Writings from the Fathers of the Church
The Life and Thought of St Gregory Palamas
"When spiritual joy comes to the body from the mind, it suffers no diminution by this communion with the body, but rather transfigures the body, spiritualizing it... rejecting all evil desires of the flesh, it no longer weighs down the soul but rises up with it, the whole human person becoming spirit, as it is written: He who is born of the Spirit is spirit"
Triads II, 2.9
Every year, during the second Sunday of Great Lent (typically during the month of March) the Church commemorates the life and thought of St Gregory Palamas (1269-1359AD) who was canonized a saint only nine years after his death by Patriarch Philotheus at a synod held in Constantinople in 1368AD. This feast day was introduced into the Lenten liturgical calendar of the Church in the fourteenth century when the liturgical structure of this Sunday had already developed along different lines. It is for this reason the neither the epistle nor the gospel of the day have any bearing on the saint. However the Vespers and Mattins of this day outline the life and theology of this great saint. St Gregory Palamas was a monk on Mount Athos and later Archbishop of Thessalonika. He is remembered during Lent since his theology extensively focused on the Christian life, "deification" or union of the human person with God, one''s real knowledge and vision of God and the importance of the body in the Christian life.
St Gregory Palamas was born in 1296 in Constantinople, of noble background enjoying the love and respect of the Emperor. Adopting the monastic life at the age of twenty, he would soon be drawn into the arena of theological and political controversy. The complex story of St Gregory ’ life - that is the intricate theological and political issues - was a major impetus to the development of his theological system. Like other theologians, St Gregory had to seek a balance between the contrasting truth of the transcendence and immanence of God. This antimony, for St Gregory, was sharpened by the context in which it occurred, namely the Hesychastic controversy, which occasioned a response to the question: How can the utterly transcendent God, who is beyond every possibility of being named, and of being experienced, enter into a real and personal relationship with human beings? In fact, how can human beings justly assert they know and live in union with Him? These questions arose out of a dispute concerning the nature of the light in which Christ appeared to the apostles on Mt Tabor at His Transfiguration.
On the Knowledge and Vision of God
St Gregory''s opponent Barlaam, maintained that no direct knowledge of God and of the relations between the persons of the Trinity was accessible to the human intellect. St Gregory, on the contrary, disputed this ‘theological method’. He took on the position of a realist in defense of humanity’s ability to acquire “real knowledge” of God. Whereas St Gregory argued that there could be a sure and immediate knowledge apart from that provided by the senses, Barlaam insisted on the unknowability and incommunicability of God, except through direct, created means - that is revealed Scripture or induction from creation. Furthermore, St Gregory underlined that “knowledge of God” did not bear on primarily a conceptualization or propositional meaning in the Eastern tradition. Rather it was best comprehended in the more existential sense of union with God. Moreover, while St Gregory maintained a pronounced request for apophatic (or negative) theology, he nonetheless did not understand this unknowability in the nihilistic sense. Rather the apophatic way led to a vision - in fact a vision of the uncreated light which the apostles had seen on Mt Tabor.
The Light: Means and Object of Vision
On the issue of the vision of God, St Gregory affirms that the Christian experience is not only symbolic but is a real vision of the glory of God, and granted as a gift by the operation of the Spirit. It is an “hypostatic light” which is “an illumination immaterial and divine, a grace invisibly seen and ignorantly known. What it is they do not pretend to know.” Barlaam in defending his nominalistic position wishes to disparage the experience of the praying monks and therefore maintains that the light from Tabor was a physical meteorological phenomenon:
“So the light which the disciples saw on Tabor would be a light sensible and visible through the intermediary of the air, which then appeared to arouse their astonishment and immediately vanished, and which one calls divine in that it was a symbol of divinity.”
In defending the doctrine of the uncreatedness of the glory of Christ revealed to the apostles on Mt Tabor, St Gregory was arguing that this light is not subject to the senses and to the intellect. In fact it could not be seen by humanity’s natural faculties. The vision of God is a result of the whole of humanity being both deified and divinised. Summarizing St Gregory ’ position, Meyendorff, a renowned scholar in Palamite studies, writes:
“To see God we must acquire ‘a divine eye’ and let God see himself in us.”
Seeing the created world, through the eyes of God has far reaching ethical consequences. So many contemporary societal problems could be solved if we could but see the world through ''divine eyes''. Moreover, the doctrine of the uncreated light safeguarded the possibility of a direct, unmediated communion with God in the present light. St Gregory asserted its reality, affirming that it was a fact of personal experience of the saints of his day. That light which was seen by the Hesychasts in prayer, was in fact uncreated in so far as it was possible to see God ‘face to face’. It was this emphasis on humanity’s unmediated union with God which would lead St Gregory to crystallize his doctrine on the distinction between divine essence and divine energy.
The Transfiguration of the Body
In the history of Eastern spirituality one can speak of two tendencies in the Christian life, namely the Macarian “heart mysticism” and Evagrian “intellectual mysticism”. For Evagrius, prayer is an ascent of the intellect towards God or a dialogue (sunomiliva) of the intellect with God. Macarius, on the other hand, maintained that, in prayer the mind was kept in the heart. For Macarius the aim of prayer is not the disincarnation of the mind, but a transfiguration of the entire person - both body and soul - through the presence of the incarnate God. Barlaam objected to a psychosomatic of prayer with a Platonic view of humanity: any bodily participation in prayer could only be an hindrance to a true “intellectual” encounter. St Gregory was able to integrate various tendencies in the Christian life – i.e. the , Macarian “heart mysticism” and Evagrian “intellectual mysticism” - into a comprehensive theological vision. His insistence on an incarnational theology, where the divine glory could be manifested through the human body, can contribute in a contemporary understanding of the Christian life.
Therefore, for St Gregory, vision of God was not something that concerned the soul alone, but something that involved the body. For St Gregory, the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor implied a transfiguration through the human body. The relevance of St Gregory for contemporary society surely lies in the fact that his spirituality takes seriously the scriptural testimony of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the human body as God''s temple. Living in a time Neo-Platonic dualistic society, whereby it was thought that God could only be experienced by the intellect after it had left the body ''ecstatically'', St Gregory affirmed the importance of the whole human person in the Christian life.
The mystical experience put forth by St Gregory rejected the Platonic tendency to disregard and undervalue sensory experience, in favor of the life of the intellect. In fact, St Gregory '' spirituality has a lot to offer modern society which has been greatly influenced by Kant''s theory of objectivity which argues that the pure knowledge can only be attained when purified from sensual content and emotion. St Gregory, on the other hand affirmed that the human body - a psychosomatic unity - was a natural and necessary condition for knowledge of God. For St Gregory the domains of sense and intellect could not be separated in this way. Even today, many contemporary spiritualities deviate into a kind of "angelicism" where the body is dismissed as little more that a hindrance and an obstruction - something quite irrelevant to the Christian life. It is often believed that humanity''s aim is to become as much like the angels as possible. In fact St Gregory went so far as to argue that the fact that human beings, in having a body makes them nor lower but higher than the angels. Human nature has greater potentialities than the angelic.
St Gregory Palamas is of exceptional significance for a contemporary understanding of the Christian life. He was able to interpret the Dionysian corpus affirming that the unknowability of God led to a personal experience and union with the divine in this life. For St Gregory, God can be known and experienced in this present life through the bodily eyes. His opponents, Platonist in their approach repudiated St Gregory as a materialist. However St Gregory was able to take a positive step forward in liberating the Christian mystery form Neo-Platonic categories offering us a biblical corrective to the Christian life. Moreover, he affirmed the sacredness of the body and creation in general at a time when the Platonic spiritualizing prevailed. Living in a post Christian world which seems to not need God, the Christian life according to St Gregory safeguards the presence of God in history and his real fidelity to the Church and his mysterious unity - both sacramental and mystical - with the community. Moreover, since it integrates the whole human being in the new life, it also affirms the importance and necessity of responding to the needs and concerns of today since matter is good. The Christian life according to St Gregory can act as an insightful critique of a contemporary understanding of the Christian life which tends to be concerned with religious devotions and the private life only. St Gregory Palamas'' contribution lies in his proper understanding of the material world where human beings are called to become stewards and caretakers of the environment and the world and must work towards the well being of all human beings. St Gregory gently calls all human beings to make a total commitment, both body and soul, to the Lord of life and to his creation.
Mr. Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
[1.Gregory Palamas, Triads, II. iii:8]
[2.Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas, p.187.]
[3.see especially his section “The Light: means and object of vision”, pp.173-175.]
[4.Meyendoff, opt. Cit. p.173]
[5.The intellect (nous) does not imply here simply discursive reason (ratio). The nous goes beyond this where it is able to understand things through direct intuition, through inward union with the divine Logos himself.]
The Life and Times of St. Irenaeus of Lyons
On 23 August of every year the Church celebrates the memory of an important saint and bishop of the second century Christian Church. St. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons (Lugdunum) in the second century. Born c.a. 130 A.D. , he was to become an outstanding theologian and ecclesiastical leader; a true witness and propagator to the apostolic faith and apostolic tradition. He was an ecumenical man who, even though wrote against Gnosticism and Marcionism always stressed unity. He was most probably born in Smyrna but migrated to Gaul where he spent the mature years of his life and where he eventually died a martyr c.a. 202 A.D.
Irenaeus received a liberal education, becoming acquainted with both Holy Scripture and Greek philosophy and literature. He was greatly influenced by St. Polycarp from whom he received the seeds of the true apostolic tradition. Writing to the Roman presbyter Florinus, Irenaeus reveals this influence: "For while I was still a boy I knew you [Florinus]...in Polycarp's house... I remember the events of those days more clearly than those that happened recently... I can speak of the place that St. Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out... the discourses which he made to the people... how he reported his influence with John and with the others who had seen the Lord."
It is beyond doubt that Irenaeus was also well acquainted with Greek thought. He was very familiar with the writings of Greek apologists such as Justin Martyr and Athenagoras whose works he sought to explain to the Greek - speaking world.
Irenaeus left Asia Minor and went to Gaul. He probably accompanied St. Polycarp to Rome in 155 A.D. and then continued to Lyons. Lyons was a great commercial city. It was "the country in which the arena was crowded with people... famous and held in higher repute than any in the land." It was situated on the Rhone River and was the centre of the Roman road system for Gaul. Intimate relations existed from very remote times between the ports of Asia Minor and Marseilles, which had been colonized from Asia Minor approximately six centuries before the rise of Christianity. During the Roman period, Levantine traders were regularly transporting their goods up the Rhone as far as Lyons. It was only natural that many of whom traveled and settled in Lyons were missionaries who brought Christianity to the pagan Gauls thereby founding a dynamic Church. Therefore even though Lyons was the second most important capital of the Western Roman Empire, it was still basically a Greek - speaking community. It was to this Church that Irenaeus came to serve as a presbyter. The first historical mention of Irenaeus is in 177 A.D. where he is a prominent priest in this area. During this time the Montanist controversy was raging in the Church of Phrygia. When this heresy reached Lyons a letter was written on this matter to Pope Eleutherius and which Irenaeus was delegated and entrusted to take to Rome. The letter, which on this occasion he took to the pope in Rome recommended him excellently;
"We have asked our brother and companion Irenaeus to bring this letter to you and we beg you to hold him in esteem for he is zealous for the covenant of Christ. For had we known that rank can confer righteousness on anyone, we should first of all have recommended him as being a presbyter of the church, for that is his position."
Many scholars contend that as a result of being sent to Rome he escaped the terrible persecutions which broke out in 177 A.D. by the decree of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was a dedicated pagan who vehemently persecuted Christians with "noisy abuse, blows, dragging along the ground, plundering stoning, imprisonment...." On his return from Rome Irenaeus was chosen to succeed Pothinus as bishop who had been previously martyred.
As bishop, Irenaeus saw himself as a successor of the apostles; a link between the historical person of Jesus and the contemporary Church. Like St. Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus saw himself as the centre of the Eucharist however he also saw himself as a teacher. Because of his confrontation with the Gnostics, Irenaeus placed appropriate importance to the continuity of teaching within the Church. Since the Gnostics appealed to a secret tradition handed down by a secret succession of pedagogues, Irenaeus answered by appealing to the tradition openly promulgated in the four canonical gospels and to the unbroken public succession of bishops within a see. He saw himself as the one, par excellence, who taught the truth.
"We should obey those presbyters in the Church who have their succession from the apostles, and who, together with succession in the episcopate, have received the assured charisma of the truth (certum charisma veritatis)."
Irenaeus viewed apostolic succession as the true sign of continuity with the apostolic faith. He saw himself as a successor of the apostles, as alter apostolus and therefore as someone who preserved the continuity of doctrinal teaching, the fullness of the Catholic faith and life.
When dealing with the heresies Irenaeus not only exposed and overthrew their teaching but also sought the orthodox interpretation and teaching as well. In spite of Irenaeus' interest in guarding his flock from the many heresies, his main preoccupation was the individual and his salvation. He was concerned with humankind's progress in order that he may achieve "the vision and enjoyment of God." Far from being speculative, his theology whilst deep and complex, was certainly concerned with finding ways to help his flock apply it to their lives. Since Irenaeus main interest was soteriological, he worked hard to spread Christianity to the neighboring provinces of Lyons as well.
The next historical mention of Irenaeus is between the years 189 A.D. and 198 A.D., concerning the celebration of Pascha (Easter). The Churches of Asia celebrated Easter on the fourteenth day after the new moon with which the month of Nisan began. The rest of Christendom held that the day on which the Resurrection could be celebrated was Sunday. The pope most probably sent letters to Asia Minor requesting councils to be convoked in order to discuss the proper day for the celebration of Pascha. Church councils were held in other provinces including Rome. The decisions of the councils were unanimous except for the province of Ephesus. Pope Victor was determined to bring about uniformity to the universal Church and he attempted to do this by suppressing the custom of Asia. He endeavored to excommunicate the Church of Asia as heterodox. To this decree Irenaeus answered and warned Pope Victor. Eusebius the historian relates that Irenaeus lived up to his name as 'peacemaker.'
"Irenaeus, whose name means 'peaceable' and who by temperate was a peacemaker, pleaded and negotiated thus for the peace of the churches. He corresponded by letter not only with Victor but with very many other heads of churches, setting out both sides of the question under discussion."
This incident is important in understanding how Irenaeus saw the Church of Rome. By his intervention in the Paschal controversy, he did not recognize the primacy of authority in the Church of Rome.
After his incident with Pope Victor, Irenaeus disappears from history and it is believed that he died approximately 202 A.D. It is not before Gregory of Tours that mention is made of his having died a martyr. There is debate amongst scholars as to his martyrdom since historians such as Eusebius make no mention of this event. What is important is not when or how he died but that through his writings, one has a valuable and authentic link to the apostles. One sees a man who had a depth of knowledge, a depth of faith, a love of scripture and God Himself. He was a "curious explorer of all doctrine" as Tertullian described him. Just like a surgeon, when performing a major operation, Irenaeus too, through his writings lays bare the nerves and sinews so as to take his reader to the very heart of a heresy with the sole purpose of healing the Church from such disease. 'Orthodoxy' did not survive by right in the early Church, but because it had people like Irenaeus and to this lies a clue to his grandeur and to his vigor.
Mr. Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
[1.The precise date on which he was born cannot be determined due to the lack of sources, however modern scholarship tends to place his birth c.a. 130 A.D. The birth of Irenaeus has been placed as early as 97 A.D. by Dodwell and as late as 140 A.D. by others.]
[2.Gnosticism and Marcionism were two great heresies which the early Church encountered in its early history.]
[3.The evidence that he was born in Smyrna is implied by the fact that he had St. Polycarp as teacher in his youth. However the fact that Irenaeus was in Smyrna as a boy does not demand that he be born there.]
[4.Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History, V. xx, 5 - 6.]
[5.Robinson, J.A., who is the editor of Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by Irenaeus argues that he studied under him in Rome as well.]
[6.Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History, V. i, 1]
[7.ibid, V. iv, 2]
[8.Cayre, F.A.A. in his Patrologie et Histoire de la Théologie writes that 'il dut, sans doute, à ce voyage à Rome de n'être pas victime de la persécution qui sévit `a Lyon en 177 - 178, et dont saint Pothin fut la plus illustre victime.' p.161]
[9.Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V, i. 7]
[10.Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his article "Patterns of Episcopacy in the Early Church and Today, An Orthodox View." in Bishop, But What Kind. p.11]
[11.By 'presbyters' Irenaeus means 'bishops.' A survival of the primitive New Testament usuage.]
[12.Against the Heresies. IV. xxvi, 2 ]
[13.For Irenaeus the bishop is alter apostolus wheras for Ignatius the bishop is alter Christus. For Irenaeus, the bishop was someone who expressed the apostolicity of the Church whereas for Ignatius the bishop was someone who took care of his flock as a living icon of Christ. There is no contradiction in the two terms but simply a difference of emphasis; the terms are complementary.]
[14.Against the Heresies. IV. xxxvii, 7.]
[15.Dufourcq writes, "Son eveque surveilles les rares églises qui y sont éparses, et, sans qu' on puisse précisément définir son œuvre missionnaire, on voit que certaines églises, celles par exemple de Besançon et de Valence, prétendent devoir à saint Irénée la première annonce de l' Evangile.", cited in Cayré, F.A.A. opt. cit. p.162]
[16.Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V, xxiv. 18.]
[17.Quasten, J. Patrology. p.288]
[18.Q.S, Tetulliani, Adversus Valentinianos, ch. 5. Ed. by Aldo Marastoni (Padova, n.d. ), p.56, [ominum doctrnarum curiosissimus explorator], taken from the article by Constantelos, D., "Irenaeus of Lyons and His Central Views on Human Nature."]
Saint Maximus the Confessor: His Life And Basic Features of the Christian Life
“The one who loves Christ thoroughly imitates him as much as he can.”
St Maximus the Confessor
St Maximus the Confessor, whose feast day is celebrated every year on the 21st January by the Orthodox Church, has been acclaimed as one of the greatest thinkers in the whole of Christianity - indeed one of the most outstanding fathers of the undivided Church of the first common Christian millennium. Modern theologians consider him to have been the "most universal spirit of the seventh century" , “the real Father of Byzantine society” and “the first great synthesizer and elucidator of earlier Patristic thought” . His works embrace nearly all major themes of Christian theology: the Trinity, cosmology, the human person as microcosm and mediator, the purpose and centrality of Christ's incarnation for history, the sacraments, the ascetic or Christian life and his affirmation of two natural wills in Christ – thereby affirming both the perfect divinity and perfect humanity in the person of the incarnate Son of God. In particular it was St Maximus who gave the most authentic answer regarding the cause and aim of the entire creation of the world out of nothing in terms of the incarnation when he stated quite emphatically that, had not the Fall or the transgression of humanity taken place, the incarnation would still have occurred so as to fulfill God's pre-eternal plan of salvation for, and intimate communion with, the world.
Born around 580AD, in Constantinople, St Maximus the Confessor was of noble background thereby receiving an excellent education. He was able to study philosophy, rhetoric, logic and grammar. His philosophical studies would have also included arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy along with studies in Plato, Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists. Upon completing his studies, St Maximus entered government service, where he quickly won the love and respect of the Emperor. In fact, he became the first secretary at the Imperial Court of the Emperor Heraclius. Very soon after however, upon realizing that the Emperor had been influenced by the Monothelite teaching (the heretical belief claiming that Jesus Christ had only one will thereby undermining His full humanity), and yearning for a quiet life, he renounced his career within the royal court and opted for a monastic life at the Chrysopolis monastery. His biographer claimed that, within a few years St Maximus had become the abbot of the monastery, persuaded to do so by the monks who had seen in the person of St Maximus a humble, contemplative and devoted man.
Due to political instability (in 626AD the Persians and Avars had reached the walls of Constantinople), he departed Constantinople and went through Crete, Alexandria, where he stayed for quite some time, only to arrive finally in Africa-Carthage, a city which had outrightly rejected Monothelitism. It is said, for example that in 630AD, three out of the four Eastern Patriarchates were occupied by Monothelite bishops (those of Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria). In particular, in wanting to achieve unity within the Empire, the Emperor Heraclius together with Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople issued an edict in 638 entitled the Ekthesis ('Exposition of the Faith') whose purpose it was to minimize the doctrinal differences which had separated the Monophysites (a large Christian group, condemned by the Fourth Ecumenical Council in 451AD who taught that in Jesus Christ there was only one nature – a divine one) from the Christian Church. Even though the Emperor soon died after the promulgation of the Exposition he was succeeded by his grandson Constans II (642-668AD) who was also a staunch advocate of the Monothelite heresy and thus would continue in his late grandfather's footsteps. For this reason, events were not looking positive for St Maximus.
And so, from Carthage, St Maximus began to organize and write an Orthodox refutation to the false teachings of the Monothelites. It was in Carthage that the famous dispute took place with Pyrrhus, the deposed Patriarch of Constantinople who had succeeded Sergius after his death in 638AD. Indeed, this well-known challenge with Pyrrhus, which has been preserved to this day in manuscripts took place in 645AD. Its importance lies in its clear and coherent elucidation of the Christian faith in the one person of Jesus Christ in two natures, and two natural wills – a divine and human one. Pyrrhus, not being able to refute the 'intellectual challenge' of his opponent, soon came to acknowledge his errors, and together with St Maximus journeyed to Rome to visit Pope Theodore, who, upon receiving Pyrrhus acknowledged him as the Patriarch of Constantinople. It was in Rome that St Maximus experienced great influence, where, under his recommendation, several council of bishops were convoked to condemn Monothelitism as a heresy. As a result of a newly published edict, the Typos in 648AD, which had been commissioned by Emperor Constans II and put together by Patriarch Paul of Constantinople, St Maximus went to ask Martin, the newly elected Pope [and successor of Pope Theodore] to convene a council to examine the question of Monothelitism. In 649AD the Lateran Council was convoked where over one hundred and fifty bishops and thirty-seven representatives from the East were present, all of whom condemned Monothelitism and the Typos of Constans II.
However, severe punishment was to befall the defenders of Orthodoxy. Upon receiving the decisions of the Lateran Council, the Emperor immediately ordered the arrest of both Pope Martin and St Maximus. And so in 655AD, the saint was tried, accused of treason and sent to prison. At his trial, St Maximus has been recorded as saying of the Emperor:
"It is the business of priests, not Emperors to investigate and define the salutary dogmas of the Catholic Church."
For his insistence, St Maximus was exiled to Thrace and Perberis where together with two of his disciples underwent the cruelest of torments. At the orders of the Emperor, the tongue of St Maximus was cut out so that he could no longer preach and his right hand was cut off so that he could no longer write. They were then exiled to Skemarum in Scythia where they suffered many difficulties along the way. Eventually on 13th August, 661AD St Maximus died, yet his defense of the faith earned him the title 'Confessor' at the Sixth Ecumenical Council twenty years later in 680/681AD.
The Christian Life – from Disintegration to Reintegration
It was in the earlier part of his life, whilst at the monastery in Chyrsopolis that St Maximus wrote his first comprehensive expositions of the Christian life. These works are entitled: The Four Hundred Chapters on Love and The Ascetical Life. According to these writings, as a result of the Fall, humanity is described as having become entrapped in three fundamental evils from which all other passions flow: ignorance (agnoia), self-love (philautia) and tyranny (tyrannis) or autonomy. Generally speaking, ignorance implies a failure to realize all that is truly good, seeking instead for gratification in the corruptive realm. Or to put it another way, ignorance, according to St Maximus is to exclude God from all aspects of your life – that is, making plans without brining God into the picture. Quite simply put in practical terms, for example, this could mean preparing for any forthcoming event for the day without simply saying 'God willing' – 'God willing, I'll be going to the city today'. Following on from this, a conscious or sub-conscious rejection of God naturally leads to self-love, which is the root of all evils.
Self-love arises from the many impulses mediated from the realm of the senses by the will, which cannot be overcome because the human person has forgotten God. Since God is ignored, everything is understood wrongly – that is, from the perspective of the self and not from God. For example, instead of eating simply to live, such people would choose to live in order to eat; instead of working in order to live, they would live their life in order to work. In forgetting God, such people inevitably misuse everything in the world since they have become the measure of all things, instead of God. Self-love radically changes our perception of the world. An example from our life today which could serve to illustrate what St Maximus meant is the following: instead of seeing, for example, the act of eating a meal together with others around a table as a pretext for communion, we see it purely as a means of survival. For this reason we often may choose to eat alone in front of the television since the act of eating has lost its sacred communal purpose. Such a misdirected perception colors all our activities in life. This gives rise to the misdirection of all those gifts or virtues bestowed upon all human persons which necessarily lead to: anger, despondency, gluttony, lust, avarice, vainglory, pride, dejection, rapacity (pleonexeia), resentfulness, (mnesikakia), envy (pthonos) and slander (katalalia). St Maximus arranged his list of the twelve passions according to his tripartite understanding of the soul - the concupisciple (sexual lust), irascible (anger) and rational. Indeed a life controlled by the vices, in their sum, cause, according to St Maximus a continual disintegration of the soul. Moreover they destroy the unity of the individual human person and they divide human persons from each other and from God.
Finally all this leads, according to St Maximus, to tyranny since we become deluded into thinking that we are self-sufficient and do not need God or other human persons. Indeed others around may become, if not our enemy at least people in whom we are entirely disinterested. This state could be compared to the rich man in Jesus' parable of Lazarus, who passed by Lazarus every day and did even think perhaps to give him some food or water. This was most probably not because he hated Lazarus but because had become so self-centered that he could not see beyond himself to the needs of those around him. Indeed, the self-sufficient person is one who falsely thinks that he/she can lead a life of self-seeking pleasure rather than love. However created in the image and likeness of God, human persons are called to reflect the life of God who is love (cf 1Jn 4:8). Just like choosing to breathe in carbon dioxide, for example, instead of oxygen, leads to our biological death, so too choosing a egocentric life instead of a life of love inevitably leads to our spiritual death. If God is taken out of the picture, we may be able to survive but we do not truly live a life in all of its abundance, a loving life ultimately free from death itself. This false sense of autonomy leads to our entrapment and tyranny to the passions.
As an antidote to all this the Christian life, according to St Maximus has to do with redirecting or reintegrating our disintegrated mode of existence. Whereas the passions or vices have scattered our mind, the Christian life involves a cleansing process, a death and resurrection in Christ, the practice of the virtues (praxis) so that we can be led back into contemplation (theoria) of the mystery of God. It is only in overcoming the passions and leading a contemplative life that God can bestow upon us His gracious gift of divine life which is deification or theosis. St Maximus described this entire process in terms of being (einai), well-being (eu-einai) and eternal-being (aei-einai). Whereas the practice of the virtues leads to our being in God, a contemplative life brings us to a state of well-being in beholding God. And finally the last state of eternal-being has an eschatological and mystical character which will be bestowed upon the faithful in the age to come. What is all important in the practice of the Christian life however, according to St Maximus is the virtue of love and it is to this all-important virtue that we now briefly turn.
The Importance of Love
For St Maximus, love is the supreme virtue, which unifies all the other virtues, such as faith, the fear of God, self-mastery, patience, long suffering, hope in God and detachment. Furthermore it is only in the person's practice of love that the following virtues find their aim: humility (tapeinosis), meekness (praotes), gentleness (praupatheia), mercy (eleos) and poverty (aktemosune) along with the Platonic virtues of courage, temperance, and justice. Love, however is the “inclusive summit of all the virtues” and the perfection of the virtuous life. In his evaluation of love, St Maximus differentiated between the love for God and the love for one’s neighbor. Yet, even though he distinguished them, he, nevertheless united them and ultimately considered love of neighbor as a prerequisite for the love of God:
“The one who loves God cannot help but love also every human being as himself even though he may be displeased by the passions of those who are not yet purified. However, when he sees their conversion and amendment, he rejoices with an unbounded and unspeakable joy.”
And elsewhere he wrote:
“The one who does not love his neighbor is not... able to love the Lord.”
Moreover as a result of the supreme virtue of love, one will not only love God and neighbor alike but the three faculties of the soul of the person (namely the concupiscible, the irascible and the rational) will also be transformed so that final communion with God will be made possible. Therefore the concupiscible part of the soul would ultimately be transformed by love into a holy desire and yearning for God. And as a result of love towards one’s neighbor, the virtues of long-suffering and patience would be produced in the irascible faculty. Finally the rational element of the soul would be led, by love to humility, which is a virtue of that faculty. Maximus summarized this point:
“The soul is moved reasonably when its concupiscible element is qualified by self-mastery, its irascible element cleaves to love and turns away from hate and the rational element lives with God through prayer and spiritual contemplation.”
Therefore, the Christian life implies a restoration and transformation of the elements of the soul from perversion to its natural function. That is to say, what is called for in the Christian life is not a suppression of the passions but a replacement since evil passions are good passions which have been misdirected.
In this brief article, we saw that the historical context into which St Maximus the Confessor was born, gave rise to harsh and difficult struggles on his part with opponents of the Christian faith who happened to hold key political and even ecclesiastical positions. It was his unwavering resistance against these people, which earned him the title 'Confessor' since he was not afraid to speak out against all those who were putting the integrity of the witness of the apostolic faith in Jesus Christ into question, even if they happened to be Patriarchs or Emperors. Indeed, it was these heated disputes, which led to this saint being subjected to the cruelest of torments, namely the cutting off of his tongue and right hand together with his banishment from the city of Constantinople. However in all this, never did he lose sight of the nature and purpose of all authentic theology, namely a person's insatiable yearning to know and be in communion with God. This was evidenced in his concern to articulate clearly in all his writings the basic aspects of the Christian life since it was these which led to an intimate vision and a life in God.
Mr. Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College
[1.H.G. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich (Munich, 1959), 436, quoted in J. Pelikan The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 8.]
[2.J. Meyendorff, Christ in Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1975), 259.]
[3.S.L. Epiphanovitch, Prepodobnyi Maksim Ispovednik i Vizantiiskoe Bogoslovie (Kiev, 1915), 22, quoted in G. Telepneff and Bishop Chrysostom, 'The Person, Pathe, Asccetism, and Spiritual Restoration in Saint Maximos' in Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 34.3(1987): 252.]
[4.He was simply being faithful to the biblical witness which stated that the entire purpose of the world was Jesus Christ Himself: "all was created through Him and for Him" (Col. 1:16).]
[5.An English translation of this work exists entitled: The Disputation with Pyrrhus of our Father among the Saints Maximus the Confessor, translated from the Greek by Joseph P. Farrell, St Tikhon's Seminary.]
[6.Cf PG 90: 109-129.]
[7.Cited in G. Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Century (Belmont: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 211.]
[8.Both these works are available in English: The Four Hundred Centuries on Love, in The Classics of Western Spirituality (NY: Paulist Press, 1985) and The Ascetical Life, in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 21 (NY: Newman Press, 1955).]
[9.L. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator; the Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Sweeden: Hakan Ohlssons Boktrycheri, 1965) , 170.]
[10.Four Hundred Chapters on Love, 1. 67.]
[11.L. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1985), 197.]
[12.Four Hundred Chapters on Love, I, 2.]
[13.A. Nichols, Byzantine Gospel, Maximus the Confessor in Modern Scholarship (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993) , 181.]
[14.L. Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, p.327.]
[15.Four Hundred Chapters on Love, I, 13.]
[16.ibid., I. 16.]
[17.ibid., IV, 15]