Theosis: The Fusion of Man/Woman and God?

By Ángel F. Sánchez Escobar

According to Orthodoxy and the Eastern Fathers of the Church, there are two main ideas to the complex concept of theosis or deification as the salvation of man/woman: on the one hand, that God, as a deed of His Infinite, ecstatic love, comes out of Himself, bestows Himself on man/woman, inhabits man/woman, and seeks to unite with him/her; on the other hand, that man/woman is given the command to be perfect in the Father’s likeness, literally to become god. Deification, the restoration of man/woman as a true son of God, occurs by means of God’s grace or uncreated energies through His Spirit and in Christ. In contrast with the Western Church, God is not only essence, He is also energy. If God were only essence man/woman could not unite or commune with Him. In the deification process, both our soul — residing in the mind according to Macarius the Great (Homily 15,20) and the abode of the indwelling Spirit — and our body experience a transformation (Irenaeus, Book V, Chapter 6, 1). It is the whole man/woman who glorifies in Christ as he acquires the grace of the Holy Spirit.

For the Church Fathers, Jesus’ incarnation is the key to salvation and deification. The Logos of God having taken a human body makes mankind partakers of the divine nature.

For the Church Fathers, Jesus’ incarnation is the key to salvation and deification. The Logos of God having taken a human body makes mankind partakers of the divine nature. Palamas says that in the process of deification there is a hypostatic union of human nature with the incarnate Logos of God. But is there an ontological transformation of the soul of man/woman, and, thus, of the whole person as he/she is deified? Is there a real participation of man/woman in intra-divine relationship, a real fusion with the Spirit, granting the body even on earth incorruptibility and glorification or just a moral development, a communication of the divine attributes to the perfecting human being, a vision of God when the person approaches the knowledge of the Truth?

What is true is that it must be a personal or pre-personal union, not an impersonal one. The uncreated energies, coming directly from God, are of personal origin as He is a Divine Person — as well as God the Son and God the Spirit — and the center and source of all personalities. It is through these uncreated energies that man/woman is able to divinize as he/she acquires a new, transformed soul-personality at his unification with the Spirit of God. For Palamas the union between man and the Divine Energies is enhypostatic, that is, personal: it cannot exist apart from the divine hypostases.

One wonders if the Spirit of God, the Divine Presence, as Florovsky calls it, indwelling man/woman, is the infinite God the Spirit (also called the Holy Spirit and the Infinite Third Person of the Trinity). Most Church Fathers must have had difficulties contemplating a union of the soul with this Third Person as this divine Person is absolute and in essence similar to the Father. A union with this Infinite Being would be close to pantheism and a woman/man could lose his/her personal identity, instead of becoming individuated. Perhaps the great problem of the Fathers was considering the Spirit of God the Third Person of the Trinity instead of just as a part of God, but still not a personal one. Being so, man/woman could be embraced in the personality circuit of energy (uncreated energies) coming from and going to the Father through the action of the Spirit of God inhabiting man/woman. This part would personalize as the soul of the man/ woman deifies and fuses with it, thus becoming a new, transformed being without losing its personal identity, without being absorbed into the essence of God. The Bible refers many times to the Spirit of God, without reference to the Third Person of the Trinity, the latter idea being a later theological development. This Spirit, according to Paul, is the same that raised Christ from the dead (Romans 8:11).

But when does this process of transformation begin and when does it end? When does the pre-personal part of God become personal as man/woman fuses with it? I believe that deification is an eternal ongoing process that may start in this world and, very exceptionally, can be accelerated in this world, as in the case of Jesus or John the Baptist, who according to Palamas would not have died if he did not die by martyrdom (Homily 40).

For Hieromonk Damascene, “the theme of transformation points to the purpose of our life. That purpose is unending union with God — deification, theosis. But deification is not a static condition: it is a never-ending growth, a process, an ascent toward God. We do not reach the end in this life, nor even in the life to come” (“The Way of Spiritual Transformation”). Damascene also quotes the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian, who he believes attained what might be called the highest possible degree of union with God in this life: “Over the ages the progress will be endless, for a cessation of this growing toward the end without ending would be nothing but a grasping at the ungraspable.” Thus our union with God is a continual transformation into the likeness of God, which is the likeness of Christ. We should also remember Enoch and Elijah whose dedication to God caused them not to taste death in life, as the Scriptures say and the Orthodox tradition confirms:

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God. (Hebrews 11:5)

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (II Kings 2:12)

“God is fire and He is so called by all the inspired Scripture (cf. Heb. 12:29). The soul of each of us is a lamp. Now a lamp is wholly in darkness, even though it be filled with oil or tow or other combustible matter, until it receives fire and is kindled.”

It is plausible to think that both prophets might have attained deification on earth. Moreover, we see that the fire mentioned in the Book of Kings about Elijah is reflected in Symeon’s work, in which he compares our soul with a lamp kindled by divine fire: “God is fire and He is so called by all the inspired Scripture (cf. Heb. 12:29). The soul of each of us is a lamp. Now a lamp is wholly in darkness, even though it be filled with oil or tow or other combustible matter, until it receives fire and is kindled” (Ethical Discourses 339).

Perhaps light is the image we can retain in our still earthly eyes to grasp this mystery of the Grace of God being bestowed upon us and our eternal deification and ascent to the Father. Symeon, this great teacher on the human experience of theosis, describes this mystical light as follows:

By grace I have received grace (cf. John 1:16), by doing well I have received [His] kindness, by fire I have been requited with fire, by flame with flame. As I ascended I was given other ascents, at the end of the ascent I was given light, and by the light an even clearer light. In the midst thereof a sun shone brightly and from it a ray shone forth that filled all things. The object of my thought remained beyond understanding, and in this state I remained while I wept most sweetly and marvelled at the ineffable. (Ethical Discourses 205)

He also says: “That human being who is inwardly illumined by the light of the Holy Spirit cannot endure the vision of it, but falls face down on the ground and cries out in great fear and wonder, because he has seen and experienced something that is beyond nature, thought, or conception.” How can we experience something beyond nature and not be wholly transformed by it?

The Russian holy staretz (or “elder”) of the eighteenth century, St. Seraphim of Sarov also addresses this light: “The grace of the Holy Spirit is the light which enlightens man. The whole of Sacred Scripture speaks about this” (Conversation with Nicholas Motovilov III). We also hear him saying:

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘My son, we are both at this moment in the Spirit of God. Why don’t you look at me?’ ‘I cannot look, Father,’ I replied, ‘because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you.’ ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘At this very moment you yourself have become as bright as I am. You yourself are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do.’

This saint also points to a cosmic salvation of humanity: “Learn to be peaceful, and thousands around you will find salvation.” He also says, “Prayer, fasting, works of mercy — all this is very good, but it represents only the means, not the end of the Christian life. The true end is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” Indeed, the deification process, in which Spirit of God indwells man’s soul and mysteriously unites with him leads man to unceasing prayer, to hesychasm (conscious resting in God). This is what Isaac the Syrian, Bishop of Nineveh, in the seventh century, writes:

When the Spirit establishes his indwelling in man, the latter can no longer stop praying, for the Spirit never ceases praying in him. Whether he sleeps or stays awake, prayer is not separated from his soul. While he eats, while he drinks, while he lies in bed or in working, while he is plunged into sleep, the perfume of prayer spontaneously exhales from his soul. Henceforth he masters prayers not during determined periods of time, but at all times. (Treatises)

Unceasing, perfumed prayer naturally flows from our soul as it breathes its union with the Spirit of God and worships the Father in heaven. Deification should be the aim of all personalities in a spiritualizing cosmos. In this process, I dare say, the non-spiritualized soul would be as though it would have never existed, would be no reality as the only reality would be a spiritual one; perhaps it might enter a pantheistic state.

This article was originally published in the May-June 2008 issue of The Christian Universalist Connection.