In this section St. Maximos uses a sequence of parallel metaphors and biblical allusions to elucidate, from different angles, the journey of ascent from purification to illumination and theosis.
He first establishes the need for purification through allusions to Herod, Pilate and Cesar.
“Herod exemplifies the will of the flesh,” St. Maximos writes; “Pilate, the senses; Caesar, sensible things.” While the Jews represent the soul, they lose their way by subjugating the soul to the flesh.
When the soul through ignorance associates with sensible things, it betrays the Logos into the hands of the senses to be put to death and proclaims within itself the kingship of perishable things. For the Jews say, ‘We have no king but Caesar’ (John 19:15).
Pilate is an intriguing character. While he refuses to condemn Christ, he misses the opportunity to go beyond this refusal, thus “denying the kingdom of God.” Instead of saving him, he turns him over to those who will condemn him to death. His neutrality–refusal to prosecute Christ—is simply not enough.
“The subjugation of the passions,” St. Maximos tells us, “is not sufficient to ensure spiritual happiness for the soul unless the soul also acquires the virtues by keeping the commandments.”
Resisting “the pleasures of the body” is a first step. To progress beyond it, one must cultivate virtues and acquire spiritual knowledge.
St. Maximos now turns to the parable of the paralytic to elucidate the true meaning of illumination. The paralytic looks with longing and frustration at the healing waters of the Pool of Bethesda, just steps away from him. He watches helplessly as others are helped into the water by their loved ones and are immediately healed. He can almost taste a new life of salvation and illumination but is unable to find somebody to push him into the water. St. Maximos compares his situation to that of a man looking for salvation without having accumulated a trove of virtue and spiritual knowledge to draw upon.
For this reason, he has no one – that is, no intelligent thought – to put him into the pool when the water is disturbed (cf. John 5:7), that is, into a state of virtue capable of receiving spiritual knowledge and of healing every sickness.
It is far easier to indulge in passions than to exert discipline and resist them. Hence, what keeps us from healing, though like the paralytic we are sick, is laziness.
On the contrary, although sick, he procrastinates because of laziness and is forestalled by someone else, who prevents him from being cured. And so he lies there with his illness for thirty-eight years.
And Maximos shows the consequences of spiritual laziness:
Whoever does not advance towards God by these means remains paralyzed until the Logos comes to teach him how he can obtain prompt healing, saying to him, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’ (John 5:8); that is to say, the Logos commands him to upraise his intellect from the love of pleasure which dominates him, to shoulder the body of the virtues and to go home, that is, to heaven.
Christ provides the model of a life in union with God that contrasts with the above
For when through his ascetic practice he has irreproachably created the world of the virtues as if it were a world of visible nature, not allowing his soul to be diverted from its course by the hostile powers as he passes through time
St. Maximos next uncovers another aspect of illumination. Illumination is still of dual nature, he tells us. We are intellective beings, which means that we have the capacity to understand the created universe. At the same time, we and other beings are also “intelligible,” that is, we possess the intrinsic capacity of being understood by other, intellective beings. Intellective and intelligible capabilities are the two extremes. They lack simplicity because “it is only an intermediate relationship between two extremes” that makes them meaningful. For example, an intellective being must have the willingness, discipline and commitment to cultivate these capabilities and apply them to understand another being.
Hence, “no creature is in itself a simple being or intellection, in such a way as to constitute an indivisible unity.” We perceive the world around us in terms of its differences, conflicts, divergencies and multiplicities of points of view. Yet “God is beyond being and beyond intellection…He is an indivisible unity, simple and without parts.” And herein lies the seemingly impossible paradox. If we are subjects to a world of multiplicity and bound by our duality of our intellective and intelligible being, how can we understand God through the limitations of our created universe?
In the multiplicity of beings there is diversity, dissimilarity and difference. But in God, who is in an absolute sense one and alone, there is only identity, simplicity and similarity. It is therefore not safe to devote oneself to the contemplation of God before one has advanced beyond the multiplicity of beings.
To progress from illumination to theosis, then, we have to advance “altogether beyond intellection,’ and beyond duality so that we can dwell in unity.
None of the tools and assumptions of the world as we know it are adequate “to attempt to utter the inexpressible.”
The surest way is to contemplate pure being silently in the soul alone
To “converse with God” we have to let go of the means by which we attempted to exert some degree of control over our universe—the spoken word; the assurance of familiar space and time; the categories in which we grouped things and ideas.
“Moses showed this,” we are told, “when he pitched the tent of his mind outside the camp (cf. Exod. 33:7) and then conversed with God.” And “the high priest, who was commanded to go into the holy of holies within the veil only once every year (cf. Lev. 16; Heb. 9:7), shows us that only he who has passed through what is immaterial and holy and has entered the holy of holies – that is, who has transcended the whole natural world of sensible and intelligible realities, is free from all that is specific to creatures and whose mind is unclad and naked – is able to attain the vision of God.”
To ascend to theosis we must “have transcended our own being and that of all things sequent to God. …He who has not transcended himself and all that is in any way subject to intellection, and has not come to abide in the silence beyond intellection, cannot be entirely free from change. But he who has advanced altogether beyond intellection, and has renounced it because he has transcended it, has come to dwell to some extent in unity