Reminder: book study session this Friday noon, March 1, at St. Mary’s
The path to spiritual knowledge and salvation is not a linear, vertical path, St. Maximos shows. Instead, it is a process of ascendance that involves synergy and cooperation.
God, for example, “sets the bounds of each man’s life, in the manner which He wills, leads every man, whether righteous or unrighteous, towards the final end he deserves.” Rather than being deterministic, however, the course of our life is cooperative. It is man’s actions that, along with God’s will, determine what it is he “deserves.”
Similarly, there is cooperation between matter and spiritual knowledge. To ascend into higher levels of spiritual knowledge, we do not simply reject and cut ourselves off from material things but transform them into instruments for our union with God; rungs in our upward journey.
St. Maximos’ allegorical interpretation of Paul’s encounter with the storm elucidates the processes of cooperation and transformation.
The dark storm which befell St Paul (cf. Acts 28:1-4) is the weight of involuntary trials and temptations. The island is the firm unshakeable state of divine hope. The fire is the state of spiritual knowledge. The sticks are the nature of visible things. Paul gathered these with his hand, which I take to mean with the exploratory capacity of the intellect during contemplation He fed the state of spiritual knowledge with conceptual images derived from the nature of visible things, for the state of spiritual knowledge heals the mental dejection produced by the storm of trials and temptations. The viper is the cunning and destructive power hidden secretly in the nature of sensible things. It bites the hand, that is, the exploratory noetic activity of contemplation, but without harming the visionary intellect; and this, with the light of spiritual knowledge, as if with fire at once destroys the destructive power that arises from the contemplation of sensible things and that attaches itself to the practical activity of the intellect.
The relationships and order among these elements are essential.
Without hope Paul could not even discern the path to salvation and begin the journey of healing from temptations. Throughout the journey, he is driven by the quest for spiritual knowledge—the fire. Everything else is subordinate to this quest. For example, he neither rejects “sensible things,” nor is he sidetracked by them by mistaking them for the goal of his pursuit. Instead, he puts them into the right use by transforming them into fuel for keeping the fire of spiritual knowledge going.
His journey is not linear in that it does not culminate with the making a fire. Instead, it involves a continuous process of converting desires and passions into divine fuel for the fire. It is this constant spiritual warfare, driven by hope, that will allow us to resist the attack from the viper when it arises.
St. Maximos delves into our soul to demonstrate the need for cooperation among our three powers that dwell there: “the intelligence, the incensive power and desire.”
With our intelligence we direct our search; with our desire we long for that supernal goodness which is the object of our search; and with our incensive power we fight to attain our object. With these powers these who love God cleave to the divine principle of virtue and spiritual knowledge. Searching with the first power, desiring with the second, and fighting by means of the third, they receive incorruptible nourishment, enriching the intellect with the spiritual knowledge of created beings.
Using these God-endowed powers the way God intended, we cooperate with God on fashioning the end we each deserve.