Editor’s note: This article is part 13 of a series, “The Kingdom of Grace.” Part 12 can be found here.
Divinization is one of the most powerful words used to express what God does with us by grace. By grace, God divinizes us. It is a hard to understand such a mystery, but there is no escaping it. The teaching is found in sacred Scripture, and the term belongs to sacred tradition. 2 Peter 1:4 says that God has given us such precious and very great promises “so that you might become partakers of the divine nature.” And Saint Athanasius said, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” The Catechism quotes his saying with approval (CCC 460). The news of our divinization by grace is good news indeed, and in my experience whenever it is preached people become hungry to hear more.
God’s secret purpose for creating the world was to divinize human beings by grace.
But what does divinization really mean? Normally, the statement that by grace you and I become God lands with a certain shock. It can even provoke a horrified and vehement rejection. People rightly have a strong intuition that no one is God but God alone, and no created person could ever simply become God or be equal to God without qualification. Such intuitions are good and true, but the teaching on divinization does not really contradict them. When God divinizes someone by grace, the person does not cease to be a creature. The person does not become simply equal to God, but rather takes on somehow a measure of God’s divinity.
The Fathers of the Church explained it this way. A sword plunged into fire does not cease to be a sword, but participates in the fire and takes on its attributes – light and heat. Similarly, a human being plunged into God in baptism does not cease to be human, but participates in God and takes on his attributes – his Light, his Love, his Life.
Saint Paul affirms that by grace Christians are flooded with God. Saint Paul even prays for such a thing to take place in the people. In Ephesians 3:14-19, he bows his knees before the Father, and prays for the Spirit to strengthen the Ephesians in the “inner man” of each, i.e. in the depths of their hearts. He also prays for Christ to dwell in their hearts through faith, and for them to be rooted and grounded in love. He is asking for the intensification of the divine indwelling in their souls, and his prayer builds up to the climactic and confident plea that “you might be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). To be divinized is not to cease to be a creature, but to be filled all the fullness of God while remaining yet a creature. After all, grace is primarily God’s gift of himself to us.
Saint John teaches divinization as well, but in even stronger language. In the Gospel of John, the Lord offers a vivid analogy for what happens in us by grace. “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn. 15:5). Grace makes us to live one common Life with God. God is the divine Life itself, and he shares his Life with us. No one of us has or lives the divine Life by nature, but by grace we come to have it and live it. Our share by grace in the divine Life is always finite, but finite thought it may be, what is amazing is that it is his Life – divine Life – that we now live by grace.
The First Letter of John puts it this way: “beloved, we are God’s children now” (1 Jn. 3:2). In an earlier article, we pointed out a critical difference between natural and supernatural adoption. Natural adoption is a legal transaction, and the adopted child never comes to have the same lifeblood as the adoptive parents. Supernatural adoption, however, is not merely legal. Rather, by grace we are adopted into God, we begin to live on his level, live the Son’s own relation to the Father to a certain extent, and live the Son’s very Life in the very depths of our being. The Spirit of Sonship permeates our spirit, his eternal Father becomes our Father, and the filial prayer of the Son becomes our prayer. The Life of the Trinity is now the life we live too.
“What we shall be has not yet appeared” (1 Jn. 3:2). Most people are unaware of what was given to them in their baptism. Normally, they do not experience it at first, but divinization has begun nonetheless in the depths of their souls. Before being a state of consciousness or experience, divinization is primarily a truth of our being, but it is possible for someone to become conscious of what God is doing in them. In order for such consciousness to develop, however, people normally need to learn something of the grace of God, believe in his grace, and accept his grace.
When people do so, the Kingdom of Grace tends to grow into a mystery consciously lived. The Kingdom of Grace becomes something consciously received as a gratuitous gift, and freely lived in a personal way. The Kingdom of Grace working within us tends to become an outward display of Jesus Christ himself through our words and deeds.
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity is an outstanding example. Like most Christians, she was baptized as an infant, but what made her different was that she became so vividly aware of what is given to all in baptism. She woke up to being the temple of God, and consciously accepted the work of divinization happening in her. She simply took seriously her catechetical instructions, and the preaching she heard about the indwelling of God. Through a flow of graces and inspirations that came to her over time in ordinary ways, such as going to Mass and confession, talking with priests, reading the Scriptures, and taking trips into the beautiful countryside, she became increasingly more aware of the mystery of God’s grace at work in her soul. She embraced the God who dwelt in her heart, and he became her all-consuming preoccupation. As she grew in grace, she became an outward sign of the inner Kingdom. She had her weaknesses, but her prayerfulness was noted by all. Many remarked on how even her eyes revealed the gaze of God. With her, the divinization taking place in her was something almost palpable to others. She is a true illustration of these words: “and we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Father James Dominic Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar who lives and teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Several of his homilies, spiritual conferences, interviews, and radio spots can be found on his personal Soundcloud site. He frequently lectures for the Thomistic Institute and appears on Aquinas 101.