Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.
What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.
You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself (George MacDonald, as quoted by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, Bk. IV, Ch. IX).
Instead of making us a little bit more virtuous or a little more holy, analogous to C.S. Lewis’ “decent cottage,” the Divine intent (contingent upon our cooperation) is to make us gods in God, as Scripture attests:
…he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).
And as St. Athanasius famously wrote:
For He (Jesus) was made man that we might be made God (On the Incarnation, Ch. LIV, Pt. III, circa 4th Cent. A.D.).
This transformation termed divinization, or deification, is God’s aim for our lives.
Therefore, in this post we look at what it means, and how it occurs.
Now the assimilation to, and union with, God, as far as attainable, is deification (Dionysius the Aeropogite, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, C. I, S.III).
With Dionysius, we can define divinization as supernatural union with God, which, outside of extraordinary circumstances, begins at Baptism; for it is in the Sacrament of Baptism that God begins to dwell, by grace, within us. To this point, St. Paul teaches:
…he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ…(Tit. 3:5-6).
Through the reception of the Holy Spirit, we are divinized, and by grace attain what the Council of Trent declares to be:
…not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting (Council of Trent, Session VI, Ch. VII).
At Baptism we become a “new creation,” (2 Cor. 5:17), and along with our participation in a new nature, we acquire new faculties; including, the ability to know God supernaturally (by faith), love Him for His own sake (via charity), and count on His assistance (through hope).
Additionally, since faith, hope, and charity are termed virtues (or powers) they are able to exist in us even before we are able to carry out their corresponding acts. This is the case for those who were baptized as infants. St. Thomas explains:
…habits of these and other virtues require the power of the will which is in children; whereas acts of virtue require an act of the will, which is not in children. In this sense Augustine says in the book on Infant Baptism (Ep. xcviii): The little child is made a believer, not as yet by that faith which depends on the will of the believer, but by the sacrament of faith itself, which causes the habit of faith. (Summa Theologiae, III, Q. 69, A. 6)(emphasis added).
These habits not only begin to exist in us via sanctifying grace but also increase in proportion to that grace, as well as divinization in general (cf. ST, I-II, Q. 110, A.3)(cf. ST, I-II, Q. 112, A.1).
Therefore, to the degree in which we advance in grace, so too will we participate in the Divine nature; which leads us to our next question: how, exactly, can this grace increase in us?
The first way in which sanctifying grace can increase in us is through the reception of subsequent sacraments. The first two of which are the later Sacraments of Initiation: namely, Confirmation and Eucharist. Speaking to both, Aquinas writes:
It remains, then, that when the sacrament (Eucharist) itself is really received, grace is increased, and the spiritual life perfected: yet in a different fashion from the sacrament of Confirmation, in which grace is increased and perfected for resisting the outward assaults of Christ’s enemies. But by this sacrament grace receives increase, and the spiritual life is perfected, so that man may stand perfect in himself by union with God (ST, III, Q. 79, A.1).
Yet not all will receive the grace from these sacraments equally, especially in regard to the Eucharist. Pope St. Pius X explains why:
Since the measure of the grace conferred ex opere operato (from the work worked) is in proportion to the subjective disposition of the recipient, the reception of Holy Communion should be preceded by a good preparation, and an appropriate thanksgiving should follow it (Pope St. Pius X, on Frequent and Daily Reception of the Eucharist)(emphasis added).
Although a proper disposition in receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation is also important, since the Eucharist is received repeatedly in a Catholic’s lifetime (dramatically affecting his or her progress in grace) counsel regarding its reception merits a short digression.
To receive the Eucharist properly (along with the official requirements given by the Church) St. Alphonsus Liguouri, Bishop and Church Doctor, gives the following counsel:
The remote preparation consists in detachment from creatures…He that wishes to communicate often, should empty his heart of the things of the earth…(and)….Immediately before Communion, you should, even though you had made mental prayer, excite in your soul lively sentiments of faith, of humility, and of desire (True Spouse of Christ, Ch. XVIII, III).
Through the Eucharist, and for those properly disposed to receive it, one is increasingly deified; he or she becomes increasingly one in spirit with the One who, through the accidents of bread and wine (see Transubstantiation), becomes one with him or her in the flesh. As St. Augustine said:
I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me” (Confessions, Bk. VII, Ch. X, P. 16).
Along with the grace received through the proper reception of the sacraments, sanctifying grace may also be obtained as a reward for righteous labor.
According to the Council of Trent, God (in his mercy) gives grace not only by sacrament but also as a recompense for good works. The Council writes:
…they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ…(Council of Trent, Session VI, Ch. X).
It is important to emphasize, against any Pelagian misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching, that even these good works are themselves God’s gift. The Council of Orange would state this explicitly about a millennia before Trent, writing:
That grace is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed; but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done (Canon XVIII).
The reward for these good works (wrought by God’s gift) is progress in the life of grace (cf. ST, I-II, Q. 114, A.8).
Fortunately, in order to be meritorious, these works need not even be of the specifically “religious” kind (fasting, praying, and almsgiving), since our Lord said that he who gives “even a cup of cold water…will certainly not lose his reward” (Mt. 10:42).
The Lord will give grace and glory (Ps. 84:11).
To the extent one advances in grace in this life (and thereby deification) so too will he partake in glory in the next life. For grace is simply the seed of glory, as St. Thomas writes:
…grace and glory are referred to the same genus, for grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us (ST. II-II, Q. 24, A. 3).
Differing degrees of grace and glory form the rationale behind the “many mansions” (Jn. 14:2) in the Father’s house; why St. Paul was caught up to the “third” heaven (1 Cor. 12:2) as opposed to the second or first; and why “star differs from star in glory” (1 Cor. 15:41).
The Church will later integrate these texts into a single decree by proclaiming:
If anyone shall say that…the good works, which are done by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (whose living member he is), does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life (if he should die in grace), and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema (Council of Trent, Session VI, Canon XXXII).
And then regarding the beatific vision, specifically, the Council of Florence will proclaim:
…the souls of those who have incurred no stain of sin whatsoever after baptism, as well as souls who after incurring the stain of sin have been cleansed…are straightaway received into heaven and clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits…(Session VI).
Therefore, since according to the measure of grace and divinization received in this life so too will be our glory and “clarity” in the next life, let us “lift (up) our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees,” (Heb. 12:12), and “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24).
Let us strive, by God’s grace, to become as Godlike as God permits, and through the fruitful reception of the sacraments and righteous labor resolutely strive “to take hold of that life which is life indeed” (1 Tim 6:19).