The Anglican Ascetic (Part 4)

By Matthew Paul Buccheri

“The teleological end of liturgical asceticism is to be further conformed to Christ, riding upward on baptism’s artesian fountain.”[1]  Finally we come to the telos of the liturgical-ascetical experience according to Fagerberg: union with God.  This deepest union–described by some as deification, by others as theosis, and still by others as theologia–is the re-likening of humanity; it is the process of becoming truly human…once again.

While retaining God’s image, what the fall of Adam and Eve stripped humanity of–the likeness of God–is restored in and through our union with the incarnate-dead-resurrected-and-ascended Jesus Christ.  Therefore, the entire ascetical program (if it can even be referred to as such) is heading toward this union, which finds its goal in the restoration of the likeness of God; to be godlike; or, in short, to become gods.

“…Christ is the source of our liturgy, our theology, and our asceticism…[w]hat Christ is by nature we are to become by grace.”

As Fagerberg points out, “[since] Christ is the source of our liturgy, our theology, and our asceticism…[w]hat Christ is by nature we are to become by grace.”[2]  And part of entering into that deepest union is engaging liturgical prayer, which is one very important moment when grace is distributed.

The 1979 Prayer Book hints at this restorative theme in a number of ways, mostly in a handful of Collects, however.  In the Collect for Fridays during Evening Prayer we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies’ sake.”[3]  Keeping in mind that the theme of death is central to Friday since that was the day Jesus is said to have died, to petition Christ in this way, asking that his likeness be restored to us, is one way the deifying theme is hinted at.

In another Collect the theme of deification shines through more brightly and the obvious echoes of 2 Peter 1:4 should strike us in this Collect when we say: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, you Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”[4]  While a little bit more opaque, the Collect for Ascension also hints at deification: “Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”[5]  Fagerberg supports the notion that ascension and deification are equated when he says, “The end of a watch is to tell time, the end of a knife is to cut, the end of a human being is theosis.  The purpose of the descending incarnation was to enable our ascending deification.”[6]

Fagerberg project ends by casting the Virgin Mary as the archetypal liturgical ascetic.

As liturgical person, Mary’s response is doxological because she offers glory to God with her whole being; it is eucharistic as she embodies Israel’s praise and creation’s thanksgiving; it is spiritual for having enjoyed a personal Pentecost in anticipation of the corporate Pentecost on the disciples (in both cases the Spirit came down where Mary was); it is theological insofar as she enjoys a mystical union with God; it is ascetical insofar as he will was conformed to Christ’s….

While this is not the place to hash out this feature of Fagerberg’s thesis, he does highlight one area relevant to our use of the Magnificat.  During Evening Prayer we say,

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up (ὕψωσεν, exalt) the lowly. 
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.[7]

While the italicized line is cast in the light of a social inversion, there is little doubt that it brings to mind a host of kaleidoscopic images, both theological and spiritual.   When we sing or say these words, we join Mary and all the saints who have entered into the deepest union with God–a resurrected-exalted-deified union.  Furthermore, while it is true that older editions of the Prayer Book have included the Magnificat, given all the current revision and ascetical additions, it may help shed new light on the words we say or sing.

Commenting on 2 Peter 1:3–4 that we “may become participants of the divine nature” Fagerberg reminds us that,

“Deification is our created human end, and Satan cannot change that…”

Deification is our created human end, and Satan cannot change that; he cannot change the ontological will of God, he can only distort its presentation to us.  It is God’s will that man and woman be deified, and all Satan could do was corrupt the terms of the promise.  When he whispered “you can be your own gods,” he turned promised deification into a temptation to idolatry.  Satan’s deceit was to use a true end for a false purpose.  Idolatry is a liturgical category: it is misplaced worship.

Moreover, Evagrius says, “If you are a theologian you truly pray.  If you truly pray, you are a theologian”[8] and by this Evagrius doesn’t mean sitting in a library or study hall or university or seminary.  He means, however, that the person who prays is exceptionally close to God, deified!  Being people of the Prayer Book, every time we engage in praying the Office, we take another ascetical step toward that end.

Join Matthew Paul Buccheri next Monday for the conclusion of “The Anglican Ascetic.” 

[1] Ibid., 161.

[2] Ibid., 163.

[3] BCP, 123.  My italics.

[4] BCP, 214.  Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day.  My italics.

[5] BCP, 226.

[6] Fagerberg, 186.

[7] BCP, 119.  My italics.

[8] Evagrius, Chapters on Prayer, 60.