Reordering Our Lives, St. Maximos The Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Third Century, 54-#59

Latimer is the hero of a little book by George Elliott called “The Lifted Veil.” He is the heir of a wealthy family, a man of deep poetic sensibility with near prophetic insight into others’ souls. Upon his brother’s death, not only does he become the sole heir of his father’s vast fortune, but he also marries his brother’s fiancée, a woman he desired and thought himself in love with. Then why is it that we see him defeated, despondent, bereft of joy and hope in the middle of what should have been a fulfilling and joyous life?

In the paragraphs we read, St. Maximos shows us the importance of the proper order of things and steps in the path to salvation. Latimer is an example of a man lost without understanding and adhering to the proper order and timing of elements.

In the proper order, intelligence and reason serve as handmaidens “for everyone who practices the virtues.”  Decoupling intelligence from virtue can lead to destruction.

Latimer’s gifts were not subservient to virtue and, hence, were derailed by destructive passions. Long before he married his wife, he had a moment of revelation in which he clearly saw a vision of the coldness, selfishness and hatred of her soul, hidden under the exterior of youthful beauty. Yes, he purposely pushes away this knowledge and, succumbing to his passion, he marries her thus entering a life bereft of love, companionship and goodness.

Even once the proper re-ordering of things has been achieved, St. Maximos demonstrates, there is no stasis. We ascend to God through a dynamic continuum in which each step is transformative and leads to the next; each spiritual level is a steppingstone to a higher level.

Hence, harnessing intelligence and reason to virtue—what St. Maximos calls “the stage of practical philosophy” — is not our final destination. Once this level has been achieved, “intelligence and reason are set free to devote themselves to spiritual contemplation, that is to say, they contemplate the inner essences of created beings.”

Latimer’s gifts of poetry and insight are futile. Uncoupled from virtue they have no purpose. They dead-end in despair rather than inner transformation and union to God.

The author, herself, describes the book, and her hesitation to publish it, through what she calls a “motto” in which she questions the value of talent, intelligence and insight if they do not lead to love:

Give me no light, great heavens, but such as turns

To energy of human fellowship

No powers save the growing heritageThat makes complete manhood

Throughout the book, Latimer is overwhelmed by a vague sense of unfulfilled desire, yet he is never able to quench his thirst. In contrast, once we have entered the realm of spiritual contemplation, desire itself is transformed. It is now experienced—not as potential and fantasy but as the fulfillment of pleasure.

Thus he who has subjected desire and incensiveness to the intelligence will find that his desire is changed into pleasure through his soul’s unsullied union in grace with the divine, and that his incensiveness is changed into a pure fervor shielding his pleasure in the divine, and into a self-possessed frenzy in which the soul, ravished by longing, is totally rapt in ecstasy above the realm of created beings.

The proper timing, sequence of, and relationships among elements are essential to our journey to salvation.  You cannot skip steps to hasten your arrival to desired destinations.  For example, to free intelligence and reason “to devote themselves to spiritual contemplation,” one must have first achieved detachment from material things and a state of dispassion. Skipping these steps to jump into the state of spiritual contemplation and divine ecstasy can be disastrous.

In George Elliot’s book, Latimer rushes to the fulfillment of desire without having subjugated his intelligence to the practice of virtues. The result was an empty, fearful, isolated, hopeless and unhappy life. This is why St. Maximos advises:

But-so long as the world and the soul’s willing attachment to material things are alive in us, we must not give freedom to desire and incensiveness, lest they commingle with the sensible objects that are cognate to them, and make war

For Latimer, the lifting of the veil is futile, failing to lead to true knowledge and spiritual transformation. In spite of his gift of insight, he marries a woman who he knows is evil. In the course of the book her coldness toward him turns to hatred. After he finds out that his wife is planning to murder him, he leaves the marriage and retreats to a solitary, hopeless existence whose only purpose is to wait for his death. There is no repentance and redemption; no lessons learned; no transformation of pain into wisdom and love.

Latimer’s gifts are never fulfilled but remain self-referential and theoretical. He is a poet at heart, capable of perceiving the beauty of things and even glimpses of their inner essence. Yet he never writes or paints; never shares his thoughts and gifts with others to deepen his connection with them; never uses them as gateways to love and goodness. In fact, as the novel proceeds, he loses his insight and becomes increasingly isolated and non-communicative, slipping into an insular fantasy world of his own making.

He is an example of what St. Maximos sees as the perversion of natural goodness into evil, by using his own will and limited understanding to hand pick desired destinations –skipping steps and constructing his own path–rather than submitting to a God-driven order.

 

 

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