Love, along with faith and hope, is located at the last and ultimate rung in St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. The Ladder depicts the transformative process of climbing 30 steps, through which we renounce passions and cultivate virtues, to attain theosis– a complete union with God, in other words, a state of perfect love. Love is at the heart of St. Maximos’ teachings. He, in fact, devotes four chapters exclusively on love. Below is a review of key themes in these chapters.
“Love,” St. Maximos tells us, is not a mere emotion but “a holy state of the soul, disposing it to value knowledge of God above all created things.” Achieving such love is not the result of any one action but an ecosystem of interrelated actions and a process of continuous, spiritual ascension and transformation.
In these chapters, St. Maximos reiterates many of the principles he repeats in his other writings, for example.
- There is a synergistic relationship among passions and a progression from the lesser to the most destructive of them. For example, greed is the chief enabler among them and opens the floodgates for the rest of them.
- Thoughts are the subtlest and, hence, most dangerous of the demons assailing us: “for the war which the demons wage against us by means of thoughts is more severe than the war they wage by means of material things.”
- We have a major role in allowing sin into our souls by first “assenting to it, before actually committing it and then gradually submitting to them until they dominate our soul and drive our thoughts and actions.”
- Total assent to sin is when desolation sets in.
The opposite of this desolation brought about by passions, is perfect love.
To reach the ultimate rung of theosis–perfect love and union with God—it is not enough to purify passions and lead a virtuous life. It takes a mystical and total immersion in love for God that transcends both actions and intellect.
Throughout all his writings, St. Maximos constantly explains the state of theosis, each time from a different angle and through different metaphors.
The intellect alone can only take you so far because it is still human and limited by our imperfect human nature that can never fully grasp God. To reach the state of perfect love and union with God, we have to transcend intellect and participate mystically in God’s nature. Union with God is not manifested through intellectual understanding but through inner transformation and the ability to suddenly see the world through God’s eyes.
When we are in this state of perfect love, we are able to discern God in everything around us— not to “descry God’s inmost nature,” which is not possible, but “to discern, as far as possible, the qualities that appertain to His nature – qualities of eternity, infinity, indeterminateness, goodness, wisdom, and the power of creating, preserving and judging creatures, and so on.”
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN LOVE?
Perfect love in Christ is not simply a “feeling” or “emotion.” There is no “cuteness” or romance associated with it; no soft music playing in the background. On the contrary, as St. Maximos says, “Love of God is opposed to desire, for it persuades the intellect to control itself with regard to sensual pleasures.” Through love, we reach a state of dispassion as our hearts are free of jealously, judgment, the desire to control, possess or manipulate that block true love.
Love is a state of total union with God that allows us to perceive the world as unified with Him and ourselves as participants in that unity. Instead of focusing on our personal agendas, jealousies, recriminations, ambitions and other created things, “love impels [our intellect] to concentrate its whole natural power into longing for the divine.”
UNITY RATHER THAN SEPARATION
We often mistake passions, such as lust, the desire to control and possess, with love. In fact, we frequently dehumanize others by seeing them as mere commodities to compare ourselves to and benchmark our successes or failures against. The remedy St. Maximos outlines is to separate the resentment from the thought and view others in the fullness of their humanity rather than through the filter of our passions, thus opening our hearts to compassion and love.
Trough love, we give an end to alienation and separation through passions and perceived our shared humanity with others.
For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own or another’s, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or even between male and female. But because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and as fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, bond nor free, but Christ who ‘is all, and in all’ (Col. 3:11; cf. Gal. 3:28).
With love, we never again feel estranged from others and God. Love “makes it difficult or, rather, makes it utterly impossible for the intellect to estrange itself from the tender care of God.”
Love is distinguished by the beauty of recognizing the equal value of all men.
The nature of love is the nature of God and the nature of God is unity rather than fragmentation.
Perfect love is not an emotion toward an object but a transformative perception of, and relationship with, God and the world around us.
What does this mean? As Maximos says, when one experiences perfect love, he “sees things clearly in their true nature. Consequently, he both acts and speaks with regard to all things in a manner which is fitting, and he is never.”
And so, love is the light of our souls rather than limited to specific occasions and one on one relationships. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise of “eternal blessings” and “the pledge of the Spirit in your hearts (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22).”
With love, we become partakers of God’s nature and live in unity rather than alienation.
The nature of love is the nature of deluded God and the nature of God is unity rather than fragmentation.