In these few paragraphs, St. Maximos explores the sources and nature of evil and its relationship to God and man through four sets of relationships and resulting actions.
He sets the “stage” by explaining the nature of good.
Good represents our true nature. It is the baseline we start or depart from. Good is active. Faith, in fact, is real only when it is “manifest and active.” Echoing the concept of “active virtue” in previous chapters, he reiterates the seamless connection between intellect and action in the manifestation of virtue.
Freedom from Passions through Purification and Illumination
Passions are what break and distort this connection and lead us away from a life of active virtue. Maximos shows how the exercise of free will and nature of our relationship with God determine our state of freedom or imprisonment through an allusion to St. Peter. In the story, passions are depicted as the prison guards that prevent Peter from ever reaching the “gate” that leads to the city.
St Peter is guarded by two squads of soldiers and shut in by an iron gate. The two squads signify the attacks suffered by the intellect from the activity of the passions and from the mind’s assent to the passions.
St. Peter, however, was able to free himself from this “obdurate and stubborn attachment of the senses to sensible things” and pass through the gate “through spiritual contemplation of the inner essences of created beings.” Without spiritual contemplation—that is, without the stages of purification and illumination– we remain trapped in the prison of our own attachments that become increasingly deeper.
Having shed the addiction to passions, however, our vision becomes clear. We can now see through spiritual eyes and, instead of being tempted by created things, we are able to discern their inner sense and cause of existence under the surface. We can see our way to the gate and translate understanding into action to pass through it.
Imprisonment though Total Surrender to Passions
What about those who can never open the gate to reach the city? How is it possible for us to choose prison over freedom? St. Maximos dissects the process by which false desire becomes addiction, clouding our vision and leading to despair.
The architect of evil and tempter to passions is of course the devil. St. Maximos presents the relationship between God, man and the devil through paradoxes.
The devil hates God. Somehow, however, “in his hatred for God [he seems] to have acquired a destructive love for us men.”
His destructive love is manifested through distortions and reversals of good into evil, natural into unnatural. This notion of evil as distortion and reversal is not new, for example:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Romans 1:24-32
St. Maximos, however, dissects the gradual process of engagement with passions and their conversion into addiction and, finally, into despair. He also presents the dynamic and complex relationships among, God, man and the devil.
The devil does not put evil in our way with one, fell stroke. On the contrary, he is patient and engaged in a long-term relationship with us “persuading us by means of sensual pleasure to assent to the passions within our control…”
The Devil’s Punishment
At first, we are seduced by pleasure, but when our pursuit of pleasure becomes habit and addiction, the devil has succeeded in seducing “our soul’s desire separating us utterly from divine love and making us willing enemies of Him who made us.” Once we have succumbed to the devil, he” lays bare his hatred for us and demands our punishment.” And the cruelest punishment is when “the soul, sinking down enervated by the weight of such painful calamities, may cut itself off from the power of divine hope, regarding the onslaught of these calamities not as a divine admonition but as a cause for disbelief in God.”
Where does the devil find the mandate to torture and destroy us? St. Maximos makes it clear that it does not come from God. The devil does not act with “the intention of fulfilling God’s command, but out of the desire to feed his own passion of hatred towards us.” Yet, while God does not generate or command evil, he allows it to take place, so we can learn from it and exercise our free will.
Without divine permission, even the demons themselves cannot assist the devil in any way at all
However, Maximos makes it clear that it is our personal actions and choices that bring about our punishment. We, alone, “willingly accede” to the passions that destroy us. As a result, “It is entirely fitting and just that those who gladly accept the devil’ s cunning suggestions to commit sins through their own volition should also be chastised by him.”
God’s Love and Hope
The final element in the complex interrelationships that Maximos explores in this section is love. God makes it possible for us to return to purity and virtue. In fact, God actively wants us to be saved. This is why, according to Maximos, he heals us from passions by allowing us to experience their destructiveness, first-hand—the way that being vaccinated with a virus gives immunity to it.
Because of his love for us “he allows the devil to afflict us with suffering and chastisement. In this way He scrapes the poison of past pleasure from our souls; and He seeks to implant in us a hatred and complete revulsion for the things which belong to this world and pander to the senses alone, by making us realize that once we have acquired them, we gain nothing from their use save chastisement.”
In Corinthians, Paul similarly lifts us from affliction through God’s love that gives us hope. No burden is impossible to bear or overcome with God’s help:
No temptation[a] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. Corinthians 10:13