Focus on the Faith
THEOSIS: The Purpose of the Christian Life
“For the Son of God became man so that we might become god” – St Athanasius the Great
How do we Orthodox Christians understand the above quote by Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria? It sounds a bit preposterous to the average western Christian. Becoming a god? Isn’t that what the Mormons promise themselves after a lifetime of taking part in temple ordinances and by putting on their special “sacred underwear”? But strange as it may sound to some ears, this doctrine has been at the heart of Orthodox Christian theology and spiritual practice for its entire 2,000-year history.
Let’s clarify straightaway some things that theosis is not. Theosis is not the same as pantheism. The essence of our human nature is not replaced by divine nature. As Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it, “we are able to affirm a direct or mystical union between man and God… but at the same time we exclude any pantheistic identification between the two: for man participates in the energies of God, not the essence. There is union, but not fusion or confusion. Although “united” with the divine, man still remains man; he is not swallowed up or annihilated, but between him and God there continues always to exist an “I-Thou” relationship of person to person.” (The Orthodox Way, p. 23) Theosis means that human beings can “become by grace what God is by nature.” (Athanasius, De Incarnatione I) How can this be? Well, we become “God-like” through perfection in holiness, the continuous process of acquiring the Holy Spirit by grace through ascetical efforts. This is what the holy fathers call “podvig” or spiritual and physical struggle against the sinful inclinations of the flesh and the promptings of the devil. It means a cleansing of the heart by vigilance, prayers, and fasting. As Psalm 4:18 says: “The path of the righteous is as the shining light, that shines more and more to the perfect day.”
The doctrine of theosis–also known as deification, divinization, or partaking of the divine nature–is scripturally rooted first in the Old Testament, in Psalm 82:6, “Now I say to you, you are gods, and all of you, children of the Most High;’” and then in the New Testament in 2 Peter 1:4, “He has given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world.” St. Gregory Palamas, the great 14th century pillar of the church and defender of the doctrine of theosis, affirmed the possibility of humanity’s union with God in His energies, while also affirming that because of God’s transcendence and utter otherness, it is impossible for any person to know or to be united with God’s essence. However, through faith and activity (praxis) we can attain an Orthodox “phronema,” which is a Greek word meaning an Orthodox mindset or outlook; it is ultimately what St. Paul refers to as “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:6; Philip. 2:5).
The journey towards theosis includes many forms of praxis. Living in the community of the church and partaking regularly of the sacraments, and especially Confession and Communion, is taken for granted. Also important is cultivating the “prayer of the heart,” or “unceasing prayer” that St. Paul recommends in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. This unceasing prayer of the heart is a dominant theme in the writings of many of the Church Fathers, especially in those collected in the Philokalia (Добротолюбие). For us Orthodox Christians “Theosis” IS salvation.
Lives of the Saints Commemorated in February
Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, and those with them at Carthage (203) – February 1
Perpetua, Felicity, Saturus, Saturninus, Secundus and Revocatus were all young catechumens living near Carthage. Perpetua was of noble birth; Felicity (Felicitas) was her slave. All were arrested under Emperor Valerian’s persecution and sent to Carthage. Perpetua had a young child still at the breast, which she asked to take with her.
The holy martyrs appeared before the tribunal and joyfully received their sentence of condemnation to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Felicity, who was eight months pregnant, was concerned that her martyrdom might be postponed because of her pregnancy, but at the prayers of her friends, she went into labor three days before the games. As she groaned in labor, a jailer mocked her, telling her that the pain she felt was nothing to the pain that she would feel in the arena. The Saint replied, ‘Here I suffer for myself; then there will be Another with me, who will suffer with me; and my sufferings will be for Him!’ When she gave birth, she entrusted her newborn child to the care of a Christian couple and prepared for her end. On the day of the games, the brothers and sisters in Christ entered the arena together. The men were soon killed by the beasts, but Perpetua and Felicity, though mauled, remained alive. The impatient persecutors ordered that they be beheaded. Walking to the center of the arena, the two spiritual sisters exchanged the kiss of peace and gave up their souls to God.
Our Holy Mother Brigid of Kildare (524) – February 1
Her name is also spelled Brigit or Bridget; she is considered, equally with St Patrick (March 17), patron of Ireland. She was born in Ulster of a noble Irish family which had been converted by St Patrick. She was uncommonly beautiful, and her father planned to marry her to the King of Ulster. But at the age of sixteen she asked her Lord Jesus Christ to make her unattractive, so that no one would marry her and she could devote herself to Him alone. Soon she lost an eye and was allowed to enter a monastery. On the day that she took monastic vows, she was miraculously healed and her original beauty restored. Near Dublin she built herself a cell under an oak tree, which was called Kill-dara, or Cell of the Oak. Soon seven other young women joined her and established the monastery of Kill-dara, which in time became the cathedral city of Kildare. The monastery grew rapidly and became a double monastery with both men’s and women’s settlements, with the Abbess ranking above the Abbot; from it several other monasteries were planted throughout Ireland. (Combined men’s and women’s monastic communities are virtually unknown in the east, but were common in the golden age of the Irish Church). The Saint predicted the day of her death and fell asleep in peace in 524, leaving a monastic Rule to govern all the monasteries under her care. During the Middle Ages her veneration spread throughout Europe.
Holy Martyr Agatha of Palermo in Sicily (251) – February 5
She is one of the best loved and most venerated Martyrs of the West. She was born to a noble family in Catania or Palermo in Sicily. At an early age she consecrated herself to the Lord and, though very beautiful, sought only to adorn herself with the virtues. During the persecution under Decius (251), she was arrested as a Christian; at this time she was about fifteen years old. Quintinian, the Governor of Sicily, was taken by her beauty and offered to marry her, thinking in that way not only to possess her body but her riches as well. When she spurned his advances, and continued to mock the idols, he grew angry and decided to have her tortured. She was gruesomely tormented and cast bleeding into a dungeon to die; but in the night her Guardian Angel brought the Apostle Peter to her, and he healed her wounds. The following day, the Governor ordered that she be subjected to further torments, but at his words the city was shaken by an earthquake and part of the palace collapsed. The terrified people stormed the palace and demanded that Agatha be released, lest they be subject to the wrath of her God. The Saint was returned to her prison cell, where in response to her prayers she was allowed to give up her soul to God. At Agatha’s burial, attended by many, her Guardian Angel appeared and placed a marble slab on her tomb, inscribed with the words ‘A righteous mind, self- determining, honor from God, the deliverance of her fatherland.’ Quintinian died soon thereafter, thrown from his chariot. On the first anniversary of Agatha’s death, Mt Etna erupted and Catania was about to be engulfed in lava. Christians and pagans together, remembering the inscription on her tomb, took the slab from the tomb and bore it like a shield to the river of lava, which was immediately stopped. The same miracle has happened many times in the following centuries, and Saint Agatha is venerated as the Protectress of Catania and Sicily, loved and honored by Christians of the East and the West.
What is the Triodion?
The Triodion is the service book of the Orthodox Church that provides the texts for the divine services for the pre-Lenten weeks of preparation, the Great and Holy Fast, and Holy Week. The “Lenten Triodion” is the title of a classic and popular English language translation of the same with an extensive and helpful introduction by Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary. It provides many (but not all) of the texts necessary to celebrate the services of the Great Fast. In Greek the book is simply called the Triodion. In Slavonic it is called “Триодь постная,” or “Triod Postnaya,” meaning the Triodion of the Fast. It is called the triodion because of the three-ode canons appointed for Matins during this period.
The weeks of preparation, and especially the Sunday gospel readings, serve to exercise the mind, whereas the fasting of Great Lent focuses on the body, and Holy Week’s services exercise the spirit.
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