The words are magisterial, even harsh: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
Astonishing idea, to be born again! This cryptic teaching, given by Jesus in Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry, bewilders Nicodemus, a pious Jew and member of the Sanhedrin, who has come to the celebrated Rabbi for guidance. Nicodemus has approached Jesus “by night”: that is to say, in spiritual darkness, but as a seeker of the light (“If a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him” John 11:10). Bewildered by Jesus’ remarks, he blurts out his confusion, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” To these questions—epitomizing for all time the cry of the man in whom reason overrules the heart—Jesus answers in riddles and symbols:
Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
These words constitute the heart of Christian teaching on spiritual rebirth; indeed, it can be argued that they constitute the very essence of Christianity. For the night journey of Nicodemus, according to tradition, reveals the means for saying no to complacency, yes to self-struggle; no to evil, yes to good; no to ego, yes to God; no to darkness, yes to light, “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). The passage teems with pun and paradox; thus “again,” anothen in the original Greek, has a second meaning: “from above.” To be born again is to be born from above, to receive divine life, to hear the call of God, and to be recast in His image and likeness. This rebirth, Christ emphasizes, is in “the Spirit,” not in the flesh. On one level, of course, Christ is simply offering a corrective to Nicodemus’ literal-minded understanding of rebirth; but there is a second meaning as well. For flesh signifies all that is bound by gravity, dead weight, ruled by desire and the ego. Against flesh stands the Spirit, giver of life, guardian of all that is ruled by truth and love.
This Rebirth In The Spirit constitutes a radical transformation of the human being on every level. St. Paul describes it vividly in his letter to the Colossians:
Ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him… Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in our hearts… (Col. 3:9-10,12-15).
Who doesn’t long to be so renewed, to live in mercy and meekness, charity and peace? But such dramatic change does not take place overnight. To be born “from above” is a more complicated matter than the transformation that overtakes Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. There is much work to be done, and in order to grasp the nature of this work, it is necessary to understand that Christian tradition speaks not of one rebirth, but of two. One unfolds within church walls, the other in the labyrinth of the heart; one is common, the other rarer than gold; one freely given, the other fiercely won; one takes place under the sign of water, the other under the sign of fire.
There are, to my knowledge, no icons of Nicodemus, that enigmatic figure from the third chapter of John, no images that would help us to gauge his spiritual state. I picture a thin man with a long beard and sorrowful eyes, a man of little imagination but good heart. Let us envision Nicodemus returning home from his night journey to ponder the words of Christ. Perhaps he looks at his wife, children, possessions; perhaps he goes outside, lies upon a straw mat, and stares up at the stars. He recalls his victories and retreats, his kindnesses and cruelties; he turns within and weighs his life. To be born again…
Sooner Or Later, all men and women who awaken to the life of the spirit must engage in a similar self-examination. I trace the course of my life, its twistings and turnings, its peaks and valleys. I look long and hard; I see that a decision must be made. I must die to what I have been; I must begin anew. This special look, waxing and waning, may go on for years. Then at last something energizes the soul, and the first step, tentative and feeble, is taken towards “the light that enlightens everyone that comes into the world.” The catalyst for this initial metanoia (“change of mind”), as it was known in the early Church, may be almost anything: a death in the family, a chance encounter, a brilliant sunset. A justly famous example comes to us from the life of St. Antony of the Desert, the fourth- century founder of Western monasticism. As a young man, Antony overheard, while praying in church, the following words of Christ read from the pulpit:
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. (Matthew 19:21)
“Immediately,” reports Athanasius in his Life of Antony, written just four years after the saint’s death in 356 C.E., the young man “went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had… and devoted himself from then on to the discipline”; that is to say, to an intense life of study, prayer, and psycho-physical exercises in search of God. Antony’s conversion may be dramatic, but from its earliest days, the Church recognized the revolutionary nature of this metanoia and sanctified it with the sacrament of baptism. Frithjof Schuon speaks of “the essentially initiatory character of Christianity”; baptism is the Christian initiation par excellence. Recall Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Here Jesus proclaims water to be the physical analog or manifestation of Spirit, in accordance with Biblical tradition: in the Book of Jeremiah, God defines Himself as “the fountain of living waters,” while in Revelations, a “pure river of water of life, clear as crystal,” flows out of the throne of God. Even evolutionary biology declares water to be the womb of life. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River signifies his self-emptying, his submission to the Spirit; just so, immersion of the spiritual acolyte (or “catechumen”) into a pool of holy water has always been the mark of spiritual renewal and rebirth, of death and resurrection through Christ. The profound significance of these “awe-inspiring rites,” as St. John Chrysostom termed them, can be discerned in St. Paul’s declaration that “we are buried with him by baptism into death…as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), and in St. Justin’s contention a few centuries later, that “this bath is called enlightenment, because those who receive [it] are enlightened in their understanding.”
Nowadays, infant baptism is the norm. Whether one reads the sacramental regeneration of those too young to understand what is happening to them as inspired solicitude or as a tragic loss of meaning, there is no doubt that one result has been the suppression if not the obliteration, of the initiatory aspects of this ritual process. To understand baptism fully, one must study it as it was originally practiced, when the first rebirth involved a complex initiatory process that took months to reach its culmination in the waters of renewal.
As Practiced In The Fourth or fifth centuries C.E., Christian initiation was too intricate to be described here in detail. It abounded in symbolic gestures, many carrying hidden meanings known only to the initiated. Two examples will suffice: Soon after beginning his training, the catechumen received a handful of salt to signify his search for truth, in accordance with Jesus’ teaching that “ye are the salt of the earth,” elaborated by the sixth-century writer John the Deacon in his comment that “the mind, sodden and soft as it is from the waves of the world, is seasoned by the salt of wisdom and of the preaching of the word of God.” Again, one of the most important stages in Christian initiation was the Apertio or “Opening,” during which the bishop anointed the catechumen’s eyes, ears, and nostrils, preparing these sensory organs to receive spiritual impressions, divine truths (“He who has ears let him Hear”).
In time, the catechumen was deemed ready to receive the esoteric truths of the Tradition, known in ancient times as the Disciplina Arcani. That such secret teachings existed and were passed from teacher to pupil in initiatory rites may surprise modern readers, but the evidence is beyond dispute. The imprimatur for post-Apostolic hermeticism comes from Christ’s saying that “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables.” A passage from Dionysius the Areopagite offers one reason for this secrecy:
The things that are bestowed uniformly and all at once, so to speak, on the Blessed Essences dwelling in Heaven, are transmitted to us as it were in fragments….Since these truths had to be translated into the usages of the Church, the Apostles expressed them under the veil of symbols and not in their sublime nakedness, for not everyone is holy, and, as the Scriptures say, Knowledge is not for all.
One must be prepared to receive the mysteries; to approach them unprepared is to cheapen both them and oneself. Moreover one whose senses have not been exalted through the Apertio or other divine rites will never be able to distinguish ambrosia or nectar from ordinary, earthly foods.
Initiation into the Christian mysteries began during Lent. These secret teachings included much that is now broadcast indiscriminately, including the text of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as their inner meaning. The transmission of these sacred formulae was known as the Traditio Symboli (“Handing over of the Creed”); the candidates, after proper contemplation of these mysteries had to recite their contents in a ceremony entitled the Redditio Symboli (“Giving back of the Creed”). If practiced faithfully and attentively, this arduous routine of memorization and recitation instilled the truths of the tradition into one’s innermost being. The process took months, under the tutelage of a spiritual adept (an office still found here and there in the Orthodox Church, in the person of the staretz). The climax of the first rebirth came with the Easter immersion of the catechumen into the baptismal font, an event that Dionysius the Areopagite called “initiation to theogenesis—that is to say, “initiation into the generation of God,” the beginning of divinization, the transformation of the individual from a man into a god-man.
In the Byzantine Museum in Athens hangs an icon, tempera on wood, by the sixteenth-century master Michael Damaskinos, of St. Antony of the Desert. In keeping with the hagiographic iconography of the era, Antony’s eyes are sad but serene, gazing beyond the viewer into eternity; his brows and cheeks are gouged with wrinkles, marks of spiritual combat; his nose is elongated, indicating his sensitivity to spiritual aromas. Behind him shimmers a golden backdrop, suggesting both the brilliance of sanctity and the duskiness of the desert where he lived for most of his life. Antony’s expression is composed, benevolent, tinged with sadness: here is a man who has taken the measure of himself and the world, a man who embodies the fundamental Christian teachings of birth and rebirth. The spiritual accuracy of Damaskinos’ portrait is confirmed by Athanasius’ Life of Antony. Here we read that, after hearing Christ’s call to “come and follow me,” Antony strode into the Egyptian desert, where he retreated into an abandoned tomb for twenty years of inner work. After this extraordinary gestation, he emerged reborn:
Antony came forth as though from some shrine, having been led into divine mysteries and inspired by God….The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection. Moreover, when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium like one guided by reason and stead- fast in that which accords with nature.
This Tranquility, Athanasius makes clear, was not easily won. For twenty years Antony engaged in what we may call the second rebirth, under the sign of fire. This second rebirth is not a onetime affair, but rather a continual movement of the heart away from self-love and toward love of God. Christ’s injunction, it’s worth noting, is not “come to me” but rather “come and follow me”; one cannot escape the labor, travel, lifetime of effort contained in that concluding phrase. The second rebirth never ends; even while preparing for death, Antony “departed from the monks in the outer mountain” and “entered the inner mountain.” His journey was ever inward, toward his true self, toward Christ.
We are all heirs to these ancient temptations; we must all enter the desert—a sojourn that may last a lifetime.
The second rebirth stands under the sign of fire for it is a continual purgation, a refining in the furnace—or the desert—of self-struggle and self-sacrifice. Immediately after his own baptism, Jesus was “led by the Spirit” into the desert, where Satan tempted him for forty days. The three famous temptations—that Jesus turn stone into bread, that he worship Satan in return for the kingship of the world, and that he cast himself from a pinnacle and be saved by angels—represent the three universal temptations of greed, power, and pride, answerable only by the three virtues of poverty, obedience, and humility. We are all heirs to these ancient temptations; we all must enter the desert—a sojourn that may last a lifetime, as it did for Antony, and that may demand more struggle and suffering than we bargained for.
The fourteenth-century Orthodox monks Callistus and Ignatius, of Xanthopoulos, in their Directions to Hesychasts, in a Hundred Chapters, write of the second rebirth:
Have you understood the travail of our complete spiritual regeneration after we leave the holy font [of baptism]?…Do you see how much it lies in our power to increase or to diminish this supernatural grace, that is, to show it forth or to obscure it?
According to Christian tradition, nothing erases the mark of the first rebirth, for baptism “imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual sign” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). But the second rebirth is necessary to allow this sign to shine forth, to ensure that it not be buried under our pettiness and self-love.
In ancient Christian writings, the process of the second rebirth is often likened to ascending a ladder. Like an ordinary ladder, one’s risk increases as one ascends— the Tradition emphasizes that no one fell further than Satan, once the most glorious of angels—yet it is a paradoxical ladder as well, for the more one lowers oneself, through humility, obedience, and poverty, the higher one climbs, until finally, as Christ explained, “he who is last shall be first.” The process entails more than the acquisition of knowledge about oneself and the world, although that is essential. Eventually, a transformation in being takes place, which the ancients called theopoesis, or deification. This change is effected from above—that is to say, one is reborn from above. All the exercises of spiritual combat, lasting a lifetime, prepare the ground for a metanoia so radical that finally one is no longer what one was; one is now an aspect of God, in the classic words of St. Paul: “For I through the law am dead to the law….I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ (Gal. 2:19-20).
And How Does One Ascend this ladder? Perhaps the best manual to the second rebirth remains the Philokalia, a collection of texts composed between the fourth and sixteenth centuries and compiled about two hundred years ago, fittingly enough, by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, the most venerated namesake of our Biblical Nicodemus. The complete Philokalia is being translated into English as I write; the first four volumes, now available, offer an extraordinary abundance of spiritual exercises and insights. One hesitates to summarize, but it can perhaps be said that the keynotes are the acquisition, in the spiritual aspirant, of attention, discrimination, and stillness. One must learn to see, to assess, and to absorb. These verbs suggest contemplation rather than action. In his talk with Nicodemus, Jesus commented that “the wind bloweth where it listeth.” Wind here doubles as Spirit (the Greek pneuma carrying both meanings). The Spirit “listeth,” a lovely archaism derived from the Indo-European las, or “eager,” a root that also gives rise to “lust.” The Spirit hungers for our enlightenment. The Spirit is the active principle, we the passive; our job is to be prepared to receive the Spirit when it comes (“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,” John 1:12).
And What Of Nicodemus, with whom we began? Did he heed the words of Jesus, did he undergo the first and second rebirths? After his night journey, he appears twice more in the Gospel of John. In a cameo appearance in chapter seven, he urges the temple priests to give Jesus a hearing before judging his mission. Far more significant is Nicodemus’s final appearance in chapter nineteen. Jesus has been crucified and his body removed from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea. Then Nicodemus arrives with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight.” Together, he and Joseph sprinkle the body with spices, wrap it in linen cloths, and lay it in the Holy Sepulchre—the final act in the New Testament before the Resurrection. The spices brought by Nicodemus carry great symbolic weight: myrrh is the first spice mentioned by God in his instructions to Moses in Exodus 30:23 to anoint the tabernacle and the ark, and it is the chief constituent in what the Psalmist calls “the oil of gladness” (Psalm 45:7-8). Aloe, too, comprises part of this oil of gladness. Nicodemus bears, literally, the weight of Christ’s body upon his shoulders; he has advanced far enough to be able to anoint, or bless, Christ with the sacred herbs. It would seem that Nicodemus has indeed heeded the words of Christ, that he has been reborn from above. He thus stands as a example to us all, demonstrating that the smallest approach to Truth, uttered in the darkness of confusion, can lead in time to spiritual rebirth.
Philip Zaleski is an author and editor of books on spirituality and religion. He served as a senior editor at Parabola magazine for many years. He has also taught religion, literature and film at the university level.