Stages of Descent and Ascent: St Maximos the Confessor

(Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Second Century #89-100)

theosis1St. Maximos recounts for us the stages of sin and pits them against the stages of spiritual contemplation that lead to salvation.

He starts by clarifying that “appetites and pleasures” are not sins unto themselves. They are “in accordance with nature” and “not reprehensible, since they are a necessary consequence of natural appetency.”

It is the devil’s perversion of nature, not nature itself, that creates confusion and enslaves us to sin. St. Maximos compares the devil to the kingdom of the Assyrians (cf. 2 Kgs.18:11) that “has organized a war against virtue and spiritual knowledge, plotting to pervert the soul through the soul’s innate powers.”

His focus is not on static stages but the often-imperceptible processes of evolution as experienced by the senses and intellect. First, the demonic force “stimulates the soul’s desire to develop an appetite for what is contrary to nature and persuades it to prefer sensible to intelligible things. Then it rouses the soul’s incensive power to struggle with all its might in order to attain the sensible object which it desires. Finally, it teaches the soul’s intelligence how to contrive opportunities for sensual pleasure.”

This is why, though the created world is not evil, itself, he who has not yet achieved spiritual knowledge “is trying to escape from the confusion of sin” by renouncing passions since he is vulnerable to being overcome by them.

What a great tragedy that, lost in confusion, we are unable to see “the true nature of visible things” and discern in them “the divine and incorporeal essences of noetic realities;” the “images of His unutterable glory…”

Our only hope is to replace the perversion of the intellect that the devil brings upon us with the restoration of the true, God-given nature of creation through spiritual contemplation. St. Maximos presents to us the stages of such contemplation. Unlike the process of perversion and fragmentation that leads to our subjugation to sin, the ascent to theosis is one of integration, oneness and transformation. Renunciation of sin must be accompanied by the practice of virtue; word must be backed by deed:

If the words of God are uttered merely as verbal expressions, and their message is not rooted in the virtuous way of life of those who utter them, they will not be heard. But if they are uttered through the practice of the commandments, their sound has such power that they dissolve the demons and dispose men eagerly to build their hearts into temples of God through making progress in works of righteousness.

No matter how far along the path of spiritual contemplation we are, we can never fully hope to comprehend God’s essence. Instead of forcing understanding of the eternal God through the limited lens of temporal reasoning we participate in God through his energy. By leading virtuous lives, cleansing our souls of passions and engaging in spiritual contemplation we reach a state of dispassion in which they way we perceive and experience the world around us is radically transformed.

Instead of the kingdom of the Assyrians and subjugation to passions, we dwell in, and rule over, the “Jerusalem” of dispassion:

“every intellect crowned with virtue and spiritual knowledge is appointed like the great Hezekiah to rule over Jerusalem (cf. 2 Kgs. 18:1-2) – that is to say, over the state in which one beholds only peace and which is free from all passions. For Jerusalem means ‘vision of peace.’ “

Instead of allowing material things to dominate and lead us to sin, we see in them God’s image and a bridge to Him.

“…through natural contemplation an understanding of the nature of visible things – a nature which offers through you as gifts to the Lord the divine essences dwelling within it, and presents to you, as if presenting gifts to a king, the laws that lie within it – then you are ‘magnified in sight of all nations’ (2 Chr. 32:23).”

Instead of being trapped into a downward spiral, we rise “above natural bodies” to unite with God:

“For you are now above all things: through the practice of the virtues you have risen above natural bodies and the passions of the flesh, and through contemplation you have passed beyond the indwelling spiritual essences and qualities of all sensible forms.”


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