|St. Maximus the Confessor|
The Fathers of the Church often use the metaphor of a ladder to discuss the various stages or steps or transformations of Christian life and growth. The steps of the various ladders are sometimes expressed as virtues (obedience, patience, faith), sometimes in terms of experiences (tears, peace making, confessing) and sometimes as abstract nouns (purification, renunciation, detachment). Sometimes the ladder has many steps, like the thirty in St. John Climicus' Ladder of Divine Asscent. St. Benedict of Nursia describes twelve steps in the acquisition of humility. Others have based their discussion of Christian growth on the nine Beatitudes mentioned by Jesus in Matthew chapter five. Many have reduced the steps to three. Perhaps the most famous version of these three steps in the Orthodox Church is quoted from St. Maximus the Confessor in his Four Hundred Verses on Love (I don't remember exactly where) in the second volume of the Philokalia. These are Purification, Illumination and Theosis.
Modern Christians seem to make three common mistakes when they read patristic descriptions of the Christian life that use steps as a metaphor. The first mistake is that they assume that to move from one step to the next is to leave the previous step behind. This is not the case at all. Consider the Beatitudes for example. One who mourns does not cease to be poor in spirit. In fact, the case has been made that it is exactly spiritual poverty (or the knowledge of one's spiritual poverty) that produces spiritual mourning. That is, the steps are more like building blocks: the former become the foundation of the latter. The peacemakers who are called sons of God are also the ones who see God in their pure heart and are merciful and hunger and thirst for righteousness and are meek and who mourn and who are poor in spirit.
The second way that patristic ladder metaphors throw off contemporary Christians is that we sometimes assume one must master one level before we can begin the next, or that because we have experienced some grace in a higher level we have therefore mastered the lower levels. In the matter of growth in the spiritual life, there is no mastering. There is only striving on our part and mercy and grace on God's. Let's take St. Benedict's steps to humility as an example. Just because one, by the mercy of God, experiences a certain amount of grace in being content to be the lowest in the community (step six in St. Benedict's Rule) does not mean that he does not still have a lot of work to do on some of the lower steps such as obedience in all things or confessing evil thoughts. I have found it helpful to think of the ladder metaphor as an ascending helix or screw. The steps are compass points around the helix. As one ascends from one level to the next, one encounters in varying degrees all or most of the steps, but each time around he or she is at a different place and so experiences the steps differently: the steps work in us at deeper and deeper levels.
Which brings us to the final and perhaps most serious mistake contemporary Christians make when they seek to apply patristic ladder metaphors to their life. The ladders or the steps that the fathers of the Church describe are steps in, not out. The ascent is inward and outward. Ideas of God from the secular culture have so influenced most Christians' understanding of God that they really think that God is somewhere outside them, that heaven is a place far away. Fr. Stephen Freeman has famously referred to this way of thinking as a two storey universe. In a two storey universe there is a God, but God is far away. In a two story universe one must ascend up and out to God who comes down to meet us. However, in a patristic understanding of God, a New Testament understanding of God, God is in our heart, in our midst. God is not far away; God is near at hand. The problem, however, is that we have become so alienated from ourselves that only with much difficulty are we able to perceive Him.
In the one storey universe, the ladder, or steps of Christian development, identifies both the means and the markers of the return to one's own heart, one's true self, where one genuinely encounters God. To return to the three stages mentioned by St. Maximus the Confessor (and others)--purification, illumination and deification--we might say that the means of returning to one's heart begins with purifying one's life. That someone is purifying his or her life, or seeking to be purified by the grace of God, is also a sign, a marker, that one is likely on the right path inward towards one's heart, to one's true self, to the place where one genuinely meets God. Purification, although it not possible without the grace of God, is mostly a participatory activity of the mind and life. That is, one must work at purification. Illumination, on the other hand, is much more passive. It is a gift of seeing, of knowing or of understanding that comes from a source deeper than our rational faculty. One's participation in illumination is to apply what is newly seen or known to deeper levels of repentance and purification.
I must stop and confess at this point that I am treading on very thin ice. All I have to say on this topic is based on what I have read and my own experience--which dramatically limits my ability to understand what I have read. Please be aware that there are levels of Christian growth and experience in God to which I have never come close enough even to imagine: "Eye has not seen nor ear heard...But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit"(2 Corinthians 2: 9,10). St. Paul and other holy men and women throughout history have seen and heard "inexpressible words, which it is unlawful for a man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:4). That I am able to write these words down should be a clue to you, my beloved reader, that I am only a beginner in the journey to the heart and that what I have to say is only to help other beginners on their way.
Back to the ice.
Theosis, or deification, is the third step in St. Maximus' three stages of Christian growth. If illumination refers to a kind of seeing or understanding, theosis refers to the transformative encounter with God. As a beginner, I have only experienced very brief encounters that might possibly be considered the frontier of theosis. It is like an encounter with a spark, a spark from a very bright light which seems far away. It is not far away: God dwells in our hearts by faith. But it seems far away because of my blindness. Or it is like the scent of a flower from a garden on the other side of a wall. My encounter with the flower is real, yet faint. So are my encounters with God in my heart: they are faint but real.
To see God is to become like Him (1 John 3:2). Theosis, if it is theosis, is always transformative. Like Moses who saw only the backside of God and glowed for days afterward, we too, if we really encounter God, will glow with the light of the Holy Spirit. Some people have been so full of the Holy Spirit that they have glowed with a visible light, the light of the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor. For most of us, however, the light manifests itself in the fruit of the Holy Spirit. A person who is full of the Holy Spirit does not necessarily speak in new tongues or work miracles. But a person who is full of the Holy Spirit is definitely full of love, joy, peace and patience. In fact, to seem to have the former without the latter makes the former suspect.
God became man so that man, by grace, might become like God. We must indeed become like God for Christ has promised mankind a relationship with Himself as intimate as a husband and a wife. A man does not marry a rock. A man marries a woman, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Christ has betrothed to Himself the Church, and during the engagement period, the time we have left on this earth, we are invited to be transformed into Christ's image. The Holy Fathers of the Church have provided us with many teachings and metaphors to help us find our way on this road of transformation. Most begin with some kind of purification, some kind of repentance, desire, faith or some other effort on our part. God then meets our effort with understanding, with illumination which helps us and encourages us along the way. But the goal of all of the steps and ladders is the encounter with God Himself and the transformation that occurs in this encounter. Because of God's merciful care, even beginners can genuinely encounter God in transformative ways. God helps us encounter sparks from the fire of the godhead. And these encounters return us to the beginning of the ladder refreshed and encouraged to again strive for purification so that we might further be illumined and perchance again genuinely encounter God in our hearts.