How to Become Divine

Satan lied to Eve, but his lie had a couple of grains of truth to it. He said that the reason God did not want Adam and her to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was because, “God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).

The lie was that they would be as Gods by eating the fruit. One grain of truth was that they would have their eyes opened and know good and evil: their eyes were indeed opened, but only because they experienced evil by falling from their exalted state into sin. The other grain of truth was the promise that Adam and Eve would be “as Gods.” That they could be so was not ridiculous, for it was part of God’s plan to make them so — but according to His Will, not by disobedience. They were, in fact, already “like God,” inasmuch as they were in grace and lived a life of union with Him (Cf. Gen. 1:26). Their God-likeness would have increased had they not disobeyed, for the life of grace would, without sin, have blossomed into a life of glory in heavenly beatitude, where they would see the Divine Essence.

In short, they would have not only remained “divine,” but would have become more so.

But we know what happened instead.

Jesus Christ was already the archetype (or exemplary cause) of Adam in the Divine Mind. In the fullness of time, when He came to redeem us, Jesus not only paid the debt of our sins, but made it possible for us to become “sons of God” (John 1:12, Rom. 8:16) and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

Both the Eastern and Western traditions of Catholic theology value the notion of “divinization.” Here are two Fathers of the Church writing in Greek and Latin respectively, saying almost the same thing:

Saint Athanasius: “He [Christ] became man so that we might be made God.” (Treatise on the Incarnation of the Word, in William A Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. I, [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970] p. 322.)

Saint Augustine: “God was made man, that man might be made God.” (Sermo xiii de Temp, cited in Saint Thomas, ST III, Q I, A. 2)

(There is an impressive collection of additional patristic passages on WikiPedia.)

Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of the concept in his treatise on grace: “Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify,1 bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle.” (ST Ia IIae, Q. 112, A. 1)

The Greeks call it theosis and the Latins deificatio, both of which may be translated as divinization or deification. The Christian idea is far from the pantheistic mysticism of the pagan East, or, for that matter, from the Western pagan idea of apotheosis.

In the article, Lessons from the Charterhouse, I reviewed a book by a Carthusian spiritual writer, The Prayer of Love and Silence. A passage of that book speaks of the role of the sacraments, especially the Blessed Eucharist, in our becoming divinized. The author uses very traditional language to explain himself, and illustrates how the doctrine of theosis is used in Catholic works on the interior life:

The incarnation of the Word is continued through the sacraments, above all in the Holy Eucharist. The Bread of Life is not changed into our nature like earthly food; on the contrary, it transforms us into him. ‘Nor shalt thou convert me, like common food, into thy substance; but thou shalt be converted into me’ [St Augustine: Confessions, Bk. VII, 10 (Here, Augustine is writing “in the Person of Christ”)]. By the sacramental life and by our life of interior prayer and contemplation, given birth to and sustained in our souls by the sacraments, we become ‘sons of the Father,’ identified in some way with the Word and truly divinized. The Word was made flesh in order to give to all who receive him the power to be made the sons of God [John 1:12]. God became man, that men bight become God. (p. 122)

The Feast of the Transfiguration, just past, literally provides us with an image of deification. In this mystery, Christ, who is God, reveals His divine splendor by the bright illumination of His sacred humanity, so marvelously explained by the Synoptic Evangelists.

Saint Bruno Praying in the Desert, by Nicolas Mignard

Saint Bruno Praying in the Desert, by Nicolas Mignard

In the liturgical collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Roman Church prays, “O God, who in the glorious Transfiguration of thine only-begotten Son didst confirm the mysteries of the faith by the testimony of the fathers; and in the voice which came down from the bright cloud didst in a wonderful manner foreshow the perfect adoption of sons; vouchsafe in thy mercy to make us co-heirs with the King of Glory and partners in his very glory.

Recall that, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Father said, “This is my most beloved son; hear ye him” (Mark 9:6). With that in mind, we note that this beautiful oration speaks of the divinization of Christians — for we are by grace what Christ is by nature: sons and heirs of God. Our adoption as sons by grace will be made perfect in beatitude, where we will be “co-heirs with the King of Glory and partners in his very glory.”

This connection of theosis and the Transfiguration constitute an important aspect of Eastern Christianspirituality, but it is not absent in the Latin tradition. Dom Prosper Guéranger illustrates the connection, and with his words, I shall close out these lines:

But without waiting for the day when our Savior will renew our very bodies conformable to the bright glory of His own divine Body, the mystery of the Transfiguration is wrought in our souls already here on earth. It is of the present life that St. Paul says and the Church sings to-day: God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus [Responsory 8, Office of Matins; 2 Cor. 4:6]. … The Kingdom of God is within us; when, leaving all impressions of the senses as it were asleep, we raise ourselves above the works and cares of the world by prayer, it is given us to enter with the Man-God into the cloud: there beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, as far as is compatible with our exile, we are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord [Little Chapter, Office of Sext; 2 Cor. 3:18]. (Liturgical Year, Volume 13, pp. 274-275.)

  1. Saint Thomas’ Latin word is deificet, from deificare, literally, to “make god” or to “deify.”