Every now and then, the work of years clarifies itself into a moment of grace. In May 2012, during my husband’s first iconography workshop, Fr. Mefodii invited us to tour his studio. It is a schoolroom on an old Virginia plantation where the schoolmaster had risked his life to educate all the children on the plantation, regardless of their skin color. The room is not large, but its history of good works appealed to the monk who teaches there.
I walked into the naturally lit room and immediately noticed an image I had never seen before. It looked like a picture of Christ Emmanuel, but there was no halo around him, and he was lying in a red blanket. I asked about it. Is this Christ in the womb? Where is his halo?
“Ah, that is the spermatikos logos, the seed of the Word of God that is in all humans.” I had read about the spermatikos logos many times over the years in my studies of the early church. I had taught seminarians about it. I nodded in recognition. Father, encouraged by my understanding, lifted another icon from where it cured against the wall on another table.
“And this is what happens in baptism. The seed is watered.” The image was an unusual one, not an image of the Trinity, but of the Fatherhood of God, showing Christ Emmanuel and the relationship we enter into with God in baptism. I looked from one image to another and understood for the first time. Many, many scriptures rushed to mind about growing into the full stature of Christ and becoming children of God. And that one idea that wove through the early church teachings finally hit home with me, impressing upon me the meaning of being in the image and growing into the likeness of God.
Growing into the likeness of God, the fullness of Christ, is described as theosis, literally, becoming like God. This isn’t the false promise of the serpent where one rushes off on one’s own and tries to compete with God. It is true likeness, and it happens by God’s love.
Round about Christmas, my little sister came to visit us for a few days. She noticed the misery that we were in over the prospect of staying away from Orthodoxy and encouraged us to contact our local Orthodox priest already. She watched our children so we could go meet.
We had a great conversation, went to church there the next morning, and what do you think? The sermon was on theosis, the way of salvation that is becoming like God. We grow into the likeness of God, the fullness of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, in sacraments, prayers, and sanctifying this life. After what amounts to eleven or twelve years of kicking around the idea, we enrolled as catechumens.
I started reading about Orthodox liturgy and the theological distinctions between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. A theme emerged, one that has been in our lives for a long while, but that came to the forefront. We are saved for God in love. This Lent, I started reading Fredericka Mathewes-Green’s First Fruits of Prayer (click link for Amazon page; disclosure: I am not compensated for linking to books here). In the introduction to that work, Ms. Mathewes-Green plainly states a truth often overlooked in American Christian culture: God doesn’t need tools. He doesn’t use us; he loves us.
That truth helped to salve a wound I had picked up without knowing it, perhaps without any of us knowing it, in my years of Protestantism. I had thought of myself as a servant of God in the same way one thinks of tools. God could “use” me. I thought that prayers and miracles worked that way, too. That God would use people to bring about a good thing. To say that’s confusing is an understatement. If a tool can be used to do something, can’t the tool learn to do the good things without being used as well? Why would it need to be wielded?
Our cultural obsession with robots that turn on their masters is an anxiety born of the idea that we are primarily God’s instruments. So is the standard midlife crisis of rejecting one’s faith when one feels one has one’s life together (or that one’s life is falling apart); God is also a tool in this model.
But God doesn’t need tools. God didn’t make us as tools. God loves us. The shocking simplicity is that God gives to us because of love; all we do is ask. Like Orual in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, we do not always ask what we think we are asking. But the communion of saints shows the way: a humble bowed head is the face upturned to God.
I started writing this post in my last week of pregnancy in early March. I was inspired by the sudden conflagration of grace that surrounded me. We were Chrismated into the Greek Orthodox Church on February 22, and I became like a baby again, fascinated by spiritual light. The kind, dear people in our lives continued to be kind and dear. They fed us.
On my last prenatal appointment, I was told that we would have to start considering inductions if the babies did not come by the following week. But I had no signs of labor. We decided to call in an order to our favorite restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, because it was the food I craved throughout pregnancy and seemed to help with labor. Andrew called and told our situation. We hoped the food would help me to go into labor with its rich herbs and spices, and we knew it would be nourishing. Andrew went in to pick up our order, but soon Vimala herself came out to the car and explained to me that she had prepared a special set of meals that would help me go into labor. She also included a container of ground toasted sesame seeds that I was to eat at every meal, and some roasted eggplants. I ate the food at every meal for three days and the sesame into the fourth day. That night, I went into labor.
That food, infused with Vimala’s kindness and wisdom, inspired this post. It was sacramental, specific and filled with love. It was medicine and a reminder that God always intended us to eat grace when we eat food. We were always meant to know love in the world around us. The world may be broken now, but the love is not. It helps us on our way, through meals brought by friends these first months with twins (soups and breads, chicken and biscuits, shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese and cookies, chili and fruit and banana pudding, spaghetti and cornbread and vegetable stews, gallons of milk when our son was in the NICU). The love is there soaked through the Sacraments – those promise filled spaces where you can’t help but be changed by participating. It’s in the cards and kind thoughts and all the people who hold our babies in church. Theosis is what we’re for and what the world is for. Even though I’m no longer pregnant with twins, I’m still waddling toward it.