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Cover of Theosis

Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life

By Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos

This is an important little book that so clearly and beautifully states the purpose of our lives. For those of you who are searching for the Orthodox Christian response to "What is the meaning of life?", this is the answer.

Please note that the English edition was completely re-translated in 2006. —Patrick Barnes

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Translator’s Note

The beauty of this book is its simplicity. In clear and simple terms it states the original purpose of the Christian life—namely Theosis.

Its author Archimandrite George has been the Abbot of St. Gregorios Monastery since 1974. He is well known throughout the Orthodox world both as a theologian and spiritual father. He has written many books and articles on theology and the spiritual life. His works have been translated into many languages.

The idea of Theosis will be unfamiliar to the Western mind, although it is not a new concept to Christianity. When Christ said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” [1] this is a call to a life of Theosis.

Theosis is personal communion with God “face to face.” [2] To the Western mind, this idea may seem incomprehensible, even sacrilegious, but it derives unquestionably from Christ’s teachings. Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the messianic dream of the Jewish race; [3] His mission to connect us with the Kingdom of God [4]—a Kingdom not of this world. [5] When Jesus said, “You are gods,” [6] “be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” [7] or “the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father,” [8] this is to be taken literally. For those who are interested, further Biblical evidence for this can be found in Leviticus 11:44-45; 20:7-8; Deuteronomy 18:13; Psalms 82:1,6; Romans 6:22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:2-4.

The whole sacrificial tradition of Israel beginning with the sacrificial offering of Isaac reaches fulfillment in Jesus Christ. St. John the Baptist echoing Isaiah says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes upon Himself the sins of the world.” [9] St. Paul has this in mind when he says, “If you are Christ’s, then you are descendants of Abraham, and heirs according to the promise,” [10] because “those who believe are children of Abraham.” [11] The name Israel, was given to Jacob by God as an expression of his fidelity. Later this name was inherited by his faithful descendants. This train of thought is expounded in the writings of St. Paul, where he blesses the Church as “the Israel of God;” [12] whilst elsewhere he wrestles with and is pained by his fellow Jews denial of their own Messiah, labeling them “Israel according to the flesh.” [13]

That is why, the Church —'God’s very own People,” [14]—is also known as the “New Israel,” the “spiritual Israel,” striving to the Heavenly Kingdom. Those first Christians realised that the Kingdom of God was not simply equated with a Jewish state or a single people, but is intended for all humanity. [15] Through repentance we are all called to the true Exodus —to the New Jerusalem [16] —as Christ said, “Do not think that I am come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” [17]

The Orthodox Church has retained this original message of Christ unchanged. It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church is both the “body of Christ” [18] and the “faithful bride” [19] who has been true to her lover. It is this Sacred Tradition which guarantees our fidelity to Christ’s mission, and it is with this knowledge that He says “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [20] Christ’s teachings could not be arrived at from the Holy Bible alone; we would simply project our modern concepts onto the early Church. Theosis stems from this tradition in which the early Church, Traditional Christianity, and Orthodoxy are identical. Traditional Christianity gave expression and definition to its Theology through the Church Synods; notable among these being the seven Oecumenical Synods, the Synod of St. Photios of 867 and the Palamite Synods of the fourteenth century. Please note: the Church Synods gave expression and definition to an existent Theology that was fully present within the Church from the day of Pentecost: the same Synods were also responsible for compiling and approving the various books which today are collectively known as the New Testament. The dual task of Orthodox Theology is to define and also to protect from human distortion the teachings of Jesus Christ. As can be seen, Theology is far more than knowledge about God acquired through academic study. Christianity is a living faith, founded on revelation born of the Holy Spirit, [21] giving those counted worthy intimate experience of the Triune God and of spiritual realities. [22] All attempts to understand Christ’s message from a purely rational standpoint will remain partial and incomplete. [23]

We now live in an age where Western civilization lives and acts contrary to its Christian heritage, yet it still believes that it knows about Christ and His Church. The West fails to appreciate that over one thousand years separate it from this tradition. As a result, the West’s perception and understanding of Christ and His Church has become clouded. Although no longer perceived as such, Christ’s crowning achievement was also humanity’s crowning achievement, and this forms a watershed in human history. Christ’s message was so profound and revolutionary, that it can be said that humanity failed to grasp both its magnitude and its simplicity. As this book was originally intended for an Orthodox Greek-speaking audience, there was much common ground between the book and its audience. This translation has attempted to keep the simplicity present in the original, while continuing to convey the central message as faithfully as possible. Little explanation has been added to adapt it to Western thought, as this might misrepresent the true content of the book.

In order to understand Christ’s central teaching, we will have to approach certain key words and concepts in a new way and not according to their current English usage. We will have to look at them with an open mind, as if seeing them for the first time. It will be necessary to go back to basics, and in this way see what Christ and the Way meant to the first Christians. Key biblical words such as “psyche,” “heart,” “repentance,” and “nous,” will have to be looked at as if we are seeing them for the first time. For this reason, it was decided to italicise key words and concepts when they first appear and to provide a glossary* to define them.

Theosis is the Pearl of Great Price alluded to by Christ. [24] It can become a present reality for those who are willing to tread the path, and so it is not exclusively an after-death experience. With Theosis death is transcended. [25] St. Paul alludes to this when he says, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” [26] Again, while being stoned to death, St. Stephen the first martyr offered himself up to Christ and prayed to God for his persecutors to be forgiven. [27] The Easter chant, “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and bestowing life to those in the tombs” also bears witness to this.

Christianity is victory over death. So may this small book help us all to strive for that one thing needful, that One thing which cannot be taken from us.

Endnotes

* The glossary is linked here as a separate file, but is available in the book. See also this study of Orthodox terms, also by St. Gregorios Monastery.

  1. Matthew 4:17.
  2. Cf. Genesis 32:30.
  3. Cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Isaiah 53; Acts 1:6; 2:16-36; 1 Peter 2:6-8.
  4. Mark 1:15.
  5. Romans 14:17.
  6. John 10:34.
  7. Matthew 5:48.
  8. Matthew 13:43; cf Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36.
  9. John 1:29.
  10. Galatians 3:29.
  11. Galatians 3:7-9.
  12. Galatians 6:15-16; also cf. John. 1:11-13; Romans 2:28-29; James 1:1.
  13. Romans 9-11; also cf. John. 8:37-40; 10:32-38.
  14. 1 Peter 2:9; cf Colossians 2:11.
  15. Cf. Matthew 3:7-9; Acts 1:8; 11:1-18; 15:16-17; Galatians 3:14;28.
  16. Revelation 21:2-3.
  17. Matthew 5:17.
  18. Colossians 1:18,24; Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.
  19. 2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 18:23.
  20. Matthew 28:20; cf John. 17:20-22.
  21. John 16:13; Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 2:10;13.
  22. Cf. Acts 9:3-7.
  23. 1 Corinthians 2:9.
  24. Matthew 13:45-46.
  25. Cf. Mark 9:1; John 4:14; 8:51; 11:25-26; Romans 5:21; 2 Timothy 1:10.
  26. Galatians 2:20.
  27. Acts 7:59-60.

Preface

It is very daring for someone to talk about Theosis without first having tasted it. But we have dared what is beyond our power because we have faith in the mercy of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

This is done so as not to hide from our Christian brothers the highest and ultimate purpose of our life; that for which we were created.

This is done so that it will become clear that the only truly Orthodox form of pastoral guidance is that which is intended to lead to Theosis, and is not, as in Western Christianity, aimed at a moral perfection for man which does not depend on God’s Grace.

This is done so that all may desire what is best and struggle for the highest. This is the only thing able to quench the depth of the psyche’s thirst for the Absolute, the Triune God.

This is done so that we will overflow with gratitude towards our Maker and Creator for His great gift to us, Theosis by Grace.

This is done so that we realise the irreplaceability of our Holy Church as the only community of Theosis on earth.

This is done so that the magnificence and truth of our Orthodox Faith should be revealed as the only faith that teaches and provides Theosis to its members.

This is done so that our psyches should be consoled, for regardless of the degree to which they have been poisoned and darkened by sin, they yearn for the light of Christ’s face.

Merciful Lord, in Your boundless love, be pleased to make us worthy to enter the path of Theosis before we leave the present temporal world.

Merciful Lord, in their quest for Theosis, guide those of our Orthodox brethren who do not rejoice because they are unaware of the magnificence of the fact that they are “called to be gods.”

Merciful Lord, also guide the steps of heterodox Christians to become aware of Your Truth, so that they are not left outside Your Bridechamber, deprived of the Grace of Theosis.

Merciful Lord, have mercy on us and on Your world! Amen.

The Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios of the Holy Mountain Athos
† Archimandrite George
March 1997

Posted on 3/5/2008 with the blessing of Archimandrite George.