Fr. Stephen Rogers is the priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. He gave a series of 9 talks at the parish on Orthodox Spirituality concentrating on Purification, Illumination, and Deification.
O heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the Treasury of good things and Giver of life, come and abide in us; cleanse us from every stain; and save our souls, O Good One.
St. Gregory Nazianzen, one of the great theologians of the fourth century, calls out to us over the centuries and exhorts us with the following. To quote St. Gregory: “Let us not remain what we are, but let us become what we once were.” And from St. Peter, the chief of the apostles, through the first-century voice of our patron, St. Ignatius of Antioch, from Irenaeus of the second century through the great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century, of the great Desert Fathers of the fifth century, Maximus the Confessor of the sixth century to John of Damascus and John of The Ladder in the ninth century, from Gregory Palamas in the 14th century to St. Silouan in the 20th century—the great Fathers of our Orthodox Church have echoed this exhortation of St. Gregory, reminding us and ever pointing us to the truth, that by God’s grace we can become much more than we are.
We can, in fact, become what we were created to be. And that will be the topic of our talks in the coming weeks: purification, illumination, and deification: Orthodox spirituality. For indeed, for us Orthodox, the ultimate goal of man is deification. It is the purpose of our creation; it is the purpose of the Incarnation: that man might be deified. St. Athanasius the Great, in his masterwork, On the Incarnation, states, “God became man so that man might become god.” St. Basil the Great states, “Man was created with the vocation to become god.” St. Irenaeus proclaims:
It was necessary in the first place for human beings to be created, and having been created, to grow, and having grown, to become adult, and having become adult, to multiply, and having multiplied, to become strong, and having become strong, to be glorified, and having been glorified, to see their Lord.
St. Gregory of Nyssa: “Humanity was called to life in order to share in the divine nature.”
With one voice, the great Fathers of the Church proclaim that man was created in God’s image, with the potential and the means to grow into his likeness. The biblical account of our humanity tells the sad story of our rejection of that purpose, and through our disobedience, losing our purpose and becoming subject to sin and death. In that state of sin and subjugation to death, man is powerless in his own effort to restore the image which had fallen. But when the fullness of time had come, God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life, the everlasting life that consists of growing in the likeness of God through intimate communion with him.
And unlike some Protestant confessions that proclaim the Calvinistic teaching of man’s total depravity, the Orthodox Fathers teach us that fallen man is distorted and disfigured, not totally depraved. And the goal of Orthodox spiritual life, made possible by the Incarnation, is not only to restore the image of God within us, but also to attain the likeness of God in Christ.
For Orthodox anthropology, image and likeness have different meanings. Image may be seen as the inherent potential in man, bestowed by God for sanctification, while likeness refers to its perfection. And going from image to likeness infers a movement from our potential to the actualization, the realization of that potential. The restoration of that image and likeness of God was made possible by the Incarnation and the saving grace of God. How many times in our Orthodox hymnody do we hear the words that Christ came to restore the image that has fallen? Christ restores the image, and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit makes possible the increase in likeness. Therefore, St. Seraphim of Sarov states that the goal of every Christian is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
To understand what it means to be partakers of the divine nature, to understand what deification means, we must understand a critically important distinction expressed in Orthodox theology, the distinction between God’s essence and God’s divine energies, both of which are aspects of the uncreated, divine nature of God. God in his essence remains transcendent, ineffable, inaccessible, incommunicable. However, in his divine energies, which emanate from him and are inseparable from his nature, God communicates himself and grants divine life which sustains and sanctifies not only man but all of creation. Man is called to be a partaker of these divine energies, the divine nature. That is, we are to participate in the uncreated divine energies, not the divine essence.
Echoing the teachings of his spiritual father, St. Silouan, Elder Sophrony states, “Since grace is God’s uncreated energy, the Orthodox understand it as divinity. The grace that is divinity hallows man, divinizes him.” This deification, this partaking of the divine nature, this acquisition of the Holy Spirit, will be the topic of our talks.
But it must be stated at the beginning that what we are going to discuss is difficult, and it is hard. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us before we can become a knower, we must become a doer. Pseudo-Macarius says, “Most of us want to possess the kingdom of God, but without effort and sweat this is impossible.” So in these next few weeks, what we are talking about will be more about doing than simply learning. Our topic and the approach to it is ascetic rather than academic. And again, St. Maximus tells us that asceticism is the slaying of death within us to liberate our nature from its bondage. It will be important for us to keep in mind and never lose sight of the fact that asceticism is not an end unto itself. Leading a disciplined life is not perfection in and of itself, but only a means to it. St. Cassian the Roman states:
Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection. Perfection is not to be found in them, but acquired in them.
And I can fast all day, I can read Scripture all day, but at the end of that day, if I am proud of the fact that I have done it, or rely on the fact that I have done it, I have not practiced true asceticism.
Then we often incorrectly correlate ascetical practices to constraints being placed on us, restrictions, limitations. For, after all, fasting is a denial of certain things. We can see liturgical participation as an obligation, structured prayers as a legalism. But, again, St. Maximus reveals the truth, that asceticism is the pathway to liberation, not bondage; to freedom, not restriction. And the spirit of the world would tempt us with the lie that unbridled liberty, the liberty to pursue our passions, is what true freedom is all about, but the truth is unbridled passions and the pursuit of them are a sure way to slavery, not freedom.
And so the ascetical approach is not one of negation. It is not the elimination of our nature. The Orthodox spiritual path doesn’t have the goal of some sort of fusion of self into the Godhead, but rather the actualization of self through the incarnation of God within us. For the absolute transcendence of the divine is made knowable through the Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity. The goal in our spiritual quest as Orthodox Christians is not to reach a place of enlightenment. It’s not the effort to transcend the world and its cares. Our goal is not a place nor a state of being; our goal is a Person. Our goal is the Person of Jesus Christ and the transformation that takes place in us in him.
From the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
For thou art God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, ever the same. Thou it was who did bring us from nonexistence into being, and when we had fallen away, did raise us up again and did not cease to do all things until thou had brought us back to heaven.
Christ is the bridge stretching from heaven to man. To quote Scripture:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things. [Colossians 1:19-20]
“There is one Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus,” the book of 2 Timothy tells us. He who wants to move toward God must take hold of his incarnation Son. We are not simply saved by Christ; we are saved in Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me” [Galatians 2:20]. “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” [Galatians 3:27].
God draws no closer to man than in the Person of Jesus Christ. St. Gregory of Nyssa says:
He being God has united himself with our nature in order that, by that union with the divine, it might become divine. With his return from death, our mortal race begins its return to immortal life.
So ultimately our discussion on Orthodox spirituality, our discussion of purification, illumination, and deification is a discussion about life in Christ. As we begin our discussions, there are a number of theological presumptions from which the discussions will flow, and throughout the discussions they will be presumed and touched upon, but they’re outside the scope of our discussions to delve into in great detail. And so behind all of our discussions is this theological bedrock, and these presuppositions must be accepted and understood for these discussions to have any reality.
Therefore, the theological presumptions which serve as underpinnings for the content of our discussions are the following. First, the Trinitarian God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the ground and source of all being. God created man and all the cosmos, and he sustains that creation by his will, and created man from the beginning to live in communion with him by creating man in the image and likeness of God. Secondly, while man’s substance is derived from the dust of the ground, the same physical substance is all of creation. God uniquely endowed man with soul and spirit, which makes possible communion with God and eternal life. Thirdly, every human being is created autonomous and free, in the image of God in order to become, through the intentional acquisition of God’s likeness, a child and heir of the kingdom of God. The pursuit of God’s grace that makes this likeness possible is completely an act of man’s free will.
Fourth, because of God’s love for mankind, he desires the welfare and salvation of all men, that not one of them may perish, but that all may come to the knowledge of the truth. Fifth, man from the beginning was unable to live up to his potential, and through disobedience altered the state of his nature to be subject to death and sin. Sixth, man in his fallen state is incapable of restoring himself to his original state and is in need of divine intervention and reconciliation. Seven, in the fullness of time, God initiated this process of reconciliation through the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity, the eternally begotten Son, who becomes the only Savior and Redeemer of mankind. And then finally, it is [by] man’s response through a personal recognition of the Son of God as the Redeemer of mankind that man is saved. So on those presuppositions and those foundational truths, we proceed.
Christ proclaims to us through his word, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” God has provided a way, and is the way, to union with him. And the holy Fathers of our Church have followed that way, and in the coming weeks we will hopefully be guided by St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John of The Ladder, Evagrius of Pontus, Isaac and Ephraim of Syria, and other great ascetical Fathers, as we pursue this path, the path that was desired by St. Paul for the churches that he established. He prays for the Church at Ephesus:
Till we come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect Man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. [Ephesians 4:13]
The process of union with God, with deification, is moving from Orthodoxy as right knowledge to Orthodoxy as right glory. Paul says to the Ephesians:
I do not cease giving thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation and the knowledge of him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that you may know the hope of his calling, what are the riches of his inheritance in the saints. [Ephesians 1:16-18]
To the Church at Colossae, he says:
I do not cease to pray for you and ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will and all wisdom and spiritual understanding. [Colossians 1:9]
And so this pathway we are going to discuss, this pathway of purification, illumination, and deification, is the pathway that leads to the experience of and the participation in the divine energies of God: to be partakers of the divine nature, to live life in Christ, to know, as Paul said, “what are the riches of his glory.” It was deification that Paul desired for his flock. And while these stages of purification, illumination, and deification are hierarchical and build upon themselves, they are not exclusive, one to another. In other words, illumination does not bring an end to purification. In fact, illumination brings about the desire and pursuit of even more purification. Deification does not bring an end to illumination. In all of them there is no culmination, for the spiritual path is one of movement toward the infinite and can therefore never reach its end.
We can see a correlation in this process of purification, illumination, and deification in the lives of the apostles. First came purification: there was their discipleship, their calling, their struggles, their repentance, their hardships, their denials, their failures. The time of learning who Christ is and what it means to follow him. Then came their illumination, that moment on Mt. Tabor when they experienced the divinity of Christ, the glory of God externally, shining forth from the human Jesus Christ. But we know from the scriptural account, even after experiencing this illumination, there were still moments where purification was needed. There was still denial; there was still struggle. But after that illumination on Mt. Tabor when they saw the glory of God externally came deification on the day of Pentecost, that moment when the divine energies of God were experienced from within them, emanated from within them.
And so by God’s grace he has provided this same pathway for each of us who believe in him: purification through discipleship and obedience; illumination, the experience of the divine energies of God in all places, filling all things; and finally deification, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which brings about direct communion with God through participation in his divine energies.
So the holy Fathers tell us that the beginning of this path is purification. In Psalm 50, that great psalm of repentance and renewal which is so much a part of our Orthodox prayer life, King David prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew in me a steadfast spirit.” David desires that his heart might be purified so that he could return home to God after suffering the alienating effects of sin. And in the great spiritual works of the Orthodox Church, the voice of the great spiritual warriors all attest in unison that our return to God begins with our purification.
And this purification which is an act of God’s grace coupled with our will and our efforts, this working-out of our salvation encompasses a number of things. This process of purification includes renunciation, a change of relationship between us and the world. It involves repentance, a recognition of our own sinfulness. It involves a return, a sincere desire to amend our ways. It involves obedience, submission to something other than our own will. It involves action, the practice of virtue and good works. It involves conversation and ongoing dialogue with God in prayer. And it involves participation, participation in the community of God’s Church in its sacramental and liturgical life.
All of these things—renunciation, repentance, return, obedience, action, conversation, and participation—are part of the purification process that restores the image that has fallen.
The Fathers show us that if we wish to draw close to God, if we wish to be a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, then we must become pure. We just heard earlier: “Blessed are the pure [of heart, for they shall] see God.” It is important that we see this process of purification for what it is. It is purification, not good-ification. It is not simply seeking good standing with God by behaving ourselves. It is seeking communion with him. It is seeking, as we said earlier, to be saved in Christ, not simply be saved by him. It is an emptying that must take place in order that we might be filled.
So if this purification process is the beginning of our journey toward God, then that begs the question: From what must we be purified? What is it within us that must be removed in order for us to draw closer to God, to see God, and be in God? Again, the Fathers are unanimous in their instructions: We must be purified from our passions. What are the passions? St. Maximus the Confessor says, “Our passions are the lowest level of our human nature.” It is enslavement by the sensual aspects of our being. The Greek root for passion is pathē, which means to be enslaved. Thus, a pathological person is a person whose mind is enslaved. The Latin for passion is passiones, to be passive, to have no power. Couple the Greek and Latin meanings together and you have what definition of passion? The passionate person, then, is one who is in a powerless enslavement to their senses.
St. Maximus further elaborates that passions are an unquenchable thirst created by man’s desire for the infinite, turned in the wrong direction toward the finite. Our passions then are misdirected desires which enslave us and make us powerless. Man was created by God to commune with God. Man was created with an intrinsic desire to commune with the infinite. Man was placed in paradise by God so that that communion could take place through all of man’s faculties: the mind, the spirit, the physical senses. In his classic work, Defense of the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus sets forth the following description of paradise. Quoting St. John:
This divine paradise planted by God’s hand in Eden was a treasure-house of all gladness and rejoicing. For Eden means “delight.” Set in the East and higher than all the earth, temperate—
We could use some of that right now, couldn’t we?
—temperate and radiant with the light and most-pure air, decked about with plants always in bloom, full of fragrance, flooded with light, surpassing any conception of fairness and beauty, it was truly a divine place and a worthy dwelling-place for one made in the image of God.
And while St. John, following the commentary of other Fathers, makes it very clear that paradise, that Eden, was a physical place experienced by the physical senses, he also goes on to say it was more than that. Again quoting St. John of Damascus:
Just as the human being was created at once to be sensual and intellectual, so this most-sacred precinct, Eden, had a double significance, both sensible and intellectual. For as he dwelt in his body in a most divine and fair place, so in his soul he lived in a transcendent and incomparably beautiful place. Having the indwelling of God as his house and wearing him as a most-noble garment, wrapped about with his grace, delighting in the most-sweet fruit that is divine contemplation. Like one of the angels and nourished by it. This is called the Tree of Life, for the sweetness of divine participation communicates a life never cut short by death to those who partake of it.
St. John of Damascus so beautifully articulates to us that there was a double portion of grace in paradise. There was the grace of the physical and the grace of the spiritual experience that led to communion with God. But we all know the story: Satan comes along and tempts mankind to see the created world, not as an icon of God’s grace, but something to be delighted in and possessed for its own sake. And the evil one portrays the created order not as a means of communion with God, but as a means of self-sufficiency, a way to be God. And the apple is held out as good for food, as a delight to the eyes, and man chooses to consume it and to possess it for his own.
And in that temptation, Adam sees the world through carnal eyes. “Eat it and you will become like God,” the evil one says. Satan’s continual lie is that the world and the things of the world are the path to deification, to fulfillment. And we choose to attempt to fulfill our intrinsic need and desire to commune with God with the desire to possess and commune with the world. In our fallenness, we choose the finite and reject the infinite. The scriptural witness to this reality, Romans 1:
For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish thoughts were darkened. And professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corrupted man and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness in the lust of their hearts to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.
Mankind chose to see the created order as something to be possessed, to be controlled, rather than something through which to experience communion with God.
On the final Sunday before our entrance into Great Lent, we contemplate the casting out of Adam from paradise, and I want to quote the hymnody from Great Vespers from that Sunday at length, because the words capture so well what is being conveyed. From the hymnody of the Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise, spoken from the perspective of Adam:
The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth and formed me into a living creature, breathing into me the breath of life and giving me a soul. He honored me, setting me as ruler upon the earth over all things visible and making me a companion of the angels, but Satan the deceiver, using the serpent as his instrument, enticed me by food. He parted me from the glory of God and gave me over to the earth.
In my wretchedness I have cast off my robe woven by God, disobeying the divine command, O Lord, at the counsel of the enemy. I am now clothed in fig leaves and garments of skin. I am condemned to eat the bread of toil and the sweat of my brow, and the earth has been cursed so that it bears thorns and thistles for me.
O precious paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints, with the sound of thy leaves, pray to the Maker of all, that he may open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may he count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.
So in our fallen nature we have chosen to seek fulfillment and meaning in the finite, the world of objects, the possession of things, and these objects cannot satisfy for the very reason that they are finite. Our passions, then, are the manifestations of our fallen nature, gobbling up objects, desiring them, consuming them, but being left with nothing, because once they’re consumed, they no longer exist and we’re left with nothing except the unquenchable desire to possess more. And envy, jealousy, anger, resentment, lust, greed, dishonesty—all the passions spring from our desire to possess, to control, or out of our fear of not possessing. Listen carefully to this analysis by St. Maximus.
Replacing the thirst for the infinite for the first thirst for finite things, we live ruled by the senses. So the more a man lives by the senses, concerned only with the knowledge of the visible, the more ignorant he becomes of God. And the more ignorant he becomes of God, the more he is engrossed in the tasting of the senses of material things. And the more he consumes material things, the more the passionate love of self is enflamed within him. And the more he cultivates this love of self, the more pleasures he invents as the fruit and goal of self-love.
St. Maximus is saying as we spiral more and more into self-love and the pursuit of pleasure, deep within us remains the desire for the infinite, so no matter how hard we pursue the passions, we’re left unsatisfied and we find ourselves at war with ourselves, constantly seeking to acquire but never ever satisfied. And this constant warfare leads to anxiety, apathy, and a spiritual sloth almost impossible to overcome. We know the pursuit is hopeless, yet we’re so enslaved to our passions we’re powerless to combat them. So our reason is enslaved, and it starts to justify. “Professing to be wise, they became fools,” the Scriptures tell us. We’re caught in this bondage expressed by St. Paul in the book of Romans:
For I delight in the law of God, according to the inward man, but I see another law in my members warring against the law in my mind and bringing me into captivity in the law of sin, which is in my members, O wretched man that I am!
In this war, this insatiable desire for the infinite, misdirected toward the acquisition of the finite, creates within us a spiritual, emotional schizophrenia that leads to despair and hopelessness. If we find ourselves in this state, what then is the first step? How do we begin this process of purification from the passions? In his classic work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus echoes what many of the great ascetics of all ages have proclaimed. The first step in our purification is renunciation. St. John says, “Those who enter this contest must renounce all things, despise all things, deride all things, and shake off all things.”
And not only must we renounce the world, but we must do it for the right reason. St. John says, “The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense that begins in fragrance and ends up in smoke. He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone.” In other words, he revolves around himself. St. John says, “But he who renounces the world for the glory of God has obtained fire from the very outset, and like fuel set to fire, soon kindles a greater fire.”
So we begin by renouncing the world. “Stop right there,” you say. “I’m not a monk. I have a job. I have a family. I have responsibilities. And I’m asked to renounce the world? Stop right there.” And so I will, and we’ll talk about renunciation of the world next week.