There are those unsung heroes—those people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and yet never could repay for their contribution to our lives. For me, there are many on that list. However, there is one woman in particular whose witness of few words was a seed. I wanted the peace that she embodied. But, at the time, I could not escape the turmoil in my heart. Only with the transition out of the church of my youth to a better place has the fruit of her influence has become clear.
A Bull In the China Shop
Years ago now I received an invitation to a new web forum. The site “MennoDiscuss” was created by a guy named Hans Mast and was dubbed “a place where Mennonites (and others) can discuss anything” in the tagline. I loved the idea. I was soon one of the first members of the board and was determined to make the endeavor a success.
I can’t recall exactly what I had expected going in. But early on it became very evident that MennoDiscuss would be a place where ex-Mennonites (and the otherwise) disaffected would come to argue with those of us still content with the denomination we were born into. And, being that I wasn’t afraid of debate (although, oddly enough, I dislike conflict) I jumped right in—playing the role of chief Mennonite apologist for some and being a real annoyance to others.
My zeal, both my desire to drive traffic to the site and need to defend my religious peers, led to me being one of the most prolific posters on the site and also often put me in the center of many controversies. My initial carefree (or careless) attitude soon led to a reputation and it is only a small transition from being engaged in conversation to feeling embattled. I took on the critics, yet I was not the “good Mennonite” who plays nice either, I believed turnabout was fair play and would often try to fight fire with fire.
Initially, despite being intense and a little too argumentative, my participation had mostly been fun and games for me. However that all changed when a personal tragedy knocked my spiritual feet out from under me and left me feeling betrayed by those whom I had assumed would be there for me and bitter at God. It was at that point things went very badly online as well. I was hurting and wanted answers for my pain. I needed help. But all I seemed to get was contempt and criticism.
The Calm In My Storm
There was one person different from the others. She offered me no advice. I can’t recall her saying much at all. But there was something about her spirit. She did not judge me. She let me speak without reminding me of all my past failures. I could open up and be honest with her in ways that I could not be with others for fear they might stab me in the back. She had been hurt by Mennonites yet didn’t seem to come in with an agenda.
Her name was “theosis” (or at least that was her screen name) and offline went by Martha. I do not know the details of her life, but she had been a convert to the Mennonite tradition before eventually finding a home with Orthodox Christians.
There were other Orthodox converts on the site. However, they were of the variety of converts who may have accepted Orthodox theology and practices, but have yet to grasp the attitude—or, in other words, “Ortho-fascists” as they are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as by other Orthodox. Theosis, by contrast, was not aggressive or argumentative, she had a peaceable spirit and something quite a bit deeper than the judgmental ‘non-resistance’ or militant ‘pacifism’ of many Mennonites.
Mennonites tend to take the role of “peacemaker” and turn it into something forcible and even meanspirited. They might never pick up arms in defense of a nation or theoretically refuse to defend their families from a hypothetical attacker, but some will passive-aggressively resist and gossip about their real enemies while pretending that they have none. Mennonites are good at niceness, sometimes putting a smile on their face while harboring ill-feelings, because that is what the culture requires.
But theosis was different. She seemingly saw something in my antics others could not or at least she was peaceable. If I had to guess her perception was due to her own pain. But, unlike me, where I raged against fate, she accepted her lot in life and had faith. While fundamentalist Mennonites tend to see peace as something to shove down your throat, she embodied peace and embodied it in a way that would temporarily calm my storm.
I desperately wanted what she had and yet didn’t know how to get there.
What Theosis Means and My Journey Since
My first guess, as far as the meaning of theosis, would’ve been something like “theology” and “sister” going by the fact that the only theosis I knew was a female Christian. But silliness aside, given my respect for Martha, I finally did Google the word “theosis” and found an intriguing theological concept. Theosis, as it turns out, is the Orthodox description for the ultimate goal of Christianity and that being perfect oneness with God.
At the time the term intrigued me. But I had bigger fish to fry rather than try to sift through Orthodox theological descriptions and kept it filed under delightful (but otherwise useless) oddities. Becoming like God is a moot point when one is struggling to even believe in God. Besides that, theosis (otherwise known as “divinization” or “deification”) seemed way too tall an order for my Mennonite mind and was probably heretical. Still, it stuck in the back of my mind as a concept and that’s where it stayed percolating for years.
My turmoil began to subside as I came to terms with the unexpected loss of Saniyah and the hopes tied to her. During this time I made a brief return to MennoDiscuss (after a hiatus) and left after feeling that I had done my part to restore relationships there and could move on. And, more significantly, I had a spiritual experience, an epiphany about faith, that helped push me to this point where I could move on.
In short, I discovered faith is something God does, a gift of salvation, a mysterious “quickening” and spiritual transformation, rather than something proved through science, apologetics, and reason—it was not earned through my works of righteousness or religious efforts. I could finally rest in grace, be empowered by the Spirit and be changed from the inside out. That newfound confidence is what led me to pursue “impossibly” in faith and, after another period of turmoil when my “hope against hope” was not reciprocated, eventually took me beyond my Mennonite roots.
As I read through Paul’s writings, as one now spiritually alive and with eyes opened a bit more than before, a picture of theosis began to emerge out of the text. It was a marvelous thing, and a beautiful paradox of faith, that Jesus became man so that we could join Him in perfect oneness with God. That is what it means to be adopted as a son or daughter of God—putting on the divinity of Jesus Christ and being made into an incarnation of Him. This is not to be equal to or replace God, but rather to be in perfect Communion with Him and a true embodiment of His life-creating Spirit.
Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation
Theosis is a theological concept both simple and profound. God became man so that we could follow in the example of Jesus and go beyond what is possible through mere religious devotion:
“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:33-38 NIV)
To claim to be God’s son is essentially to claim divinity or equality with God and, unless you truly are God’s child, is blasphemous.
What Jesus promised the disciples:
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:18-20 NIV)
And the day he delivered:
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23 NIV)
How Paul explains this:
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “ Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15-17 NIV)
That is an extraordinary claim. It is to essentially claim the same thing Jesus did and led to his being killed. And, in fact, before Jesus died to make the impossible possible, our calling God “Father” would indeed be blasphemous. This theosis, this divine adoption, is not cheap grace nor earned by our works of righteousness, it is a mysterious transformation that comes from faith and a work of the Spirit—It is partaking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Where is Martha Today?
Theosis, her full name Martha Ann Hays, passed from this life to the next on December 20th of 2010. She was terminally ill when I knew her and dealing with the same sense of loss all sane people feel when facing certain death. Yet despite this, and excruciating physical pain, she treated me with extraordinary kindness and a love that I did not deserve. Unlike me, constantly trying to figure everything out and win people through theological brute force, she was simply peaceable.
Her terminal illness, colorectal cancer, was very unpleasant and painful. She was still a young woman, in her thirties, when first diagnosed and was no doubt dealing with the weight of broken dreams and disappointment. That is probably why she understood me and had compassion where others did not. I knew she was not well. But she would never complain to me about the things going on in her life at the time.
Martha had never fit into the Mennonite culture and eventually moved on. She learned Russian while in university and later found Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodox) and a parish community in Toronto that loved her. She had many friends in her parish and that including a boyfriend who would be at her bedside. She died peacefully, as she had lived, surrounded by family and friends.
Her funeral, according to one non-Orthodox in attendance, had beautiful music and a worshipful atmosphere.
It is interesting how two people can see the same event through a completely different lens. Another friend (a conservative Mennonite who knew Martha) commented that her funeral was a “very sad occasion” because allegedly there were more Mennonites than Orthodox in attendance. But an Orthodox Christian knows that is not true. Yes, conservative Mennonites definitely have bodies in the pews at funerals. Yet, even if there are only a handful that can be physically present, an Orthodox funeral is always well-attended. Orthodox believe in the “Communion of saints” or basically the idea of that “great cloud of witnesses” expressed by the apostle Paul in the book of Hebrews.
[07/01: The friend who made the attendance claim has since wrote to make a retraction.]
I believe someone with Martha’s prognosis could greatly appreciate that she was not alone in her suffering and that there was that “great cloud of witnesses” there to cheer her on to the finish line. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy. The Chruch is bigger than the present suffering of those still “militant” and also includes those “triumphant” who have gone on to glory with God. The icons on the wall are there to remind us of that reality beyond us.
Being An Image (or Icon) of God
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV)
As is well-known now, I have left my Mennonite religious culture and have become an Orthodox Christian. But until now I have not mentioned theosis and her contribution to that decision. Martha’s peaceable witness was a seed, it was later watered by Fr. Anthony with his similar spirit a and genuinely fatherly care and has been nourished by the Church. It is a life that continues to grow in me. There is a great beauty in Orthodox worship that I have not found elsewhere.
I do not go to church as a family reunion or to hang out with friends anymore. I go for healing and spiritual renewal, to experience God through worship, to be one with Jesus in body and Spirit. I go to be in that “great cloud of witnesses” of a Church that spans two millennia and those icons on the wall are there to remind us to remain faithful until the end.
Orthodoxy is not a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do not change with the winds of modern culture, we do not fill our pews with those seeking entertainment or easy answers. We believe that the Christian life is one of trials, tribulations, loneliness, hardships, suffering, and salvation by way of the cross. But we also find there is a great peace in knowing that our turmoil is temporal and eternal life awaits.
We die to self so that we can live in perfect oneness with God. Martha died, like Jesus, so that I might live. And I must die, so you whom I love may also live.
That is God’s economy at work.
That is poetic justice.
That is theosis.