“God became man so that man may become God.” In this pithy aphorism, Saint Athanasius is saying that deification (theosis) is grounded in incarnation (sarkosis), that our ascent (anabasis) to God is rooted in God’s descent (katabasis) in becoming human. God takes on our human nature so that we may partake in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Grace is uncreated, deifying energy and it is by grace that humanity partakes in the divine nature, empowered by the mysteries of uncreated glory. The Logos imparts divine life to us which was from the beginning, which the apostle says he has heard and seen, which he has beheld and touched, the uncreated wedded to the created, the timeless unveiled in time, releasing the created into the uncreated and time into the timeless (1 John 1:1). Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), through whom the image of God is restored as likeness to God in us. This is deification, or in the language of the New Testament, glorification and the wisdom of desert elders discerns uncreated glory at the heart of God’s deification of the saints.
In the desert, elders behold saints in the glory of the image of Christ, who is the image of God. Icons are venerated but not worshipped because their prototype is Christ, who is worshipped but whose icons are venerated. Christ’s uncreated and created natures are united but not confused, because they differ but are not divided. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, Logos and image were pronounced equivalent, that is, what the Logos proclaimed verbally the icon expressed visually. The uncreated creative imagination is in the image of God when it creates images of the saints who are regenerated in the image and likeness of God. The difference between the uncreated and the created is never confused, yet in the mysteries of Holy Orthodoxy never divided, because transfiguring deification is revealed without confusion or division by Christ on Mount Tabor. To behold the glory of the Only Begotten Son is to behold the glory of the unbegotten Father, who generates the Son in his image. Icons of transfiguration are dogmatic reflections of ineffable mysteries which elders in the desert impart in full awareness of the critical tension that arises between the mysteries as they are divinely and humanly lived and the dogmas that reflect them. Dogma cannot exhaust mystery nor can mysteries be reduced to dogma, which is why mystical theology in the Orthodox tradition is profoundly apophatic.
Desert wisdom is apophatic because uncreated difference is radically different from all created differences, so radically different, that there is no common measure between uncreated and created difference. Patristic unknowing is not, however, reducible to nihilistic agnosticism, because unknowing in us makes way for wisdom, whose knowledge of God is God’s. Scripture denies the possibility of any ordinary dualistic knowledge of God (Ex 33:20), but affirms that the pure in heart do indeed see God (Mt 5:8). This irreducible paradox led desert elders to distinguish between the divine essence which is not seen and the divine energies, such as wisdom, which see in the Spirit and are spiritually seen. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Denys the Areopagite, Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Symeon the New Theologian and Saint Gregory Palamas all handle the mysteries of participation in God with the help of this difference between uncreated essence and uncreated energies, imparting the mystical theology of transfiguring difference to the desert. Elders bear witness to vision of eschatological glory awakening saints to wisdom, renewing Orthodox Hesychast tradition from within, ensuring its coherent transmission from generation to generation. The mysteries of transfiguration on Mount Tabor reveal how incarnation imparts deification in the saints, mysteries which elders transmit in the desert as light from light, as God from God, from heart to heart. Actually, illumination is not ‘transmitted’ by elders but communicated by the Spirit. Elders in the Spirit simply bear witness with the Spirit to the mysteries of the incarnation, which the transfiguring Spirit communicates to the saints as deification.