St Maximos the Confessor, Our Choice of Pleasure or Distress

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Second Century, #83-91

In these paragraphs, St. Maximos explores the extent of individual responsibility with regard to joy and pain, and thus uncVovers the foundations of change and spiritual growth.

It is “the height of folly,” he tells us, for someone who took  pleasure in a sin he committed out of his own free will—who might have made excuses for it and even taken pride in it—to look for salvation by asking a just man to pray for him. The only way he could benefit, he continues, is if he acts on these prayers.

In this way, St. Maximos shows our role in, and responsibility for, both our perdition and salvation.

He then extends the exploration to two new arenas—distress and temptation.

For St. Maximos, distress is “a state devoid of pleasure” and is unnatural.  Absence of pleasure, he tells us,  means the presence of pain.”

Distress, then, is not a state that is inherent in our God-given nature. It comes from a disorder or dysfunction of the natural condition of a faculty. It means that we used incorrectly a natural function. It comes, as St. Maximos says, from directing this faculty toward something that does not exist: perhaps conjectures about what someone might have meant and speculations about whether you should take offense; fantasies of what might have been or become; desires for things you do not possess; jealousy about lives you do not live.

 To misuse the natural function is to direct the faculty to what does not exist by nature and lacks substantial being.

Since distress stems from a choice and action of our own doing, we bear responsibility for it.

There are two kinds of distress, according to St. Maximos.

The first is produced imperceptibly in the soul, the second palpably to-the senses. The first embraces the fall depth of the soul, tormenting it with the lash of conscience; the second pervades all the senses when their natural tendency to turn towards external things is checked by pain. The first kind is the result of sensual pleasure, the second of the soul’s felicity. Or rather, the first results from sense experiences that we deliberately embrace, the second from those we suffer against our will.

 One type of distress is subject to our will. We submit to a passion that provides temporary pleasure, but it doesn’t “have the soul’s blessing.” As a result, we are tormented by our conscience and the wounding of our souls.

Another type of distress is that which occurs outside our control. While producing suffering in the senses this type of distress can yield joy in our soul.

Ironically, when we take shortcuts by trying to avoid pain and inconvenience, and choosing quick and temporary pleasure, we emerge with our souls in distress, deprived of joy. Yet when we accept involuntary pain or eschew pleasure for the sake of salvation, we will experience joy.

St. Maximos quotes Peter (1 Pet. 1:6).

…who through faith are shielded by God’s power for the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in various trials, so that the proven character of your faith—more precious than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.…

St. Maximos encapsulates the paradoxical relationships between distress and pleasure and our responsibility regarding which kind of distress we choose.

 The soul’s distress is the result of sensual pleasure. For it is sensual pleasure that produces distress of soul. Similarly, distress in the flesh is the result of the soul’s pleasure. For the soul’s felicity is the flesh’s distress.

 We face comparable choices and reap similar results in the case of temptations:

 91. Temptation willingly accepted creates distress in the soul, but clearly produces pleasure in the A trial undergone contrary to our wishes produces pleasure in the soul but distress in the flesh.



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