Thursday, 28 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 17 — Dispassion and the Incarnation

Since it is the Christmas season, we thought we should say something. Let us talk about the Incarnation in the context of the movement from passion to dispassion. In the thinking of the Orthodox Fathers, the passions in man, taken as emotional tendencies to sin based on pleasures of the senses, are due to the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise. We each of us inherited from Adam and Eve emotional tendencies to sin. Dispassion, on the other hand, is a condition of Christian perfection that restores the likeness to God to what it was in Adam and Eve before the fall. The condition of dispassion is expressed in the saying of the Greek Fathers, including St Irenaeus of Lyons, St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria and St Gregory the Theologian, that God became man so that man might be made God. This condition is the same as adoption as son or daughter; it is also called divinization. In this state, the emotional tendencies are directed to virtue.

In the classic formulation, due in part to St Diadochos of Photiki, when Adam and Eve sinned in Paradise, they (and we their children) lost their likeness to God. However, although it was distorted, they (and we) did not lose the image of God in us. There is no doctrine in the Orthodox Church of the depravity of the unsaved sinner. In Orthodox baptism, the image of God is restored by the accession of the Holy Spirit. The likeness to God, however, is a matter of our life-long endeavour.

There are several roads open to the Christian in the pursuit of the restoration of the likeness to God. These are chiefly the married state and the monastic state (we ignore here the priesthood). This is what we have been talking about: the Ladder of Divine Ascent teaches to the monk the basics of the movement from passion to dispassion, from passion to the restoration of the likeness to God, from an ordinary human condition to a condition of being a god by Grace.

What has Christ to do with all this? The Fathers, especially St Gregory the Theologian, are very clear that Christ became man, emptying himself of his Glory for a time, so that man might partake of Christ’s Divinity. It is the Incarnation of Christ that opens to man, whether in the married or in the monastic state, the possibility of his return to the likeness to God that he lost in Adam and Eve in Paradise. God became man so that man might be made God.

What struck us in the vigil we attended at Christmas was the love of God. Just as we discussed in our disquisition on the Parable of the Prodigal Son for our Romanian-Orthodox reader, in the case of the repentant sinner God rushes out of his house to embrace his lost child. But that is exactly what the services of the Church teach us about the Incarnation of Christ. God, seeing the terrible condition of Adam and Eve (and, hence, all their children on the face of the earth), takes pity on them and on all men and inclines the Heavens so that his Son might come down to take up human flesh. Why? So that we might become gods by Grace. So that we might attain to dispassion. It is a matter of the love of God—of all three Persons of the Holy Trinity, surely, starting with the initiative of the Father—for his creature that he created in his own image. How great is man’s nature that he was made in the image of God and by God’s own hands! How great is the love of God for man that, although man sinned, he inclines the Heavens to come down so that man might be made God!

God not only rushes out of his house to embrace the baptized Christian who repents, but he inclines the very Heavens for his Son to descend to save the lost sheep, the human nature.

Somewhere, St Isaac the Syrian says something to this effect: What can we say about the justice of God when he did not spare his own Son but sent him down from Heaven to Earth to save his sinning creature, man? This is the same St Isaac who remarks that the raiment of Divinity is humility.

Dispassion is a return in the core of our being to the condition of Adam and Eve in Paradise; it is the restoration of the likeness to God that we lost in Adam and Eve. It is the adoption of the Christian as son or daughter of God; it his being made a god by Grace. It is the fulfilment of the movement from passion to dispassion that is the topic of the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Dispassion, the adoption as son or daughter, divinization, is usually fulfilled in Christians in the Second Coming and the General Resurrection. However, for those who can and will make the effort, there is the possibility, with the help of God, of either a partial or full restoration in the monastic state. And we owe this possibility to the love of God manifested in the Incarnation of his Son who emptied himself of Glory so that we might partake of his Divinity. May he bless us and all mankind.

Merry Christmas to All!
Orthodox Monk

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