Put your Soul Above All Else, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century, # 9-15

St. Maximos delves once more into the intricacies of the relationship between soul and flesh. He reminds us that his is not a doctrine of separation and polarization between God-given faculties. To nourish the soul, you do not need to annihilate the flesh. You need to understand and follow the correct order.

The war we have to wage is, thus, far more intricate than choosing among competing dualities. It is one of re-ordering and transforming rather than destroying.  It calls for discernment of the right order, set of relationships and perspective as well as the need for discipline and sacrifice.

 “The flesh, St. Maximos instruct us, “belongs to the soul, but the soul does not belong to the flesh.” This order is lifesaving.

What does St. Maximos mean by “flesh?” Clearly, he does not literally refer to what is solely experienced through the flesh. Instead, “flesh” stands for worldliness — everything that tethers you to the created world, when it is void of God’s presence: greed, control, jealousy, workaholism, despair, fantasy, lust, vindictiveness.

Flesh, we are told, “has been condemned to suffer death, for the purpose of death is to destroy the law of the flesh.”  It is, hence, temporary and unpredictable. Choosing to prioritize worldly values is the result of a distorted perspective. What in fact is tangential, temporary and subordinate to the soul, becomes dominant and determines the worth of our lives. How many of us measure the success of our lives on the basis of wealth, “wins,” others’ respect and praise, career success, getting others to behave the way we want etc.

In other words, it is not the mere existence of profit, material comfort or professional success that jeopardize the salvation of our souls. Instead it is our addiction to them. Our attachment to these vices enslaves us and drives our lives. They eventually become our primary measure of success.

For unless in this present life the law of sin, evidenced in the will’s attachment to the flesh, is drained from the flesh as though from some vessel, no one can receive that blessed life.

Subjecting flesh to the soul, on the other hand, means that we constantly make inconvenient choices, rejecting quick or temporary gratification for the deeper joy of eternal virtue.

Hence the paradox of accepting temporary pain for deep and eternal joy, vs. succumbing to temporary, fleeting pleasure only to suffer death of soul and eventual despair.

St. Maximos talks about two kinds of distress:

  1. The distress we experience due to spiritual discipline—forgoing temporary pleasure for the deeper joy of virtue. He calls this, “profitable distress” –” the pain the flesh suffers for the sake of virtue.” The result is what St. Maximos calls, “salutary joy” – the soul’s rejoicing in that virtue.
  2. The distress we experience in the long-term, after succumbing to temporary pleasure.

Salutary joy is deeper than temporary pleasure because it involves a complete re- ordering of priorities and re-orientation of perspective. Instead of measuring our life’s worth by achievements, recognition, material goods and other unreliable sources of pleasure, we now hold as priorities eternal truths that cannot be taken away.   We are able to distinguish between fantasy and reality and behold “as a present reality the beauty of the blessings held in store.”

Conversely, attachment to a worldly point of view produces pain from fixating over things that are ephemeral. They distort our perspective and life’s proper order and leave us with a sense of emptiness, anxiety, dissatisfaction– unable to perceive “the beauty of the blessings held in store.”

In subjugating our soul to the flesh, we relinquish freedom by placing our source of joy and self-worth on temporary things that never quench our thirst. We are left exhausted, running on a hamster wheel that has no new destination.

On the other hand, by subjugating the flesh to the soul, we free ourselves from “addiction.”  We are replacing worldly things that can be taken from us with permanent and eternal virtue.

St. Maximos moreover introduces the important element of renewal.  Succumbing to the flesh erodes our soul and chances for eternal life. As desires for material things become habits and are perceived as the norm, we are stuck in a process of justification, accommodation and decline.

Conversely, the salutary joy we derive by allowing the soul to be above the flesh is regenerating. Death if the flesh produces continuous renewal.

For the sake of virtue he severs his will from the flesh, and so dies daily, like David (cf. Ps. 44:22). At the same time, he is continually renewed through his soul’s spiritual regeneration; for he possesses both salutary pleasure and profitable distress.



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