St. Maximos here demonstrates how the proper balance between intellect and flesh restores us to our true nature and leads to inner peace. By “flesh” of course, St. Maximos refers to “worldly” passions —from love of material things, to vanity, sloth, anger, fear, delusion etc. These are the passion that must be overcome one by one in St. John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent along the path to theosis.
Maximos weaves together a series of metaphors from which he extracts constantly new perspectives on the relationship between spirit and flesh. He starts this section by comparing “a life stained with many faults arising from the passions of the Flesh,” to a “soiled garment.”
Maximos then delves beyond this metaphor to explore the many dimensions of “the garment” and enter the mind and soul of the sinner. “Garment” is not merely a visual metaphor or an external feature but a dynamic state of the soul that keeps expanding as we contemplate on it. This garment, with the imprint of sin on it, envelops us in a world of memories, passions and sensibilities that overwhelm our intellect, filter and distort our view of reality. Sin, then, is not limited to specific action, space and time from which we can detach ourselves as soon as we commit it. Sin stains our soul and throws off the proper balance between intellect and flesh—with the flesh rather than the intellect leading us.
Thus a ‘garment stained by the flesh’ (Jude, verse 2 3) is the inner state and disposition of the soul when its conscience is deformed by the recollection of evil impulses and actions arising from the flesh. When this state or disposition constantly envelops the soul like a garment, it is filled with the stink of the passions.
I remember participating in a therapeutic environment for drug addicted teenagers and telling parents that their loved ones were no longer themselves – the kids they used to know. Their alcohol or drug usage had taken over, driving them to do things that were contrary to their character up to that point—stealing, lying, abandoning dreams and goals, hurting or prostituting themselves, etc.
People with a stained soul, according to St. Maximos, are similarly “not themselves,” having forgotten their true nature and perceiving the stained state of their souls as a “new normal.”
…when the passions are interwoven under the influence of the flesh, they form a filthy, soiled garment, which reveals the character of the soul, imposing on it a form and image contrary to the divine.
It takes intelligence to recognize and reject “everything alien” to our soul and discover “what is desirable according to our true nature.”
Healing then, requires a reversal of relationships between flesh and intellect and the restoration of control to the intellect.
When the intelligence is in control of the incensive power and desire, it produces the virtues.
St. Maximos offers the greatest hope in the possibility for redemption and deification.
A state of sin does not have to be permanent. Christ himself demonstrated the potential for transformation by taking on human flesh and redeeming it through his Resurrection.
A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to the deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4 : 1 5) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake.
Thus passions (the flesh) do not need to be eradicated but transformed and re-directed.
Even the passions become good if we wisely and diligently detach them from what is bodily and direct them towards the acquisition of what is heavenly. This happens, for example, when we turn desire into a noetic yearning for heavenly blessings; or when we turn pleasure into the gentle delight which the volitive energy of the intellect finds in divine gifts; or when we turn fear into protective concern to escape punishments threatening us because of our sins; or when we turn distress into corrective remorse for present sin.
Even beyond the hope of illumination and the acquisition of virtues, however, lies the ultimate hope of deification, when even the intellect, “after passing beyond the things that are known, apprehends the Cause of created things that transcends being and knowledge.”
With God’s grace, even with our flawed nature, we can be redeemed, partaking of the divine without forsaking our humanity. This is the state of true, inner stillness that goes beyond knowledge and discernment and can only be achieved by the grace of God.
Then the passion of deification is actualized by grace; the intelligence’s power of natural discrimination is suspended, for there is no longer anything to discriminate about ; the intellect’s natural intellection is brought to a halt, for there is no longer anything to be known ; and the person found worthy to participate in the divine is made god and brought into a state of rest.