From Fetus to Life: Theosis in Cabasilas & the Inklings

Feast of St Macrina the Righteous, Sister of St Basil

Cabasilas_Square.jpgST NICHOLAS Cabasilas, the medieval Byzantine theologian and master of the Mysteries (sacraments), offers a very interesting way of thinking about theosis. He writes, “As nature prepares the fetus, while it is in its dark and fluid life, for that life which is in the light, and shapes it, as though according to a model, for the life which it is about to receive, so likewise it happens to the saints” (The Life in Christ 1.2).

We can imagine the fetus thinking, Why do these bones in my legs continue to grow when they only cramp up the limited space I have? What are they for? They’re of no use to me here, in this place. Why this nose when there is nothing to smell, these eyes when it is totally dark, these lungs that are ill-suited to this liquid environment? It is a waste to be developing these faculties because they are of no use to me in my present life, in my present condition.

But having made the comparison between the baby and the saint, Cabasilas points out an important way in which they are different.

While the unborn have no perception whatever of this life, the blessed ones have many hints in this present life of things to come. . . . The unborn do not yet possess this life, but it is wholly in the future. In that condition there is no ray of light nor anything else which sustains this life. In our case this is not so, but that future light is, as it were, infused into this present life and mingled with it. . . . In this present world, therefore, it is possible for the saints not only to be disposed and prepared for that life, but also even now to live and act in accordance with it (The Life in Christ 1.2).

Some faculties that have been forming in us since baptism, our other dark and fluid home, may also seem like they are growing inside to no purpose; we have not used them as we should; we are clumsy and incomplete in how we wield the theological virtues we have been given; we have gifts prematurely, it seems.

Yet, Cabasilas is saying, we fetal saints do have some perception, even now in this life, of what is yet to come because the ending of the plot (our life) has been shown in Revelation. It is the purpose of Revelation to give a glimpse of the upcoming theosis, both in the formative Torah and the divining prophets, and the revelation in the flesh outside Bethlehem. Only after we have seen the flower can we understand the seed; until we see the tulip, the bulb looks like a gnarled knob; until we run, we do not know what legs are for; the Omega is required to understand the Alpha; the son of God made flesh is required to understand the predestination of men and women.

I think each of the Inklings was on to this. Their stories and writings taught us to be disposed and prepared for that life, and to live and act even now in accordance with it. The clues are strewn throughout their writings.

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Tolkien calls us “sub-creators” because, like the God in whose image we are made, we can create little cosmoses: that’s what fairy tales are. He does not define fairy stories as childish stories, or even stories for children; he defines them as stories about Faerie. It is a particular mood in which we find all things to be enchanted—tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and we ourselves, mortal men and women. Each fairy story has its own mode of reflecting truth, he adds, and one of the truest and most moving sensations in a fairy story is the sudden happy turn “which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).” To name this experience he coined the word eucatastrophe, from eu- (good) and cata-strophe (unraveling a drama’s plot). “And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible in the greatest Fairy Story” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 100). Think of the saints that have lived a joy such as is capable of bringing tears.

Owen Barfield speaks of “poetic diction,” which means selecting and arranging words in such a way that their meaning arouses aesthetic imagination. And when he tries to describe in more detail what that means, he finds himself “obliged to define it as a ‘felt change of consciousness’” (Poetic Diction, 48). Deification would change our consciousness of everything. However, capacitation for such a consciousness requires that the world be perceived by the whole person. “I do not perceive any thing with my sense-organs alone, but with a great part of my whole human being. . . . When I ‘hear a thrush singing,’ I am hearing, not with my ears alone, but with all sorts of other things like mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling, and will” (Saving the Appearances, 20). Like the fetus in the womb, we are still waiting for our most startling contact with reality, when we will have the resurrected body, but unlike the fetus we can already detect it because we perceive the world not with sense organs alone, but with divinely graced memories, imaginations, feelings, and wills.

What quotes shall I take from Lewis to bring him into the discussion? All the characters in Narnia long to go further up and further in, as much as the fetus longs to get further out. They want to go into Aslan's country, where the inside is bigger than the outside, where all that mattered of the old Narnia has been drawn through the door into the real Narnia . . .

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  • John Brown
    commented 2016-07-20 23:37:46 -0500

    I respect with utmost admiration your efforts at defining a blessed, an angelic life for every precious baby born into this broken word. Please forgive me, gentlemen, but how might your beautiful words above apply to the infant lying in a Baltimore basement, her little chest heaving in sudden, terrified response to the gunfire beside her crib? How do these ideas possibly impact the thousands of little ones born with the horrid in-utero effects of their mothers’ enjoyment of crack cocaine? How do any of these inklings reach toward Detroit, with an adult illiteracy rate exceeding fifty percent.
    Sirs, I hope your time together at this festival is energizing and ennobling.
    But yours are sentences spoken in the vacuum, abstraction upon fun-filled abstraction, goodness that — in Lewis’ and Barfield’s and Tolkien’s world — would have seemed entirely fitting. With Black Lives Matter snipers waiting across the street, however, perhaps in the playground of Coleman Middle School, or to the east there in the apartments down from the Lutheran Church where Tiller was shot — how hollow must ring these abstractions, this wish upon thesis upon hope upon fantasy.
    Such magnificent brainpower here . . . how I do pray that it might be extended beyond the few days of your mutual satisfaction.
    God bless you all.
    Again, forgive my intrusion. I want only for good people to act, forcefully and efficiently, in the face of the darkness that now enshrouds our country, our most unhappy, quite fallen world.

    John Brown