On Preparing to Become a Cistern (St Maximos, Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Second Century, #59-63)

Next Session, Friday, March 29

Cistern“In Scripture,” St. Maximos tells us, “hearts capable of receiving the heavenly gifts of holy knowledge are called cisterns (cf. 2 Chr.26:10). To become a cistern, we need God’s Grace, in addition to our own efforts.  Yet not everyone is worthy of God’s grace.

In previous passages in the same chapter, we learned that “while every valley shall be filled,” not every valley is qualified to be filled (#53).

Similarly, while we all have the capacity to receive spiritual knowledge, not every heart has the capabilities to do so and become cisterns.

According to the dictionary: “Capacity is the ability that exists at present whilst capability refers to the higher level of ability that could be demonstrated under the right conditions.”  We are caught between God-given given ability and the potential of higher capabilities for fulfilling and directing this ability to God.

In these few paragraphs and elsewhere, St. Maximos talks about how to break this logjam and prepare for God to dwell within us and transform us into cisterns.

To become cisterns, we need God’s grace. To be worthy of his grace, however, we need to purify our souls from passions and choose a life of virtue.

This is not simply a matter of performing virtuous acts, however, or follow the Lord “superficially.” Rather it is a matter of a complete and transformative re-orientation. It shifts the presence of God from the margins (when your chores are done, and you are not busy) to the center of your life. God is now your sole focus, frame of reference and cherished destination. There is not a moment when you do not remember God’s presence and discern his principles under every created thing.

  1. So long as the intellect continuously remembers God, it seeks the Lord through contemplation, not superficially but in the fear of the Lord,

St. Maximos frequently contrasts a life on the surface, limited to what one can see and sense, to a God-driven life of endless depth in which we can enter “hill-country’ (Deut. 11:11” —  the higher form of the spiritual contemplation of nature. Those who are being made into cisterns will achieve this if God teaches them “the qualities of the commandments and reveals to them the true inner essences of created beings.”

In this new life, nothing is a mere commodity because we can discern the underlying reasons and principles of the existence of every created thing.

When we see the essence of things beneath the surface, everything around us is transformed and we can see the higher purpose of things. Suffering is a bridge to God. Ambition or passion is not a mere personality characteristic to be leveraged for profit but a tool for doing God’s will. The particulars—a bird’s song, sunny day or a boring chore– are not random, disconnected phenomena. In them we discern shared universal principles and understand them as the interlinked building blocks and manifestations of God’s creation. Seeing the inner essence of things means that we are no longer living in a fragmented world. We perceive the connections and are, thus, connected to God. Our perception of the world is not fragmented but holistic and participatory.

To fully participate in God, however, we have to do so through both thought and action “by practicing the commandments. For he who seeks Him through contemplation without practicing the commandments does not find Him… The Lord guides to success all who combine the practice of the virtues with spiritual knowledge:”

To encourage us, St. Maximos depicts and makes concrete the rewards of this preparation:

  1. He “hew[s] out cisterns in the desert, that is to say, in the world and in human nature. He excavates the hearts of those who are worthy, clears them of their material sordidness and arrogance, and makes them deep and wide in order to receive-the divine rains of wisdom and knowledge. He does this so that they may water Christ’s flocks, those who need moral Instruction because of die immaturity of their souls.


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