Seeing God in Every Fragment of the Created World: Intelligence and the Senses, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century, #1-9

In my 20’s I used to drive cars with manual transmission. I saw this as a pleasant experience, rather than hardship. Years later, I switched to automatic transmission, which I found much easier. I wasn’t exactly full of gratitude for this improvement. Instead, my perception of what was normal had rapidly changed, so that automatic transmission was now an expectation. Now heated seats, keyless entry and built-in GPS are my new normal. I hate to admit it but I would probably seize on the next innovation, whether it was flying cars or transmuting myself into atoms that could be reconfigured back into my person in another location, within seconds–like Dr. Spock and the rest of the Star Trek characters.

St. Maximos would tell me that I misuse my intellectual capacity, diverting its true purpose and subjugating it to the senses.

My true purpose is spiritual ascendance and union with God. We are equipped by God with a nature that has the capacity to apprehend this higher noetic reality.

The intellect has as its object noetic and incorporeal beings, whose essence it is by nature fitted to apprehend

When we are entrapped in the mere pursuit of sensual pleasure—whether this be food, a new car, career advancement, praise, control of others etc.—our intellect “becomes entangled in the superficial aspects of sensible things and devises ways of enjoying the pleasures of the flesh.

We are caught in the continuous pursuit of the next object or achievement, and the next and the next, without ever feeling filled and content. Our intellect “is unable to transcend the nature of visible things because it is held back by its impassioned attachment to the senses.”

How many of us are exhausted by the endless pursuit of the next milestone and unable to ever say: “this is enough and I am content.”

St. Maximos juxtaposes the intellect against the senses as two opposite realities.

The natural energies of the intellect and those of the senses are opposed to one another because of the extreme dissimilarity between their objects. The intellect has as its object noetic and incorporeal beings, whose essence it is by nature fitted to apprehend; the senses have as object sensible and corporeal entities, which they likewise apprehend by virtue of their natural powers.

He does not, however, ask us to renounce one in favor of the other. He only asks that we put them in the proper order in which “the intelligence takes precedence over the senses in the contemplation of visible things.” In this way…” the senses are then kept under control by the intelligence.”

We still perceive the beauty or pain of the world around us through our senses, but we are no longer limited to the mere pursuit of personal pleasure. We can see beyond the “superficial aspects of visible things as soon as they strike the senses… (we can) contemplate the spiritual essences of created things stripped of their outer forms.

Apprehending the inner essence of created things and perceiving God’s blessings in them replaces greed with gratitude, and short-term pleasure with virtue and inner contentment.

 

FORGIVENESS AND THE RENEWAL OF THE CHURCH (From “Prayer and Holiness” By Dumitru Staniloae, and SUMMARY

(pp. 23-27)

It is not very difficult to love those who love us, be patient with those we admire or forgive those who think the way we do. Yet it is difficult to hold back our anger when we believe someone we dislike has wronged us or, “even if we believe in God, not to despise men who do not impress us with any visible marks of greatens.”

Yet, unless we forgive and ask to be forgiven by all, it is pointless to ask God to forgive us, Staniloae tells us.

“To ask pardon of ourselves implies coming down from our pedestal of apparent superiority…”

 It is especially excruciating when we humble ourselves to, and ask forgiveness from, those we look down upon or despise. Yet this is the liberating humility we are asked to possess. It is this humility that frees us from the “stories” we construct about ourselves, the pressure of keeping them up in public to gain acceptance and admiration, the tyranny of constantly judging others and, hence, our isolation. Forgiveness, Staniloae concludes, “implies that we recognize our dependence on others.”

In the previous chapter he showed that it is only through loving others that we become free. In this chapter, he demonstrates that it is only through forgiving and asking forgiveness from others that we will be renewed.

We should be constantly penitent to others, he states,even if we don’t believe we have ever harmed them.  We should step down from the pedestol of self-righteousness and self-assurance we have constructed for ourself remembering that: “I can never be quite certain that I have had no part in creating the unavoidable frictions which constantly arise among men and which also affect me.

We are in union with God only when we are in communion with others, including the dead. We pray for the dead, forgiving them and hoping that others will pray for us after our death.

The church is never static, Staniloae tells us. Through the on-doing movement of prayer and forgiveness the church is constantly renewed. It is “a dynamic communion, made up of men and women who are sinners and who, at the same time, are being cleansed by their prayer for one another…”

Salvation is not a solitary act. Each of us is saved by taking part in this sacred choreography of people and actions.

So the church   becomes as it were a symphony for Christ, and so she reveals the mystery of her continuity and the mystery of the perpetual renewal of her youth.

SUMMARY OF WHAT WE READ

How does a Saint think, act and experience reality? What makes one saintly? This is the topic of Staniloae’s first chapter, Tenderness and Holiness. Having emptied himself of personal agendas and passions, the Saint is able to listen to, understand and empathize with others. His heart is open and alert to the world, finding meaning in every living being. He has erased from his heart indifference, judgment and desire to control and, thus, he is filled with respect, love, empathy and tenderness for others,

In the next chapter, Pure Prayer or Prayer of the Heart, he compares the true prayer of the heart to meditative practices that confuse sentimentality with true union with God; have no horizon or perspective and, hence, get you lost in an “impersonal infinity.”  Conversely, the only purpose of the true prayer of the heart is an encounter with “a personal God.” It engages both mind and heart but begins at the heart and love for God.

In Holiness: God Shining through the Mystery of Man, Staniloae talks about the paradoxical nature of holiness— “God, the unfathomably personal, imparts himself in his transcendence. Hence the paradoxical nature of holiness: it is one and the same time transcendence and self-disclosure, or communication.”

Holiness is the radiance from a transcendent person whose object in revealing himself is to raise us up to him.”

Through this two-way communication, we become free to be our authentic selves– liberated from the stories we weave about ourselves and have come to believe, hence becoming confused about what is reality and what is fantasy.

Though God is transcendent,  our nature “has thus become the vehicle for the manifestation of the infinite light, or the infinitely profound consciousness of the divine hypostasis.”

In Prayer and Freedom, Staniloae shows us that only prayer can free us from the enclosed space of our making—our passions and the limits of natural law and ourselves. Prayer is continuous communication with God but can only free us from our “enclosures” through love for others. Relationships of pure love can free us and save us from darkness, but can only be entered by free men. You cannot love others when trying to dominate them.

In the last chapter, Forgiveness and the Renewal of the Church, Staniloae inserts the element of forgiveness. We can only receive forgiveness if we forgive and ask forgiveness from others, he says. In the previous chapter he shows us that in love, we forgo personal agendas and the desire to control. Likewise, in forgiveness we have to strip ourselves from every ounce of pride.

Another form of this humility is the acceptance that we can only be saved in relationship to others and are not self-contained islands. Restating his continuous theme of community as prerequisite for salvation, he compares the church to a “symphony” of constant mutual forgiveness and prayer that keeps renewing the church unto the ages.

 

 

PRAYER AND FREEDOM ( From “Prayer and Holiness” By Dumitru Staniloae

pp. 17-22

Have you ever thought of prayer as the only avenue to true freedom? This is assertion that Staniloae makes in this extraordinary short chapter in which he defines freedom—a freedom that is achieved through prayer and forms the foundation of our relationship with God and fellow men.

His central thesis is that prayer frees us from both ourselves and the confines of nature. We exist and act in a universe of natural laws that drive “complex mechanisms.” We are participants in the natural laws and conversant with nature. We can influence it, for example, when we apply our minds to direct the movement of our bodies, when we grow our food or harm others. Yet unless we are conversant with God, we are limited by the laws of this natural world and are trapped within it by our passions. Only God, who created the universe, is not limited by its laws. Hence by praying to God, we also become free of the boundaries of what we experience through our senses and the laws of nature.

Without God, we are mere cogs in an impersonal universe. We live in a word “destitute of the divine spirit,” a “self-enclosed mechanism, entirely governed by scientific laws.” Such a world would have no meaning. “The world,” Staniloae says, “has no meaning, except as a sphere for dialogue between God and men.”

Through this dialogue “…our union with God in prayer is so perfect and complete that we can no longer tell where our work ends, and God’s work begins…

To achieve union with God, we must achieve freedom from passions. Yet, Staniloae asks rhetorically,  isn’t it possible for a man to exert control over passions and lead a virtuous life without God?  He gives us a definitive “no” and shows us another enclosure we can be trapped within. If our own personal liberty, rather than union with God, is our only goal we are still trapped in our own pride and self-love. We are still subject to delusion and limited to only the criteria and solutions our minds can invent on their own. We are often caught in downward spirals and quagmires that lead nowhere. We become prisoners “in the realm of blind nature.”

“It is only when he is set free from himself that man becomes free in the true sense of the word…” he concludes. Drawn into a relationship of love with God, we forget about ourselves and our passions.

It is love in our relationship with God, then, that sets us free. The same applies in our relationship to other human beings. “Only a relationship of pure love with another person can set us free from the world outside and from ourselves.

Freedom, in fact, can only be achieved through a relationship with another human being rather than solidary action or meditation. “Wanting to be lord over himself, man then finds that he is subject to himself…”

A relationship of pure love requires authentically free people, Staniloae tells us. Unless we are free of passions through a life of prayer, we want to dominate others. Love and domination, however, cannot coexist.

“Only another authentically free being, one, that is, who is free from all passion and who has therefore no desire to dominate will affirm and uphold my freedom.”

Yet our relationship with God is not one of mere submission but one of reciprocity and growth. We give ourselves to God and receive all he has and life as a gift. We are not slaves but sons and daughters of god, partaking in his freedom.

Paradoxically, “we have to give ourselves to another authentically free being in order to receive the gift of freedom, and the only freedom which is of nature inexhaustible is that of the supreme Person.”

 

PURE PRAYER, OR PRAYER OF THE HEART, AND OBSTACLES IN THE WAY

From Prayer and Holiness (Chapter 2)

By Dumitru Staniloae

In the previous chapter, Staniloae alludes to St. Maximos in saying that, upon reaching the upper echelon of spiritual maturity, theosis, there are no longer dueling dualities and fragmentation.

Building on the contrast between duality and unity, he introduces the practice of pure prayer or “prayer of the heart,” also known as the Jesus Prayer. This level of purity of prayer occurs only when your heart and mind are united.

Pure prayer is concerned with reuniting the mind (nous) and the heart. Neither mind nor heart can be allowed to remain alone.

When prayer comes only from the mind, he tells us, it is cold. We utter words, engage in thoughts and entertain ideas about God without experiencing a connection with him.

Yet prayer that comes only from the heart is also incomplete. It can veer toward sentimentality, such as the sentimentalization of the Christ figure without acknowledgment of his passion or understanding of theological foundations.

Or, as represented in many of today’s spiritual trends, one’s impatience to experience immersion in a mystical experience, bypasses a relationship with the person of Christ, and creates “the feeling of being lost in an impersonal infinity.”

Staniloae makes it clear that, far from being impersonal, pure prayer requires a direct and intimate relationship with God.

The union between heart and mind has a single direction—from the mind to the heart. The mind, itself, looks to the heart to find the rest it longs for.

This because the heart is the seat of love and “the infinity of God cannot be experienced apart from his love for us.”  Far from being an abstraction “this infinity is the infinity of a God who is personal.”

During the prayer of the heart we come into a direct encounter with God and experience his reality. We “no longer encounter God through ideas but through the awareness of his presence which enables us to submit our thoughts to the test of reality In fact, “Thinking about God interrupts direct encounter with him.”

In the prayer of the heart we not only move from ideas to direct encounter but from solitary, self-induced thought to a relationship.

Staniloae makes us aware of the many obstacles preventing us from setting aside self and experiencing a total immersion in the love of God. For example, “physical sensations or to the imaginations which reflect them…” Being drawn to images that, while appearing to be good, are gateways to sin; attraction to sin, thoughts that are “considered as dangerous obstacle to the mind’s entry into the heart.”

Instead of temptations and circular thoughts Staniloae brings up examples from patristic writings.

Fathers speak of prayer as consisting or a single thought. Strictly speaking it is not even a thought, but rather an awareness in the reality of God.

He concludes:

This state of profound feeling is more adequately expressed by the wrong than by words for what is being expressed is beyond words. It is pure prayer, prayer if the whole being, in which the feelings have moved our beyond all things, all thoughts, beyond the very self, to the encounter with God.

Prayer and Holiness By Dumitru Staniloae

St. Maximos’ writings penetrate the depths of our lifelong journey toward theosis. But what do our transformed lives look and feel like in our everyday lives? How might we perceive and be impacted by a saint? Eminent theologian, Dumitru Staniloae, poses that question in this short book Prayer and Holiness:

How does this renewed humanity show itself in practice, he asks?

To answer it in the first part of the book, Tenderness and Holiness, he illustrates the characteristics of a true saint. These include:

Spiritual alertness and full presence; respect and compassion vs. indifference

There is nothing that a saint is indifferent to and that does not touch his heart. “His consideration extends even to animals and to things, because in every creature he sees a gift of God’s love and does not wish to wound that love with negligence and indifference.”

Instead of being solitary or static, a saint is in continuous communion with every aspect of God’s creation. Nothing is boring, worthless, hateful or insignificant to him because “he has respect for each man and for each thing.”

His respect and compassion reveal what Staniloae calls a “higher form of tenderness.”  In the place of sentimentality or affection only for one’s loved ones, the saint has a deep connection with all creatures and things, and genuine respect for each.

Kenosis

“The model of this tenderness,” Staniloae tells us, “is the kenosis, the self-condescension, of Christ.” Rid of passions, free of personal agendas, jealousy and judgment, we are able to listen to, and care for, others without distractions or reservations, and fully give of ourselves like Christ. We thus acquire sensitivity and true insight:

the saints can see the most secret states of soul in others. For he is able to discern in others a scarcely articulated need, the whole of their capacity to desire what is good.

Authenticity

One of our most painful of human tragedies is forgetting our true selves and mistaking who we want others to see us as, for we who we are authentically. Staniloae recalls St. Maximos’ discussions on “simplicity” – a state achieved through theosis and characterized by the absence of warring dualities and contradictions. The saints, he says, have also “passed beyond the struggle between soul and body, between good intentions and work performed between deceitful appearances and hidden thoughts, between what they pretend to be and what they actually are. They have become simple because they have given themselves entirely to God.””

Relationships

Through kenosis and simplicity, the saint is able to enter into “a higher form of relationship” with others. “He creates the conditions for a direct, candid and open relationship between himself and others,” because his goal is not to control or embarrass them but to serve as confidant; to help us achieve the insights and remedies that will result in salvation.

He will give you, as you well know, the diagnosis and effective remedy of an illness which you vaguely sense to be a mortal one.

Because “he makes the person of Christ real for you in his gentleness and strength,” he guides and inspires us through his example and ability to help us uncover our true nature.

In all these qualities is shown forth in an eminent degree the full capacity of human nature

Certainly, the need for meeting one’s potential is almost a mantra today. Staniloae’s saint, however, is not concerned with our potential for realizing our artistic or professional talents, achieving recognition and possessing material things or status. Instead, he helps us uncover the true capabilities God embedded in our nature– such as those for love, hope, inner peace, redemption, compassion, union with God– and the path for fulfilling them.

Freed from duality the saint integrates seeming contradictions, becoming a foundation of stability unto eternity:

He is rooted   in the stability of the love and suffering of God incarnate…triumphed over time while living intensely in time.

 

 

 

 

St Maximos the Confessor, Our Choice of Pleasure or Distress

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Second Century, #83-91

In these paragraphs, St. Maximos explores the extent of individual responsibility with regard to joy and pain, and thus uncVovers the foundations of change and spiritual growth.

It is “the height of folly,” he tells us, for someone who took  pleasure in a sin he committed out of his own free will—who might have made excuses for it and even taken pride in it—to look for salvation by asking a just man to pray for him. The only way he could benefit, he continues, is if he acts on these prayers.

In this way, St. Maximos shows our role in, and responsibility for, both our perdition and salvation.

He then extends the exploration to two new arenas—distress and temptation.

For St. Maximos, distress is “a state devoid of pleasure” and is unnatural.  Absence of pleasure, he tells us,  means the presence of pain.”

Distress, then, is not a state that is inherent in our God-given nature. It comes from a disorder or dysfunction of the natural condition of a faculty. It means that we used incorrectly a natural function. It comes, as St. Maximos says, from directing this faculty toward something that does not exist: perhaps conjectures about what someone might have meant and speculations about whether you should take offense; fantasies of what might have been or become; desires for things you do not possess; jealousy about lives you do not live.

 To misuse the natural function is to direct the faculty to what does not exist by nature and lacks substantial being.

Since distress stems from a choice and action of our own doing, we bear responsibility for it.

There are two kinds of distress, according to St. Maximos.

The first is produced imperceptibly in the soul, the second palpably to-the senses. The first embraces the fall depth of the soul, tormenting it with the lash of conscience; the second pervades all the senses when their natural tendency to turn towards external things is checked by pain. The first kind is the result of sensual pleasure, the second of the soul’s felicity. Or rather, the first results from sense experiences that we deliberately embrace, the second from those we suffer against our will.

 One type of distress is subject to our will. We submit to a passion that provides temporary pleasure, but it doesn’t “have the soul’s blessing.” As a result, we are tormented by our conscience and the wounding of our souls.

Another type of distress is that which occurs outside our control. While producing suffering in the senses this type of distress can yield joy in our soul.

Ironically, when we take shortcuts by trying to avoid pain and inconvenience, and choosing quick and temporary pleasure, we emerge with our souls in distress, deprived of joy. Yet when we accept involuntary pain or eschew pleasure for the sake of salvation, we will experience joy.

St. Maximos quotes Peter (1 Pet. 1:6).

…who through faith are shielded by God’s power for the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in various trials, so that the proven character of your faith—more precious than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.…

St. Maximos encapsulates the paradoxical relationships between distress and pleasure and our responsibility regarding which kind of distress we choose.

 The soul’s distress is the result of sensual pleasure. For it is sensual pleasure that produces distress of soul. Similarly, distress in the flesh is the result of the soul’s pleasure. For the soul’s felicity is the flesh’s distress.

 We face comparable choices and reap similar results in the case of temptations:

 91. Temptation willingly accepted creates distress in the soul, but clearly produces pleasure in the A trial undergone contrary to our wishes produces pleasure in the soul but distress in the flesh.

 

 

FINDING PURPOSE, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Third Century, #59-70

In these paragraphs, St. Maximos contemplates three demons: excessive love of self (self-esteem), pride and the longing for popularity. The common denominator in all three is the belief that our authentic, God-given selves have low value in themselves. We are simply not enough as we are. What’s more, we cannot rely on God alone to confer on us the kind of importance that will impress others. Hence, we take on the task ourselves, obsessively building and presenting our own fiction about us, rather than understanding God’s will for us.

After a lifetime of practice, we believe our stories about ourselves and become self-centered and self-loving. We are now invested in our own stories and, hence, we are devastated when they are challenged or taken away. Criticism by others, the loss of a position, our child’s disappointing choices, loss of status or money, lack of praise pull the rug from under our feet and lead to loss of our sense of self and despair.

This is why St. Maximos compares pride and self-love to Absalom’s beautiful hair. While it was once a source of pride, his hair ends up causing his death by trapping him in a tree and making him easy prey for his enemies.

He who on account of his virtue or spiritual knowledge falls victim to self-esteem grows his hair like Absalom, to no good purpose” (cf. 2 Sam. 14:26; 18:9).

Trapped by our own fiction, the way Absalom was trapped by his hair, we lead lives of spiritual exhaustion, for example, by forcing ourselves to be always “on stage”—making sure our achievements are noticed, the impressions we make on others are positive, comparisons with others are in our favor. We want to reflect the virtues and characteristics that are highly admired in our world and to be praised for them.

We thus live a double life which often makes us feel disingenuous and empty.

“Outwardly he appears to pursue a moral way of life, but it is carefully contrived and mixed (like a mule) with conceit and designed to deceive onlookers.”

Like Absalom, we engineer our own demise through a series of distortions and substitutions.

Spiritual and material achievements become sources of pride because we mistake them for our own and forget that it is through God’s grace that we received them. Caught in self-love we are deluded in believing in our own omnipotence and forget our human weakness.

“Puffed up with his vainglory, he tries to supplant the spiritual father who gave him birth through the teaching of the Logos; for in his pride he wants, like a usurper, to arrogate to himself all the splendor of-the virtue and spiritual knowledge which his spiritual father possessed as a gift from God.”

Usurping and substituting God is the ultimate distortion of our perception and tragedy for mankind.

“Self-esteem,” St. Maximos tells us, “is the replacing of a purpose which accords with God by another purpose which is contrary to the divine.”

Losing our true purpose in God, we pursue popularity with others as a substitute and judge our lives by their worldly criteria: Have we met our professional potential? Are we losers because we failed to make as much money as others or sent our children to prestigious schools? Why haven’t we been invited to the homes of popular people or given the respect we deserve by our colleagues and superiors? Has the priest noticed how many liturgies we attended during Lent? How dare the new members in the church ignore us? They must not realize that we are the pillars of this community and make the highest donations?

We are thus doomed to live on the surface with a thirst for God that is never quenched by the substitutes we choose.

“The person who likes to be popular attends solely to the outward show of morality and to the wards of the flatterer. With the first he hopes to attract the eyes and with the second the ears of those Who are charmed and impressed only by what is visible and audible, and who judge virtue only with their senses.”

The result, we are told, is that:

“By doing or speaking what is virtuous in order to be seen by men, he sets a much higher value on the approbation of men than on that of God.”

Unless we have a foundation of wisdom and a purpose in God, virtues alone will not save us.

“Neither do these demons hate self-restraint, fasting, almsgiving, hospitality, the singing of psalms, spiritual reading, stillness, the most sublime doctrines, sleeping on the ground, vigils, or any of the other things which characterize a life lived according to God, so long as the aim and purpose of a person trying to live such a life are tilted in their direction.”

Even the achievement of inner stillness and reaching the last rungs in the process to Theosis are not adequate if their end goal is not union with God. The corrective is the achievement of wisdom which engenders the fear of God and leads to pure love.