Sunday, August 6, 2017

Theosis: Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ


Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Transfiguration is attested in all three Synoptic Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as by the Second Letter of Peter.   While the Gospel of John does not include an account of the Transfiguration, it explicitly underscores the theological significance of the event in an important dialogue between Jesus and Philip.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:8-12)

All four Gospels make the same point:  in seeing Jesus, we see God.  And in seeing God, we are empowered to become fully ourselves:  human beings created in God’s image.   Through Christ, we become united with God in the creative, life-giving work of love.

This teaching is at the heart of Christian faith.  It was expressed beautifully by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon in the Second Century, when he wrote that "The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God" (Against Heresies IV, 20, 7).  This vision of God is made possible through "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself." (Against Heresies V, preface)

This is a great mystery, and it is astonishing to realize that God desires to freely share God’s life and glory with us!  God desires so much more for us that we can ask for or imagine!   How patiently God waits for us to wake-up to our desire for God, to become united with his will for us, which is true freedom and joy.   

In Luke’s account, Jesus brings Peter, James, and John up to the mountain to pray.  The three disciples struggle to remain awake, but in doing so see the glory of God revealed there.  This is the work of prayer:  the struggle to shake off our illusions and preoccupations, so that we can attend to God’s desire for us and our desire for God.  Prayer is the work of seeing God so that we can see ourselves as God sees us. Prayer is waking-up so that we don’t miss the point of being alive!

Prayer can be a struggle, much as attending to any relationship can be a struggle.  It takes effort and perseverance, time and attention, for a real relationship with another human being to unfold, to move beyond our projections and illusions about each another to that we can really see each other.  Genuine friendship is the fruit of such effort; accepting one another as we really are so that we can grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be. Real friends love each other, and they accept each other, warts and all, thereby providing each other the space and time to let go of those things that prevent them from becoming fully alive. 

St. Theresa of Avila describes prayer in much the same way.  She writes that “prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.  In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord . . . Oh what a good friend You make, my Lord!  How You proceed by favoring and enduring.  You wait for others to adapt to Your nature, and in the meanwhile you put up with theirs!”  (The Book of Her Life, VIII, 5-6)

Like any good friend, God puts up with us until we can see ourselves through God’s eyes: as objects of God’s loving desire, invited to share God’s life and work.   Prayer is the experience of God loving us until we can love ourselves.  Then God loves us some more, until we begin to love others as God loves us.  We adapt ourselves to God’s nature and so become like Jesus.

Good friends also listen to each other, deeply and patiently.  The voice from the cloud announces to Peter, James and John: “this is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).  The vision of God in the face of Jesus Christ also entails a willingness to listen to his voice, to internalize his teaching, not simply to venerate him but to follow him, to become like him.  How do we do this?

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Feast of the Transfiguration is a celebration of the chief end of human life:  deification or union with God’s will.  This is called theosis in the Eastern Church, a process of transformation through catharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria (illumination by the vision of God).   Theosis is not our achievement, but rather God’s gift to us, whereby we become transparent to the energia of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The practice of prayer disposes us to become willing to receive this gift, empowering us for service in God’s name. 

In English, theoria is translated as “contemplation.” Gerry May defines contemplation “as a specific psychological state characterized by alert and open qualities of awareness . . . contemplation consists of a direct, immediate, open-eyed encounter with life as-it-is.”  Contemplation as a psychological state occurs naturally and can be taught, learned, and cultivated.   May notes that when practiced over time, the psychological state of contemplation produces changes in brain function, with quite visible psychophysiological effects:

1 1.Increased clarity and breadth of awareness:  the experienced contemplative develops a capacity for more panoramic, all-inclusive awareness that includes stimuli that is normally screened out as distracting or irrelevant.  Thus more information is available for consideration.
22. More direct and incisive responsiveness to situations.  Since a greater range of perception is available, the experienced contemplative is more present in the moment and responsive to people and situations.  At the same time, she is increasingly confident in the mind’s natural intuitive ability, thus spending less time consciously thinking about what to do.  This combination of increased information and decreased effort makes for more immediate and efficient reactions.
33. Greater self-knowledge.  Mental activities that were previously unnoticed become visible; the unconscious becomes conscious, increasing understanding of thoughts, sensations, emotions, and memories.  Personal abilities and vulnerabilities are better understood and accepted.  Most importantly, the insubstantiality of one’s self-image is recognized, making one less vulnerable to a variety of existential anxieties.

All of this makes for a remarkable increase in personal power, but at the level of technique, contemplation is morally neutral:  it can be cultivated for great good or for great evil.  Contemplation becomes contemplative prayer only when it is directed toward a conscious desire for God and knowledge of God’s will.  This is also why, in the Christian tradition, the practice of contemplation is always done in conjunction with the cultivation of the virtues, especially the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. 

Here, we move beyond honing neurological responsiveness and personal power to cultivating a willingness to be open to God’s grace, embracing the vulnerability of friendship with God of which St. Teresa speaks.   Contemplative prayer is a willingness to embrace the vulnerability of loving and being loved.

In contemplative prayer, we reach the limit of what training and effort can achieve, and surrender to the healing and transfiguring power of God’s love.  We cannot make the vision of God happen.  We can dispose ourselves to become willing to receive it, to risk the vulnerability of love.  This willingness is risky.  In prayer, St. Catherine of Genoa heard God say, “If you know how much I loved you, it would kill you.”  How much love can we bear?  May argues that the only psychological determinant that correlates with our capacity for love is our willingness to accept the pain of love and the courage to bear it.  Love can hurt, but it also heals like nothing else can.[1]

In the Kontakion for the Feast of the Transfiguration, our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers sing,

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

In Christ, God willingly risks the vulnerability of love for the sake of life, for our life and the life of the world.  In contemplative prayer, we gamble on that same risk and surrender to this love.  We become truly ourselves: icons of God’s own love, united with God in the work of justice, healing and reconciliation.  For this, we were made.  Amen.



[1] May’s discussion of contemplation and the quote from St. Catherine of Genoa are found in Gerald G. May, “To Bear The Beams Of Love: Contemplation And Personal Growth” at http://www.theway.org.uk/back/s059May.pdf.