The Soul’s Yearning for God, part 2 (The Writings of Staretz Silouan: Wisdom from Mount Athos)

pp. 42-46

How is it possible to love God without ever seeing Him?

We do not come to know and love God through physical connection or logical proof, St. Silouan tells us. Instead, God makes himself known to us “by His effect on the soul.”  Silouan spends the last pages of this chapter describing these effects.

When God dwells within us:

  • We can understand and experience His mercy, as did St. Silouan. “I did not know this before, but now every day and hour, every minute, I clearly see the mercy of God. The Lord’s mercy gives peace even in sleep, but without God there is no peace in the soul.”

We live at a time when so many of us seem to be filled with “righteous” indignation:  outraged with politicians or an injustice; “fed-up” with situations; angry at others. Last Sunday, Fr. David talked about the danger of being trapped in a cycle of hate. Whether we are simply against something or actively working to demean, demonize and defeat it, we are still defining ourselves through hate.

Now imagine what our experience of the world would be like if we were cognizant of Lord’s love and mercy at every moment of the day, despite sufferings or injustice around us. Hatred and rage cannot take root in a heart filled with gratitude.

  •  We are filled with love for others. Our empathy and care for them fills our heart leaving no space for self-pity and self-preoccupation: “The man who has come to know the love of God himself loves the whole world and never murmurs at his fate, for temporary affliction endured for God’s sake is a means to eternal joy.”
  •  We are no longer afraid. We experience and believe in God’s love and mercy. Without it, we do not believe in God’s love for us and are incapable of finding rest within it. We think God is “forgetful” of us and despair of our salvation
  • We experience peace and joy. “The Lord gives peace even in sleep, but without God there is no peace in the soul.”
  • We surrender to God’s will and no longer exhaust ourselves in trying to fashion perfection on our own: “The soul that has surrendered humbly to God’s will invisibly beholds God in every second, yet finds no words for it…”

 Union with God transcends words and human intelligence. Our human capabilities can take us only so far. To advance beyond this point, we need the help of the Holy Spirit.

We must, therefore, be willing to accept our own limitations and humble ourselves, shifting from our own intellectual constructs to prayer and surrender.

“We must not argue about faith but only pray to God and His Mother, and the Lord will enlighten us…” 

Without this leap into faith beyond understanding, we will remain on the surface, running in circles, without ever reaching our destination of union with God.

Just as we know God’s presence through His effect on our soul, we also know his absence through the darkness that his departure leaves.

Where art Though my Light? Where art Though my joy?”

A soul that is bereft of God’s presence:

  • Is filled with fear and anger as it is unable to experience God’s love and mercy
  • Sees knowledge as a material end unto itself–a source of pride and separation from others it deems inferior. Humility and love enable us to see others as complete human beings rather than as props for our pride, without reducing them to component parts–intellect, wealth, physical appearance, etc.
  •  Is anguished and unable to find peace or to rest on solid ground: “ The soul that is not humble and has not surrendered herself to the will of God cannot come to know anything but flits from one idea to another and never prays with an undistracted mind or glorifies the majesty of God.”
  •  Is tormented by circular, obsessive thinking and is unable to have empathy for, or provide comfort to, others: “…but we are not humble and therefore we torment ourselves and those we live among.”

 Yet St. Silouan does not juxtapose knowledge against experience. He contrasts, instead, knowledge without humility and help from God against knowledge achieved through the help of the Holy Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit men go astray, and though they study endlessly they cannot learn to know God and have not discovered what it is to rest in Him”

The Soul’s Yearning for God, part I (The Writings of Staretz Silouan: Wisdom from Mount Athos)

Pp. 37-42

“My soul yearns after God, and I seek him in tears,” writes St. Silouan in both chapters.

Having been granted knowledge of God by the Holy spirit, St. Silouan knows the darkness that befalls the soul from which the presence of God has departed, as he describes in his chapter on love:

But now my soul is overspread with melancholy, and I am unable to lift an undistracted mind to God, and I have no tears wherewith to bewail my evil deeds; my soul is withered away and spent with the night of this life.

So, what is the nature of the love he yearns for? What was missing when the Holy Spirit no longer enabled him to know God and experience His love?

St. Silouan uses the theme of forgetfulness to allow us a glimpse into the state of complete union with God and divine love.

The first kind of forgetfulness refers to the complete and continuous abandonment in the love of God.

Though imperfect humans fall into and out of grace and love, when God enters “our soul is drawn to pray unceasingly and cannot even for a moment forget the Lord.”

Complete love is not a part-time occupation. It is not a feeling we indulge in when we don’t feel pressured or busy with our activities, after we have had adequate “me” time to pamper ourselves, when we are not depressed, sick, worried or unemployed. God and his love are always present and focal. They become the only lens through which we see and experience the world:

But the soul that has come to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit is pierced by His love and cannot forget Him…Blessed is the soul that knows her Creator and has grown to Love Him, for she has found perfect rest in Him

The second kind of forgetfulness is the abandonment of worldly attachments.

The Lord’s love is an ardent love and allows no thought of the earth

It is only when we “forget the earth for the sweetness of the love of God” that we are able to keep God in sight as a constant.

The Holy Spirit is love St. Silouan tells us. Yet this love is fragile. It can be easily “lost to us with the approach of pride and conceit, enmity, fault-finding and envy,” in short, any attachment to worldly things. Unless we “forget” the earthly things, it is impossible to fulfill our yearning for God. We will not be able to fill our souls with His presence if our thoughts and actions are preoccupied by passions.

Concerns such as those over our success, reputation, revenge, control, managing others’ impressions of us and avoiding looking like fools are all-consuming. They become obsessive preoccupations and encourage us to rely on our own will to achieve the results we want.

Instead of investing effort in impressing others, achieving goals or maintaining appearances, St. Silouan wants us to become like “…those who assume folly for Christ’s sake and are glorified because they overcame the world.”

To know God, we cannot rely on our own resources and will. To expect that our own intelligence, alone, will fulfill our yearning for God is to become “blind and stupid.” Instead, we must stand before Him child-like in humility, emptied of our pride, passions, and worldly attachments:

Humble yourself and you shall know not only the sun but the creator of the sun

 

 

 

 

Wisdom from Mount Athos The Writings of Staredz Silouan: Love

Chapter 2, pp. 24-30

From romantic movies, songs and novels to statements of aspiration or sermons, the word “love” is almost commonplace in our lives. It is hard to strip it from all the connotations that immediately jump to mind. Yet to begin to grasp the meaning of God’s perfect love that St. Silouan writes about, we must abandon all knowledge of past usage and start with a blank slate.

The chapter starts, not with definitions or theological arguments, but with lyrical expressions of the state of the soul that are reminiscent of the language of the psalms.

His opening lines talk of the unending craving for God’s love:

My soul thirsts for the living God. Time and again my soul seeks fulness of delight in the Lord

My soul yearns for the Lord and I seek Him in tears.

He follows with the mourning for Go’s love lost and the darkening of one’s soul:

…But now my souls is overspread with melancholy, and I am unable to lift an undistracted mind to God, and I have no tears wherewith to bewail mu evil deeds: my soul is withered away and spent with the night of this life.

O who shall sing me the song that I have loved since the days of my youth—the sing of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven…

He then focuses on the meaning and experience of the fulness of perfect love.

He admits that it is not easy to understand or describe it. For most of us who have heard and used the term repeatedly all our lives, it may be difficult to accept that we really do not understand this concept. Yet St. Silouan maintains that “no man of himself can know what is God’s love, unless he be taught by the Holy Spirit…”  Hence, to even begin to understand, we must go to Him with complete humility “like little children—lowly and meek.”

Love is not a static state. It differs with the individual and his/her state of readiness and spiritual advancement and entails growth. As in the case of knowledge, Silouan speaks of a continuum of love with each level higher than the previous one. The love of those who:

  • Fear of sin
  • Have a tender heart
  • Have a heart that dwells in joy
  • Experience grace in body and soul—perfect love

Perfect love is not an addition to other noble attributes or something that we engage in at certain times, perhaps when we don’t feel stressed out, exhausted or absorbed by our work. It is a constant and all-consuming state of the soul.

The soul that is fillest with love for God,” Silouan tells us, “is forgetful of both heaven and earth…” Even good thoughts or deeds are superseded by the love of God. No other thought can exist within us, no inner struggles or conflicts can derail us any longer.

...and the soul sheds many sweet tears and is unable to forget the Lord for a single second, for the grace of God gives strength to love the Beloved.

Perfect love purifies us and excises all passions, such as fear:

The sinful soul which does not know the Lord fears death, thinking that the Lord will not forgive her, her sins.

Perfect love is not simply a private and closed relationship between a person and his God. On the contrary, freed from worldly passions, we see the world and fellow men through new eyes. As soon as St. Silouan was able to experience the love of God, he suddenly looked at others as he had never looked at them before and his heart was filled with empathy and care for them.

By the grace of God I have experienced what the love of God is and what it is to love my neighbor; and day and night I pray the Lord for love, and the Lord gives me tears to week for the whole world. But if I find fault with any man or look on him with an unkind eye my tears dry up and my soul sinks into despondency.

God’s perfect love opens the world wide-open. Because we are not separated from it through fear, jealousy, hatred, desire to impressed or manipulate, we can embrace it and be one with it through love.

The Lord bestows such grace in His chosen that they embrace the whole earth, the whole world, with their love, and their souls burn with longing that all men should be saved and behold the glory of the Lord.

Instead of separation and alienation we feel that “If the Lord is ours, then all things are ours. That is how rich we are.”

Our happiness does not depend on prioritizing our needs over those of others, fighting for “me” time or “pampering ourselves.”  This is why, ever since God gave him the Holy Spirit and through it the knowledge of God’s love, he grieved over “God’s people.”

Blessed is the soul that loves her brother, for our brother is our life.

And my soul weeps for the whole world

Wisdom from Mount Athos The Writings of Staredz Silouan Chapter 1: Of the Knowledge of God

Taking a short break from St. Maximos and switching to Staredz Silouan is like leaving the turbulent, vast ocean to rest for a while on a calm, translucent lake.

Metaphors, complex series of paradoxes, parallelisms and allusions are sparse; the narrative is direct and experiential.

What does it mean to “know God” and how important it is to our relationship with Him, asks Silouan in this chapter?

To respond, he first makes an essential distinction between seeing and understanding beyond what is visible:

a multitude of people beheld the Lord in the flesh but not all knew him as God.

Even believing in God is not the same as knowing, he states:  “To believe in a God is one thing, “to know God another.”  He continues further down: “Many philosophers and scholars have arrived at a belief in the existence of God, but they have not come to know God.”

God wants us to know Him. “The Lord loves man and has revealed himself to man.” Yet it is impossible to recognize what is being revealed since we can only understand what we can discover through our senses, intelligence, educational experience and even by the force of our belief. Going beyond human capabilities requires the help of the Holy Spirit.

Both in heaven and on earth the Lord is made known only by the Holy Spirit and not through ordinary learning.

Silouan states his thesis and goals clearly at the very start of the chapter. He tells us that, though a sinner, he has come to know God through the Holy spirit. He now wants to share what he has learned so “that others might come to know God and turn to Him.”

Most importantly, Silouan wants us to understand what the Holy Spirit does for us. Without the Holy Spirit, we would be limited to what we can see on the surface or understand through the narrow limits of our human capacity for learning. We would thus be able to increase our knowledge in a linear fashion—accumulating facts, exposing ourselves to new ideas or carrying on clever conversations — yet without increasing our capacity to know God. We would be still stuck in the world that we, as humans, are capable of perceiving and understanding. The Holy Spirit stretches us beyond ourselves and human capabilities.

The Holy Spirit unfolded to us not only the things of the earth but those too which are of heaven.

Without the Holy Spirit, we could not know God “…for how can a man think on and consider a thing that he has not seen or heard tell of and consider a thing that he has not seen or heard tell of and does know?”

With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we are no longer subject to the laws of the flesh and will see our fears evaporate as did the Apostles and the prophets. Silouan quotes St. Andrews, saying:

If I feared the Cross, I should not be preaching about the Cross

Instead, of delivering increased knowledge, the Holy Spirit allows us to glimpse into the perfect love of God, thus, enabling us to know Him and transform our entire perception of, and relationships with, the world around us.

 The lord is love…and the Holy Spirit teaches us this love

The greater our love for God, St. Silouan tells us, the more complete our understanding of His sufferings and, hence, our knowledge of Him.

The Holy spirit does not mechanically settle into our souls. We have to enter into a living and personal relationship with Him. Without a relationship with the Holy Spirit, we are left acting as our own authority and fashioning a narrow world that fits our own limited perception of needs.

but people want to live after their own fashion and consequently they declare that God is not, and in so doing they establish that He is.

Conversely, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are free of material limitations and expand to participate in, not just learn about, God

The man who knows the Lord through the Holy Spirit becomes like unto the Lord. He quotes St. John the Divine: “We shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And we shall behold his glory.

 

Radiant, Simple and Complete Wisdom, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century, #78-89

In these paragraphs, St. Maximos elucidates the stages leading to theosis (likeness to or union with God), through the interrelationships between theory and practice.

  1. The first stage, he tells us, is the practice of virtues, or practical philosophy.  Practical philosophy, or the practice of the virtues, is effectuated by fear, devotion, and spiritual knowledge.

2.  After purification through the practice of virtue,  one is ready to enter the stage of “natural contemplation,” the deep, spiritual understanding of the essence of created things, beneath the surface.

3. Mystical theology, the highest stage of spiritual knowledge, transcends and unites practice and natural contemplation and “is granted only by divine wisdom.

Reaching this stage, however, is not automatic. It is not achieved simply by fulfilling the requirements of previous stages and passing an exam. Instead, one needs the help of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit illumines only “those worthy of light;” “…those whose will and disposition have been reborn in the Spirit through the practice of the virtues.”

The Holy Spirit confers illumination “through radiant, simple and complete wisdom, rather than complex philosophical premises and clever contradictions. Prior to this higher stage of perfection, we exist in what St. Maximos calls, the “intermediate states” of being. While inhabiting these states, we are pulled in different directions and are in constant danger of slipping and losing the progress we have made.  In contrast, there are no contradictory truths or changes possible in the highest state of spiritual knowledge. There is permenence, unity and the simplicity of a radiant wisdom.

Thus, having distinguished between practice and thought, surface and essence, Old and New Testament, St. Maximos takes apart the dividing line between them.

“God,” he writes, “is glorified not by mere words but by works of righteousness, which proclaim the majesty of God far more effectively than words.”

St. Maximos warns about the dangers of one without the other. Unless translated into action, words and ideas are nothing more than illusions, he tells us. Speeches on “world peace,” theoretical understanding of the scriptures or donations to an international charity mean little if you are cruel to your family or contemptuous of others. Conversely, actions and material things, bereft of spiritual knowledge, are mere idols. Physical exercise, career or clothes can become empty and exhausting obsessions without an overarching spiritual direction and understanding.

He in whom spiritual knowledge and ascetic practice are not united either makes the first an unsubstantial illusion or turns the second into a lifeless idol. For spiritual knowledge not put into practice does not differ in any way from illusion, lacking such practice to give it real substance; and practice uninformed by intelligence is like an idol, since it has no knowledge to animate it.

When one’s journey nears a state of perfection, not only there are no divisions, but one gift enhances the other in a continuous and self-sustaining loop.  In our life in Christ we live “the mystery of our salvation” which informs our way of life with intelligence and makes intelligence the glory of our way of life. It turns our practice of the virtues into contemplation manifest in terms of action, and our contemplation into divinely initiated practice. To put it briefly, it makes virtue the manifestation of spiritual knowledge and spiritual knowledge the sustaining power of virtue.

When both virtue and spiritual knowledge unite, “a single compact wisdom” is displayed, modeling the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.” It is only then that we lead full, authentic lives and experience the completeness and simplicity of true union with God.

 In this way we may know that by grace both Testaments agree in all things with each other, in their combination consummating a mystery more single and undivided than soul and body in a human being.

 

Living Lives of Deceit: St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century #64-77

Have you ever experienced moments in which your life felt inauthentic? Thought that there was a disconnect somewhere between your own stories about yourself and your actual experience of who you are?

St. Maximos delves into the reasons lives lived in the flesh are inauthentic. He uses the metaphor of deceit to give a different and even harsh perspective on the nature of sin and its effects on us.

Unless we fully live in Christ, he tells us, we experience the world only through our senses. This means that we are trapped on the surface of things, without ever grasping their true essence that lies beneath, hence leading inauthentic lives that have, tragically, become habitual.

St. Maximos provides broad and varied examples of deceit that plumb the depths of human psychology.

We deceive ourselves when we:

  • Divert, distort or corrupt what is naturally good, such as using our intelligence to “over-think” things, torture ourselves with obsessive thoughts or plans of revenge. By converting intelligence into passions, we are “diverting the intellect from its contemplation of the spiritual essences of created things and by limiting its scope merely to their superficial visible aspects”
  • Appropriate something that does not belong to us. When the devil, for example, “pillages the knowledge of God inherent in nature and arrogates it to himself, he is a thief, because he is attempting to transfer devotion from God to himself.”
  • Just can’t stop ourselves from exaggerating our importance, achievements or virtue through our actual life and actions bear little resemblance to our words: “he traffics in glory merely by speaking about it, hoping that in this manner he will be thought righteous by his hearers and so capture their admiration… To put it simply, he whose way of life does not match his speech”
  • Become “people pleasers”—affecting sweetness, dispassion, interest or compassion to conceal the anger, contempt, indifference or jealousy that we really feel and remain in someone’s good graces. “A man is also a thief when he conceals his soul’s unseen evil behind a seemingly virtuous way of life and disguises his inner disposition with an affected innocence.”
  • Make false promises to God or each other without committing to transforming our lives, attitudes and habits in order to fulfill them. “A man is a perjurer – that is to say, he swears falsely on the name of the Lord – when he promises God that he will lead a life of virtue and instead pursues what is alien to his promise.”
  • Show off  by name-dropping, dominating conversations so our brilliant opinions are admired, drawing attention to our knowledge or achievements in order “to promote [our] own self-glory.

Deceiving ourselves and others is nothing short of death for our souls. Our goals of impressing, pleasing, controlling, winning or showing ourselves superior to others, even if met, are short-lived. We live lives of secret doubts of our worth and a sense of disconnect because, deep inside, we know there is a gap between our words and deed, fantasy and truth.

Deceit goes beyond pretense. It denotes limited lives, trapped on the surface of things, blinded to the true essence that lies beneath it.

Literal reading of the scriptures is an example of deceit because it skims the surface without understanding the true meaning. Such superficial reading registers mere words without uncovering their true essence by considering their context and the spirit in which they were written.  Reading the scriptures literally and superficially, will not extricate us from lives lived in the flesh:

When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, his nature is governed by the senses alone, in this way proving his soul’s attachment to the flesh. For if the letter is not understood in a spiritual way, its significance is restricted to the level of the senses, which do not allow its full meaning to pass over into the intellect.

In the second Corinthians, Paul talks about the need to abandon the surface of worldly wisdom and rely on God’s grace to both write and read about the word of God.

We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace. 13 For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, 14 as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Union with God, St. Maximos has written, is characterized by simplicity. There is a lack of plurality because there are no longer contradictions among competing priorities and versions of the truth. We are now able to delve beyond the surface and discern the simplicity of the sole truth. Living only through the senses, however, is experienced in terms of plurality and fragmentation, hence, inauthenticity.

The senses belong to a single family but are divided into five individual types. Through the apprehensive force particular to each individual type, the deluded soul is persuaded to desire the corresponding sensible objects instead of God.

St. Maximos calls this state of mind “polytheism through each individual sense organ.” Unable to escape a life lived on the surface, we allow our senses to dominate the intellect and “propagate because in their slavery to the passions.”

Instead, St. Maximos directs us to search for the truth –”the illuminating principle of knowledge” — under the surface “through contemplation and the practice of the virtues.” He compares this to “the divine lamp” which we should place “on a lampstand – the Holy Church – beaconing to all men the light of divine truth from the summit of contemplation.”

 

Inviting God to Build an Abode in our Souls: St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century, #51-63

In these pages, St. Maximos expounds on the synergistic and dynamic nature of salvation.

God is infinite, limitless and eternal, he tells us, and yet he is not equally present in each one of us. Why? Because salvation is not one-dimensional—the result of God’s will alone, regardless of our spiritual disposition and actions. Instead it requires our own active participation. In short, it requires a two-way relationship.

This continuously cooperative relationship between God and man engages us as individual and whole persons: “But, although God pervades all things absolutely, not all will participate in Him equally: they will participate in Him according to what they are.”

In this way our entire personhood in our relationship with God is affirmed.

The key question that remains to be asked is this:

If a person refuses to allow God, the abode of all who are saved and source of their well-being, to sustain his life and to assure his well-being, what will become of him?

The stakes are high. Without God’s presence within us, we cannot achieve “the divine life that is beyond age, time and place…”

St. Maximos underscores the urgency of the situation and why inaction is not a choice:

If a person’s will is not directed towards what is good, it is inevitably directed towards evil; for it cannot be stationary with regard to both.

As always St. Maximos is quite clear in laying out for us practical solutions and elucidating the process and meaning of synergy. He applies the path of salvation equally to both men and angels.

Accordingly, active participation in God requires:

  • A complete re-orientation of mind and heart
  • A shift from the world of material things and passions to the “justice” that God instilled in our very nature
  • Openness and receptivity so that we are “actively receptive to the inner principles of nature in a way that accords with the universal principle of well-being…”
  •  Most importantly, synergy between our will and God’s will.

Those involved in drastic organizational change know that, regardless of what else may change within an organization, there will be no real transformation unless there is a dramatic re-orientation of individuals’ mindset, direction and disposition. It is interesting that St. Maximos bases our ability to participate in God on our ability for personal transformation; re-orientation of our nature, priorities and disposition.

It is worth remembering at this point the difference between the common understanding of “nature,” as lack of restraint, abandonment to passions and impulses, and the patristic definition. In patristic writings, nature refers to the principles and order of things that God created.

Hardened by passions that have become habits, preoccupations with material things and forgetfulness of true virtue, we have lost sight of our original nature and, hence, the true distinction between good and evil and the essence of righteousness—the “natural justice” that exists in our “disposition.”

We have “been actively disruptive of the inner principles of nature in a way that conflicts with the universal principle of well-being.”   In doing so, we have covered our true nature and live a lie.

In other words, participation in God does not involve “addition” – becoming more or other than what we are. Instead it involves the peeling of the layers of falsehood we have wrapped around our souls in order to uncover our true selves.

It is our inner orientation, our disposition, that will determine the degree of our openness or resistance to God. It is on the basis of our overall disposition, rather than our actions alone, that we will be judged.

The scales on which the disposition of each being, whether angel or man, will be weighed at the last judgment is the principle of nature, which shows clearly whether that angel or man inclines towards well-being or its opposite… Those who in all things have failed to maintain a natural justice in their disposition, and have will lapse completely from divine life

Are we performing good deeds that are perfunctory while our heads are bowed to the ground and away from the sun or are our actions, bodies and souls completely turned toward the sun like sunflowers?

Unless we are wholly and utterly oriented toward God, our will be constantly in conflict with His will. Our souls will be in constant anxiety and turmoil as we will be fighting against our true nature. We will be leading inauthentic lives, exhausted from the pursuit of material solutions to our deceases of the soul.

With his incarnation, Christ gave us an example of perfect synergy between God and man and a tangible manifestation of his love for us. His two natures—divine and human—are distinct and yet united in one person.

Ultimately, St. Maximos tells us, we achieve salvation through belief rather than theology. And it is belief that generates hope and love

Nothing is swifter than believing, and nothing is easier than to confess orally the grace that comes from what has been believed. It is his belief that reveals the believer’s living love for his Creator; it is his confession of the grace received that reveals his godly affection for his neighbor. Love and genuine affection – that is, faith and a clear conscience – are clearly the result of a hidden impulse of the heart; for the heart is fully able to generate without using external matter.

A Life That Is More Than Just What We Can See and Touch, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century,  #40-50

The role and meaning of free will plays a dominant role in these paragraphs. God, we are told, has the wisdom to discern our weaknesses and the might to save us. Yet, he will not do so unless we desire it. In short, to be saved our will must be in line with God’s will. Conversely, to save us despite our sin and against our will would be tyranny.

He could not save man, whose will was in the grip of sin, in a tyrannical fashion.

Our own free will, therefore, has a major role in our salvation. By willingly accepting suffering, Christ models for us how to use our will in the way it was intended in order to experience meaningful, everlasting joy.

Paradoxically, his suffering and death ultimately show his might, rather than his weakness.

And this is the paradox of salvation in Christianity. It was through Christ’s suffering and death that we gained a “life that is by nature eternal and of a state of dispassion that is immutable.”

Without Christ, we are caught in the vicious cycle of trying to escape pain through “self-medication:” keeping busy, drinking, pampering ourselves, becoming “workaholics,” losing ourselves in unhealthy relationships, etc. Like addicts self-medicating with drugs, we find ourselves still empty and in pain through meaningless, material pleasures. We often keep increasing our “pleasure dosage,” thus increasing the void and pain.

For in our desire to escape pain we seek refuge in pleasure, and so try to bring relief to our nature, hard pressed as it is by the torment of pain. But through trying in this way to blunt pain with pleasure, we but increase our sum of debts, for we cannot enjoy pleasure that does not lead to pain and suffering.

To free us from this bondage, Christ did the opposite. He willingly embraced suffering which ultimately led to resurrection and eternal joy.

He submitted deliberately to the or mutation. which comes through sin – that is, for the destruction of pleasure and of the tyranny of sin committed in pursuit of pleasure, and the lordship of the painful death consequent upon sin.

Christ was able to experience suffering because he had accepted to be born in the flesh, as man. This is the source of our hope as humans. By choosing pain as a man, he made it possible for us to also break the pleasure-pain syndrome and direct our lives to meaningful and eternal pleasure.

For the dominion of pleasure and pain clearly applies to what is passible in human nature.

Why did Christ embrace so much suffering to bring about our salvation?  In his haste to find a shortcut to pleasure when he wanted it, where he wanted it and on his own terms, Adam experienced pain as punishment for his sin. In his case, this was a well-deserved punishment. Christ’s sufferings, on the contrary, were not the consequences of sin. They were freely chosen and, hence, destroyed the pleasure-pain syndrome and broke the cycle that held us captive.

With Christ, our lives are more than the avoidance of pain at all costs; more than what we can see, touch and feel.

By assuming human nature, God “bestowed on human nature a new or second form of generation leading us through suffering

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice,  Fourth Century, 33-39

After the fall,  St. Maximos tells us, our human nature became impassioned. This was because we distorted and redirected the true longing for God that He implanted in our nature, and our capacity for experiencing pleasure in his presence.

Like all sins, this was also one of  misuse and re-direction. Forgetting about God, we gradually sought to fill the void of unfulfilled yearning through material things. Why wait and suffer if we can immediately feel good through new purchases, others’ praise, new clothes, a new relationship or a job promotion? And as our longing for God remained unfulfilled through material things, we begun to feel empty, anguished, depressed or obsessed with obtaining more and more of the same in the hope of eventual fulfillment.

By experiencing “pleasure in a way which is contrary to nature,” we cause ourselves pain.

While pain has its origins in the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, this is not a linear, cause-and-effect relationship. Instead it unfolds along a continuous loop of correction and transformation. Pain becomes the remedy for our alienation from God. It can re-direct our longing toward Him and right our capsizing ship.

For God has providentially given man pain he has not chosen, together with the death that follows from it, in order to chasten him for the pleasure he has chosen.

The depth of the pain caused by the conversion of our natural longing for God to the senseless pursuit of sensual pleasure cannot be stressed enough. By diverting our course from God to sensible things we have, in essence, “freely chosen death of the soul.”  By using our free will to choose death over life we have corrupted our freedom of choice and, thus, our own human nature.

St. Maximos paints a vivid picture of our loss of true freedom and free choice, and our embrace of death rather than life.

The more we frantically pursue pleasure for its own sake and allow this pursuit to drive our lives, the greater the pain. The greater the pain, the more intensive the pursuit and the delusion that more of the same will assuage it. We are caught in an endless cycle like dogs chasing our tails. We are trapped.

For suffering naturally follows unnatural pleasure in all men whose generation has been preceded by submission to the rule of causeless pleasure.

St. Maximus distinguishes between “meaningless pleasure” that brings about the meaningless pain of dissolution and emptiness to the “purposeful pain… in the form of multiple sufferings.”

While meaningless pleasure brings about pain, purposeful suffering brings about joy—a true, lasting joy that unites us with God.

Sufferings freely embraced and those that come unsought drive out pleasure and allay its impetus. But they do not destroy the capacity for pleasure which resides in human nature like a natural law.

 Paradoxically, it is dispassion rather than obsessive pursuit that allows us to experience true joy. Dispassion is born of virtue and not the pursuit of pleasure.

For the cultivation of virtue produces dispassion in one’s will but not in one’s nature. But when dispassion has been attained in one’s will the grace of divine pleasure becomes active in the intellect.

Like addicts, caught in this vicious cycle of pleasure-seeking followed by pain, we cannot escape without the intervention of Christ.

Once human nature had submitted to the syndrome of pleasure freely chosen followed by pain imposed against one’s will, it would have been completely impossible for it to be restored to its original life had the Creator not become man and accepted by His own free choice the pain intended as a chastisement for man’s freely chosen pleasure.

To save us, Christ turned the pain/pleasure sequence on its head. He did not suffer pain as a result of his pursuit of meaningless pleasure. On the contrary, he freely embraced a different kind of suffering—one that was unjust and undeserving– “first to destroy the ill-gotten pleasure and the justly deserved sufferings consequent on it and, second, to restore suffering human nature.”

Christ had to submit himself to this unjust suffering in order to break the cycle and thus free us “from the pleasure-pain syndrome ” and restore our nature by abolishing completely “the pleasure-provoked origin of human life and its consequent termination in death.”

In His love He deliberately accepted the painful death which, because of pleasure, terminates human life, so that by suffering unjustly He might abolish the pleasure-provoked and unjust origin by which this life is dominated.

 

 

Acquiring and Transcending Knowledge, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century,  #26-33

In this section, St. Maximos illuminates the way we get to know and understand and its purpose.

For him, knowledge is not separate from faith and the experience of God but, instead, drives the journey from worldliness and emptiness to deification and union with God. To understand what he says we must abandon any definition of knowledge we are familiar with– knowledge as information, intellectual exercise or mastery.

According to Maximos, there are two kinds of knowledge.

The intelligence recognizes two kinds of knowledge of divine realities.

He calls the first, “relative” because it is limited by what we, as finite beings, are able to recognize and understand within our own resources:

The first is relative, because it is confined to the intelligence and its intellections

Limited as it is, however, this relative kind of knowledge gives us a glimmer of what lies beyond it and awakens in us a longing for a higher level of knowledge; that which “is true and authentic knowledge.” The true purpose of all knowledge, then, is ascendance to God.

The second and superior level of knowledge is no longer just theoretical. It is enabled by grace and manifested through experience and participation.

The second through experience alone and through grace it brings about, by means of participation and without the help of the intelligence and its intellections, a total and active perception of what is known.

Paradoxically, this second kind of knowledge transcends not only relative knowledge but the intellect itself. Our understanding leads us to that which is beyond understanding.

This real knowledge, which through experience and participation brings about a perception of what is known, supersedes the knowledge that resides in the intelligence and the intellections.

The intellect no longer “knows” physical reality. It “forgets” it as it forgets itself and lives in God through experience of, and participation in, Him.

It is through this second kind of knowledge that, when we come into our inheritance, we receive supernatural and ever-activated deification.

Becoming trapped in relative knowledge, we are unable to experience God. How many times do we find ourselves ensnared in obsessive circular thinking—projecting, analyzing, making assumptions, resenting, planning, controlling or fantasizing—and become unable to experience the present, to fully give to, or receive love from, others?

“According to the wise,” St Maximos tells us, “we cannot use our intelligence to think about God at the same time as we experience Him or have an intellection of Him while we are perceiving Him directly. By ‘think about God’ I mean speculate about Him on the basis of an analogy between Him and created beings. By ‘perceiving Him directly’ I mean experiencing divine or supernatural realities through participation.”

The nature of knowledge and the way we acquire it in stages reveals also something about the nature of God and our relationship with Him. God, St. Maximos says, didn’t simply bring us into the world. He enabled us to constantly progress spiritually and reach the level of complete union with Him through theosis.  He is not simply the author of our being but the perpetual savior of our souls who is continuously guiding us to higher and higher levels of knowledge and participation in Him.

It was indeed indispensable that He who is by nature the Creator of the being of all things should Himself, through grace, accomplish their deification, and in this way reveal Himself to be not only the author of being but also the giver of eternal well-being.