KNOWLEDGE THROUGH PARTICIPATION (St. Maximos, Theology, Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice First Century)

How we get to know God is the topic of the first 9 paragraphs of the first Century of “Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice.”

St. Maximos repeats his frequent theme of the impossibility of complete knowledge of God, using new metaphors and parallelisms.

It is impossible to fully know God because He transcends “the summit of all spiritual knowledge,” he tells us. How could we? God is “an infinite union of three infinites. Its principle of being, together with the mode, the nature and the quality of its being, is altogether inaccessible to creatures. For it eludes every intellection of intellective beings, in no way issuing from its natural hidden inwardness, and infinitely transcending the summit of all spiritual knowledge.

We can only know God by participation through the virtues we cultivate within us. Yet goodness in humans is “substantive since it has an origin, a consummation, a cause of being, an. d motion, so far as its being is concerned, towards some final cause”  

For God, however, “good is that which has no origin, no consummation, no cause of being and no motion whatsoever, so far as its being is concerned, towards any final cause.” God’s existence is prior that that of created things. In contrast, we can only derive our existence through participation in His.

In fact, “Not only is the divine Logos prior to the genesis of created beings, but there neither was nor is nor will be a principle superior to the Logos.”

Hence our knowledge through participation is limited. We cannot participate in God’s essence or be coeternal with Him “who willed [us] to exist.”

Yet how wonderful it is that God made us capable of participating and being “participated in.” Our incompleteness is also our bridge to God and humans, and hope for redemptions. St. Maximos spends some time expounding on the nature of knowledge through participation.

First, knowledge through participation requires mutual desire and a synergistic relationship between God and man:

“…God, in whose essence created beings do not participate, but who wills that those capable of so doing shall participate in Him.”

Secondly, the various modes of participation allow constant renewal.

In his desire, humility and love of man, God “becomes an infant and moulds Himself in [us] through the virtues.”  Thus, He reveals Himself in us according to what each of us is able to accept and understand at any given moment, though His true nature and reasons remain invisible. The multiple and constantly new modes of God’s manifestation in us imply infinite possibilities of growth and continuous renewal.

This is why, St. Maximos tells us,

… the apostle, when wisely considering the power of this hidden activity, says, ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and throughout the ages’ (Heb.r 3 : 8) ; for he sees the hidden activity as something which is always new and never becomes outmoded through being embraced by the intellect.

Thirdly, God gives the energy and tools to participate.

“…it is He who has given to nature the energy which produces its forms, and who has established the very is-ness of beings by virtue of which they exist.”

St. Maximos compares God to an artist. If an artist is able to conceptualize shapes and forms before putting them on the canvass “how much more does God Himself bring into existence out of nothing the very being of all created things, since He is beyond being and even infinitely transcends the attribution of beyond-beingness.”

While we, humans, are created beings and God is unoriginate, He allows us to uncover his presence among created things and decipher the truth.

“It is He who has yoked the sciences to the arts so that shapes might be devised” and so that our intellect can integrate and apply them.

Artists can conceive and re-create shapes and forms; and we apply science and art, intellect and heart to become capable of participating in God at the highest level.



St. Maximos: The Visionary Intellect (2nd century of Theology, #74-85)

In this remarkable section, St. Maximos delves even more deeply into the nature and experience of our relationship with God.

The key presupposition is that our hearts are empty of the thoughts and images that constantly haunt us, overwhelming with constant mental “noise” and feelings of anxiety that silence God’s voice and prevent inner stillness.

Thoughts and opinions are the loudest “noise creators.”

When our intellect has shaken off its many opinions about created things, then the inner principle of truth appears clearly to it, providing it with a foundation of real knowledge and removing its former preconceptions as though removing scales from the eyes, as happened in the case of St Paul (cf. Acts 9:18).

It occurs to me that, for most of my life, the flood of ideas and opinions that I immediately form in my mind through both propensity and academic training, have blocked me from fully even hearing the other person, let alone experience a moment of mental stillness.

For St. Maximos, the opposite of the restless “academic” intellect or of a mindset caught in incessant and anxious thoughts of fantasy, recrimination or self-pity, is what he calls “the visionary intellect.” This visionary intellect abandons this self-made complexity for true “simplicity.”

It has been “stripped of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped” and gotten “a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle.”

And the achievement of simplicity and, through it, the true understanding of the principle is not gained by force but “it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.”

To achieve simplicity, we are asked to rid ourselves from entrenched opinions, rambling thoughts and clever comebacks and become writing tablets instead of pen-wielding authors of our stories.

A pure heart,” St. Maximos explains, “is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.

Removing the “scales” and entering into increasingly higher levels of knowledge and unity with God is not a one-time achievement but a lifelong process of ascent. St. Maximos is clear about the difficulty of the upward path yet, at the same time, provides comfort and hope. As long as we stay the course and make progress, however small, we become sojourners on the path of salvation.

So long as the soul advances ‘from strength to strength’ (Ps. 84:7) and ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor. 3:18), that is, so long as it advances from one degree of virtue to a greater degree and from one level of spiritual knowledge to a higher level, it remains a ‘sojourner’, one who has no permanent home, as in the saying, ‘My soul has long been a sojourner’ (Ps. 120:6. LXX).

The destination of our journey, the “miraculous tabernacle’

…a dispassionate and untroubled state of virtue in which the Logos of God adorns the soul like a tabernacle with the varied beauties of the virtues. ‘The house of God’ is spiritual knowledge compounded of many different forms of contemplation when God dwells in a soul, filling it from the bowl of wisdom. ‘Exultation’ is the soul’s leap of joy at the riches of the virtues. ‘Thanksgiving’ is gratitude for the bountiful outpouring of wisdom. ‘The sound of feasting’ is the unceasing mystical hymn of glory, which exultation and thanksgiving combine to form.

St. Maximos makes another important point about the journey to stillness and union with God. Even though it entails stripping ourselves of worldly pleasures and passions and acquiring Christ’s intellect, “this does not come to us through the loss of our own intellectual power; nor does it come to us as a supplementary part added to our intellect; nor does it pass essentially and hypostatically into our intellect.”

On the contrary, “it illumines the power of our intellect.”

“In my opinion,” St. Maximos continues, “the person who has Christ’s intellect is he whose intellection accords with that of Christ and who apprehends Christ through all things.”

Similarly, even though we are the body of Christ, “we do not become this body through the loss of our own bodies; nor again because Christ’s body passes into us hypostatically or is divided into members; but rather because we conform to the likeness of the Lord’s flesh by shaking off the corruption of sin.”

In the lifelong journey to simplicity and stillness, we shed passions and clothe ourselves in Christ while never losing our personhood. We excise opinions and thoughts, not to become incapable of thinking for ourselves, but to remove the scales that distort our view of the truth and drown the voice of God.


St. Maximos: Dwelling Purely in the Pure Christ (2nd Century of Theology #61-74)

St. Maximos has used an array of evocative metaphors to illustrate difference aspects and manifestations of our journey to God, from purification to illumination and theosis, for example, the three levels of one’s experience of the Sabbath; the passage from Chaldea to Mesopotamia and, finally, the holy land; the symbolic meanings of Saul, David and Samuel.

In this passage, he depicts metaphorically the stages in our knowledge of Christ. At first, we are only capable of knowing Christ “in the flesh,” that is, “we come into contact with the letter and not the spirit.” As we progress spiritually, however, we are able to rid ourselves of physical “props”—symbols, words, rituals and “the letter of the law” — and thus “we come to dwell – so far as this is possible for man — purely in the pure Christ.”

“We no longer know Him according to the flesh,” St. Maximos tells us, “because, through the intellect’s naked encounter with the Logos stripped of the veils covering Him.”

In a previous chapter, St. Maximos describes the state if unity with Christ as one in which advance “altogether beyond intellection,’ and beyond duality so that we can dwell in unity.”

Similarly, in this section, we are told that there is a stage of unity beyond simply overcoming the flesh:

“He who is living the life in Christ has gone beyond the righteousness of both the Law and nature. This St Paul indicated when he said, ‘For in Christ Jesus there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision’ (cf. Gal. 5:6)”

St. Maximos further elaborates on the stage of mystical union with God that transcends any kind of fragmentation.

God manifests this spirit in different forms, depending on our stage of understanding.

“Some are reborn through water and the spirit (cf. John 3:5),” he says. “Others receive baptism in the Holy Spirit and in fire (cf. Matt. 3:11). I take these four things – water, spirit, fire and Holy Spirit – to mean one and the same Spirit of God.”

As long as we understand God in the flesh, through symbols and the letter of the law, we still perceive reality in fragments and be unable to achieve full knowledge of God in His simplicity and unity:

So long as we only see the Logos of God as embodied multifariously in symbols in the letter of Holy Scripture, we have not yet achieved spiritual insight into the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Father as He exists in the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Son, according to the saying, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father . . . and I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ (John 14:9-10).

He continues with the metaphor of the ox and the servant and the relationship between them

The Law instituted the Sabbath, says Scripture, so that your ox and your servant might rest (cf. Exod. 20:10).

Both of these are symbols for the body. When practicing the virtues, your body is the ox led by the intellect, undergoing deprivations and discipline to attain virtue. When we advanced spiritually, the duality between body and intellect is erased. Rather than being passively subjugates, the body is now a participant in intellection.

For the contemplative the body is the servant of his intellect, because through contemplation it is now endowed with intelligence and so serves the intellect’s spiritual commands intelligently.

There is harmony in the relationship between the ox and the servant and a shared goal to achieve.

“…the Sabbath signifies the final goal pursued by them throughout the ascetic and the contemplative life, and so it provides for both of them a fitting rest…The Sabbath is a virtuous, dispassionate and peaceful condition of both body and soul. It is an unchanging state.”

While there is flexibility and negotiation in our relationship with God, in that we perceive Him in the form that we are capable of understanding at various stages of our spiritual development, the permanence and unchanging nature of God is the final destination. This is a stark difference between Christian and modernist world views. In the latter, objective, permanent truth does not exist, and our individual perceptions are the only truths that matter.

We are all subject to the great temptation to mistake our own perceptions as the truth or become enamored of the words, themselves, and the means to the end

St. Maximos sums it all up at the last paragraph of this section:

Hence a person who seeks God with true devotion should not be dominated by the literal text, lest he unwittingly receives not God but things appertaining to God; that is, lest he feel a dangerous affection for the words of Scripture instead of for the Logos. For the Logos eludes the intellect which supposes that it has grasped the incorporeal Logos by means of His outer garments, like the Egyptian woman who seized hold of Joseph’s garments instead of Joseph himself (cf. Gen. 39:7-13), or like the ancients who were content merely with the beauty of visible things and mistakenly worshipped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).


Mystical Contemplation (St. Maximos, 2nd Century of Theology, #50-61)

Ascetic practice and contemplation go together, St. Maximos tells us.

What does he mean by “contemplation? “Maximos spends the next 10 or so paragraphs explaining.

He begins with a view of contemplation, not as erudition or engagement in complex, abstract thoughts but, on the contrary, as a respite and utter simplicity. When Saul was “choked by an evil spirit,” he tells us, “David sang to the accompaniment of the harp and gave him relief (cf. 1 Sam. 16:14-23).” In the same way, when the contemplation of God is “mystical,” it is endowed with a sweetness that “brings relief to the intellect possessed by evil spirits and frees it from the bad conscience which chokes it.”

One can think of mystical contemplation as a state of silence and inner stillness; a stage in our relationship with God beyond words, symbols or logical categories. It is, as St. Maximos tells us, a state in which we are able to contemplate God “in His true simplicity, in His principial state with God the Father (cf. John 1:1-2).”

St. Maximos uses 3 Biblical figures as metaphors for three different levels of relationships with God

  • “Saul is the natural law originally established by the Lord to rule over nature. He was therefore deposed so that David might take over Israel. “
  • David is the law of the Spirit – the law engendering that peace which so excellently builds for God the temple of contemplation.
  • Samuel signifies obedience to God…Let Saul convince you of the truth of this: because he did not take Samuel for an adviser in all things he inevitably turned to idolatry, putting his trust in a ventriloquist and consulting her as if she were a god (cf. 1Sam. 28: 7-20).

Another way of viewing various stages in our relationship to God and our capability for understanding him might be through:

  1.  The flesh
  2. Ascetic practice/practice of virtues
  3. Mystical contemplation/complete union with God

St. Maximos describes our unending, upward journey through these stages:

When a man passes from the life of ascetic practice to the stage of spiritual knowledge, he is absent from the flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8). Caught up as on clouds by the more lofty conceptual images into the translucent air of mystical contemplation, he is able to ‘be with the Lord for ever’ (1 Thess. 4:17).

God’s presence in us depends on our contemplative abilities. For example, when “we contemplate Him indistinctly,” we are still tethered to our own desires and preoccupations and can only see Him indirectly, “as though in a mirror,” rather than face-to-face. This is when “the Lord is absent from us.”

When our glimpse of God is indirect and incomplete, He only reveals Himself to us through parables, symbols and stories, even though “He does not contain within Himself parables, symbols and stories needing allegorical interpretation.” Yet, “when He draws near to men who cannot with the naked intellect come into contact with noetic realities in their naked state, He selects things which are familiar to them, combining together various stories, symbols, parables and dark sayings; and in this way He becomes flesh.”

Only when we have achieved “genuine knowledge of created beings,” and are able to “contemplate Him face to face (cf. 1Cor. 13:12), can He be “present within us.”

As long as we are “not yet able to contemplate his conceptual images of things with a pure intellect free from the operations of the senses, we will be ‘absent from the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:6). But when we are able to “embrace the knowledge of the Lord in its true simplicity, without the help of symbols,” He “will be with us forever.”


Finding the Spring of Life Within Us, St. Maximos, Century, #36-50

Do not despair when you think of how far you have fallen, St. Maximos advises us in the beginning of this section. For all you know God will reach down to you when you least expect it. It could be a sudden insight, a flash of understanding, a small trigger that causes you to change a behavior. Don’t try to second-guess who will ascend to heaven. It is impossible to know. After all, we cannot grasp the meaning of God through sheer reason or by looking for physical evidence, but only through faith. And St. Maximos proceeds to show us how to achieve a true understanding and God and eventually how to unite ourselves to God, beyond understanding.

It is always a temptation to rely on the terms and categories we know when we try to make sense of what we don’t understand. However, if we talk about the Logos only in terms of action or behavior that can be seen, such as in terms of virtues, we make the Logos flesh. On the other hand, if we use higher contemplative forms to understand the mystery of theology, then we make the Logos a spirit.

But even so, we are still either “starting from positive statements about God,” or dealing in negatives “through the stripping away of positive attributes” to “make the Logos spirit or God.” But God transcends both knowing and unknowing. A higher form of contemplation, then, is to start “from absolutely none of the things that can be known” and experience unity with God beyond virtue, thought or understanding.

The thing is that we cannot leap directly to that state of perfect union to God in one fell swoop. We cannot simply engage in meditation or repeat a mantra to reach a state of “enlightenment” without having practiced the virtues and lived a contemplative life. There is no short cut. First, we must “learn to dig wells of virtue and spiritual knowledge within ourselves by means of ascetic practice and contemplation.” Only then can we look within us to ‘drink water from [our] own pitchers and from the spring of your own wells’ (Prov. 5:15).”

Whether we are stuck in ignorance, only able to “contemplate the visible creation solely according to the senses,” or “stick to the mere letter of Holy Scripture,” we cannot go further to “grasp the new spirit of grace.” This is the tragedy of existence without union with God. We look at creation as an end unto itself and a justification of lives driven by our senses rather as evidence of God’s footprint. We fail to see a universe replete with clues that point us to “whence we came, what we are, for what purpose we were made and where we are going.” Without the ability to transcend a world of senses or adherence to form without substance, we “travel through this present age in darkness, fumbling with both hands” in “ignorance of God.”

St. Maximos shows us three options for the life we choose to live. We could doom ourselves to live in the land of the Chaldeans, which “is a way of life dominated by the passions, in which the idols of sins are fashioned and worshipped.” Or we may find ourselves in Mesopotamia, a better destination than Chaldea but still a land caught between two rivers, in a strife between opposites, without reconciliation.

The third and final option, which St. Maximos holds out for us as a vision of hope and inspiration, is to join “the people assembled in Galilee in the upper room with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.” These are “those who, having safely reached the height of divine contemplation in the land of revelations and having shut their senses like doors for fear of the spirits of evil, receive the presence of the divine Logos of God in a way that cannot be conceived. He is revealed to them without the activity of their senses; through His words ‘Peace be with you.’

Only then will we experience a God who “bestows dispassion on them and breathing on them He grants them participation in the Holy Spirit, giving them power to combat evil spirits and showing them the signs of His mysteries (cf. John 20:19-22; Mark 16:17-18).”


St. Maximos, 2nd Century of Theology, #26-36

When Abraham left the land of the Chaldeans on his way to the promised land, he stopped at Haran, which was the midway point. In this section, St. Maximos refers to Haran as the symbolic midway point in our spiritual journey, “the intermediate state between virtue and vice – a state not yet purified from the delusion of the senses.”

How many of us find ourselves in some way or another in that midway state; between and betwixt? Not totally lacking in faith but not totally committed to it either; admiring the principles yet unwilling to practice them; loving yet not giving ourselves fully to love without judgment and control; understanding our blessings but not fully experiencing them in the moment.

At the midway point, we have succeeded in leaving behind the “land of the Chaldeans” and so have made some progress.

“He who still satisfies the impassioned appetites of the flesh dwells in the land of the Chaldeans as a maker and worshipper of idols. But when he has begun to discern what the situation is and has gained some insight into the mode of life which nature demands, he leaves the land of the Chaldeans and comes to Haran in Mesopotamia (cf. Gen. 11:31).

But while stuck at the midway point, our imperfection and ambiguity limits and diminishes our view of Christ

As long as I remain imperfect and refractory, neither obeying God by practicing the commandments nor becoming perfect in spiritual knowledge, Christ from my point of view also appears imperfect and refractory because of me.: For I diminish and cripple Him by not growing in spirit with Him, since I am ‘the body of Christ and one of its members’ (1 Cor. 12:27).

To him who is not satisfied with the midway point; who wants to go “beyond that moderate understanding of goodness which he has attained through the senses” and “hasten towards the blessed land, that is, to the state free from all sin and ignorance…” St. Maximos gives practical advice and holds out hope.

How do we get to the blessed land?

  • Not by looking for knowledge or validation outside ourselves but by looking inside.

“Those who seek the Lord should not look for Him outside themselves; on the contrary, they must seek Him within themselves through faith made manifest in action.”

    • By practicing the virtues. And, while sounding simple, this practice is neither as easy as following humdrum routines nor a rush of excitement, such as engaging in stimulating discourses of theology. It involves the difficult, dogged askesis of good; going against the grain of our habits, desires and, often, social norms.
  • By following gradual steps, which St. Maximos lays out:The first by means of practice trains the flesh in virtue, the second illuminates the intellect so that it chooses above all else companionship with wisdom; and through wisdom it destroys the strongholds of evil and pulls down ‘all the self-esteem that exalts itself against the knowledge of God’ (2 Cor. 10:5).”
  • By renewing our efforts at spiritual warfare each and every day; and, by “keeping the Sun of righteousness from setting [inside us] throughout the whole day.”

Hope comes in the knowledge that Christ is not static. “The Logos of God adapts Himself according to each person’s strength.” He “appears sometimes as risen and sometimes as set, depending on the manner of life and the spiritual status and essence or quality of those pursuing virtue and searching for divine knowledge.”

Just as we fall, repent and become renewed, Christ was crucified, died and was resurrected, not only in historical time but in the present, appearing to us “according to the state we are in.”

Christ is always crucified and resurrected and appears to us If we are imperfect, he appears to us imperfect as well.

If for our sakes the Logos of God ‘died on the Cross in weakness’ and was raised ‘by the power of God’ (2 Cor.13:4), then in a spiritual sense He is always doing and suffering this on our account, becoming all things to all men so that He might save all men (cf. 1 Cor. 9:22).

The movement from darkness to illumination and union to God is both historic and present; eternal and continuous; ceaselessly manifested by Christ to different individuals and in various circumstances.

…the Logos appears sometimes as risen and sometimes as set, depending on the manner of life and the spiritual status and essence or quality of those pursuing virtue and searching for divine knowledge.

There is no end to the movement of continuous ascension. Even the new testament is not a historical end point but a harbinger of the future, “leading our souls forward:”

Just as the teachings of the Law and the prophets, being harbingers of the coming advent of the Logos in the flesh, guide our souls to Christ (cf. Gal. 3:24), so the glorified incarnate Logos of God is Himself a harbinger of His spiritual advent, leading our souls forward by His own teachings to receive His divine and manifest advent.

And this is the most reassuring manifestation of hope, constantly leaving open the possibility of becoming unstuck from the midway point and heading to the blessed land.

St. Maximos, Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God, second century, #1-11

After the first few lines of this treatise, your head might start spinning. No wonder we spent over an hour on just a few paragraphs (#1-11) during our discussion last Friday.

St. Maximos begins by getting to the essence of Trinitarian theology. He takes you through a maze of relationships that capture the nature of the Trinity in rapid parallelisms–each with a different starting point and angle of approach.

The Divinity is both unity and trinity – wholly one and wholly three. It is wholly one in respect of the essence, wholly three in respect of the hypostases or persons. For the Divinity is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and is in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The whole Divinity is in the whole Father and the whole Father is in the whole Divinity. The whole Divinity is in the whole Son and the whole Son is in the whole Divinity. The whole Divinity is in the whole Holy Spirit and the whole Holy Spirit is in the whole Divinity.

After a few paragraphs, you have no idea if you are at the beginning, middle or end of the labyrinth you entered, and how each new sentence differs from the previous one.

Perhaps getting “lost” and recognizing your inability to rely on familiar categories of space and time, beginning and end, is what St. Maximos wants us to experience in order to grasp the nature of oneness.  No matter which category of thought or angle of approach you use, you cannot reduce or take apart the complete unity and absolute simplicity of the Holy Triad. The familiar categories of time, space and the sequential nature of relationships   do not apply to God. As a modern Greek translation of the text says:

Η αρχή, η μεσότητα και το τέλος είναι γνωρίσματα εκείνων που διαιρούνται ως προς τον χρόνο…

The beginning, the middle and the end are characteristics of things that are divisible in time

It is ironic that, for most of my life, I looked down on “simplicity” and yearned for intellectual complexity. “Simple” people had nothing interesting to offer, I decided. Whether it was Nietzsche, modern literary criticism or French films, I loved reading and analyzing complex concepts, secretly congratulating myself for my sophistication.

Now St. Maximos turns these assumptions on their head. The most important characteristic in God’s nature, he tells us, is simplicity. What is the meaning of simplicity for St. Maximos? What did I miss out on when I equated it with boredom, lack of sophistication; the antithesis of excitement and success? And why is it so difficult for us to shed the tools and categories through which we perceive reality to experience God in simplicity and purity of soul?

St. Maximos outlines a process of gradually shedding and emptying ourselves in order to achieve unity with God and experience his world of unity and simplicity.

First, we must give up our dependence on the intellect. God “is neither an apprehending intellect nor an intelligible being: He transcends both. “For if He were an apprehending intellect He would be limited by His need for a relationship with an intelligible being; and if He were an intelligible being He would be limited because naturally subject to an apprehending intellect capable of grasping Him.”

Intellection is dependent on relationships and exists in sequential time while “God is in both respects absolutely simple: in so far as He is being. He is independent of any apprehending subject; in so far as He is intellection. He is independent of any apprehensible object.”

While God is independent of relationships, however, his absolute unity and simplicity enables our relationship with Him through communion and a life in community with others.

Secondly, we must transition from fragmentation and multiplicity to unity.

“When intellection is given form through its apprehension of intelligible objects,” Maximos says, “it ceases to be single and becomes many intellections; for it is marked by the form of each intelligible object that it apprehends.”

This multiplicity, and the resulting fragmentation, prevent us from true union with God. Most of us are unable to discern the essence of things through conflicting allegiances, racing thoughts on past grievances and future uncertainties that rob us of the present, futile efforts to control and script our lives and that of others.

In Maximos, we see the real possibility of transitioning from intellection to inner stillness and a life livedin unity and simplicity. It is a path that “as it passes beyond the multiplicity of the sensible and intelligible things that in this way confer their manifold forms upon it, it becomes altogether free from form.”

Once we enter “the Logos, who is beyond intellection,” Maximos tells us, “then the intellect contemplates only its own immutability, and rejoices with an unspeakable joy because it has received the peace of God which transcends all intellect, and which ceaselessly keeps him who has been granted it from falling (cf. Phil. 4:7).”

St. Maximos, Theology (1st century) #75-100

In this section St. Maximos uses a sequence of parallel metaphors and biblical allusions to elucidate, from different angles, the journey of ascent from purification to illumination and theosis.

He first establishes the need for purification through allusions to Herod, Pilate and Cesar.

“Herod exemplifies the will of the flesh,” St. Maximos writes; “Pilate, the senses; Caesar, sensible things.” While the Jews represent the soul, they lose their way by subjugating the soul to the flesh.

 When the soul through ignorance associates with sensible things, it betrays the Logos into the hands of the senses to be put to death and proclaims within itself the kingship of perishable things. For the Jews say, ‘We have no king but Caesar’ (John 19:15).

Pilate is an intriguing character. While he refuses to condemn Christ, he misses the opportunity to go beyond this refusal, thus “denying the kingdom of God.” Instead of saving him, he turns him over to those who will condemn him to death. His neutrality–refusal to prosecute Christ—is simply not enough.

“The subjugation of the passions,” St. Maximos tells us, “is not sufficient to ensure spiritual happiness for the soul unless the soul also acquires the virtues by keeping the commandments.”

Resisting “the pleasures of the body” is a first step. To progress beyond it, one must cultivate virtues and acquire spiritual knowledge.

St. Maximos now turns to the parable of the paralytic to elucidate the true meaning of illumination. The paralytic looks with longing and frustration at the healing waters of the Pool of Bethesda, just steps away from him. He watches helplessly as others are helped into the water by their loved ones and are immediately healed. He can almost taste a new life of salvation and illumination but is unable to find somebody to push him into the water.  St. Maximos compares his situation to that of a man looking for salvation without having accumulated a trove of virtue and spiritual knowledge to draw upon.

For this reason, he has no one – that is, no intelligent thought – to put him into the pool when the water is disturbed (cf. John 5:7), that is, into a state of virtue capable of receiving spiritual knowledge and of healing every sickness.

It is far easier to indulge in passions than to exert discipline and resist them. Hence, what keeps us from healing, though like the paralytic we are sick, is laziness.

On the contrary, although sick, he procrastinates because of laziness and is forestalled by someone else, who prevents him from being cured. And so he lies there with his illness for thirty-eight years.

And Maximos shows the consequences of spiritual laziness:

Whoever does not advance towards God by these means remains paralyzed until the Logos comes to teach him how he can obtain prompt healing, saying to him, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’ (John 5:8); that is to say, the Logos commands him to upraise his intellect from the love of pleasure which dominates him, to shoulder the body of the virtues and to go home, that is, to heaven.

Christ provides the model of a life in union with God that contrasts with the above

For when through his ascetic practice he has irreproachably created the world of the virtues as if it were a world of visible nature, not allowing his soul to be diverted from its course by the hostile powers as he passes through time

St. Maximos next uncovers another aspect of illumination. Illumination is still of dual nature, he tells us. We are intellective beings, which means that we have the capacity to understand the created universe. At the same time, we and other beings are also “intelligible,” that is, we possess the intrinsic capacity of being understood by other, intellective beings. Intellective and intelligible capabilities are the two extremes. They lack simplicity because “it is only an intermediate relationship between two extremes” that makes them meaningful. For example, an intellective being must have the willingness, discipline and commitment to cultivate these capabilities and apply them to understand another being.

Hence, “no creature is in itself a simple being or intellection, in such a way as to constitute an indivisible unity.” We perceive the world around us in terms of its differences, conflicts, divergencies and multiplicities of points of view.  Yet “God is beyond being and beyond intellection…He is an indivisible unity, simple and without parts.” And herein lies the seemingly impossible paradox. If we are subjects to a world of multiplicity and bound by our duality of our intellective and intelligible being, how can we understand God through the limitations of our created universe?

In the multiplicity of beings there is diversity, dissimilarity and difference. But in God, who is in an absolute sense one and alone, there is only identity, simplicity and similarity. It is therefore not safe to devote oneself to the contemplation of God before one has advanced beyond the multiplicity of beings.

To progress from illumination to theosis, then, we have to advance “altogether beyond intellection,’ and beyond duality so that we can dwell in unity. 

None of the tools and assumptions of the world as we know it are adequate “to attempt to utter the inexpressible.”

The surest way is to contemplate pure being silently in the soul alone

To “converse with God” we have to let go of the means by which we attempted to exert some degree of control over our universe—the spoken word; the assurance of familiar space and time; the categories in which we grouped things and ideas.

“Moses showed this,” we are told, “when he pitched the tent of his mind outside the camp (cf. Exod. 33:7) and then conversed with God.”   And “the high priest, who was commanded to go into the holy of holies within the veil only once every year (cf. Lev. 16; Heb. 9:7), shows us that only he who has passed through what is immaterial and holy and has entered the holy of holies – that is, who has transcended the whole natural world of sensible and intelligible realities, is free from all that is specific to creatures and whose mind is unclad and naked – is able to attain the vision of God.”

To ascend to theosis we must “have transcended our own being and that of all things sequent to God. …He  who has not  transcended himself and all that is in any way subject to intellection, and has not come to abide in the silence beyond intellection, cannot be entirely free from change. But he who has advanced altogether beyond intellection, and has renounced it because he has transcended it, has come to dwell to some extent in unity



St. Maximos, Theology #51-72

Continuing on the theme of spiritual progression, St. Maximos makes use of the 6th, 7th and 8th days of creation as pivots of, and gateways to, growth. This echoes his use of circumcision, baptism and the harvest in the previous section.

In depicting various types of progression, St. Maximos draws parallels between the Old & New Testament. He also contrasts the passion-filled, downward spiral of the secular kingdom of the Jews and Romans to the inner journey of ascension that is anchored in the gospel.

For him who follows only the Law, St. Maximos tells us, the Sabbath is simply a respite from passions. Yet, even for him, it is possible to go beyond the Law by “crossing the Jordan” and entering the realm of virtues.

He who “observes the sixth day according to the Gospel,” however, has already “put to death the first impulses of sin, through cultivating the virtues,” and attained a state of dispassion. When this person crosses the Jordan, he acquires spiritual knowledge and “becomes in spirit the dwelling place of God.”

St. Maximos unveils the meaning of each day progressively through a series of parallelisms, each of which introduces a different insight and layer of meaning.

The sixth day is rest of the intellect—even beyond any image that can suggest passion.

It is the completion and fulfillment of natural activities and good deeds. It betokens the inner essence of things, but we are not there yet. We simply recognize the signs and get a glimpse of the next level. It is a day of preparation.

Crossing the Jordan takes you to a more mystical experience of God on the 7th day. You are crossing over from preparation to spiritual knowledge becoming “in spirit the dwelling place of God,” but not yet reaching consummation. You have crossed over “to the repose of spiritual contemplation” in which “the intellect, grasping in a divine manner the inner essences of created beings, ceases from all movement.”

Some of us, St. Maximos tells us, may be “also found worthy of the eighth day.” In this state, we experience “the blessed life of God, who is the only true life,” and we, ourselves, become God by deification.

On the 8th day, we participate in “God’s deifying energy,” which is “the mystical resurrection.” This means that we leave behind “in the sepulcher His linen clothes and the napkin that was about his head (cf. John 20:6-7). Those who perceive this, like Peter and John, are convinced that the Lord has risen.”

Why should we leave behind the linen clothes and the napkins?

The linen clothes represent “the inner essences of sensible things together with their qualities of goodness.” The napkin is the “simple and homogenous knowledge of intelligible realities together with the vision of God.”

Up to this point, we still apply the natural categories of the created world to comprehend God. “Ages, times and places,” St. Maximos says, “belong to the category of relationship, and consequently no object necessarily associated with these things can be other than relative.”

He goes on to remark the paradox: While we perceive the world through categories of relationships “…God transcends the category of relationship; for nothing else whatsoever is necessarily associated with Him.”

The linen clothes and the napkin are “the things by which the Logos is initially recognized” because we lack the capacity to recognize him otherwise. But if we bury the Lord the right way, in glory, we will no longer need to recognize him in relationship to his linen clothes or napkin, and we will be able to see him in a way no one else sees him:

  1. Those who bury the Lord with honor will also see Him risen with glory, but He is not seen by anyone else

The 8th day unlocks the mystery, without which, we only have partial understanding of God.

He who apprehends the mystery of the cross and the burial apprehends the inward essences of created things; while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything.

On the eight day, one goes beyond knowledge to consummation. We are no longer limited by the principles of the natural world and relationships within it through which we may get only a partial understanding of God. Consummation “bears no resemblance whatsoever to the intermediary state, for otherwise it would not be a consummation.”

“When he who is saved is perfected in God, he will transcend all worlds, ages and places in which hitherto he has been trained as a child.”


St. Maximos, 1st Century on Theology, #26-50

Whew! This was a hard but very profound section but, luckily, Fr. David helped us through it.

In these few pages, St. Maximos takes us through multiple steps and levels of spiritual growth in which our relationship with God entwines in various forms and manifestations until we are on with him—with God dwelling within us and us within him. This is how I order the sections to make sense to me. It is a little long but bear with me as I muddle through and feel free to comment.

So, we live in the temporal world, limited by the natural laws of decay and death. When we or our knowledge of things reach maturity, growth ceases and death or stagnation follow.

However, true knowledge of God does not cease once it reaches ch maturity. Instead,

…it starts to grow anew. For the end of one stage constitutes the starting-point of the next. There is never an end, as there is never a beginning, to the good which God does

Through divine knowledge, then, we get a taste of God’s immortal world.

The journey to perfect knowledge and endless renewal is structured along the three stages of spiritual life in Orthodox Theology: purification, illumination and Theosis or deification


St. Maximos starts with the theme of silence to signify purification from passions:

27 If a man impetuously interrupts a speech at a public meeting, he clearly reveals his lust for self-glory. Overpowered by this passion, he tries to obstruct

  1. Those who still fear the war against the passions and dread the assaults of invisible enemies must keep silent; in their struggle for virtue they must not enter into disputes with their enemies but through prayer must entrust all anxiety about themselves to God.


First, our desire for God must be supported by the grace of God to lead to illumination.

“A soul,” St. Maximos says, “can never attain the knowledge of God unless God Himself in His condescension takes hold of it and raises it up to Himself. For the human intellect lacks the power to ascend and to participate in divine illumination, unless God Himself draws it up in so far as this is possible for the human intellect – and illumines it with rays of divine light.”

Through purification and illumination, the real meaning of things is revealed and we able to achieve a deeper level of understanding of the scriptures. Maximos selects three biblical concepts as the anchoring steps of spiritual ascent.

  1. The Sabbath. While the Sabbath is honored as rest from work, its deeper meaning is “the freedom of the deiform soul” from passions so that it can experience the full manifestation of God’s love; “the dispassion of the deiform soul that through practice of the virtues has utterly cast off the marks of sin.”
  2. Circumcision. 40 . Circumcision signifies the quelling of the soul’s impassioned predilection for things subject to generation.
  3. The harvest. 42. Harvest signifies the deiform soul’s in gathering and knowledge of the more spiritual principles of created beings in a manner conforming to both virtue and nature.


This is the stage in which the depths of God are revealed to one through the Spirit and he approaches the uncreated Light.

  • There is a deeper understanding of the Sabbath—the Sabbaths of Sabbaths—that (3 9 ) …signify the spiritual calm of the deiform soul that has withdrawn the intellect even from contemplation of all the divine principles in created beings, that through an ecstasy of love has clothed it entirely in God alone, and that through mystical theology has brought it altogether to rest in God. And we enter a more profound harvest—the harvest of harvests. It is “another more spiritual harvest, which is said to belong to God.
  • Beyond circumcision, there is another more mystical circumcision, the “circumcision of circumcision” that “signifies the complete discarding and stripping away also of even the soul’ s natural feelings for things subject to generation.”

 43 . Harvest of harvest signifies the apprehension of God which follows the mystical contemplation of noetic realities and which, inaccessible to all, is consummated in the intellect in a manner beyond understanding. Such apprehension is fittingly reaped by the person who in a worthy manner honours the Creator because of what He has created, whether visible or invisible.

Yet true knowledge of God never has an ending and is constantly renewable and a stepping stone to constantly more knowledge. St. Maximos bring yet another level as an example:

“There is another more spiritual harvest, which is said to belong to God Himself,” he tells us: “there is another more mystical circumcision; and there is another more hidden sabbath, which God celebrates when He rests from His own labours.”

  1. 46. Circumcision of the heart in the spirit signifies the utter stripping away from the senses and the intellect of their natural activities connected with sensible and intelligible things.
  2. 47. The sabbath rest of God signifies the complete reversion of created beings to God. It is then that God suspends in created beings the operation of their natural energy by inexpressibly activating in them His divine energy. I It is by virtue of this natural energy that each created being naturally acts ; and God suspends its operation in each created being t o the degree to which that being participates in His divine energy and so establishes its own natural energy within God Himself.
  3. 45. The harvest of God signifies the total dwelling and stability of the saints in God at the consummation of the ages. This stripping away is accomplished by the Spirit’s immediate presence, which completely transfigures body and soul and makes them more divine.


Probably reflecting the constantly evolving levels of knowledge of God, St. Maximos delineates three types of relationships with God.

  • THE MAN OF FAITH frees himself from passions through the practice of virtues
  • THE DISCIPLE receives and multiples the word of God by spreading it to others and ministering to them.
  • THE APOSTLE has the power to go beyond spreading the word to heal “the sick, through hope restoring a state of devotion to those who have lost it” and cure “every disease and infirmity.”

The universe is divided between created and uncreated beings. However, God made uncreated beings such as, goodness, truth, love or charity “participable”—that is, accessible to us, created beings, through participation—participation that can be only enabled through Grace.

Hope for our salvation, then, lies in our God-given potential to participate. So even though we have a temporal origin, we are enabled, through God’s grace, to become participants in the timeless, unoriginate essence of beings that manifest the presence of God.  And through this participation, we experience this presence and become one with him.