Some Greek Words Worth Knowing

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.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • al jordan

    A wonderfully concise and practical explanation of the essential mystical/contemplative process; and tying it to breath practice provides the tool, itself, for internalization. You have provided the tool box, the tools and the instructions for understanding and implementing our own contemplative practice…”for the rest of our lives.” Well done.

  • lightbearer

    carl thats an excellent post
    eastern spirituality has a lot to give us
    we in turn
    much of zen relates to kensho an awakening
    jesus iis the way truth and life,
    but the zen practice is great for leaving self behind

  • I-Don’t-Know What

    Why do we always present “contemplation” as something “easy” (just let go, as if we had some kind of power); and our immediate response is, “This contemplation thing sounds cool, I think I’ll start tomorrow.” As if reading a blog or watching a video could save us?

    Where is the “Night of the Spirit” as described by St. John of the Cross? Too often we wish to focus only on the fruit of contemplation and not the Cross. Contemplatives often describe union with God as a “mystical death.” The death of the ego. Yeah, just let go…easy. Right. If this is your opinion, you haven’t read (understood) the mystics.

    We must remember God is the principle player here, not us. He works in silence…there isn’t much for us to do but let Him work. Of ourselves, we can do nothing. And if you think it’s all fun ‘n games….you don’t know much.

    As for Greek words…I recently read “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” by Vladimir Lossky. I can only describe this theology as, “impoverished.”

  • lightbearer

    hey i don t know what
    man that was really good comment
    how do you become silent
    i have no doubt what you say is correct
    can you comment again please
    the way i see it is that the long way is to find out through getting information about mystics etc
    or if a good “method” is learned ………………………..

  • InfiniteWarrior

    the way i see it is that the long way is to find out through getting information about mystics etc or if a good “method” is learned

    “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” ~ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake

    Too often we wish to focus only on the fruit of contemplation and not the Cross.

    Feel good “mysticism”.

    The cure for pain is in the pain.
    Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both,
    you don’t belong with us. ~ Rumi

  • rustantio

    lovely methapor

  • InfiniteWarrior

    I very much appreciate Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s contemplations on the Cross. His synthesis, for those who may not be familiar, is that human consciousness finds its place dead center of the eternal crossroads of a crux of time and space he called the Cross of Reality and Jean Gebser termed The Ever Present Origin — a time-space orientation that has been pointed out to us by mystics since time in memorial and which, in Christian circles, obviously has been rediscovered by people like Richard Rohr.

    I’ve always found Celtic renderings of the cross and the inner circle it incorporates to be the most aesthetically appealing. Though I’d never really given it much thought until relatively recently, perhaps, it is precisely for this reason.

    “The place where you are right now
    God circled on a map for you
    wherever your eyes and arms and heart can move
    Against the earth and the sky,
    the beloved has bowed there.” ~ Hafiz

    It would seem a foregone conclusion we’ve become The Lost Civilization and a recognition of this time-space orientation is perhaps crucial to navigating the storm. As importantly, Rosenstock’s philosophy was profoundly social whereas that of the “popular” church, especially, is extremely anti-social. “For man has closed himself up and sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” ~ William Blake

    [Rosenstock's] social philosophy (in constrast) is concerned with how, when a world implodes on or devours them—through what he terms the four social diseases of anarchy, decadence, revolution and war —people can escape the tyranny of forces that have come to rule the space in which they dwell by founding a new time which will then open up other spatial possibilities. For him, then, the key to human freedom is the capacity both to found the new and draw upon the powers encapsulated in bodies of time past which enable us to live in a present in which we feel blessed by the future.

    The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse certainly appear to be lifting the veil on the mess humanity has created for itself — again. In fact, the collapse of Western civil-ization is proving so hard to endure that, as I was reminded recently, perhaps the best “socio-political” label ever created was coined by Rosenstock-Huessy. “Counter-reactionary” is, in my estimation, perfectly defined in the Order of Interbeing’s first principle of mindfulness as “renouncing fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue”. In fact, it’s such a great term, I believe I’ll adopt it…once I’ve managed to get the “compassionate” back into “compassionate dialogue”. :/

    Emergent movements among the more mature elements of the church along with this new-found emphasis on language and meaning certainly appear to be actively engaged in the Resurrection of the Dead and, given the chaos of the times, I find these kinds of backward facing, forward looking practices most encouraging. In fact, at times, I’m almost tempted to rejoin the church myself just to try and help them gain traction.