My friend Harry has been around for some time, and over his life he has experienced many different kinds of physical pain. So I was surprised recently when he contacted me after two weeks silence, and told me he had been through the worst pain of his life:
“When my knee was crushed, when I had the killing migraines, kidney stones, when my finger was broken in multiple places – I always got some relief. An injection, pills, drug, medicine, suppository or IV pain killers meant – even if I floated in and out of consciousness – the edge was gone or I was asleep. But this near-death stomach virus I went through was the worst. No end, no medicine ‘til I could keep it down. Over a day of conscious overwhelming pain.”
Harry told me that every muscle and every joint hurt, and whenever he moved, even just his eyes, sometimes it was enough to trigger the violent vomiting again.
“And in the beginning, there was only THE PAIN,” Harry said. “After a few hours, it was MY PAIN because I remembered there was a me feeling all this. All there was was me and this pain. I forgot about God, I did not pray, even though His word tells us to pray when we are sick.” [James 5:13-15].
Pray & Rejoice About Pain
Harry is no theologian, but he is a humble believer and he does try to live the Sermon On the Mount. He may have heard the words “the problem of pain,” but he wouldn’t know what “theodicy” was if it spit in his face. For years he has taken all the bible studies offerings at his parish, and he knows his Scripture. [I have added citations to his biblical references in what follows]. I told him that it was understandable that he was not praying.
“No, Mac,” he told me:
“You’ve got to rejoice in all things. All. And pray. I forgot what Mother Cabrini taught us in second grade, offer your suffering up for someone else, for a poor soul in purgatory. So I tried, but it was hard. Then it hit me – this was nothing compared to what Jesus suffered in His passion and death. This unending, unbearable pain was a drop in the bucket compared to one of His falls during the way of the cross.”
Me – Decrease; God – Increase
Then Harry told me something very interesting about what he had gone through.
“God did so much for me with this sickness. I realized that as much as I was focused on me and my pain, that and more is how much we are supposed to focus on God, doing His will, being with Him. Like John the Baptist said, I must decrease and He must increase [Jn 3:30] – and I was starting from the point where it was me total and God not even zero, not even on the radar screen.”
Harry is a technical guy. He drew me a graph of “Who Is My God Vectors”:
“See, I was being my own god, that’s me, the “ME” line, in the beginning near the top of the “My God” axis. I flipped the “I’m God, and you’re not” message of Job. I was my own god. I preferred me to God. [See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 396, 398]. God was not registering, even with His divinity. Then, BAM! The Lord giveth me this virus, and the Lord taketh away my comfort. Blest me with this 2 by 4 of pain right between the eyes. I go down, God goes up.”
Die To Self
I noticed there was no more “me” on the “God” vector pointing up.
“Oh, that’s not the whole story,” said Harry. “I’m still there. Dying to self.”
Theologian/philosopher Henri De Lubac wrote:
“There is no smooth transition from a natural love to a supernatural love. To find himself man must lose himself . . . If no one may escape from humanity, humanity whole and entire must die to itself in each of its members so as to live transfigured in God.” [De Lubac, Catholicism, trans. L.C. Sheppard, Burns & Oates, pp. 209-210].
Thy Will Be Mine
Harry was in good theological company.
”Here, here’s what’s happening, I hope.” Harry drew me another graph:
“See, this new me line. That’s me now trying to line my will up with God’s will. You know, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, and my will be yours.”
Part of the new line for Harry was parallel to the “God” vector. It tailed off in a curving dotted line, “What’s the dotted line?” I asked, curious.
That’s me, I’m a work in progress, joining with God. James’s Letter says ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.’ [James 4:8]. Can’t be an unclean thing going to heaven [Col 2:21], got to be holy because God is holy [1 Peter 2:16], and got to be perfect [Mt 5:48]; got to try to perfect me, like Peter says, “without spot” [2 Peter 3:14], that’s the curve. And the aim, the heavenly dream, the infinity sign at the end, is that I end up with my will combining with God’s will. That infinity sign is me hoping to share in the fullness of Jesus [Col 2:10]. And the curve going toward God, me getting with God, shows I cannot do this and I sure can’t do it alone.
“What?” I said, “I see that; but it looks like you fade away at the end, no more you. Is that you decreasing to nothing?”
“Not really. I’m still there, just trying to have my soul spiritually pumped up for heaven. Peter says we can partake of God’s nature [2 Peter 1:4], Paul says we can join with Christ [1 Cor 6:17], and John says, if we love, not only is God in us, but we are in Him [1 John 4:16].”
In his thoughts about “becoming God”, Harry is echoing an ages-old theological position. In Chapter Eight of Called To Be Children Of God, edited by Meconi and Olson, in an essay entitled “Divine Excess And Hidden Grandeur: Divinization In the French School Of Spritituality, Matthew M. Matthiesen discusses the notion of dying to self in the work of Francis de Sales, The Love Of God, A Treatise:
In the devout life [for Francis], the will must die to itself, no longer choosing according to its own desired and cares. Through such a self obliteration, the will ‘departs for the limits’ of its natural life, thereby being transformed in to “the divine”. (Matthiesen, p. 151).
It was startling to see Harry’s progression from his pain to partaking in the divine nature of God; but it made sense to me.
“The real-world ink for my new ‘me’ line, pointing upward with Gods’ line,” said Harry, “Is my faith and my hope. And I am trusting Him to keep His word and be my God.”
The Called To Be Children Of God book presents what may be to many of us today an astounding view of each of us “becoming God.” At first, this may sound at best unusual, and, at worst, doctrinally dissonant. But this book makes it clear that it is solid and ancient Church teaching, developed throughout the history of the Church, in the work of many of the Church Fathers, in the thought of many theologians of every era, up to today, that each of us can be “deified,” “divinized,” or in accord with the well-accepted theological theory of theosis become God. This does not mean we turn into God or part of Him, that God changes, or that we cease to exist. It means, what in the end approaches mystery, that we share in the divine nature of God.