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Preacher of the Papal Household ‘looking East’

In the The Christian Answer to Atheist Scientism, Rev. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, Preacher of the Pontifical Household, had the following to say.

[…] The highest expression of the dignity and vocation of man, according to the Christian vision, is crystallized in the doctrine of the divinization of man. This doctrine did not have the same prominence in the Orthodox Church and in the Latin Church. The Greek [sic] Fathers, surmounting all the encumbrances that the pagan use had accumulated on the concept of deification (theosis), made it the fulcrum of their spirituality. Latin theology has insisted less on it. “The aim of life for Greek [sic] Christians – one reads in the Dictionary of Spirituality – is divinization, that of the Western Christians is the attainment of sanctity. … The Word became flesh, according to the Greeks [sic], to restore the likeness with God lost in Adam and to divinize him. According to the Latins, he became man to redeem humanity … and to pay the debt owed to God’s justice.” (G. Bardy, in Dictionary of Spirituality, III, col. 1389 f.) Simplifying it to the utmost, we could say that Latin theology, after Augustine, insists more on what Christ came to take away – sin, the Greek [sic] insists more on what He came to give to men – the image of God, the Holy Spirit and divine life.

This comparison should not be forced too much, as is sometimes done by Orthodox authors. Latin spirituality expresses sometimes the same ideal even if it avoids the term deification that, it is worth recalling, is foreign to biblical language. In the Liturgy of the Hours of Christmas Eve we will hear again the vibrant exhortation of Saint Leo the Great who expresses the same vision of the Christian vocation: “O Christian, recognize your dignity and, made participant of the divine nature, do not desire to return to the abjection of yore with unworthy conduct. Remember of what Head and of what Body you are a member.” (Discourse 1 on Christmas, PL 54, 190 f.)

However, certain Orthodox authors remain firm in the controversy of the 14th century between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam and seem to ignore the rich Latin mystical tradition. The doctrine of Saint John of the Cross, for example, according to which the Christian, redeemed by Christ and made son in the Son, is immersed in the flow of Trinitarian operations and participates in the intimate life of God, is no less lofty than that of divinization, though it is expressed in different terms. Also the doctrine on the gifts of the intellect and of wisdom in the Holy Spirit, so dear to Saint Bonaventure and to Medieval authors, was animated by the same mystical inspiration.

However, one cannot but recognize that Orthodox spirituality has something to teach to the rest of Christianity on this point, to Protestant theology even more than to Catholic theology. If there is, in fact, something that is really opposed to the Orthodox vision of the Christian deified by grace, it is the Protestant concept and, in particular, the Lutheran of the extrinsic and juridical justification, according to which redeemed man is ‘at the same time just and sinner’, sinner in himself, just before God.

Above all we can learn from the Eastern tradition not to reserve this sublime ideal of Christian life to a spiritual elite called to follow the way of mysticism, but to propose it to all the baptized, to make it the object of catechesis to the people, of religious formation in seminaries and novitiates. If I think of the years of my formation, I perceive an almost exclusive insistence on an asceticism that pointed everything to the correction of vices and the acquisition of virtues. To the disciple’s question on the ultimate aim of the Christian life, an holy Russian, Seraphim of Sarov, answered without hesitation, “the real end of Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As regards prayer, fasting, vigils, almsgiving and every other good action made in the name of Christ, they are only means to acquire the Holy Spirit.” (“Dialogue with Motovilov”, in Irina Goriainoff, Serafino di Sarov, Gribaudi, Turin, 1981, p. 156)

Advent, 2010 – 4 December

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