent--he was especially influenced by Plotinus--and he aimed to engage his theology with the best philosophical thought of his day.  He played a key role in formulating the late fourth-century theological understanding of the Trinity, which remains foundational for orthodox theology.  He is commemorated by the Episcopal Church on March 9.  Below is an excerpt from his treatise on the Lord's Prayer.  Along with other quotes by Gregory, it can be found here

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"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God".  Who are these?  Those who imitate the Divine love of others, who show forth in their own life the character of the Divine energy.  The Lord and Giver of good things completely annihilates anything that is without affinity and foreign to goodness.  This work he ordains also for you, namely to cast out hatred and abolish war, to exterminate envy and banish strife, to take away hypocrisy and extinguish from within resentment of injuries smoldering in the heart.  Instead, you ought to introduce whatever is contrary to the things that have been removed.
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St Gregory of Narek  

Posted by Joe Rawls

This week Pope Francis declared St Gregory of Narek--or Grigor Narekatsi, as he is known in Armenian--a Doctor of the Church.  Gregory lived between 951-1003 and spent his entire life in the town of Narek, located near Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey.  He was born into a clerical family (his father was an archbishop) and he soon entered the local monastery.  He wrote poetry of a strongly mystical nature and is considered one of the major figures in Armenian literature.  The sample excerpted below is from the Book of Lamentations, written about 977.  The translation is by Thomas J Samuelian, and the on-line version is available here.

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Prayer 1

The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,
I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,
placing the fruits of my wavering mind
as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul
to be delivered to you in the censer of my will.

Compassionate Lord, breathe in
this offering and look more favorably on it
than upon a more sumptuous sacrifice
offered with rich smoke.  Please find
this simple string of words acceptable.
Do not turn in disdain.

May this unsolicited gift reach you,
this sacrifice of words
from the deep mystery-filled chamber
of my feelings, consumed in flames
fueled by whatever grace I may have within me.

Thomas Merton on Hesychastic Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today marks the centennial of Thomas Merton's birth.  Although he died in 1968, his influence remains significant today, and extends far beyond the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church.  A Trappist monk, his spiritual interests likewise extended far beyond the bounds of Western monasticism.  He was particularly engaged with the hesychastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy.  As novice master of Gethsemani he was charged with teaching the young monks about asceticism and mystical theology.  He did not exclude the Christian East from his syllabus. 

A sample of this can be found in Merton and Hesychasm, Bernadette Dieker  and Jonathan Montaldo, eds, Louisville, Kentucky, Fons Vitae, 2003.  The chapter is "Love for God and Mutual Charity:  Thomas Merton's Lectures on Hesychasm to the Novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani", transcribed and edited by Bernadette Dieker.  The quote below, found on pp 471-472, deals with the recitation of the Jesus Prayer to drive away distracting thoughts.

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The idea is first finding your heart, getting completely centered inside where the struggle is going on, and then in your heart socking this stuff with the most powerful thing that you've got, which is the Name of Jesus.  So you take the Jesus Prayer and you get this in the center of your heart and everything that comes up, WHAM!  And you really don't fool around, you hit it.  And you hit it out loud to begin with.  You're in a cell, you're by yourself, you're not in the Church, and you learn this prayer by saying it with your lips, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  Then you say that about 5,000 times.  You keep saying it...You really work at this thing.  It becomes a full time project, and you keep it up until you or the thought gives up.  It's "either/or."  Now of course this is a bit drastic.  I don't think this is what most people need to do, but it's good to recognize that this is a basic approach that some people have.  Obviously there are simpler ways of doing it, but this is the way these fellows do it.

Then, after saying it with your lips, you learn that you don't have to say it out loud, you can just whisper it, and then it gets a lot quieter and you begin to calm down quite a bit.  Of course, this is over a period of time.  Then it becomes mental, and you think of it purely in your mind.  You don't say any words anymore, and then it gets down into your heart.  Mind, Heart, see.  And when it gets into your heart, it's a question that the mind and the heart have to be one.  This is the key to the whole thing.  A very complex idea, it's a very deep idea, actually.  A deep psychological idea of uniting your mind and your heart.  This is the key to the whole thing.  It takes an awful lot of understanding, and a great deal of work, uniting the mind and the heart.  What do they mean by that?  Well, that requires quite a lot of discussion.  The real fruit of the thing is when the prayer becomes completely spiritual--this follows pretty much the old Greek pattern of words, concepts, and then beyond concepts.  This is the way that they go at this thing, and I think that it's very interesting.  We'll come across this all the way down--there's the whole tradition, all through Russian spirituality which keeps coming back to this, and this is one of the big things in the nineteenth century.  This is one of the sources of nineteenth century Russian mysticism.  I think if we keep the idea of serious interior asceticism centered on this idea of a prayer of the heart which is effective in socking these things, but don't try to do it in the wrong way.  Just keep in your memory that there is such a method, but that you can't do it just by wanting to.  But it's something that is worth considering and you might look into it in the future as something that may have something to it.  I'll say at least that much.

Hilary of Poitiers on Faith  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hilary (ca 300-368) was born in southwestern Gaul.  His parents were pagan and gave him what must have been an excellent classical education, to judge by the good Latin style of his later writings.  He also knew Greek, learned in part during his exile in the eastern part of the empire.  He was baptized, along with his wife and daughter, at a relatively mature age, and was elected bishop by the inhabitants of Poitiers only a few years later.  He quickly became embroiled in a theological dispute with adherents of Arianism, which was still vigorous despite its condemnation by the Council of Nicea.  Hilary fell afoul of the emperor Constantius, who was somewhat "soft" on the heresy, and was exiled to Phrygia in Asia Minor for several years.  After his return to Poitiers he completed De Trinitate, his major work, and mentored the great monastic Martin of Tours. 

Edward C Sellner, in Finding the Monk Within (HiddenSpring, 2008, pp 64-66) has some good insights into Hilary's approach to the Christian faith.

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All of his works...were composed with the strong conviction that God was not only one being, but three persons...God, and those who are created in God's image, Hilary believes, are thus called to community, to participate and build in their own lives communities that reflect the God in whose image they have been made...

A second conviction...is his intense love of and loyalty to Jesus Christ.  For Hilary, the Son of God was truly God not in name and metaphor only, but in the fullest sense and deepest reality.  This personal relationship with Christ, in fact, is his primary motive for the writings on faith that he does.  It is his reading and study of the sacred texts of scripture that inform his theology and the explanations he gives to justify belief in the power and equality of the Trinity.  Ultimately his love of Christ relies not solely on intellect and intellectual arguments, but upon his intuitive senses, his heart...

Hilary also learned from the Eastern fathers during his exile that to be a theologian was, above all, to be a person of prayer.  They had taught him that all theology begins and ends in prayer.  With this awareness, it was natural for him to conclude that "God cannot be known except by devotion".  As he writes in his book on the Trinity, "What presumption to suppose that words can adequately describe God's nature, when thought is often too deep for words, and His nature transcends even the conceptions of thought...We must believe, must apprehend, must worship, and such acts of devotion must stand in lieu of definition."  For Hilary, what he learned from the Eastern fathers was the ancient Christian principle, lex orandi, lex credendi" (the law of worship is the law of belief); in other words, how a person or community worships reveals what an individual or a community believes.  Thus his understanding of faith is linked intrinsically with a life of prayer, one that includes the reading of scripture, yes, but also public worship and personal prayer...

A fourth element of his theology also reflects the teachings of the Eastern father...when Hilary says, "What presumption to suppose that words can adequately describe God's nature."  Eastern theologians had taught him this apophatic theology:  based upon the presupposition that words or dogmatic definitions cannot fully explain the profound mystery of God.  Here Hilary anticipates the theology of later Eastern Orthodox Christians, the sixth-century writer Pseudo-Dionysius, and a number of medieval mystics, including the fourteenth-century anonymous English author  of the Cloud of Unknowing and the sixteenth-century Spanish poet, John of the Cross (1542-1591).  Hilary states in his book on the Trinity that the very "purpose" of faith, what it proclaims, is that it cannot fully "comprehend that for which it is seeking".  Anything that is said is merely an attempt to wrap words around a mystery that is beyond verbal or intellectual explanation.