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Maximus the Confessor May 22, 2007

Posted by Ninja Michael in Theology.
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Recently, while studying Eastern Christian theology at the Skeptytsky Institute in Ottawa, I had the opportunity to read Four Centuries on Love, by St. Maximus the Confessor. The following analysis, entitled “Love, Passion, and Disaffectedness” was my term paper for the class. While I’m on the subject, I highly recommend the Sheptytsky Institute (part of the Faculty of Theology at St. Paul University) for those Ottawa residents interested in studying the Fathers, Church history, or dogmatic theology from an Eastern, or just simply Orthodox, perspective. The Institute includes both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic students and faculty. This year I was able to study with four different professors, two Ukrainian Catholic, and two Eastern Orthodox. The course the following paper was written for, on Eastern Christian Spirituality, was given by Fr. Maxym Lysack, pastor of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, an English-language parish located on Somerset Street – which I also recommend to anyone interested in exploring the Byzantine tradition.

Note: Maximus’ work is divided into “centuries” – sets of 100 verses each. In text references refer to the century and individual verse or paragraph.

Introduction

Maximus the Confessor was a 7th century Christian monk and author. Although he came from an upper class background, and during his youth worked as a civil servant in the Imperial court, Maximus felt the call to live an ascetic life. In the Monothelite controversy, Maximus defended the Orthodox position with such strength that his enemies felt it necessary to silence him; after being convicted of heresy he was sentenced to have his tongue and right hand removed. (It is this faithful witness in the midst of suffering for which Maximus has received the title “Confessor”.)

It is interesting to note Maximus’ insistence on Christ’s human will (which was the central issue in the Monothelite controversy) when reading through a work such as his Four Centuries on Love (or Charity), a work that has a great deal to do with the transformation of the human will, the redemption of human inclinations and desires, with their reorientation towards the love of God. The book is a compilation (with some condensation, “for greater ease of memory and reflection”, as Maximus says in the Forward) of various patristic sources, on the subject of “love” (as Maximus describes it). One might see a great number of themes in this collection; indeed, one can find here a comprehensive guide to the Christian faith, starting with the most basic principle, yet containing practical advice for various situations.

The book does not appear to progress in any obvious linear way. Rather, in each set of one hundred short paragraphs or verses, he lays out largely the same material yet going ever deeper, progressing on slowly over the course of the work; many similar precepts are stated several times, with slight variations. The work is written in such a way as to be useful both to monastic students, and also to those living in the world.

In analysing this text, three main themes come to mind. They are not successive sections in the book, neither are they chronological stages in the Christian life, but they are sequential to Maximus’ argument. The first is the supremacy of the love of God; the second is the nature of what Maximus refers to as “the passions”; the third is a collection of practical advice for reorienting human will and desire towards God. Along with this advice, Maximus says a great deal about the consequences of attaining a state of freedom from the passions, what Maximus called “disaffectedness”.

The Nature of Love

Since Maximus does cover many different facets of the Christian life in his book, the title “On Love” is especially telling. It is clear that Maximus considers love to be the central meaning and focus of the Christian life – he says that there is “nothing higher than the love of God” (1:9) – consequently, any truth or good should be seen in terms of love for God, and any evil as a lack or defect in love for God. He beings with a simple definition of his subject. “Love is that good disposition of the soul in which it prefers nothing that exists to knowledge of God” (1:1). Maximus goes on to say that one “who loves God prefers knowledge of God to all things created by Him, and ever strives for it with desire” (1:4). This striving for God is described in beautiful language (1:10,12):

When, urged by love, the mind soars to God, it has no sensation either of itself or of anything existing. Illumined by the limitless Divine light, it is insensible to all the created, just as is the physical eye to stars in the light of the sun… When, through love, the mind is ravished by knowledge of God and, standing outside all that exists, is conscious of God’s infinity, then in its ecstasy it becomes aware of its own nothingness, and in all sincerity repeats the words of Isaiah, ‘Woe is me! for I am pricked to the heart; for being a man, and having unclean lips, I dwell in the midst of a people having unclean lips; and I have seen with mine eyes the King, the Lord of hosts’ (Isaiah vi. 5).

Maximus encourages his readers to consider how much greater God is than anything he has created. Since this is true, the totality of human existence is to love God. Because God is so wonderful, there is no higher joy that a human being could experience than simply to be awestruck by the Divine Presence. There are many who have given their lives to the study of a certain art or science because they find it wonderful and beautiful; there are many lovers of music or of geography who go to great lengths to experience a place, to hear a sound. A higher form of love might be the desire of two individuals for each other. But Maximus insists that the Divine presence and beauty of God so far surpasses everything else that it would be madness to devote one’s life to any other pursuit. He writes (4:1):

When the mind reflects on the absolute infinity of God, on this unfathomable and greatly desirable deep, it is first filled with wonder; and then it is struck with amazement how God has brought into being from nothing all that is. But as there is no end of His greatness, so too is His wisdom unsearchable. (Ps. cxliv. 3.) And in another place he says, “Blessed is the mind which, passing by all creatures, constantly rejoices in God’s Beauty” (1:19).

Maximus sees the love of a person for God as inseparable from the love that one ought to have for other persons. “He who sees in his heart a trace of hatred towards another for some fault of his, is a complete stranger to love of God. For love of God can in no way tolerate hatred of man… Blessed is the man who can love all men equally” (1:15, 17). Rather, the Christian will love even difficult or sinful people, even though not approving of their behaviour: “He who loves God cannot but love every man as himself, although the passions of those who are not yet purified find no favour with him. Therefore, when he sees them converted and reformed, he rejoices with great and ineffable joy” (1:13).

Passion: A False Love, A Misdirected Desire

Maximus devotes a good deal of his book to an examination of what he calls “the passions”. Now it is important to realise that for Maximus, not every human desire or inclination falls into the category of the passions. Rather, it is Maximus’ primacy of love that explains his understanding of the passions; he uses this word “passion” to describe a disordered love or desire, one placed ahead of God – “an unnatural movement of the soul” (3:16). In stark contrast to the Gnostics, Maximus defends both creation and the human will in strong language, emphasising the goodness of nature, and of human senses and desires – yet only within the proper order of things.

Maximus makes the crux of his argument early in his work where he describes how God is so much greater than his creation (1:5):

If all that exists exists by God and for God, and God is better than anything which came into being through Him, then a man who abandons God and occupies himself with lower things thereby shows that he prefers above God what has come into being through Him.

Maximus wishes to correct the orientation of human desire away from God, onto things that God has made. Since God is so much greater than those things that he has made, for someone to desire something else more than God is to live a life contrary to love itself. Passion, therefore, is the opposite of love; one may wish to think of passion as a false love, one fundamentally out of step with its own nature.

There are various sorts of passions, both passions of the mind (such as hatred or envy), and also of the body (such as lust or gluttony). Especially for the monastic, treatment of this passionate state will involve various types of renunciation of physical pleasure and comfort. At the same time, and this is most refreshing, Maximus does not deny the physical world, the value of family (or even conjugal relationships) and love of Creation. But Maximus stresses that love of these things is only proper when it is subservient to love of God. Consider the following (2:15):

When it turns towards the visible the mind naturally apprehends things through the medium of the senses. Neither the mind, nor the natural apprehension of things, nor the things, nor the senses are evil, for they are all created by God. What then is evil in this? Obviously it is passion, which attaches itself to the natural apprehension of things. And passion need have no place in the natural apprehension of things, if the mind is awake.

It follows that it is good to find joy and delight in food, in marriage and childbearing, and in the world around us, when it is properly understood that these things are created by God, and that our use of them is to be directed towards the glory of God, and that we should love God who is himself better than anything he gives us – ultimately it is the gift of himself that we long for. Not only that, but Maximus stresses that our experience of the natural world need not be passionate. He describes evil as “an erroneous judgment about things apprehended, accompanied by their wrong use”. He continues, using the example of lust (3:17):

Thus right judgment concerning intercourse sees its purpose in childbearing. But a man who sees in it nothing but lustful pleasure, errs in his judgment, taking the bad as good. Such a man commits abuse.

If Maximus’ language ever seems weighted against the world, it is indicative of the nature of the problem faced by humanity. Rarely do we find human beings who have too little love of the body, of food, of sexual activity, of excitement, of “passion” itself (to use the term loosely). Far too often humanity has a disturbing lack of love for the one who created all these things. It is not that God’s creation is not valuable, and if this were the point being attacked, that is where the defence would resist; rather, our problem is that we have turned God’s Creation against the Creator. Maximus argues that this improper use of physical things, at the expense of love for God, ultimately – to use what has become a common image of tragedy – destroys the things we love. This is the heart and centre of our “Passion” – in our madness we have attempted to set the world upside down, and Maximus would like it set upright again.

The Promise of a Cure

Along with establishing the nature of God as the highest and best, the natural object of our love, and the nature of passion as a disordered love or desire for the things of the world, Maximus devotes a great deal of writing to the cure for our fallen state, brought about by a suppression of the passion, and a reorientation of the individual towards God.  Maximus both gives practical advice as to how this cure may be achieved, and describes, very compellingly, the nature of this redeemed state, a state that Maximus frequently refers to as “disaffectedness” or “passionlessnes”. He writes that a soul that is free of passions will be pure, and be “constantly gladdened by the love of God” (1:34).  Put simply, Maximus’ argument is that an unnatural desire for created things results in various forms of worry. If we have an improper desire for fame or popularity, then we will be forever bound to the opinion that others have of us.  An unnatural desire for (or a desire for the improper use of) something will result in our being bound to that which we desire.  Fortunately, it is possible even for the passions themselves, in a sense, to be rehabilitated. Maximus speaks of both “blameworthy” and “praiseworthy passions of love” (3:71):

A blameworthy passion of love occupies the mind with material objects; but a praiseworthy passion of love makes it cleave to the Divine. For, as a rule, on whatever objects the mind lingers with attention, to these it inclines fondly; and where it inclines fondly, there it brings desire and love, whether they be Divine objects, immaterial, akin to itself, or things of the flesh and passions.

Just as Maximus has gone to great lengths to explain how God is the only infinite and proper source for our desire, and that putting any other desire above (or even alongside) God is disordered, he now explains that a restoration of our proper love for God, along with a suppression of unnatural desire, will bring peace.  One who is not subject to passions of envy and hatred will be able to experience a peaceful and loving relationship with friends and neighbours.  One who is not enslaved by desire for wealth, food, or sexual activity, will potentially be able to live in the world, married with children and earning a good salary, without being bound to these things.  If one chooses to become a monastic, it is not because those things renounced are evil in themselves; rather, Maximus sees this renunciation as an act of love for God, not as something under compulsion.  So in whatever way our lives are lived, they are to be lived to the glory of God.

Maximus prescribes various exercises that can assist in suppression of evil passions. He says, “in relation to the passion of fornication, fast, practise vigil, work and withdraw from men; in relation to anger and sadness, count as nothing honour and dishonour and other earthly things; in relation to rancour, prayer for those who have offended you – and you will be delivered” (3:13).

One of the greatest of pitfalls for those fighting against the passions is that they become prideful and puffed up. Maximus returns to his theme of love, finding within it the standard that Christians should aim for, rather than any lesser appearance of virtue (3:14):

Do not take your measure from the weakest among men but, rather, broaden yourself into the measure of the commandment of love. If you take men as your measure, you will fall into the abyss of arrogance; but broadening yourself into the measure of love, you will reach the height of humility.

The road that Maximus would have us follow is indeed a hard road, but the results certainly sound attractive. He writes, “He who loves God leads the life of an angel on earth, fasting and keeping vigils, singing psalms and praying, and always thinking good of every man” (1:42).

Conclusion

Perhaps the best conclusion to an analysis of this text is to turn back to Maximus’ introduction to his work. In his forward, addressed to a “Father Elpidios”, Maximus laments that while “there are many… who burden the conscience by instructive words, yet those who teach by deeds or learn through deeds are few”. Maximus expresses hope that his writing will not fall into the first category, but that it will be of practical help to Christians struggling along the path to holiness. Thus, his instruction is that the book should be read “with fear of God and love”, even if not necessarily with “an inquisitive spirit”. Maximus’ book does, in many ways, offer this practical assistance. The book begins with the simplest of starting points, that God should be loved more than all things, and that all things contrary to this love are out of order. He is able to examine the nature of disordered love, not only exposing it for what it is, but offering concrete examples of how the passions can be done away with, and love ultimately healed. Maximus, also in his forward, acknowledges that not all of his writing will be “easily clear to everyone”, even if much of it seems simple at first. Indeed, it is delightfully simple, yet incredibly profound, and also beautiful. To read Four Centuries on Love is not merely to read a collection of patristic wisdom on the Christian life, although it is that; it is to experience some of the love that the author so passionately describes, and to begin to be drawn into the pursuit of God.

Works Cited

Maximus the Confessor. “Four Centuries on Love.” Early Fathers of the Philokalia, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer. London: Faber and Faber, 1954.

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Comments»

1. David T. Koyzis - May 23, 2007

Michael, it’s rather extraordinary to think of Eastern-rite Catholics and Orthodox teaching and studying together at the same place. In the old countries they are not famously fond of each other, with Orthodox viewing the Catholics as turncoats of sorts. Is there any of this tension at the Skeptytsky Institute? Or there a concerted effort to build bridges?

2. Michael Trolly - May 24, 2007

In my limited ecumenical experience, the Sheptytsky Institute is one of the most remarkable examples I’ve seen of genuine bridge building between churches. The mandate of the institute is Eastern Christianity in all its forms – Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, and Assyrian – while being under the patronage of the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy of Canada, and providing the academic formation for Ukrainian Catholic seminarians. There were a number of Eastern Orthodox students there as well, as well as students who were not Orthodox or Catholic, and everyone seemed to get along famously.

As I mentioned, two of my profs were Ukrainian Catholic and two Eastern Orthodox (of two different jurisdictions, one OCA and one in the Carpatho-Russian Diocese, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate). One of the Ukrainian Catholic profs, in the first part of his dogmatics course, described his vision of the Eastern rite as “Orthodox in communion with Rome” – the idea being that, especially since Vatican II, the purpose of the Eastern Catholic Churches is to be fully Orthodox in their doctrine and liturgy, yet passionately devoted to the unity of the Church. My professor’s understanding of this was that at times Eastern Catholics might have a somewhat different interpretation of certain doctrines, while respecting a principle of unity in diversity, agreement in essentials and the primacy of the See of Peter (we talked a lot about the differences between the Eastern and Western views of the Trinity).

The Orthodox and Catholic priests take turns presiding at the Hours in the chapel, and the Liturgy as well, I believe, subject of course to Orthodox rules for reception of the sacraments. There does seem to be a deep desire among the students and faculty for a genuine reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople – there is no desire to gloss over problems of doctrine or of history, but a genuine attempt is being made to understand what the problems are, and to pose creative solutions.

The understanding of the Eastern Rites as having an enduring and honoured place within the Catholic Church, even having a role to play in evangelization, helps a great deal, I think, in unity talks. Before Vatican II, I think they were often seen only as a concession to those unwilling to go all the way and adopt the Latin rite. Now, things are improving – the situation in Ukraine is particularly difficult due to the division of the Orthodox Church in that country, and the surpression of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church under the Soviets, but there are hopefull signs elsewhere, especially between the Melkites and the Antiochian Orthodox. This is to say nothing of the positive development between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.

So, a lot of work to be done, but much enthusiasm among the current generation of theological students. There’s a tremendous amount of good will, and I for one am most enthusiastic about it.

3. Michael Trolly - May 24, 2007

Let me add something in praise of one of the other Ukrainian Catholic profs, Fr. Peter Galadza, who teaches Liturgics. He’s one of the best Byzantine liturgical scholars in the world, in any jurisdiction. He offers a course on the history of the Byzantine Eucharistic Liturgy, from the earliest times until today, and knows the details of its use in various languages and jurisdictions inside and out. He served as the leading editor for the UGCC’s recent English language missal/hymnbook – the first time many of their hymns had been translated into English.

All this to say that in the Eastern Rites, at least the Ukrainian Catholic Church, there is a real concern to be genuinely Eastern in their liturgical practice, not to be sort of half way between Orthodoxy and Rome. This created a lot of discussion, because many Eastern parishes are so heavily latinized – is there to be a forced delatinization? And how quickly, and to how great an extent does this take place? But there is that concern and vision, and the heavy academic guns to back it up. When Byzantines, both in communion with Rome and not, are able to work on things like this together – especially liturgy, I think – I believe there is a deep hunger created for intercommunion, and the understanding that the two parties are part of the same Tradition.

4. David T. Koyzis - May 25, 2007

Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your taking the time for such a thorough response to my question. My understanding is that the current Patriarch of Constantinople favours reaching out to Rome, but the Moscow Patriarch, whose flock is much larger, is a formidable obstacle to any improved relationship. This, of course, is the trouble with the Orthodox, who are broken up into myriad, often mutually jealous, jurisdictions. If one were to make a move towards Rome, the others would have none of it. It is difficult to see how, short of an eighth ecumenical council, the break of 1054 – much exacerbated by 1204 – can be healed.

5. Asanji Conlin Nji - March 21, 2009

sir , what will it take for me to have a copy of this book?
i am in cameroon.


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