This came to me this morning as I was talking my morning walk. I was thinking about the challenge of talking about Christian spirituality to non-Christians. So much of the traditional language of spirituality — humility, repentance, obedience, holiness, self-denial, asceticism, and so forth — is distasteful to our postmodern sensibilities. Even Christians struggle with much of this language; how much more so would many non-Christians find it unappealing.
I don’t think we need to apologize for traditional language, even when we adopt a critical stance toward some of it (mortification, for example, is a concept that is far more dangerous than useful). But sometimes we may need to acknowledge our distance from the language, and/or be clear about how such language is best understood within the overall context of Divine love and grace. This is why I like to go back to the Greek metanoia when talking about repentance, or consider the relationship between humility and “earthiness.” I think to some extent, the distaste we feel toward the traditional language of asceticism may have more to do with how that language is misunderstood, especially in our day.
With all this in mind, this morning I was thinking about the traditional map of the mystical life: purification, illumination, and union, which we also know by the Greek words katharsis, theoria, and theosis. I was imagining myself in a context where much or most of an audience would be non-Christian (say, for example, at a new age bookstore). How could I talk about these three terms in a way that would be meaningful for those who do not share the jargon of my faith?
It occurs to me that purification, which is about the fostering of holiness, is also about growth in true compassion: for holiness, after all, is about love of God and love of neighbors as our selves. Non-Christians may not feel much identity with the idea of holiness, but compassion may well work as a point of understanding.
Likewise, illumination (theoria) implies receptivity to the light of God that comes through the Word — understood both as Christ (John 8:12) and also as sacred scripture (cf. Psalm 119:105). But this language of the light of God, Christ, and Word will mean nothing to those who do not accept the teachings of the Christian tradition. How then, can I explain the concept of illumination? It occurs to me that the effect of illumination is trasnformation — we receive the light of God and we are changed by it. So if we accept transformation as the key to illumination, I believe we have a word that can be easily understood by all.
A corollary word here, of course, would be enlightenment. I do think there is a relationship between eastern concepts of enlightenment and the Christian concept of illumination. But I am a little hesitant to use speak about enlightenment, especially since in the west it has a particular historical meaning, and I suspect that its eastern usage also carries a dimension of meaning that may not be easily translatable into the tradition of Christian wisdom. Still, this might be an interesting word to use in the service of open dialogue between faiths.
Finally, union or theosis is the hardest concept of all to translate. We may consider several possibilities: experience of the presence of God, communion with God, immersion into God. The challenge here is to honor the traditional Christian insistence that some sort of ontological distinction between creator and creature persists, now matter how deeply we may fall into the experience of union. This distinction is the “hairline fracture” in which the loving presence of the Holy Spirit is found. Complete cessation of the line separating the self from God would amout to the extinguishing of self-giving love. This, the Christian tradition, is not prepared to affirm. So how do we talk about union without having to engage in a wordy disclaimer like what I’ve just written? I’m going to suggest the word participation, because it is the only word I know of that speaks to both distinction (“part”) and union. It’s not perfect — it could lead to the idea that I am a necessary “part” of God and therefore God is not whole without me. But, then, no word or concept can capture the mystery of theosis, which is why it is a mystery. So, again in the service of fostering dialogue and conversation, I think participation is a good starting point.
So, purification —> illumination —> union could also be spoken of in terms of compassion —> transformation/enlightenment —> participation. Perhaps not the most eloquent or artful way to speak about this map of mystical development, but suitable I think as a way of beginning to speak of the Christian mysteries in language that is not immediately too foreign or off-putting.