I Am Not Goat Dung Covered Over With Whitewash: Thoughts on Pentecost

Happy Solemnity of the Third Person of the Trinity!

This year has been the year of the Holy Spirit for me and I’m feeling especially joyful this Pentecost.   I want to share some musings from my journal, having meditated on today’s second reading (option 2 – Romans 8:8-17) this morning:

“…children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (vs. 16-17) –

This continues to be an astounding and radical statement – and this is what the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit.  Here is a CHILD!  A CO-HEIR!  Here is one who is being transformed into ME!

I am not goat dung covered over with whitewash.  I – ME – the core of who I am, the echo of His “I AM”, His image, His “deep calling unto [my] deep” – is being transformed into God Himself – a little Christ, one of His Body.  I am what I eat. The Holy Spirit burns with love within and so far as I am willing – and as grace allows – He changes me into the Image of Himself.

I still don’t get this mystery, Lord.

Giotto, Pentecost

Giotto, Pentecost

I’ve been thinking a lot about the mystery of theosis, or deification.  My husband had been doing some scholarly work on it a while ago, and then I began a program of spiritual formation at our parish where the leader, Michael Fonseca, has focused heavily on this mystery and its living reality in our lives. Theosis is nothing less than the idea that God transforms us into Himself – literally.

Before anyone chucks rotten lettuce at me for being a heretic, in defense of theosis, it’s a common enough theme in the New Testament, in the Church Fathers, and beyond.  But the idea sounds blasphemous. When my husband first told me about theosis, I thought he’d gone off his rocker.

Theosis has to do with how salvation works.  What do we mean when we say God saves us?

Speaking of goat dung, one Protestant understanding (not universal but common enough) of salvation is that salvation is a “covering up” of our sinfulness through the Blood of Christ.  His sacrificial act on the Cross justifies us, through faith.  The price of sin has been paid, we assent to this, and therefore we get to go to heaven.  But this does nothing to change our fundamental nature – we are still, well, piles of dung, but piles of dung whose guilt has been covered over with Christ’s Blood (“covered with snow”, I think they say – my “whitewash” is me mixing metaphors again) so that we appear as righteous before God.

Catholic understanding is, as you probably guessed, different.  For us, salvation is being drawn into God’s covenant family not just through the justification of the Cross but also through transformation of the Resurrection.  Instead of being covered piles of dung, we are diamonds covered with dung, and God washes away the dung and fills us so that we are resplendent with His light.  We become children and co-heirs in the literal sense of our natures being both purified and elevated.  “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”

God does this to us, by means of His grace, and through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, without either His ceasing to be the Creator or our ceasing to be the created.   We are the iron in the fire of the Holy Spirit, purified and shaped, in a sense, by becoming that fire itself.

Connected to this is the Catholic understanding of the Sacraments.  Sacraments, for Catholics, are direct conveyances of God’s grace via physical means.  Most important is the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, in which the bread and wine become Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood – not only symbolically, but actually – by the working of the Holy Spirit, in the Church (also “the Body of Christ”) through the words and person of the priest.  And when we eat (gnaw, to paraphrase the Greek word Jesus uses in John 6, thank you, Scott Hahn and Co.) His Body and Blood, we become what we eat in a very real way.

Christ’s Body is now a part of my body.  Christ’s Blood is now a part of my blood.  But because Christ, as God, is the stronger element, we are taken up more intimately in His Body.  As we consume the Eucharist, we are consumed, we course through Christ’s veins, so to speak.

Jesus’ death on the Cross and Holy Eucharist are together the signs of the New Covenant.  Whenever God formed a covenant with the People of Israel, two acts occurred:  a sacrifice and a meal.  Think of the Passover Meal:  the lamb is sacrificed, yes, but then the lamb had to be eaten.  Protestants miss this.  For Christians, Jesus Christ is our real, actual Sacrifice, and He is also our real, actual Meal.  The Sacrifice was a real sacrifice of a real person, the Lamb.  The Meal is a meal eating that real Lamb.   To reduce one or both to a symbolic act is to shortchange our understanding of God’s saving work on our behalf.

This is what the Holy Spirit bears witness to with our spirits.  The Holy Spirit is the effectual fire in our lives, bringing about this transformation as the very Love that proceeds from the Father and the Son – the Love whose essence is joyful self-sacrificing – confirmed upon us through (you guessed it) the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit – and, again, not figuratively, but actually, because that’s what Sacraments do.

As the Holy Spirit “hovered over the waters” when God the Father, through Christ the Word, spoke the world into being, so too the Holy Spirit hovers over us and within us, bringing about our re-creation.

How does this work?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.  It comes through the Church.   But it’s a beautiful mystery to celebrate today – the working out of our salvation.


  1. says

    Hi Rhonda
    I like your enthusiasm!
    I think when the Fathers talk about theosis, they don’t go beyond what St John says: we shall become like him. To say we become God Himself – literally – goes beyond what St John says.

    • Rhonda says

      Thanks for the comment. This is probably where the “iron in the fire” analogy is apt – the iron is transformed without its losing its nature. God doesn’t cease being God, nor we cease being his creation, but what, then, does it mean that we will “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4)? That’s the question – the “literal” question. :-)

      Update: See my comment below re: CCC 460.

  2. Rhonda says

    Another article, for those who might be interested, on theosis by Carl Olson: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2008/colson_theosis_dec08.asp

    In it, he points to CCC 460: The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”

    He also cites this line: “We become by grace what God is by nature”.

  3. says

    Our final metaphor of the spiritual life is also spatial, and speaks of there being “a temple within.” Paul tells the Corinthians that, individually and corporately, they are temples of God’s Holy Spirit. [18] Paul Tournier refers to this inner temple as “the holy sepulchre within.” Tournier refers to this by asking, “What is there then within this sepulchre where all the repressed rubbish of all humanity as well as our own is rotting?” [19] One worship song says “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary.” Another says “purify my heart.” Conversely, Jesus said we can “whitewash” this sanctuary. This would be to live a life of facade, pretense, what Merton called the “false self.” Therefore, spirit is a holy place where God’s Spirit dwells. To be “spiritual” is to allow God to reign in one’s spirit, which is God’s rightful dwelling place. To be “unspiritual” is to occupy that dwelling place with our own ego as king, while painting the outside so as to appear to be spiritual.

    • Rhonda says

      Ack! Your beautiful reply got stuck in the spam filter. Sorry about that! All fixed now. :)