Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and after they had climbed a high mountain, something amazing happened. The face of Jesus "shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light."1 This account of the transfiguration of Christ became a key text when patristic writers, and specifically the Greek Fathers of the Church, attempted to understand and explain the doctrine of theosis, or salvation as human divinization.2 The transfiguration was interpreted as a revelation illustrating what happens when a human body is divinized, when it participates "in the divine nature."3 In the words of St. Gregory Palamas (1296—1359), it was a revelation of "what we once were and what we are to be" when deified by Christ.4 These gospel passages were also significant because they so handily encapsulated a number of issues central to the content and experience of theosis: the unearthly light which emanated from Christ's body, the vision of that light by human persons, the relationship between divinity and humanity, and, at the center of it all, the person of Christ himself.
From the very beginnings of the Church the centrality of Christ has been recognized; he is the one who makes salvation—human divinization—a possibility. Two classic texts which come from the early centuries of the Church clearly demonstrate this belief. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130—c. 202)—who had known St. Polycarp, who had known the Apostles5—wrote, "the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is."6 St. Athanasius of Alexandria (295—373) also explained that "God became man, so that we might be made gods."7 Thus, at the root and core of the doctrine of theosis was not only a belief in the centrality of Christ but also the belief that he makes theosis possible precisely because he is both God and human. Before proceeding, then, to analyze Christ's divinized humanity, it will be useful to first back up and present the patristic doctrines on the nature of God and the nature of the human person. After having done that, it will become possible to adequately discuss the divinization of human nature which Christ accomplished in his person and what the implications are for human persons who can thus become divinized themselves.
The fundamental teaching regarding the nature of God is the doctrine of the Trinity: that the three divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are the one God. The source and guarantee of their oneness is the monarchy of the Father. The Father is the source of divinity for the Son and Holy Spirit: the Son is eternally begotten by the Father while the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father.8 While each divine person is uncreated and eternal, transcending the created categories of time and space, it is the Father alone who is the unbegotten source of divinity; the terms begotten and proceeding are used in reference to the Son and Holy Spirit to indicate that while they both receive their divinity from the Father they are, nevertheless, distinct persons. Thus there is order in the Trinity without subordination.
Another way of expressing the doctrine of the Trinity is to say that there is one divine nature and three divine hypostases.9 Nature answers the question of "what"; hypostasis answers the question of "who."10 Hence, there is one God, one "what," because one divine nature, and there are three divine persons, three "whos," because each possesses the fullness of the divine nature. The eminent theologian Vladimir Lossky explains it this way:
There is no partition or division of nature among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Hypostases are not three parts of a whole, of the one nature, but each includes in Himself the whole divine nature.11
And beyond the real distinction between nature and person in God is the distinction between essence and energy.
The reason for distinguishing between essence and energy in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is to preserve the following antinomy: on the one hand, God is uncreated and wholly transcendent, unknowable, and unparticipable; on the other hand, God has spoken to his creatures, is wholly immanent, knowable, and participable.12 Lossky again offers a masterful synopsis, this time on the difference between essence and energies in God:
Moreover, distinction is not separation: it does not divide God into knowable and unknowable. God reveals Himself, totally gives Himself in His energies, and remains totally unknowable and incommunicable in His essence. He remains identical in these two modes of existence: the same, and at the same time, different. . . . If one must distinguish in God essence and that which is not essence, that is precisely because God is not limited by His essence. He is more than essence, if He is truly the living God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, the Holy Trinity—and not the God of the philosophers and the scholars.13
Furthermore, it needs to be noted that the energies of God are not a consequence of the divine activities of creation or revelation; the energies are an eternal aspect of the divine nature. God is always and forever both unknowable (a function of God's essence) and knowable (a function of God's energies).14
If God is essentially unknowable and unparticipable, that is because he is eternal and uncreated, wholly other and different from anything which has been created, which has been brought into being from nonbeing. The essence/energies distinction helps to emphasize the fact that what God is by nature, what God is essentially, cannot be shared or participated in by any creature or created reality.15 Only the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit possess—can possess—the divine nature essentially because only they are eternal and uncreated persons. By definition, any created reality can share in the divine nature only through God's divine energies. But, given what was said before by Lossky, to share in the divine energies is to possess God himself as he communicates himself to creatures. In sum, the energies of God are the uncreated God himself as he communicates himself to created beings. Ultimately this antinomic doctrine of the divine energies will become supremely important when discussing in what way created human nature can become divinized.
As with God, one can distinguish between person16 and nature in a human being. Person answers the question of "who," while nature answers the question of "what." In other words:
"Person" signifies the irreducibility of man to his nature—"irreducibility" and not "something irreducible" or "something which makes man irreducible to his nature" precisely because it cannot be a question here of "something" distinct from "another nature" but of someone who is distinct from his own nature, of someone who goes beyond his nature while still containing it, who makes it exist as human nature by this overstepping and yet does not exist in himself beyond the nature which he "enhypostasizes" [or personalizes] and which he constantly exceeds.17
Furthermore, strictly speaking, persons act, natures do not: persons act through their nature. Since a human person is one who possesses a human nature, a human person will act in a human way.
There are two distinct elements which make up human nature: a material element (the body) and an immaterial element (the soul). However, a human person does not possess two natures, one material and the other immaterial. Rather, the human person has one nature which is composite, containing both a material and an immaterial element.18
Matter, in its origin, was created out of nothing and each human soul is created out of nothing. Therefore, a human person is created when matter, which most immediately comes from parents, is vivified by a human soul. Thus a human person is a created hypostasis—as opposed to the uncreated hypostases of the Trinity—forever dependent on God for being and life.19
Although in essence the human person is ontologically20 different from God, the human person has nevertheless been created for communion with God, for divinization: to become by grace or free gift what God is by nature, essentially.21 This possibility for divinization is summarized by the Greek Fathers of the Church through reference to the statement in Genesis22 that human beings are created in God's "image and likeness."
The image, or to use the Greek term the icon, of God signifies our human free will, our reason, our sense of moral responsibility—everything, in short, which marks us out from the animal creation and makes each of us a person. But the image means more than that. It means that we are God's 'offspring' (Acts xvii, 28), His kin; it means that between us and Him there is a point of contact and similarity. The gulf between creature and Creator is not impassible, for because we are in God's image we can know God and have communion with Him. And if we make proper use of this faculty for communion with God, then we will become 'like' God, we will acquire the divine likeness; in the words of John Damascene, we will be 'assimilated to God through virtue.' To acquire the likeness is to be deified, it is to become a 'second god,' a 'god by grace.'23
Thus "image" refers to what is given, the human reality, whereas "likeness" refers to what is potential. The "image of God" is potential likeness, and "likeness" is realized image.24
If the primordial man, Adam, was created in the "image and likeness of God," this means that from his first moment of existence he was in relationship with God, he had the gift and companionship of the Holy Spirit.25 Adam was in the process of progressing and of being divinized, of acquiring the divine likeness. But then Adam sinned.
The real content of Adam's "original sin" consisted in the fact that Adam attempted to "become a god without God"; he was disobedient.26 As a result of Adam's sin he lost the companionship of the Holy Spirit and his progression stopped. He could no longer be divinized, attain the divine likeness. But more resulted than just this inability to actualize the image of God within him; the image of God itself was "tarnished . . . man's reason was obscured, his will weakened."27
Through sin Adam became subject to emotional discord, suffering, sickness, and death.28 Adam's human existence became unnatural, less than natural. Having been created in communion with God, to lose this relationship and to exist without it signified an "inhuman" existence.29 What Adam transmitted to his children was not the guilt of his sin; that was his alone. Instead, his descendants inherit the consequences of his sin: a corruptible, mortal nature, separated from God, which is inclined to sin.30 "[Adam's sin] spread from his soul to his body, and from his body to the bodies which derived from his, and from those bodies to the[ir] souls."31 How then could human persons once again enjoy the companionship of the Holy Spirit? How would the image of God be healed so that humans could once more progress and realize their divine potential? This would require the work and ministry of a new Adam, a second Adam—Jesus the Christ.
For the first time, Christ, in his very person, accomplished the divinization of human nature.32 To understand how this occurred, one must first reflect on Christ's divinity. Before Christ's incarnation, that is, before he became human, he was the preexistent, uncreated, eternal Son of God, one of the members of the Trinity. Thus, before mortality, Christ is a divine person—an uncreated hypostasis who possesses a divine nature. What occurred then at the moment of Christ's incarnation—his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary—was that he assumed to himself a created human nature, a body and a soul, and personalized or enhypostasized it.33 After the incarnation the Son of God, an eternal, uncreated divine person, possesses two natures: an uncreated divine nature and a created human nature.34 The separation between divinity and humanity is forever abolished in the person of the Son of God. The same person is both human and divine.35
A further consequence of the incarnation is that the Son of God, called Jesus Christ after his incarnation/assumption of a human nature, possesses a human nature which has been divinized. The "image of God" is not only healed but it is actualized, the "likeness" is attained. This comes about because the energies of Christ's divine nature completely interpenetrate his human nature.36 In other words, the incarnation does not result in an obliteration of Christ's human nature. Nor does his human nature merge with the divine nature to produce something which is a mixture of the two natures. Instead, Christ shows that the divinization of human nature means that human nature is perfected—what was meant to occur in the first Adam has been realized in the second Adam. Communion is restored in the person of Christ between humanity and divinity.
The humanity of Christ is wholly united to God precisely because it is God's own humanity. Recalling that natures do not act, but that persons act through their natures, we can say that, since Christ is God who now possesses a created human nature, God learns, suffers, feels pain, even dies—but not because of his divine nature but through his human nature. Likewise, Christ can heal and raise the dead—but not because of his human nature but through his divine nature. The same person possesses distinct yet inseparable natures because they are the natures of one single person: the eternal Logos, the second person of the Trinity, who after the incarnation is called Jesus Christ and who can, precisely because of the incarnation, act both by means of his uncreated divine nature as well as by his created human nature.37
All this explains the centrality of the incarnation of Christ in the teachings of the Greek Fathers of the Church.
Everything that Christ did throughout His earthly life was based on the presupposition that humanity was already saved and deified, from the very moment of His conception in the womb of Mary. . . . Therefore, salvation, as life in communion with God, is already present in Christ's humanity on the basis of the hypostatic [or personal] union of human and divine natures in Christ. What needs to be done, is for the other obstacles to be abolished, so that humanity (and the entire cosmos in it) may be freed from the additional consequences of the "ancestral sin" [personal sin and death].38
Ultimately, Christ overcame the obstacle of sin through his atoning suffering and death, and overcame the obstacle of death through his glorious resurrection.39 Having now considered the central role of Christ as the second Adam, it will be helpful to first revisit the scene of Christ's Transfiguration, which opened this chapter, before specifically focusing on what it means to say that a created human person is divinized.
According to the Greek Fathers of the Church, what the Apostles saw at the Transfiguration of Christ was a natural consequence of the divinization of Christ's humanity. What naturally occurs to a body that is wholly divinized, or completely interpenetrated by the divine energies of the divine nature, is that it becomes luminous and brilliant like the sun. The light which emanated from Christ's body was in fact the light of Christ's divinity—Christ's divinity which was inseparably united to his humanity, his body and soul. What the Apostles experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration was the normal state of Christ's body. At all other times the Apostles' eyes were shielded or "blinded" so that they did not see the radiance and glory of Christ's divinized humanity.40
What exactly takes place, then, when a human person is divinized? What does it mean to say that "humans become gods"? In a sense, we are to replicate in our own persons what first occurred in the person of Christ.
The human person was called, according to St. Maximus, 'to reunite by love created with uncreated nature, showing the two in unity and identity through the acquisition of grace.' The unity and identity here refer to the person, to the human hypostasis. Man is thus to reunite by grace two natures in his created hypostasis, to become 'a created god,' a 'god by grace,' in contrast to Christ who being a divine person assumed human nature.41
What is deified in Christ is His human nature assumed in its fullness by the divine person. What must be deified in us is our entire nature, belonging to our person which must enter into union with God, and become a person created in two natures: a human nature which is deified, and a nature or, rather, divine energy, that deifies.42
Like the divine Person of the Word who assumed human nature, human persons in whom union with God is being accomplished ought to unite in themselves the created and the uncreated, to become, so to speak, persons of two natures, with this difference, that Christ is a divine Person while deified men are and always will remain created persons.43
Clearly, then, human persons become "partakers of the divine nature" in a way that is existentially different from the way Christ is divine.
The supreme difference between human persons and Christ is that while humans are created persons, Christ is an uncreated person.44 What Christ is by nature, divine, we are called to be by grace or participation.
In the tradition of the Eastern Church grace usually signifies all the abundance of the divine nature, in so far as it is communicated to men; the deity which operates outside the essence and gives itself, the divine nature of which we partake through the uncreated energies.45
Recalling what was said previously regarding the real distinction in the divine nature between essence and energies, it becomes clear that Christ is divine essentially; and by definition only Christ, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, can possess the divine nature essentially, as they are the only three persons who are uncreated and eternal. Humans are, by nature, human. God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is, by nature, divine. When a human is divinized, a human is united to God's divine energies—the "'divine nature' in which humanity participates is not the essence of God but God's divine energies"—which are God himself but only insofar as God is participable.46
To paraphrase St. Maximus the Confessor (580—662), a divinized human person becomes all that God is except for identity in essence.47 In other words, a divinized human person does not cease to be human and created when participating in the uncreated and divinizing energies of God, just as Christ did not cease to be divine in essence and uncreated when he united to himself a created human nature. Timothy Ware expresses it in this way:
Nor does the human person, when it 'becomes god,' cease to be human: 'We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation.' The human being does not become God by nature, but merely a 'created god,' a god by grace or by status.48
The significance and magnitude of human divinization becomes evident when one takes into account that just as it is possible to predicate both divine and human attributes of Christ, insofar as he is one person who is both divine and human, so too it is possible to predicate divine and human attributes of a divinized human person—"for they will be by grace everything that God is by nature."49 A person who has "become a god" through union with the divine energies can be called "unoriginate and eternal," granted that one understands what one is saying.
The uncreated and imperishable grace of God dwelling in man renders him, too, imperishable, eternal and unoriginate. These bold terms, used to describe the man who through God's grace is regenerate, are not met with for the first time in [Gregory] Palamas; Maximus the Confessor had already used the same words to characterize the man who is alive in Christ and who is guided by His grace. They do not, of course, alter the basic distinction between man and God as created and Creator, but they express the truth of the genuine regeneration as experienced by the man who enters into communion with the divinizing grace, which makes him a god in every respect "save identity of essence."50
But when man shares the uncreated divinizing gift, he acquires supernatural attributes. Without ceasing to be created as regards his nature, he is nevertheless placed beyond the category of created things because of the grace within him. He is now in possession not only of his created nature but of an uncreated and indwelling grace, and he can be defined not only according to his natural characteristics but also according to the qualities of the grace dwelling within him: "He who achieves deification is fittingly defined by both: he is on the one hand unoriginate, eternal, and heavenly, as we heard just above, on account of the uncreated grace that eternally derives from the Eternal God; he is on the other a new creation and a new man and things similar to these, on account of himself and his own nature."51
Thus, a divinized person, insofar as remaining human by nature, is created; but insofar as one becomes divine by grace, united to the divine energies, then one is also, at the same time, "unoriginate and eternal."52
Finally, it needs to be noted that for human persons, divinization is both an immediate reality and a matter of progression. A person is truly divinized from the first moment they are united to God's energies; but the full transformation that divinization effects on a person will not be fully completed until after death, at the time of the resurrection of the body.53 This time of resurrection has been evocatively described by Nicholas Cabasilas:
Then each one of us can shed forth rays brighter than those of the sun. . . . A solemnity unsurpassed! A whole people of gods around their God, of beautiful creatures around him who is the Beautiful, of servants around their Master. . . . The choir of the elect, the company of the blessed. . . . Such dazzling wonder descends from the skies to earth, and suns in their turn will rise from earth to glorify the Sun of Righteousness himself . . . all is flooded with light.54
Even after the resurrection of the body, however, progress continues. Salvation is not a static reality. If the human person crosses a threshold through the divinization of the body, still a threshold is not the whole house.
Perhaps the most noteworthy writer on the subject of the eternal progression of the human person who has become a "god by grace" is the fourth-century bishop, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335— c. 395). Nearly a century and a half before Gregory's birth, however, St. Irenaeus, in his treatise Against Heresies, had begun to speak on the topic: "And those to whom He says, 'Come, you blessed of my Father, receive the Kingdom prepared for you for eternity' (Matt. 25:34), will receive the Kingdom and progress in it for ever."55 In another passage St. Irenaeus, in referring to the "age to come," speaks of how God will be "always teaching and man always learning from God."56 Gregory of Nyssa remains, nevertheless, as the great teacher on the doctrine of eternal progression.57
In his treatise The Life of Moses Gregory explains that human perfection consists in a person's eternal growth and progress in virtuous activity.
Made to desire and not to abandon the transcendent height by the things already attained, it makes its way upward without ceasing, ever through its prior accomplishments renewing its intensity for the flight. Activity directed towards virtue causes its capacity to grow through exertion; this kind of activity alone does not slaken its intensity by the effort but increases it . . . the place with [God] is so great that the one running in it is never able to cease from his progress.58
In this teaching eternal progress is rooted in the infinite nature of God. A divinized person will never stop growing and learning and doing precisely because the source of divinization, the uncreated energies of God, is limitless and infinite. Divinized persons will never exhaust God's ability to empower them for virtuous activity.59
During mortality, however, a divinized person is still subject to suffering and death. Sin is still a reality with which to contend. What then are the means for divinization to begin and progress? How is the divinization of human nature, accomplished by Christ in his person, to become a reality in our human lives? To answer that question we need to turn to another member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
The mission of Christ was to divinize human nature, to restore communion between God and humanity. As was seen above, in the subsection "Christ—The Second Adam," he did that in his person by uniting to himself human nature. But how is this divinization of human nature, accomplished in Christ, to be communicated to human persons? That is the mission of the Holy Spirit.
One may say that the work of the Spirit serves that of the Son, for it is by receiving the Spirit that human persons can bear witness in full consciousness to the divinity of Christ. The Son has become like us by the incarnation; we become like Him by deification, by partaking of the divinity in the Holy Spirit, who communicates the divinity to each person in a particular way. The redeeming work of the Son is related to our nature. The deifying work of the Holy Spirit concerns our persons. But the two are inseparable . . . ultimately they are but one dispensation of the Holy Trinity, accomplished by two Divine Persons sent by the Father into the world. This double dispensation of the Word and of the Paraclete has as its goal the union of created beings with God.60
And the Holy Spirit communicates the gift of divinization through the instrumentality of the sacraments.
The sacraments are rituals through which the grace of Christ is communicated to persons by the power of the Holy Spirit operative in their administration.61
The sacraments are created media which transmit the uncreated grace of God. Man as a created being has need of these things if he is to approach and receive the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit.62
The sacraments of the Church make it possible for man to enter freely and personally into communion with the divinizing grace which the Logos of God bestowed upon human nature in assuming it.63
"Some of the major sacraments are:" Baptism, Chrismation (or Confirmation), the Eucharist, Confession, Holy Orders (Holy Priesthood), Marriage, and Oil of the Sick.64 Two of these seven, however, Baptism and the Eucharist, are regarded as preeminent and are the key sacraments for the divinization of the human person.65 "The two chief sacraments, according to [Gregory] Palamas, are those of the Holy Eucharist and of Baptism, and on them depends man's salvation."66 For the sake of economy, discussion of the sacraments will thus be limited to brief overviews of Baptism and Eucharist.67
As noted above, through natural descent we inherit our human nature. The fallen humanity of Adam which is liable to suffering, disorder, and death is what we receive at birth. On the other hand, the humanity of Christ is a divinized one, a reality which occurred at the incarnation. There needs to be a way for human persons to join their human natures to the already divinized human nature of Christ so that we can become "one body" with Christ to counteract the effects of the nature we share with Adam. This new way or new birth is the sacrament of Baptism.68 The sacrament of Baptism is received when a person is immersed three times in water (or has water poured over him or her three times) and invocation of the Trinity is made: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."69 Through Baptism one's personal sins are forgiven, and one is brought into relationship with Christ, united to the divine energies which flow from Christ to the newly baptized person. At Baptism, while the soul is immediately divinized in an invisible way, the body is divinized by way of promise and hope.70 In this sense, Baptism divinizes one immediately while also placing one on a path that leads to continued progression and growth in divinizing grace since, as was noted above, human divinization is both immediate and a process that is only fully realized at the resurrection of the body when one's body is divinized—experiences the full effects of divinization—as well.
Through baptismal grace that which is "in the image" is purified and brightened and acquires the power to achieve likeness to God, or deification, which the fall had made impossible.71
The key point regarding Baptism is that it is the sacrament which unites a person to Christ; by it "life in Christ" begins, and through union with Christ's divinized humanity we begin to partake of the divinizing energies of God.72
In the sacrament of the Eucharist a person receives the bread and wine, which have been consecrated by a man holding the priesthood to become the body and blood of Christ. Thus, in the Eucharist, when a person consumes the consecrated bread and wine, that person is receiving into his or her bodies the person of Christ himself.73
That of which we partake [the sacrament of the Eucharist] is not something of His, but [Christ] Himself. It is not some ray of light which we receive in our souls, but the very orb of the sun. So we dwell in Him and are indwelt and become one spirit with Him. The soul and the body all their faculties forthwith become spiritual, for our souls, our bodies and blood, are united with His. . . . What a thing it is for Christ's mind to be mingled with ours, our will to be blended with His, our body with His Body and our blood with His Blood!74
By way of more clearly understanding what takes place through reception of the Eucharist, it helps to recall the meaning underlying the Transfiguration.
Christ's body is divinized because it is completely interpenetrated by the energies of his divine nature. By receiving the Eucharist again and again a person is progressively divinized more and more through a union with Christ that is accomplished by means of union with his divinized body. In other words, the divine energies which interpenetrate Christ's body interpenetrate ours as well whenever we become one with Christ's body through receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist.75
In addition to the reception of the sacraments—the most significant of which are Baptism and Eucharist—prayer, obedience to the commandments, and ongoing repentance are also crucial elements in the life of a person who is gradually being transformed and shaped by the divinizing energies of God. St. Maximus the Confessor expressed it in this way:
The Logos [Jesus Christ] bestows adoption on us when He grants us that birth and deification which, transcending nature, comes by grace from above through the Spirit. The guarding and preservation of this in God depends on the resolve of those thus born: on their sincere acceptance of the grace bestowed on them and, through the practice of the commandments, on their cultivation of the beauty given to them by grace.76
This doctrine of divine-human cooperation in the process of divinization is termed "synergy."77
While the doctrine of synergy is meant to underscore the need for human acceptance and response to God's divinizing grace, it is often misunderstood to mean that humans in some way "earn" their salvation or that human works alone, apart from God's grace, are meritorious and deserving of divine reward. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. What is at stake is a very real antinomy which seeks to balance two truths: that God is the sole source of salvation, or deifying grace, and that human acceptance and rejection of such grace is always a real possibility.78 Within the context of the modern Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue, synergy has been described as follows:
With regards to the work of God, we can affirm that divine initiative precedes human response. . . . Synergy or cooperation is restricted to our response to grace, a response possible because the human will is not in total bondage but remains sufficiently free to "seek first the kingdom of God." . . . Election can be voided by acts of unrighteousness and faithlessness. Predestination is not absolute. Freedom of the will is manifest in the coming to faith and in the sinful rejection of grace.79
As was noted previously, prayer, obedience to the commandments, and ongoing repentance are all aspects of our human cooperation with God's divinizing grace.80 Likewise, the ongoing and faithful reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist is another key way in which human persons freely unite themselves ever more closely to the person and grace of Christ.
The need for repentance in the life of a person who has experienced the "already" of divinization, through union with God's energies, underscores the "not yet" aspect of divinization.81 The grace of God eliminates neither human weakness and susceptibility to temptation nor free will. Accordingly, baptized persons still do sin in large and small ways. The process of repentance involves the admission of personal guilt, the recognition of an ongoing need for God's sustaining grace, and the firm intention to reject sinful acts and habits in favor of a more virtuous and loving manner of living. For serious transgressions of God's commandments, normally recourse will also be had to the sacrament of confession wherein a repentant person confesses his or her sins to a man possessing the priesthood, who is then authorized to grant absolution.82
While the human person is "fully" divinized with the resurrection of the body, fully being in quotation marks because, as was also seen, theosis involves progression eternally; nevertheless, theosis or human divinization begins in mortality and is a reality which therefore can—and indeed must—be experienced, beginning in mortality.83 The following is from St. Symeon the New Theologian (942—1022), a Byzantine Abbot and theologian, who is, without a doubt, the greatest teacher on the human experience of theosis:
What a terrible misfortune that we who have been born of God and become immortal and partakers of a heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1), who are "heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:17) and have become citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), have not yet come to the realization of so great blessings!84
There are two basic kinds of experience of theosis while in mortality: the more ordinary one, the experience of the companionship of the Holy Spirit, and a rarer, more infrequent one, the vision of uncreated light.
All baptized persons can expect to experience, as a natural consequence of their union with the divinizing energies of God, the companionship of the Holy Spirit. As was noted previously, it is the Holy Spirit—a divine person, member of the Trinity—who communicates the salvation of Christ to individual human persons.
For this Spirit, when He descends on you, becomes like a pool of light to you, which encompasses you completely in an unutterable manner. As it regenerates you it changes you from corruptible to incorruptible, from mortal to immortal, from sons of men into sons of God and gods by adoption and grace—that is, if you desire to appear as kinsmen and fellow-heirs of the saints and enter with all of them into the kingdom of heaven.85
What the Holy Spirit enables a divinized person to have is the same kind of conscious relationship with the Eternal Father that Jesus had while He walked the earth.86 The mission of the Holy Spirit is to enter our lives so that through our union with Christ we can be consciously aware, in a way that transforms our lives, of having a relationship with God the Father—the father of Christ by nature, our father through adoption.87
The vision of uncreated light is another way of experiencing the effects of theosis while still in mortality.88 By way of background and explanation, it should be noted that the Greek Fathers of the Church took very seriously the revelation contained in 1 John 1:5 that "God is light." Keeping in mind the real distinction in God between essence and energies—between God as uncreated, unknowable, and unparticipable, and God as communicable, knowable, and participable—the term uncreated light is synonymous with God's energies as well as the term grace. Lossky quotes St. Gregory Palamas who wrote, "God is called light not according to His essence, but according to His energy" and writes that
[Uncreated light] is the visible character of the divinity, of the energies in which God communicates Himself. . . . This uncreated, eternal, divine, and deifying light is grace, for the name of grace also refers to divine energies insofar as they are given to us and accomplish the work of our deification . . . [grace] is God Himself, communicating Himself and entering into ineffable union with man.89
Thus whenever God unites himself to a person, it is God's uncreated light which divinizes; in other words, it is God himself who divinizes, God who is light as he shares his uncreated nature with created persons. St. Symeon the New Theologian offers this powerful testimony on this doctrine of God as light:
We bear witness that "God is light," and those to whom it has been granted to see Him have all beheld Him as light. Those who have received Him have all received Him as light, because the light of His glory goes before Him, and it is impossible for Him to appear without light. Those who have not seen His light have not seen Him, for He is the Light, and those who have not received the Light have not yet received grace. Those who have received grace have received the Light of God and have received God, even as Christ Himself, who is the Light, has said, "I will live in them and move among them" (2 Cor. 6:16).90
This passage makes it clear that while God always communicates himself—divinizing us—as light, this uncreated light is not usually seen by the human eye. However, when God so wills He can appear to those who have become "gods by grace"—hence the experience of the vision of uncreated light.
This vision of uncreated light is an experience which is analogous to our vision of physical, earthly light and to our experience of intellectual light, that is, our experience of intellectual illumination (often graphically portrayed as a light bulb switching on above a person's head). It is enlightening, allowing us to see and know and understand in a divine manner. Yet the vision of uncreated light is perceptible to the sense of sight and to the mind precisely because it transcends both these human faculties.
This light simultaneously fills reason and the senses, manifesting itself to the total man, and not just to one of his faculties. The divine light is immaterial and contains nothing sensible in it, but neither is it an intelligible light.91
Moreover, insofar as the vision of uncreated light is an experience in which the body shares, it is a tangible reminder that the final destiny of those who are divinized is the divinization of both soul and body.92
Clearly, not all baptized persons, that is, those who have been divinized through union with God's energies—his uncreated light—experience the vision of God's uncreated light. It is a special blessing God gives to those who are worthy of it and whom he chooses.93 However, in the next life, all who have been divinized will experience the vision of uncreated light and progress in that vision eternally.
The vision of uncreated light is by nature dynamic, and is more obscure or more transcendent according to the individual's degree of perfection. But as a progressive revelation of God's infinite glory it never comes to an end, either in the present age or in the age to be.94
Thus, even if uncommon in mortality, the vision of uncreated light is always a real possibility for every baptized person since the vision is simply a more intensified manifestation and experience of an already existing relationship between God and the divinized human person who is, by definition, divinized through union with God's energies or uncreated light.
What is the vision of uncreated light like from a phenomenological standpoint? Enough instances have been recorded throughout the Church's history—both in the Latin West and the Greek East—so that documentary evidence is readily available. The experience of St. Symeon the New Theologian, which he narrates in the third person in his Discourses, is representative. He recounts:
One day, as he stood and recited, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner" (Lk. 18:13), uttering it with his mind rather than his mouth, suddenly a flood of divine radiance appeared from above and filled all the room. As this happened the young man lost all awareness (of his surroundings) and forgot that he was in a house or that he was under a roof. He saw nothing but light all around him and did not know whether he was standing on the ground. He was not afraid of falling; he was not concerned with the world, nor did anything pertaining to men and corporeal beings enter into his mind. Instead, he was wholly in the presence of immaterial light and seemed to himself to have turned into light. Oblivious of all the world he was filled with tears and with ineffable joy and gladness.95
In another section of his Discourses, St. Symeon, this time speaking in the first person, recounts another of his visions:
I fell prostrate on the ground, and at once I saw, and behold, a great light was immaterially shining on me and seized hold of my whole mind and soul, so that I was struck with amazement at the unexpected marvel and I was, as it were, in ecstasy . . . [the Light] scattered whatever mist there was in my soul and cast out every earthly care. It expelled from all material denseness and bodily heaviness that made my members to be sluggish and numb. What an awesome marvel! It so invigorated and strengthened my limbs and muscles, which had been faint through great weariness, that it seemed to me as though I was stripping myself of the garments of corruption. Besides, there was poured into my soul in unutterable fashion a great spiritual joy and perception and a sweetness surpassing every taste of visible objects, together with a freedom and forgetfulness of all thoughts pertaining to this life. In a marvelous way there was granted to me and revealed to me the manner of the departure from this present life. Thus all the perceptions of my mind and my soul were wholly concentrated on the ineffable joy of that Light.96
Thus, it becomes evident that the teachings and insights of St. Symeon the New Theologian on the subject of the experience of theosis were grounded in the revelations and visions he himself had been blessed to receive.
At this point, given the context and vocabulary provided by this section on the vision of uncreated light, it will be useful to revisit one last time the story of Christ's transfiguration. What were Peter, James, and John really experiencing on the mountaintop as they beheld Christ's transfiguration? It was a vision of uncreated light. These three chosen Apostles were permitted to see with their human eyes the light of Christ's divine nature. This light, the energies of Christ's divinity, completely interpenetrated his humanity—his body and soul—and from the first moment of His incarnation had divinized it. What the Apostles saw was, quite simply, the natural consequences of the divinization of Christ's human nature; a reality which other persons were not permitted to see or experience during the course of Christ's mortal ministry.
Theosis, or the doctrine of human divinization, as understood and taught by that subset of patristic writers who are the Greek Fathers of the Church, centers around the concept of participation. The triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—uncreated divine persons, incommunicable and unparticipable in their essence, freely will that created human persons, created out of nothing, should share or participate in their divine nature. Vladimir Lossky aptly and succinctly wrote of this great mystery of divine love:
Everything proceeds from the Trinity and everything leads to It: to the Father, who is the source of all divinity; to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, who proceed from Him in the unity of the inaccessible nature. The energies which flow eternally from this nature, being communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, deify us and make us participate in the life of the Holy Trinity, which the Gospels call the Kingdom of God.97
To help concretize the patristic doctrine of theosis presented in this chapter, consider the following image.98 Taken from the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor, it underscores the concept of participation.99 Reflect on what occurs when iron is plunged into fire, as happens when a sword is being shaped. A definite change takes. The fire penetrates the metal and communicates to it some of its own properties. The metal begins to glow. It becomes hot and burning. It becomes malleable. None of these things is a natural property of iron; as is well known, by nature iron is inflexible, cold, and dense. It is only when the iron participates in the nature of the fire that it becomes what it was not while still retaining its essential identity as iron.
In similar fashion, the doctrine of theosis explains human divinization as being fundamentally a matter of participation. Between the persons of the triune God and human persons there is an infinite ontological divide—the difference between the uncreated and the created. God, however, bridges this ontological divide. The three persons who are God by nature—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—make created persons who are human by nature to be "gods by grace" through participation in their divinizing energies. Divinized human persons, without ceasing to be human, become what they were not—gods. The revelation of Christ and the dispensation inaugurated by him, according to the Greek Fathers of the Church, makes clear and accomplishes what in God's plan is the purpose of human existence—to become a god.