by Archbishop Joseph Raya (1916-2005)
“The glory of God is a man (or woman) fully alive,” said St. Irenaeus in the second century. To be fully alive and vibrant is to be a sharer in the life of the Trinity and bathed in the goodness of God.
Theosis, or divinization, the union of our humanity with God, is a gift of God acquired through the sacraments. It is a long process, the struggle of a lifetime. It has no limit because it is a process leading to participation in the perfection of God.
It is developed and maintained by asceticism, for first of all, we must be healed of our inner disorders. We cannot reach the fullness of our human capacities, we cannot be alert and fully alive, except through an incessant fight against the false ego. So our first step is to submit to discipline.
He who wants to follow me, said the Lord, let him deny himself and take up his cross every day and follow me (Lk 9:23). Athletes train their bodies for outstanding achievements; artists seek the technical expertise they need to give form to their vision. Scholars, scientists, and students seek patiently the clear light of truth, and married couples, too, work together to create between themselves and with their families a mirror of the divine community.
Many others hunger, thirst, lust, even burn and shiver with a longing that only God can satisfy. But it is only through the discipline of tremendous amounts of effort and renunciation that we can really achieve inner freedom and allow the likeness of God within us to emerge and reign in us. We have to sell every security and every possession to buy the pearl of inestimable value (Mt 13:46).
Discipline is an inner drive of the will, a sap of life that runs through the fissures of our bodies and souls. It overcomes materiality and laziness and infuses us with freedom, vitality, and grace. Discipline is born out of an inner flame, out of a vision that consumes us to such an extent that it directs all our faculties toward making us creators, saints, artists, people truly alive.
Discipline sustains and increases love and the fascination for perfection and makes it faithful, patient, and more enduring. It is hope and discipline and love that keep us alert. They drive the saint into solitude, the musician into the studio, the ballet dancer or athlete to hard hours of exercise, and the husband and wife to face each other and their daily chores.
All human seekers of perfection must forget themselves and carry their cross each day. Rather than let circumstances rule our lives, we must give our days shape and purpose. To carry the cross each day is to transform the raw materials of life and make them beautiful. Then when the enslaving ego is vanquished and the conflicting desires are harmonized, God is mirrored in the soul, and we become our real selves, free and refreshed.
St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches that holiness is nothing else but the unquenchable thirst for God sought in the perfection of our human endeavors. That is why the human soul cannot find repose except in the infinite reality of God.
If we allow our vision to be transformed by the Gospel, our eyes become so focused and our hearts so attuned that we recognize God in every way he chooses to reveal himself to his creation—in the arts, in the sciences, in the joy of living, as well as in the contemplations of his face. The joy of seeing God thus expressed in the variety of human endeavor amazes our hearts and stirs us to sigh in admiration of his goodness.
When the ballet dancer defies the laws of materiality and gravity, when the singer or entertainer can stand alone and bring joy to many, when a husband and wife can find paradise in each other, and when religious men and women bathe their bodies in peace and harmony, we can experience God and burst out in glorification of his goodness. This is why the Lord said in the Gospel, Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:16).
This is a Christian vision and understanding of asceticism as inspired by the Incarnation and the presence of God in our flesh.