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The Path to Theosis in the Carmelite Tradition

The Path to Theosis in the Carmelite Tradition

Introduction

As someone whose spiritual journey began within a Protestant framework, I initially approached the concept of theosis, or “divinization,” with a degree of skepticism. The term itself, suggesting the process of becoming like God, seemed at first glance to challenge the foundational Christian understanding of the Creator-creature distinction. This hesitancy is not uncommon among those of us from traditions that might emphasize the absolute otherness of God, potentially viewing the idea of humans sharing in the divine nature as theologically problematic or even presumptuous.

However, my encounter with the Carmelite tradition and its deep, mystical spirituality offered a transformative perspective on theosis. It revealed a nuanced and profoundly biblical understanding of divinization that transcends initial misconceptions. In the writings and lives of Carmelite saints like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, I discovered a path to divine intimacy that did not contravene the essence of my Christian faith but rather deepened and enriched it.

Divinization, within the rich tapestry of Christian spirituality—spanning Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and mystical traditions, including the Carmelites—is not about becoming divine in essence or erasing the distinction between Creator and creature. Rather, it is about participating in God’s divine life and love through grace. Rooted in scriptural promises, such as 2 Peter 1:4’s call to become “partakers of the divine nature,” theosis is understood as a transformative process. It involves growing in holiness, embodying God’s love and virtues, and becoming more fully the person God intends one to be.

This presentation, “The Path to Theosis in the Carmelite Tradition,” is thus crafted for those who, like me, may have approached the concept of theosis with initial reservations. It aims to elucidate the Carmelite understanding of divinization, clarifying its meaning and implications, and underscoring its relevance for contemporary spiritual seekers across diverse Christian backgrounds.

Through this exploration, we will delve into how theosis is defined and experienced within Carmelite spirituality, emphasizing the contemplative journey towards sharing in the divine nature through grace, prayer, and the embrace of the cross. We will also examine the theological and historical foundations of theosis, drawing on both Scripture and the insights of Carmelite saints to illuminate this process of divine union.

Moreover, this presentation will address the pathways to theosis as laid out in Carmelite spirituality, focusing on the central role of prayer, contemplation, and community life as conduits of grace and transformation. Finally, we will discuss the modern relevance of theosis, considering the contemporary challenges and opportunities for engaging in this spiritual journey today.

It is my hope that this presentation will serve as an invitation to look beyond initial apprehensions and discover the profound spiritual richness and transformative potential of theosis within the Carmelite tradition.

Understanding Theosis in Carmelite Tradition

Theosis Defined

Theosis, or deification, is the transformative journey towards sharing in the divine nature through grace, as promised in 2 Peter 1:4.^1 In the Carmelite tradition, this journey is deeply rooted in the contemplative experience, where the soul encounters God in the innermost silence.

What Theosis Is in Carmel

In Carmelite spirituality, theosis is experienced as an intimate union with God, achieved through a life of prayer, self-denial, and contemplative silence. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, two pillars of Carmelite spirituality, describe this union as the soul’s spiritual marriage with God, where the soul is transformed by God’s love and grace.^2,3 This transformation leads to a life that reflects God’s presence within.

What Theosis Is Not

Theosis in Carmelite understanding does not imply an ontological change in the nature of the soul or its absorption into the divine essence. It respects the Creator-creature distinction, emphasizing instead a relational and mystical union with God. St. John of the Cross warns against any spiritual pride or presumption of achieving divine status, focusing on the necessity of humility, dispossession, and the dark night of the soul as paths to union with God.^4

Theological and Historical Foundations

Biblical Foundations

Carmelite spirituality finds its scriptural grounding for theosis in the call to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)^5 and in the mystical union described in the Song of Songs, a book deeply cherished by Carmelite mystics for its allegorical depiction of the soul’s journey towards God.

Patristic Insights and Carmelite Interpretation

The Carmelite tradition, while postdating the early Church Fathers, resonates with the patristic teachings on theosis, especially in its understanding of the transformative power of divine love and the pursuit of holiness. The writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross echo the teachings of the Fathers on the primacy of love and the transformative encounter with God.^6

Historical Context

The Carmelite Order, originating on Mount Carmel in the 12th century, evolved a spirituality centered on contemplative prayer and the interior life. Theosis, as understood in Carmel, is framed within this contemplative vocation, emphasizing a journey toward God marked by prayer, silence, and the lived experience of God’s transformative love.

Pathways to Theosis in Carmelite Spirituality

Prayer and Contemplation

Prayer is the heart of the Carmelite path to theosis. St. Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle” guides the soul through the mansions of interior growth towards the center, where intimate union with God is realized.^7 St. John of the Cross, in “The Dark Night of the Soul,” articulates the purgative journey of the soul towards divine union, emphasizing the role of contemplative prayer in this transformative process.^8

Living in Communion

Carmelite spirituality, while emphasizing the interior life, also values community life as a means of grace and transformation. The daily rhythm of communal prayer, work, and recreation forms a framework for living out the theosis in the context of fraternal charity and support.

Embracing the Cross

Theosis in the Carmelite tradition involves a profound identification with Christ, especially in His suffering and self-emptying. St. John of the Cross’s concept of the “dark night” articulates the purifications necessary for deeper union with God, where the soul learns to find joy in the cross and in the surrender of all things for love of God.^9

Theosis and Modern Relevance

Contemporary Spiritual Hunger

In a world marked by noise, distraction, and superficiality, the Carmelite path to theosis offers a counter-cultural invitation to silence, depth, and authentic spiritual engagement. It speaks to the contemporary longing for meaning, offering a journey toward true fulfillment in God.

Challenges and Opportunities

The Carmelite tradition acknowledges the challenges of the spiritual journey, including dryness in prayer, the dark night of the soul, and the demands of community life. Yet, these are seen as opportunities for growth, deepening trust in God, and furthering the transformative journey of theosis.

Conclusion: Embracing Theosis in Carmelite Spirituality

The Carmelite tradition offers a rich path to theosis, marked by prayer, contemplative silence, and community life. It invites us to a deep and transformative union with God, achieved not through our effort alone but through grace, humility, and the loving surrender of our lives to God. As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing; God never changes.”^10


Footnotes

  1. 2 Peter 1:4 – New International Version (NIV)
  2. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle.
  3. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle.
  4. St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
  5. Matthew 5:48 – NIV
  6. St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection; St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night.
  7. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle.
  8. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul.
  9. Ibid.
  10. St. Teresa of Avila, Bookmark.

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