|Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen, before the Spiritual Exercises|
That sentence is an editorial summary of three quotations, two from patristic sources and one from Holy Scripture. ‘In his unbounded love, God becomes what we are, that He might make us what He is’ is from St Irenaeus; they also quote St Athanasius, ‘God became human so that we might become divine.’ And they conclude with 2 Peter 1.4: ‘through them (viz, the ‘glory and power’ of God) you may come to share in the divine nature.’
We can see from the above that theosis does not just belong to the theological heritage of Orthodoxy for both St Irenaeus and St Athanasius are fathers of the undivided Church who wrote well before the schism of 1054 when the name of the pope was removed from the diptychs or intercession list of the church of Hagia Sophia in Byzantium. And the text of the second epistle of St Peter could not be clearer: the purpose of the incarnation is that ‘you may come to share in the divine nature.’ So how is it that we Catholics, Christians in communion with the See of St Peter, hear so little about deification? Why doesn’t the Magisterium teach about deification? After all, not only is it both scriptural and traditional, it is also vital to understanding the purpose of the Christian life, and not just for understanding but for living it!
Although there is no entry for deification in the Catechism, we do find it referred to in Part 3, Life in Christ and specifically in the section entitled Grace: ‘The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism.’ (CC 1999) Two paragraphs before this definition we read the following which makes even clearer the intimate connection between the Catholic teaching on grace and the Orthodox understanding of theosis: ‘Grace is a participation in the life of God.’ And the paragraph goes on to explain: ‘It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of the Body. As an ‘adopted son’ he can henceforth call God “Father”, in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.’ (1997) Grace is ‘the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.’ The matter could not be clearer: although East and West have a different vocabulary, the theology is the same. Theosis or deification is the same as sanctifying grace.
In the remainder of this talk I want to speak about sanctifying or deifying grace for, although it is given to us above all through the Sacraments beginning with Baptism, it is so important a theological topic that it should not be assimilated into sacramental theology. Indeed meditation on what it is we receive in the sacraments will enable us to appreciate better the nature of the sacraments themselves. Precisely such a meditation on grace is to be found in the pages of the work of Fr Matthias Scheeben (1835-1888) called The Glories of Divine Grace.
It is subtitled A Fervent Exhortation to All to Preserve and Grow in Sanctifying Grace. Thus it is addressed to all the faithful as of course it must be since, as we have seen, the life of sanctifying grace begins at Baptism. The title of the first chapter is How Deplorable it is that Men Should Have So little Regard for Grace. I was reminded when I read that of the comment made in a talk I recently heard by Fr Andrew Pinsent, the co-author of the Evangelium course which I used in my Anglican parish in preparation for the reception of my small Ordinariate group into the full communion of the Catholic Church. He asked the summer conference of that movement comprising young Catholics how many had heard a sermon on grace. Apparently over two thirds had not. Judging by the reproach in the title of the first chapter of The Glories of Divine Grace, perhaps Fr Scheeben faced a similar situation. And so Fr Scheeben sets himself the task of explaining why we should have regard for grace: ‘By grace the soul is received into the bosom of the Eternal Father and, together with the Divine Son, participates in the nature of the Father on this earth, and in His glory in the life to come.’ He then tells us the views of two of the great doctors of the Western Church on this subject: ‘St Thomas teaches that the whole world and all it contains is of less value before God than the grace of a single soul… And St Augustine maintains that the whole Heaven together with all the Angels, cannot be compared with this grace.’ Fr Scheeben then compares the soul who rejects God’s grace with the Israelites after the exodus who ‘despised the manna God gave them on the journey… and longed again for the fleshpots of Egypt.’ He explains that ‘the manna was a type of grace – a figure of our nourishment on the road to Heaven’ while ‘the Promised Land was a figure of Heaven’. But why do we frequently disregard grace? Why are we often like the Israelites who longed for ‘the fleshpots of Egypt’? Fr Scheeben answers: ‘because we permit ourselves to be too deeply impressed by our senses with transitory things and because we have but a superficial knowledge of lasting, heavenly riches.’ So what is the remedy for this fascination with ‘the changes and chances’ of this passing world? ‘We must draw as near as possible to the overflowing and inexhaustible fountain of divine grace.’ And how do we do that? Fr Scheeben answers paraphrasing St John Chrysostom: ‘he who admires and praises grace… will zealously and carefully guard it.’ He then invites the reader to begin with him ‘the praise of the glory of his grace’, words from St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (1.6). The chapter ends with five beautiful prayers addressed respectively to the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, Blessed Mary Mother of God and the Holy Angels. And that is the nature of this remarkable book: it is a work of praise and prayer. It is not just about its subject but is animated by it. For Sanctifying Grace, truly considered, must inspire praise and prayer.
One of the observations Fr Pinsent made in the talk I referred to earlier regretting the virtual disappearance of grace from the vocabulary of Catholics is that it is much less common these days to hear Catholics refer to themselves as being or not being in ‘a state of grace’. If we are to recover this language then we must be able to give some guidance on that issue. The Catechism begins by reminding us of an all-important proviso: ‘Since it is supernatural, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude thereby that we are justified or saved.’ This is the same point made in the Psalmist’s prayer, ‘But who can discern his errors? Cleanse me from my hidden faults.’ St Paul too declares; ‘I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.’ But taking this as read, St Thomas says we may conjecture that we are in a state of grace or have God’s favour from the following three signs: 1. If we find contentment and delight in the thought of God, i.e., in reflecting on His goodness and loving care of us, in uplifting our minds and hearts in prayer, and in frequenting the Sacraments; 2. if we despise earthly things, i.e., if we are detached from pleasure and riches, not desiring them for their own sakes but for use in the service of God; and 3. if we are not conscious of any unforgiven mortal sin.’ (S.Th., 1.ii, q 112, a. 5) We might also make our own the response of Joan of Arc to a question posed by the judges at her trial and designed to trap her. Asked whether she was in God’s grace she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.’ (quoted in the Catechism 2005)
Luther and his fellow Reformation polemicists, in their attack on the sacramental system of the Catholic Church posed a false alternative. We are saved, they said, either by faith or by works and they alleged further that the Church taught the latter, a kind of self-help religion Thus did they think to claim faith for their own schismatical movement. However, setting faith against works in this fashion is mistaken, and we can see why if we attend to the meaning of Sanctifying Grace. The teaching of the Church at the time of the Reformation, a teaching which has not changed, is that faith as one of the supernatural or theological virtues which has its source in Sanctifying Grace. So Fr Scheeben describes these virtues as ‘the royal retinue of Sanctifying Grace’. They follow in its train. He writes of Faith that although it is a ‘human act, freely made and reasonable… no-one can make such an act unless supernatural grace – which is denied to no-one – be given him by God… the ability to make an act of faith must be given by God.’ And this is exactly the same with the works or actions of the Catholic. Fr Scheeben quotes St Francis de Sales in his Treatise on the Love of God: ‘The Holy Ghost acts in us, through us and for us so admirably, that though our actions are our own, they belong more to him than to us. We perform them in Him and by His direction, while He performs them in us.’ Fr Scheeben thus asks, ‘What can give such immense value to our troubles and sufferings, which are in themselves but trifles?’ and he answers, ‘Dipped in grace, the chaff becomes gold… every good work, though little in itself, becomes through grace, of very great value, capable of purchasing for us the greatest treasure, Heaven and God Himself.’
Thus Sanctifying Grace is our deification; the words are different but the divine reality is the same. And Fr Scheeben explains the affinity in a chapter entitled significantly The Participation in the Divine Nature Effects a Supernatural Similarity to This Nature. He writes of ‘(t)he participation in the Divine Nature… which we enjoy by grace’ and explain that ‘grace is, according to St Paul, a new creation and the foundation of a new immovable kingdom (Eph 2.10, Heb. 12.28).’ Thus the two pillars of the Church, St Peter and St Paul, concur. The former speaks of deification and the latter of Sanctifying Grace, but the doctrine is the same. Fr Scheeben uses an Old Testament image: ‘We are called to dwell in the tabernacle of God’s eternity… Here our eternal existence is as secure as God Himself; here we need fear neither death nor destruction’. So ‘why’, he asks ‘do we rely on our own nothingness and pursue other things which are as vain and transitory as our life here below?’ He answers by relating the
doctrine of sin to the theme of deification:
Fr Simon Heans
The sinner desires – as did our first parents, and the devil himself – ‘to be as God’. In truth, God Himself wills that we should be as He, but not without Him, not outside Him, not in opposition to Him. He does not will that we should make ourselves as other gods… He wills that we should be as He, but in His bosom, in His heart. He wills it to be through Himself and in union with Him, as in the case of His Divine Son, who is not another God, but the same with the Father.That is also the doctrine which Fr Gregory of Crawley Down taught during the fifty years of his life as a contemplative. And he did so in the belief that Anglican patrimony was not something idiosyncratic but was the same as what he called ‘the Great Tradition’, the teaching of the undivided Church of East and West.
Fr Simon Heans