Specifically, at Mount Athos, the legendary mountain in northern Greece that is home to twenty Orthodox monasteries. Sandro Magister of Chiesa visited there in 1997 and has re-posted a piece he wrote about his experience:
There are two lead choirs: bunches of monks gathered in columns around the lectern of each transept, with the choirmaster who intones the strophe and the choir that catches the tune and makes it blossom in melodies and chords. And when the choirmaster moves from the first to the second choir and crosses the nave with quick steps, his minutely pleated lightweight cloak billows in the form of two majestic wings. He seems to fly, like the notes.
And then there are the lights. There is electricity in the monastery, but not in the church. Here the only lights are fire: myriads of little flames whose lighting and extinguishing and motion is also a part of the rite. In every catholikon on Athos an immense chandelier in the form of a royal crown hangs from the central cupola, and has a circumference equal to that of the cupola itself. The crown is of copper, of bronze, of shining brass; it alternates candles and icons; it carries giant suspended eggs, which are a symbol of the Resurrection. It hangs very low, almost skimming the floor, directly in front of the iconostasis that marks off the holy of holies. Other magnificent golden chandeliers hang from the transepts' vaults.
And there's the moment in solemn liturgies when all the candles are lit: those in the chandeliers and in the central corona; and then the first are made to swing widely, while the great corona is spun on its axis. The dance of lights lasts at least an hour, until little by little it dies down. The glow of the thousand little flames, the shining of the gold, the clinking of the metals, the changing of colors of the icons, the resonant wave of the choir that accompanies these rotating galaxies of stars like celestial spheres: It all makes the true essence of Athos – its glimpse into the superhuman mysteries – sparkle.
What Western, Catholic liturgies today are able to initiate simple hearts into similar mysteries and to inflame them with heavenly thoughts? Joseph Ratzinger, previously as cardinal and now as pope, hits the mark when he points to the vulgarization of the liturgy as the critical point for today's Catholicism. On Athos the diagnosis is even more radical: the Western churches, in trying to humanize God, make him disappear. "Our God is not the God of Western scholasticism," the igoumenos of the Gregoríos monastery on Athos moralizes. "A God who doesn't deify man can't have any appeal, whether he exists or not. A large part of the reasons behind the wave of atheism in the West are found in this functional, incidental Christianity."
Vassilios, igoumenos of Ivíron, another of the monasteries, echoes the sentiment: "In the West, action rules; they ask us how we can stay here for so many hours in church without doing anything. I reply: What does the embryo in the maternal womb do? Nothing, but since it is in its mother's womb it develops and grows. So it is with the monk. He preserves the holy space in which he finds himself and he is preserved, molded by this same space. The miracle is here: We are entering into paradise, here and now. We are in the heart of the communion of saints."
The quote in that final paragraph is wonderful. The comment about the Western churches can, of course, be questioned in several ways (beginning with, "What 'western churches' are we talking about?"), but shouldn't be dismissed too quickly. Ratzinger/Benedict has made a similar critique of "functional, incidental Christianity" a centerpiece of his pontificate.
However, the comment—"the Western churches, in trying to humanize God, make him disappear"—is a bit confusing to me. Since the belief that God became man is central to Christianity, such a remark must be aimed at the various attempts to either reduce or eliminate the mystery of God, often taken to the point where "God" is simply identified as man's projection: "Those who have no desires have no gods either," claimed Feuerbach, "Gods are mens wishes in corporeal form" (quoted by de Lubac in The Drama of Atheist Humanism). Another serious problem, obviously, is the attempt to make Jesus Christ only human, denying his divinity. Neither of those issues are matters of "Western scholasticism," although it can be argued that a philosophical lineage extends from the nominalism of Ockham down to the metaphysics of Hegel and Kant, and then on to the atheism/anti-theism of Marx and Nietzsche.
The comment is most likely a reflection of the long-standing tensions between Eastern and Western Christianity, tensions that have, unfortunately, often led to polemics. But the most famous of the Western scholastics, St. Thomas Aquinas, was hardly a stranger to the doctrine of deification, or theosis, stating, "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"—a quote that is highlighted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 460). A.N. Williams has written an entire book, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (Oxford, 1999), about this issue; St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly stated the book "could prove to be a major step in overcoming misunderstanding between East and West..." (Unfortunately, academic books that cost $80-$125 don't often have large audiences.) I'm convinced that the doctrine of theosis/deification is a necessary and invaluable point of ecumenical discussion and consideration, and the more that Catholics learn about it, the better. After all, it is an essential part of Catholic soteriology. And a great place to start is Deification and Grace (Sapientia, 2007), by Daniel A. Keating, who teaches theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
• Theosis: The Reason for the Season | Carl E. Olson
• The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
• The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, O.P.
• Jean Daniélou and the "Master-Key to Christian Theology" | Carl E. Olson
• Are Catholics Born Again? | Mark Brumley