Do not despair when you think of how far you have fallen, St. Maximos advises us in the beginning of this section. For all you know God will reach down to you when you least expect it. It could be a sudden insight, a flash of understanding, a small trigger that causes you to change a behavior. Don’t try to second-guess who will ascend to heaven. It is impossible to know. After all, we cannot grasp the meaning of God through sheer reason or by looking for physical evidence, but only through faith. And St. Maximos proceeds to show us how to achieve a true understanding and God and eventually how to unite ourselves to God, beyond understanding.
It is always a temptation to rely on the terms and categories we know when we try to make sense of what we don’t understand. However, if we talk about the Logos only in terms of action or behavior that can be seen, such as in terms of virtues, we make the Logos flesh. On the other hand, if we use higher contemplative forms to understand the mystery of theology, then we make the Logos a spirit.
But even so, we are still either “starting from positive statements about God,” or dealing in negatives “through the stripping away of positive attributes” to “make the Logos spirit or God.” But God transcends both knowing and unknowing. A higher form of contemplation, then, is to start “from absolutely none of the things that can be known” and experience unity with God beyond virtue, thought or understanding.
The thing is that we cannot leap directly to that state of perfect union to God in one fell swoop. We cannot simply engage in meditation or repeat a mantra to reach a state of “enlightenment” without having practiced the virtues and lived a contemplative life. There is no short cut. First, we must “learn to dig wells of virtue and spiritual knowledge within ourselves by means of ascetic practice and contemplation.” Only then can we look within us to ‘drink water from [our] own pitchers and from the spring of your own wells’ (Prov. 5:15).”
Whether we are stuck in ignorance, only able to “contemplate the visible creation solely according to the senses,” or “stick to the mere letter of Holy Scripture,” we cannot go further to “grasp the new spirit of grace.” This is the tragedy of existence without union with God. We look at creation as an end unto itself and a justification of lives driven by our senses rather as evidence of God’s footprint. We fail to see a universe replete with clues that point us to “whence we came, what we are, for what purpose we were made and where we are going.” Without the ability to transcend a world of senses or adherence to form without substance, we “travel through this present age in darkness, fumbling with both hands” in “ignorance of God.”
St. Maximos shows us three options for the life we choose to live. We could doom ourselves to live in the land of the Chaldeans, which “is a way of life dominated by the passions, in which the idols of sins are fashioned and worshipped.” Or we may find ourselves in Mesopotamia, a better destination than Chaldea but still a land caught between two rivers, in a strife between opposites, without reconciliation.
The third and final option, which St. Maximos holds out for us as a vision of hope and inspiration, is to join “the people assembled in Galilee in the upper room with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.” These are “those who, having safely reached the height of divine contemplation in the land of revelations and having shut their senses like doors for fear of the spirits of evil, receive the presence of the divine Logos of God in a way that cannot be conceived. He is revealed to them without the activity of their senses; through His words ‘Peace be with you.’
Only then will we experience a God who “bestows dispassion on them and breathing on them He grants them participation in the Holy Spirit, giving them power to combat evil spirits and showing them the signs of His mysteries (cf. John 20:19-22; Mark 16:17-18).”