The River Running Through the City of Our Souls: St Maximos the Confessor

(Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Second Century) #77-89

The Trap of Natural Contemplation

Have you ever experienced situations when, remembering a perceived injustice against you or angered at life not conforming to your expectations, you rehash the situation in your mind over and over? Did you find that each recollection fans the flames of resentment or self-pity until they dominate your soul?

This is an example of what St. Maximos calls “natural contemplation”—keeping your mind on the natural, created world around you. He warns us against natural contemplation before achieving spiritual knowledge.

When our intelligence becomes “stupefied” (Όταν άνους ο λόγος γέννηται) ιt is incapable of looking past temporary passions to eternal truths and exercising discernment and self-control. Without spiritual knowledge, we are stuck in our passions, as in a tar pit. We cannot get past anger, resentment, self-pity or lust We allow them to dominate our souls and define our lives. We become, as St. Maximos calls it, “entangled.”

As always, St. Maximos does not leave us with statements and aphorisms but delves into the psychological progression of sin in our souls. Over time, without the resistance and self-control that spiritual knowledge enables, our submission to unexamined passions becomes a habit.  We become so used to, and invested in, a state of passion that we mistake it for normalcy and truth–who we really are; the inevitable outcomes of a situation or the way anybody else would react, after all.

Eventually, we come to justify our behavior and decisions so we can indulge in these passions, thus confusing falsehood with truth, evil with good.

For it was the devil who insinuated this habit into you and, relying on it, he boastfully approached your soul, vilifying truth with proud thoughts

[You] may deceive the intellect with what seems to be good and secretly turn its desire away from God, drawing its understanding, which seeks what is good, towards what is bad, because it has mistaken the bad for the good.

This is when our souls are most vulnerable, and our lives can spin out of control into misery and despair.

Guarding the Walls of the City

St. Maximos compares our soul to a city and admonishes us to guard its walls from the senses.

The mature intellect must with spiritual knowledge escape from invisible entanglements. While it is being provoked by evil powers it must not engage in natural contemplation or do anything but pray, tame the body with hardship, diligently bring the earthly will into subjection, and guard the walls of the city, that is, the virtues which protect the soul or the qualities which guard the virtues, namely, self-control and patience

The person who courageously closes his senses by means of the deliberate and all-embracing practice of self-control and patience, and prevents sensory forms from entering the intellect through the soul’s faculties, easily frustrates the wicked schemes of the devil and turns him back, abased, along the way by which he came..

Unity and Synergy

Yet guarding the city is not enough. God does not ask us to cut ourselves off from the natural world. After all, He created it and intended it to be good. Rather than rejecting it altogether, we are charged with restoring it to its true form, in unity with Him.

Theosis is achieved only by Συνεργία – synergy and cooperation between man and God, finite and infinite. When we possess spiritual knowledge, natural contemplation will reveal God’s purpose, instead of entangling us in passions. It will allow us to see the principles beneath the surface and understand how the material universe is connected to God:

The intellect reaps true knowledge from natural contemplation when, in a way that conforms to nature, it unites the itself by means of the intelligence.

St. Maximos further illustrates how unity comes about by making use of Hezekiah, and the story of his blocking of the springs outside the city, as a metaphor for the relationship between soul and matter. He tells us that:

When Scripture speaks of the springs blocked up by Hezekiah outside the city (cf. 2 Chr. 32:3-4. LXX), the city signifies the soul and the springs the totality of sensible things. The waters of these springs are conceptual images of sensible things.

The city and the springs cannot achieve fulfillment, however, without synergy and cooperation between them. To achieve these, “the river that flows through the middle of the city” acts as intermediary.

St. Maximos sees the river as a metaphor for “knowledge gathered in natural contemplation from these conceptual images of sensible things.” With the intellect alert and in the state that God intended it for, can now clearly discern between truth and falsehood, good and evil. With the knowledge we acquire we can see the true essence of created things and their connection with God, free of delusion.

This knowledge passes through the middle of the soul because it links the intellect and the senses. For the knowledge of sensible things is not entirely unconnected with the noetic faculty, nor does it depend altogether on the activity of the senses.

Submitting to passions is passive. Guarding the city is active spiritual warfare. Uniting is active and transformative action.  While the river acts as “the intermediary between the intellect and the senses and between the senses and the intellect,” it also serves as an active agent of change. It “brings about the union of the two with each other,” ποιείται την προς άλληλα τούτων συνάφεια.

It is when we discern God in sensible things and are able to see connections among seemingly disparate realms that:

Ineffaceable knowledge, whose spiritual gyration around God’s infinitude is unconditioned and beyond intellection.


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