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Purification, Illumination, Deification: Orthodox Spirituality

Our Fulfillment in Christ

March 01, 2014 Length: 34:41

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Transcript Transcript

Tonight we are going to bring to a close this series of talks on the topic of Orthodox spirituality: purification, illumination, and deification. As a reward for your endurance, tonight will by far be the shortest of our talks together, so consider that my gift to you for your patience. But as I have alluded to in the past, as we have talked about these steps, this progression, toward our purpose as human beings, toward theosis, deification, the irony of it from a human perspective is that the greater the heights of illumination, the less words there are to talk about it. So as we reach this final talk, the words become sparser and sparser. So tonight we will touch upon deification.

In his classic work entitled Orthodox Spirituality, the Romanian theologian, Dumitru Stăniloae, gives a very succinct definition of deification. His definition is this:

Deification is God’s full and perfect penetration of man. It is (he says) the restoration of complete health to our nature, to human nature.

In this restoration, this return to complete health begins in a broad sense in our baptism, and it continues through the whole spiritual life. It is an ascent through the process of purification, the practice of virtues, and life within the body of grace. And in this ascent toward complete health, man’s natural powers are in a process of continual growth. And they reach their highest point when they become illumined and capable of seeing the uncreated light. This process is the full realization of our humanity, infused with God’s grace.

But this ascension, this climb toward God, is an ascent in which there is no summit, and the illumined man continues to ascend, even beyond the full realization of his human potential, beyond the full realization of his human potential to actually participate in the divine energies of God. In Christ our development has no end. As we become more and more like God, as there is an ever-fuller union with him, the realization of the infinite nature of our ascent becomes more apparent.

Deification is man after reaching the full potential of his nature in illumination, surpassing the bounds of human nature, to a divine and supernatural level of experience. This ascent, this surpassing of the boundaries of our human nature, is seen in the life of Christ, who, after his passion and crucifixion, had the attributes of his human nature overwhelmed by the divine attributes. His humanity was resurrected, and this process was perfected in his ascension as a human being into heaven. So within us this process of deification is analogous to the life of Christ, his passion, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his ascension. He establishes the pattern in his humanity which enables us to follow him into union with him. So in his humanity he sets forth the pattern and fulfills the potential of our humanity.

This process of deification is also seen in the life of the blessed Theotokos. She spends the first part of her life undergoing purification through life in the temple, through a life of prayer and contemplation and asceticism. And that process of purification leads to a state of illumination and culminated with deification when Christ dwells within her. St. Gregory of Nyssa says:

What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the Godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, but dwells in us spiritually, and the Father takes up his abode with him. The Gospel tells us this, that in this way the Child Jesus is born in each of us.

So through Christ we ever approach the likeness of God, but we never reach full identification with him. In other words, in becoming more and more like him in an eternal process that never ends, we constantly approach the divine without becoming the divine. It is the mystery of God giving everything of himself to his creatures while remaining entirely above and beyond them. Again, St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it this way:

It may be said in all truth that the pure in heart see God and at the same time no one has ever seen God.

St. Basil the Great states:

We declare that we know God in his energies, but hardly claim to approach him in essence, for his essence remains inaccessible, whereas his energies reach down to us.

St. Maximus the Confessor says:

We can share in what God communicates to us of his nature, but his nature in itself remains incommunicable.

Dionysius the Areopagite, in his work, The Divine Names, says it in a beautiful way. See if you can wrap your head around this.

God’s unique nature, while remaining entirely one, multiplies itself in powers that communicate the very being and life of God, and all these magnificent gifts of goodness make it possible for the unshareable character of the shared to be glorified in the sharers as in the shares that are given.

Repeat that back to me. [Audience laughter] What is St. Dionysius saying? He’s saying we know him and we don’t know him; we are like him and we are not like him. We experience him and we do not experience him. What is unshareable permeates the one who shares.

And this is the essential mystery of the process of purification, illumination, and deification, that the more of God is known, the more he is unknown. The more we share in the divine energies of God, the more we desire to experience it. The more we see, the more what we see becomes infinite. In this process of deification, it’s like an ever-clearing night sky. The clearer the night sky becomes, the more we become aware of not only what we can see but what we can’t see, and the clearer the sky becomes, the clearer the depth of what we can’t see. So this process of deification, this deified state, is going from one beginning to another beginning to another beginning.

St. Gregory of Nyssa:

The unlimited reality of the Godhead that cannot be circumscribed (that means: contained, described, defined) remains beyond all comprehension. Thus the great David, when he was seeking exaltation in his heart and was going from strength to strength, as the psalm says, nevertheless cried out, “God, thou art the Lord and are on high forever!”

St. Gregory says:

By that, I think he meant to say that for all eternity, for world without end, anyone who is hastening toward God grows ever greater and rises continually higher, each moment making progress by the addition of graces. At each instance, he sees what is grasped is much greater than what had been grasped before, but since what we are seeking is unlimited, the end of each discovery becomes the starting point for the discovery of something greater, and we continue on our way into the infinite by increasingly higher ascents.

What does this continual ascent toward the infinite produce within the deified man? As the deified human being ascends higher and higher, ever closer to God, ever drawing closer to the apprehension of the divine, ever more growing in the experience and participation of the divine energies of God, it produces an ever-growing humility, because in acquiring more, we realize that what we are approaching is the infinite, and that realization humbles us.

Just as a side note, one of the great mysteries of our Orthodox faith, one of the great treasures of the Orthodox faith that almost has to be experienced rather than explained, is coming to grips or experiencing the reality and the mystery that God is ultimately completely unknowable. And for the Western man and the man trained to think in the thought-patterns of the Western mind, that is a very unsatisfactory statement, because, after all, isn’t it our goal and purpose to know God, to understand him? Isn’t all of our theology and our exegesis and our study about defining him and comprehending him and understanding him and his ways? But the true mind of the Church says, no, God in his essence is totally and utterly unknowable.

But the paradox of that realization, or, better put, the paradox of that experience, is that the closer we draw to the infinitude of God’s essence, the more we stare into the infinite and realize that God is beyond any category of thought that we can conjure up, rather than pushing him off into the distance, rather than making him remote, rather than making him a concept, the more we experience the infinite, the more profound and intimate God’s love becomes, because I believe the only way to even begin to experience the plenitude of God’s love for us, to truly begin to understand what this Incarnation truly means, is to understand it in the framework and to experience it in the framework that it is an infinite, unknowable, incomprehensible, inconceivable, uncircumscribed God with no boundaries, no limits, no definitions, no concept that we can conjure up—this is the God who lowered himself out of love for us to take on our flesh.

That is the love of God, and the more we approach God’s infinite essence, the more personal and profound the Incarnation becomes, and we truly begin to see just how much God humbled himself, just how much he lowered himself. The hymnody throughout the year is fraught with those references: the uncontained becomes contained, the uncircumscribed becomes circumscribed, the one without form takes a form.

So the deified man experiences the beautiful, simple, and profound proclamation of St. John the Evangelist when he said: “God is love.” And in this ascent to God, as we struggle through this purification process, if by the grace of God there are moments of illumination in our lives, if by the grace of God we ascend one rung higher in the process of theosis, then ultimately all we are experiencing is the realization of God’s love, of coming to see there is no limit to his love. It is infinite. It can never be experienced in its fullness. It can’t be contained.

More than one writer in our tradition tells us that deification is being inebriated, it’s being drunk in the love of God. Paul says, “Be not drunk on wine, but of the Spirit.” And the deified man is drunk with the love of God. St. Isaac the Syrian says:

The one who lives in love receives from God the fruit of life. He breathes even in this world the air of resurrection. Love is the kingdom; such is the wine which gladdens the heart of man.

Sometimes people, even well-intended people, use that psalm about wine which gladdens the heart of man as a justification to knock back a few every once in a while, and that’s okay, but ultimately, there is another wine, and the wine that gladdens the heart of man is the wine that makes us drunk, inebriated, with the love of God. St. John of the Ladder says:

Love is an abyss of light, a fountain of fire. The more it flows, the more burning the thirst for it becomes. That is why love is an everlasting progression.

So ultimately purification, illumination, deification—it’s not the pursuit of enlightenment; it’s the pursuit of love: the love of God. It is the pursuit of a spiritual marriage, loving and receiving love. It is the marriage-feast, love being the wine that’s set forth on God’s table. In the deified man, it’s the man who is bathed in the light of God’s love to the point that it radiates from him. St. Isaac of Syria says:

God’s love is by its nature warmth. When it lights on someone without any limit, it plunges his soul into ecstasy. That is why the heart of one who has felt it cannot bear to be deprived of it, but he gradually undergoes a strange alteration in proportion to the love that enters into him. These are the signs of that love: His face becomes inflamed with joy, and his body is filled with warmth. Fear and shame desert him as if he had gone outside of himself.

He’s like a lunatic. Death is a joy to him.

He no longer has normal awareness or natural sight. He no longer knows what he’s doing. Although he continues to act, he acts as if his mind were suspended in contemplation. His thoughts are [in] a continual dialogue with the Other.

This is the description of the Paul who says, “I know a man who was caught up into the third heaven, whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know.”

The deified man is enraptured by the love of God, and the love that flows through him into all the world. In this rapture we can understand why St. Silouan could weep for the demons. We can begin to understand how St. Silouan could pray for the devil. We can even understand how it’s possible to love our enemies and pray for them. For when the love of God permeates us, in the deified man, there is no separation. He experiences God in all things, and he can no longer see anything or anyone as apart from himself. St. Isaac of Nineveh says:

The sign of those who have reached perfection is that even if they were to throw themselves into the fire ten times a day for the sake of humanity, they would not be satisfied.

When we understand that this deification process is the love of God permeating every aspect of the deified man, we can understand the sacredness of relics. We can see them as the human remains of deified men and women so filled with the love of God that it permeated and altered their bodies.

The monk Zachary entered the cell of Abba Silvanus, and found him in total ecstasy, his arms outstretched to heaven. Then Zachary watched Silvanus remain in this state hour after hour, until finally Zachary returned and found the abbot still and at peace. Zachary says to Abba Silvanus, “How are you today, Father?” And [Abba Silvanus] answered, “I was carried up into heaven, and I saw the glory of God, and I stayed there until just now, and now I am dissolved.”

When immersed in this love, St. Isaac of Nineveh says, “Our limbs melt. Our spirit is outside of itself. Our heart is carried away by God.” For the deified man, resurrection has already begun. From his work, The Fifteen Homilies, Pseudo-Macarius says:

Just as the body of the Lord was glorified on the mountain when it was transfigured in the glory of God and in infinite light, so the bodies of the saints will be glorified and shine like lightning.

Christ says, “The glory which thou hast given me I have given them.” We sing it every Liturgy in the Great Doxology: “In thy light we shall see light.”

Brothers and sisters, I hope we can begin to perceive the hope to which we’ve been called. I hope we can begin to perceive the richness of his inheritance in the saints. God has become incarnate. He has joined himself to us. We are members of his body which is the Church, the fullness of him. It is in his Church that we are given the exceedingly great riches that make our purification, illumination, and deification possible. We work out our salvation in God’s Church through the God-given mysteries, the sanctification of time, the communion of the saints—those already deified.  The gift of God’s Church is the gift of Eden, reopened to you, and the fruit of Eden is made available to you, that is, communion with God. You and I are called to be participants in the life of God.

Deification is the passage of our humanity from created things to uncreated things. Man partakes of God’s uncreated divine energies in a process that never ends, because we can never assimilate the Source itself. We said at the beginning that this path of purification, illumination, and deification is a path of sweat, of effort, of falling and rising again. In our weaknesses it seems impossible, but Christ declares to you, “The kingdom of God is within you.” St. Isaac of Nineveh exhorts us to continue to fight the good fight:

Purify yourself, and you will see heaven in yourself (he says). Purify yourself, and you will see angels and their brightness, and you will see their Master with them and in them.

The spiritual homeland of the person whose soul has been purified is within. The sun that shines there is the light of the Trinity. The air that is breathed there is the Holy Spirit. Within the deified person, in their life, their joy, their cause for celebration is the light of Christ. Such a person rejoices every hour in the contemplation of his soul and marvels at the beauty that appears. For the deified man, there is no separation in the life that is and the life that is to come.

The light that is Mount Tabor begins to shine, and the light of Mount Tabor becomes the light of the Resurrection, and the light of the Resurrection becomes the light of the glorious Second Coming of Christ. Maximus the Confessor says:

The Word comes to dwell in the saints and imprints in them in advance a mystery: the form of his future advent as an icon.

Within the heart of the deified man is the icon of the second and glorious coming of Christ. St. Maximus says we have within our heart not just the hope of the second coming, but an icon of it, written onto our very hearts. We experience the joy of the future in the present. We live in that place which is to come, that place which in the words of Augustine:

There in peace we shall see that it is he who is God.

Created anew in him and made perfect in a more plentiful grace, we shall see in that eternal rest that it is he who is God. It is he with whom we shall be filled, because he will be all in all.

That day will be our sabbath, and it will have no ending. There we will be at peace, and we shall see. We shall see, and we shall love, and we shall love, and we shall worship.

Brothers and sisters, shall we wait on heaven or shall we enter into it now? Shall we live our lives waiting to be freed from the shackles of this world, or shall we take the kingdom of God by force? Over the past few weeks, we’ve spoken about the steps and pathways of purification. We’ve caught a glimpse of what it means to experience illumination, and tonight we’ve said a very few things about deification. These things are not relegated to the world of esoteric theological discussion. They are not things from a time and place past. They are the God-given pathway to salvation.

Your journey will consist of your own personal, individual steps. God will guide you in your particular circumstance, but the pathway is clear, tried and true. You cannot fail, because Christ is both the path and the destination. Your journey is toward him, in him. Being both the path and the destination, he will guide you; he will give you strength. It’s not a matter of whether you will succeed. It’s a matter of whether you have the faith and courage to begin.

I ask your forgiveness for my stumblings and for my failures in trying to share this path with you the last few weeks, and I would ask you to pray for me. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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