FINDING PURPOSE, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Third Century, #59-70

In these paragraphs, St. Maximos contemplates three demons: excessive love of self (self-esteem), pride and the longing for popularity. The common denominator in all three is the belief that our authentic, God-given selves have low value in themselves. We are simply not enough as we are. What’s more, we cannot rely on God alone to confer on us the kind of importance that will impress others. Hence, we take on the task ourselves, obsessively building and presenting our own fiction about us, rather than understanding God’s will for us.

After a lifetime of practice, we believe our stories about ourselves and become self-centered and self-loving. We are now invested in our own stories and, hence, we are devastated when they are challenged or taken away. Criticism by others, the loss of a position, our child’s disappointing choices, loss of status or money, lack of praise pull the rug from under our feet and lead to loss of our sense of self and despair.

This is why St. Maximos compares pride and self-love to Absalom’s beautiful hair. While it was once a source of pride, his hair ends up causing his death by trapping him in a tree and making him easy prey for his enemies.

He who on account of his virtue or spiritual knowledge falls victim to self-esteem grows his hair like Absalom, to no good purpose” (cf. 2 Sam. 14:26; 18:9).

Trapped by our own fiction, the way Absalom was trapped by his hair, we lead lives of spiritual exhaustion, for example, by forcing ourselves to be always “on stage”—making sure our achievements are noticed, the impressions we make on others are positive, comparisons with others are in our favor. We want to reflect the virtues and characteristics that are highly admired in our world and to be praised for them.

We thus live a double life which often makes us feel disingenuous and empty.

“Outwardly he appears to pursue a moral way of life, but it is carefully contrived and mixed (like a mule) with conceit and designed to deceive onlookers.”

Like Absalom, we engineer our own demise through a series of distortions and substitutions.

Spiritual and material achievements become sources of pride because we mistake them for our own and forget that it is through God’s grace that we received them. Caught in self-love we are deluded in believing in our own omnipotence and forget our human weakness.

“Puffed up with his vainglory, he tries to supplant the spiritual father who gave him birth through the teaching of the Logos; for in his pride he wants, like a usurper, to arrogate to himself all the splendor of-the virtue and spiritual knowledge which his spiritual father possessed as a gift from God.”

Usurping and substituting God is the ultimate distortion of our perception and tragedy for mankind.

“Self-esteem,” St. Maximos tells us, “is the replacing of a purpose which accords with God by another purpose which is contrary to the divine.”

Losing our true purpose in God, we pursue popularity with others as a substitute and judge our lives by their worldly criteria: Have we met our professional potential? Are we losers because we failed to make as much money as others or sent our children to prestigious schools? Why haven’t we been invited to the homes of popular people or given the respect we deserve by our colleagues and superiors? Has the priest noticed how many liturgies we attended during Lent? How dare the new members in the church ignore us? They must not realize that we are the pillars of this community and make the highest donations?

We are thus doomed to live on the surface with a thirst for God that is never quenched by the substitutes we choose.

“The person who likes to be popular attends solely to the outward show of morality and to the wards of the flatterer. With the first he hopes to attract the eyes and with the second the ears of those Who are charmed and impressed only by what is visible and audible, and who judge virtue only with their senses.”

The result, we are told, is that:

“By doing or speaking what is virtuous in order to be seen by men, he sets a much higher value on the approbation of men than on that of God.”

Unless we have a foundation of wisdom and a purpose in God, virtues alone will not save us.

“Neither do these demons hate self-restraint, fasting, almsgiving, hospitality, the singing of psalms, spiritual reading, stillness, the most sublime doctrines, sleeping on the ground, vigils, or any of the other things which characterize a life lived according to God, so long as the aim and purpose of a person trying to live such a life are tilted in their direction.”

Even the achievement of inner stillness and reaching the last rungs in the process to Theosis are not adequate if their end goal is not union with God. The corrective is the achievement of wisdom which engenders the fear of God and leads to pure love.

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.

 

 

ST. MAXIMOS’ CENTURIES ON THEOLOGY—A REVIEW

In these chapters St. Maximos talks about how to understand the nature of God and enter into a union with Him.

  1. BEYOND HUMAN CATEGORIES

He first addresses a major challenge in our relationship to God. God is uncreated, unoriginate and uncontainable. Yet we try to understand Him through the limited categories of the created world that we know. This contradiction is the tragedy of our human condition. We long for God and the peace and unity that union with Him would confer. Yet we are doomed to an incomplete, fragmented perception of God and the world around us if we are not united with him and see through His eyes and not ours.

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

St. Maximos reminds us that there is a grave danger in mistaking our own perceptions for the truth; becoming so preoccupied with the symbols and words of the scripture that we lose sight of its essence.

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.

  1. THE PATH TO THEOSIS

The solution is to progress in our spiritual knowledge so that there is no longer separation between God and us. He dwells within us and we participate, in part, in his divinity. This stage in our relationship with God is called theosis. St. Maximos’ writings on theology all concern themselves with the lifelong process of achieving theosis and the stages within it.

Conventionally, there are three stages of spiritual growth: purification, illumination and glorification. St. Maximos repeatedly shows that these stages are not static destinations but pivots for the next phase and pieces of a transformative journey to theosis.

We first renounce the “flesh.” We next rise higher through “ascetic practice/practice of virtues;” and we finally reach the stage of mystical contemplation/complete union with God.

St. Maximos uses a great variety of metaphors and perspectives to depict the stages—each time unveiling a different dimension and level of meaning. In these chapters he frequently brings up parallelisms with the Old Testament.

  1. PURIFICATION AND THE VIRTUES

Our journey begins with purification—getting rid of worldly passions and attachments or there will be no space for God to enter our soul. Yet purification is not enough. It must be followed by the lifelong cultivation of virtues and a life lived in God’s commandments.

We cannot reach union with God on our own, but only through the grace of God. What we can do on our part is to cultivate virtue and nurture in our hearts the true desire for spiritual contemplation of God. It is then that we may experience the grace of God when we least expect it.

 “For he who lives not for himself but for God, is filled with all the gifts of Grace which were not previously apparent to him because of the disturbance of passions.”

  1. THE MIDWAY POINT

St. Maximos sheds light on the dynamics of our individual paths to theosis by pausing to highlight the struggles at the midway point. Our journey, he says, can be compared to that of Abraham’s, from the land of the Chaldeans, which signifies passions, to the promised land which symbolizes theosis. Before reaching the promised land, Abraham makes a stop at Haran. The Israelites have succeeded in abandoning passions (the land of the Chaldeans). Yet Haran is only “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 submitting to love fully, without judgment and control.

Many may be tempted to stop the journey halfway and settle for the success they have achieved so far. This is not what we are called to do as Christians, however.

Settling for the middle means making do with a fragmented view of the word and a diminution of Christ to man-made measures. 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).”

St. 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.

  1. CHARACTERISTICS OF COMPLETE UNION WITH GOD:
    1. Simplicity and Wholeness

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

Perceiving the universe through our intellect alone and through our own, worldly categories produces a multiplicity of “intellections; for it is marked by the form of each intelligible object that it apprehends.” This multiplicity prevents us from true union with God. We struggle with doubt, competing principles, confusion, faulty conclusions and passions. We 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.

When we are united with Christ, we transition from fragmentation and multiplicity to unity. We can suddenly see the truth clearly and, hence, we are not torn by conflicting dualities.

St. Maximos brings up parallels with the Old Testament to get us to see the process of theosis from still another perspective.

According to the scripture, he tells us, “the Law instituted the Sabbath…so that your ox and your servant might rest (cf. Exod. 20:10). He sees the ox and the servants as symbols of the body. During the stage of “ascetic practice/practice of virtues,” while we have purified our senses, we are still in the realm of the created universe because our body, “the ox,” is still “led by the intellect, undergoing deprivations and discipline to attain virtue.”

However, when we ascend to the level of spiritual contemplation, our bodies and souls are no longer separate entities. “When we advanced spiritually, the duality between body and intellect is erased.” Antithetical categories no longer have meaning.

In the beginning of our journey, our intellect rejects material things to be beautified. At the stage of theosis body and spirit are united through participation in God “Rather than being passively subjugates, the body is now a participant in intellection.”  And we have now reached the Sabbath:

“…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.”

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).”

2. Contemplation

Maximos sees contemplation, not as erudition or engagement in complex, abstract thoughts but, on the contrary, as a respite and utter simplicity.

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).”

“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).

 

 

 

ST. MAXIMOS, FOUR HUNDRED TEXTS ON LOVE, A Review

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.

PERFECT LOVE

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.

TRANSFORMATION

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.

TRUTH AND THE PATH TO UNION WITH GOD, St Maximos the Confessor

(Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice Third Century #31-40)

St. Maximos begins this section with the dynamic interrelationship between love, truth and faith.

“Love,” he tells us, begins with the longing to participate in goodness which results in our “unfailing pleasure and indivisible union.”   Love is intrinsically connected to, and enabled by, truth—”the fulfillment of all spiritual knowledge and of all the things that can be known.” Like love, truth takes us from fragmentation and conflict to a state of indivisible union. Truth “transcends all things, truth admits of no plurality, and reveals itself as single and unique…”

When we are able to discern truth, we escape the anguish of ambiguity, doubt, conflicting realities and contradictions because we are now able to see clearly that there is only one simple, all-encompassing, self-evident truth. To experience truth, however, one must have faith.  Real faith is, in fact, truth in that it is “free from all falsehood.”

With our souls calmed and purified, we are then able to experience love because “a good conscience confers on us the power of love, since it is not guilty of any transgression of the commandments.”

OUR PART IN THE RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

In this divine ecology of interrelated “puzzle pieces,” man is not merely a passive recipient but an active participant in constant interaction with God.

In the first place, God has endowed us with natural capabilities for receiving:

for, corresponding to every divine gift, there is in us an appropriate and natural organ capable of receiving it – a kind of capacity, or intrinsic state or disposition.”

For example, “he who purges his intellect of all sensible images receives wisdom. He who makes his intelligence the master of his innate passions – that is to say, of his incensive and desiring powers – receives spiritual knowledge.”

Secondly, virtues, like truth, are not abstract concepts, frozen in a tableau, from which we can pluck them randomly. Instead, God, matches them to our individual needs and levels of preparedness.

“On some it bestows lucid spiritual knowledge of the grace they have lost, and to others it grants, through an indescribable mode of perception and by means of participation, clear understanding of the goodness for which they long.”

Thirdly, we exercise free will for the choices we make and, hence, bear responsibility for them and the state of our soul.  For example,

our actions disclose the measure of our faith, and the strength of our faith determines the measure of grace that we receive. Conversely, the extent to which we fail to act reveals the measure of our lack of faith, and our lack of faith in turn determines the degree to which we are deprived of grace.”

This means, St. Maximos tells us, that envying others for their virtuous lives and the peace they experience is “more than misguided, for the choice of believing acting, and of receiving grace according to the measure of his faith, clearly depends on him and not on anybody else.”

THEOSIS AND THE SEVEN SPIRITS

Having shown how these virtues are interrelated and dependent on our level of preparedness and willingness to receive them, St. Maximos “deconstructs” the pieces to enable us to understand them in the context of ascendance to theosis by interpreting them in terms of the seven spirits that rest “upon the Lord. (cf. Isa. 11:2):”

  • the spirit of the fear of God
  • the spirit of strength
  • the spirit of counsel
  • the spirit of cognitive insight
  • the spirit of spiritual knowledge
  • the spirit of understanding
  • the spirit of wisdom,

These are not merely static elements to be checked off a list. There is a logical sequence in the seven spirits, transforming them into a ladder by which we ascend to God.

First, St. Maximos says, we start our journey “by abstaining from evil because of fear;” next we “advance to the practice of virtue through strength.” By committing to practicing virtue, we advance to the ability to discern good from evil through the spirit of counsel. Cognitive insight “is an unerring perception of the ways in which virtue is to be practiced;” we understand the relationship between virtuous thought and action and enter into “a settled state of virtue.” We next ascend to the higher level of understanding in which we truly grasp and conform to “the divine principles of virtue that we have come to know.”  From this, St. Maximos writes, “we advance to the simple and undistorted contemplation of the truth that is in all things. From this point of vantage, as a result of our wise contemplation of sensible and noetic beings, we will be enabled to speak about the truth as we should.”

Far from being static, virtues are dynamic and interrelated, with each building new capabilities in us and setting the ground for the next, more advanced level of our relationship to God.

By choosing to follow this path of ascendance, we rise “step by step from what is remotest from God, but near to us, to the primal realities which are furthest from us but near to God.”

Intermingling Our Soul with God Himself, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Third Century, #22-30

Building on the theme of gratitude that he introduced in the last few pages, St. Maximos makes us look at our relationship to God, and the path to complete union with him, through a number of different lenses.

STILLNESS

First, he depicts the state of true inner stillness of both thoughts and senses that the death of passions, the practice of virtues and gratitude enable.

Truly blessed is the intellect that dies to all created beings: to sensible beings by quelling the activity of the senses, and to intelligible beings by ceasing from noetic activity.

While purifying ourselves from dependency on worldly things is a first step, restraining our thoughts is another, even more difficult task. It involves resisting the temptation of dwelling on the “what if’s,” the “why not’s” and the “why me’s” that St. Maximos calls “outlandish speculations” that “disturb [our] contemplative activity.” They clutter our intellect and enmesh us into the ever-deepening pools of discontent, self-pity, resentment, depression, anger and desire to control.

Only through such “death of the intellect” –freeing ourselves from the tyranny of circular thinking– can our intellect become “able to receive the life of divine grace and to apprehend, in a manner that transcends its noetic power, not simply created beings, but their Creator.” This is when we will be able to understand and experience God’s goodness and truth.

GOODNESS AND TRUTH

Goodness, St. Maximos tells us, is more than practicing virtuous deeds. We experience it when the goodness of our actions is mirrored by the goodness dwelling in our hearts. Goodness represents “the lull expression of divine activity within us” not just on the outside.

The complement of   goodness is truth, “the simple, undivided knowledge of all the qualities that appertain to God.”

Goodness and truth, then, are not extrinsic qualities, foreign to our nature, but part of nature. They are not intellectual abstractions but dwell in our hearts and link action with the intellect, “nous.”

With our intellect purified and renewed, we can experience goodness and truth and partake of God’s holistic, integrated universe in which practice is united with action, and contemplative life with natural truth.  By rejecting created things, we have paradoxically reunited with them on a deeper level by looking past appearance to discern their inner essence and intrinsic goodness.  And by attaining spiritual knowledge, we transcend intellect itself.

When goodness and truth are attained,’ we move more easily toward true union with God because “nothing can afflict the soul’s capacity for practicing the virtues, or disturb its contemplative activity with outlandish speculations; for the soul will now transcend every created and intelligible reality, and will enter into God Himself, who alone is goodness and truth and who is beyond all being and all intellection.”

TRANSFORMED RELATIONSHIP TO GOD ON THE PATH TO THEOSIS

Yet nothing can be attained without the grace of God, St. Maximos reminds us. To “enter into God Himself,” we must have experienced gratitude for his grace and, hence, restored our relationship with Him to the proper balance and proportions.

“Blessed is he who knows in truth that we are but tools in God’s hands,” St. Maximos says. “…that it is God who effects within us all ascetic practice and contemplation, virtue and spiritual knowledge, victory and wisdom, goodness and truthAll the achievements of the saints were clearly gifts of grace from God.

While we are but “tools of God,” we are engaged in a dynamic relationship with him in which we are far from passive. Though “we contribute nothing at all” to our achievements, there is one exception: our willingness and desire; “a disposition that desires what is good.”  And while our contribution is small, in relationship to God’s, it requires an arduous, lifelong journey of continuous ascendance and transformation.

Even though a saint does not achieve anything by himself, St. Maximos says,  but only through “the goodness granted to him by the Lord God according to the measure of his gratitude and love… what he acquired he acquired only in so far as he surrendered himself to the Lord who bestowed it…”  

Our journey then is not solitary but relational, transformational and synergistic.

OUR JOURNEY TO LOVE AND UNION WITH GOD.

As we ascend toward theosis, our vision is transformed, revealing more of God’s true nature and giving us a glimpse of his unspeakable beauty.

“In goodness the beauty that is according to God’s likeness is made manifest.

Our purified intellect, now free of obsessive thoughts, achieves spiritual knowledge which “makes manifest the dignity of the divine image in a wholly unsullied state.”  

In other words, a different world is gradually revealed to us because we no longer rely on our limited, human intellect. Through “the life of divine grace,” our intellect has transcended itself and its own “noetic power.” We are now able to comprehend “not simply created beings, but their Creator.”

This is not the same world we experienced when were torn apart by anguish, anger, disappointment, discontent and despair. In this transformed reality, we become one with God as goodness and truth “give rise to the love that unites men with God and with one another. This love wrests the soul away from all that is subject to generation and decay and from all intelligible beings that are beyond generation and decay, and – in so far as this can happen to human nature – it intermingles the soul with God Himself in a kind of erotic union, mystically establishing a single shared life, undefiled and divine.

 

 

 

 

Life Lived in Gratitude, St. Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Third Century, # 11-22

In existentialism, freedom is the ability of individuals to define their own meaning of life despite the absurdity of a meaningless universe. St. Maximos tells us that salvation is a process of reunification with God and that confining the world to the limitations and loneliness of one’s own self, is enslavement and death.

Far from being random and meaningless, the travails of the human condition are opportunities for cultivating humility, growing spiritually and coming closer to God.

For St. Maximos and other desert fathers, achieving victory over passions and adversities is not transformative unto itself. To affect transformation, events or actions must contribute to a fundamental reorientation of self, such as when we convert victory into gratitude. Instead of enabling fragmentation between ourselves and an absurd and capricious universe surrounding us, we experience unity with God and full participation in divine intelligence, when we acknowledge God’s help in achieving this victory.

Providence has implanted a divine standard or law in created beings, and in accordance with this law when we are ungrateful for spiritual blessings we are schooled in gratitude by adversity and brought to recognize through this experience that all such blessings are produced through the workings of divine power. This is to prevent us from becoming irrepressibly conceited, and from thinking in our arrogance that we possess virtue and spiritual knowledge by nature and not by grace.

When victory over passions or adversity increases our delusion of power and hardens us with arrogance, gratitude is replaced by a sense of entitlement and growing distance from God.

…For when conceit about one’s virtue is left undisciplined it naturally generates arrogance, and this induces a sense of hostility to God.

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, charismatic Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky leads a life of reason and success yet one devoid of gratitude and joy. He rids himself of his habitual cynicism when once, on the battlefield, he gazes on the vastness of the night sky and is lost in contemplation. He senses the transformative nature of his encounter with a universe so much more enormous than himself and vows to change his life. But without accepting Christ and humbling himself to him, he misinterprets the signs, believing that he must now live for himself alone and not for others. As a result, he isolates himself further, hardens his heart and narrows his vision, losing his interest in war and politics and refusing to forgive his then fiancée, Nastasha Rostova, for her unfaithfulness.  It is only on his deathbed that his cynicism leaves him. He is suddenly filled with gratitude over Natasha’s tender nursing of him and forgives her. He sees his life as a gift and experiences love. After a dream in which death is revealed to him as an awakening to a new life, he dies peacefully.

St. Maximos sees ingratitude as fragmentation and gratitude as wholeness and union. Acknowledging the self as the ultimate authority and desired destination is tantamount to willingly locking oneself in a dark and narrow jail cell. Conversely, instead of being confining, true gratitude and submission to God opens the gateways to freedom.

Think about it. People, like organizations, become stale when self-satisfied and confident. In my experience as consultant, organizations that lacked curiosity about their customers and the outside world; were devoid of “hunger” and were indifferent to continuous learning and improvement, were those that stagnated and died. St. Maximos made similar observations about the state of our souls:

He who thinks that he has achieved perfection in virtue will never go on to seek the original source of blessing, for he has limited the scope of his aspiration to himself and so of his own accord has deprived himself of the condition of salvation, namely God. The person aware of his natural poverty where goodness is concerned never relaxes his impetus towards Him who can fully supply what he lacks.

He who has perceived how limitless virtue is, never ceases from pursuing it, so as not to be deprived of the origin and consummation of virtue, namely God, by confining his aspiration to himself. For by wrongly supposing that he had achieved perfection he would forfeit true being, towards which every diligent person strives.

In Eastern Orthodoxy we believe that man was originally created in communion with God and that the path to salvation is a continued journey toward theosis—union with God. Anything that disrupts this unending journey is an obstacle to salvation. St. Maximos tells us that ingratitude, and the belief that you are the sole author of your achievement, impedes the journey upward and returns us from the pursuit of life in God’s likeness to the isolation of a jail cell, inhabited only by us. Salvation is not achieved by our own will but though the grace of God. Gratitude for his grace fuels and re-energizes our journey, opens the gates to continuous spiritual growth and increases our desire for theosis.