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).