The traditional developmental map for the contemplative life, as put forth in the earliest centuries of the Christian era by mystics like Clement and Origen, consisted of three stages: Purification, Illumination, and Union. The aspiring contemplative mystic began his or her journey with a rigorous program of repentance and renunciation, “purifying” one’s self in order to become a worthy self-offering to God. One of the happy consequences of such asceticism would be the eventual experience of illumination: of God’s light shining forth into (and out of) the receptive darkness of the purified (or purifying) self. Finally, the goal of the contemplative life was nothing more than complete and total union with God, at least insofar as such an event is possible, given the distinctions between creator and creature. Perhaps communion is a better word, but union is the traditional formulation.
I think much light can be shed on this map if we consider the original Greek words that have been rendered in English as purification, illumination, and union: Katharsis, Theoria, and Theosis. The first two, of course, have given the English language the words catharsis and theory. Let’s look at how these words open and expand our understanding of the contemplative journey:
- Katharsis suggests that the purification process is truly a form of self-emptying. We cleanse ourselves by purging the crap within us (one historical usage of the word catharsis has been as a euphemism for cleansing the bowels). From a contemplative perspective, this suggests a profound link between repentance and letting-g0. We let go of our unloving behavior, unloving thoughts, self-centered filters that keep us engaging the world from a perspective of relentless self-interest. How does one become holy? By letting go of all that is not-holy. This suggests that the process of conversion (metanoia, literally a “change of mind”) is not so much an activist exercise in which we master our own sinfulness, but rather a much gentler process of continually choosing to lay aside all within us that is not conducive to, or emergent from, love.
- Theoria may be the trickiest word to unpack here. We so often create a distinction in our minds between theory and practice: theory, the pure mental construct of an endeavor (“music theory”) compared to practice, in which the theory is put to the test (and often scrapped in favor of “what works”). But in this context, I think such a tension between theory and practice is not useful. The “theory” of contemplation is simply the pure act of gazing upon the light of God, just as the theory of music suggests one’s ability to “see” music in its most pure and abstract form. This is helpful in reminding us that the illumination process is not so much something we achieve so much as simply something we receive. God’s light continually and perpetually shines upon us, and most of us simply sally forth through life, blissfully unaware of the Divine light’s dazzling presence. While the catharsis/purification process cannot guarantee us the experience of seeing the illuminating light, we can with some confidence recognize that many of the great mystics and contemplatives throughout history have reported the experience of being dazzled by the light, and so we, in our turn, open the “eyes of our hearts” to gaze upon the uncreated light, trusting in its presence even if we relate to it a level beyond our mere conscious experience.
- Finally, Theosis carries the powerful connotation of literally being changed into God. Not God in the sense of now-I’m-in-charge-of-the-cosmos, but God in the sense that, as the First Letter of Peter puts it, we become “partakers of the Divine nature.” What does that mean? We become truly Christian, i.e., “little Christs,” anointed with the presence of the Blessed Trinity within us. We have the mind of Christ, we are the Body of Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and in the Father we live and move and have our being. Perhaps the clearest recognition of this is our increasing, if faltering, capacity to love as God loves.
One more Greek work to throw at you, and this is one found in the New Testament: Kenosis, a word meaning “emptying” — as in Christ emptying himself of his own privilege as the Son of God in order to take on human form, as recounted in the Letter to the Philippians. I think kenosis is in many ways the essential key to the entire catharsis -> theoria -> theosis process. As Christ emptied himself of his Divinity by right, so we engage in the process of emptying ourselves of our not-divinity. We empty ourselves of our sin. We empty ourselves of our unwillingness to bask in the Divine light. And we even empty ourselves of all that is given to us in theosis as we remain continually marked by humility, celebrating our union with God even as we humbly acknowledge we are creatures, not Creator.
Perhaps the relationship between kenosis and theosis is a breathing-in, breathing-out rhythm. We breathe in (comm)union with God. We breathe out our humble humanity, continually self-emptying ourselves in the earthy recognition that we are creatures. We celebrate our Divinity: breathe in. We celebrate our humanity: breathe out. We ourselves are dazzling with the Divine light: breathe in. We are beautiful, mortal, creatures of earth and clay: breathe out. And so on and on it goes.
Perhaps this is why breathing is so important to contemplative practice. Breathe in theosis. Breathe out kenosis. And repeat, for the rest of your life.