Byzantine Christian Monk, Theologian and Scholar
Saint Maximus the Confessor
Byzantine Christian Monk, Theologian and Scholar
Whatever a man loves he inevitably clings to, and in order not to lose it he rejects everything that keeps him from it. So he who loves God cultivates pure prayer, driving out every passion that keeps him from it.
When a man?s intellect is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and his incensiveness is completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance his intellect becomes totally filled with light; and when it has reintegrated its passible aspect, it redirects this aspect towards God, as we have said, filling it with an incomprehensible and intense longing for Him and with unceasing love, thus drawing it entirely away from worldly things to the divine.
Those who are always trying to lay hold of our soul do so by means of impassioned thoughts, so that they may drive it to sin either in the mind or in action. Consequently, when they find the intellect unreceptive, they will be disgraced and put to shame; and when they find the intellect occupied with spiritual contemplation, they will ?be turned back and suddenly ashamed? (Ps. 6:l0).
When a trial comes upon you unexpectedly, do not blame the person through whom it came but try to discover the reason why it came, and then you will find a way of dealing with it. For whether through this person or through someone else you had in any case to drink the wormwood of God?s judgments.
Those who look carefully at the present world, making the most of their learning, and wisely tease out with their mind the logos that folds together the bodies that harmoniously constitute it in various ways?they discover what is perceived through the senses, and what is understood and what is universal, everything contained in everything and turning by the exchange of the individual qualities of each. For by nature the senses are contained by what is perceived through the senses, and what is perceived through the senses is contained by the senses through sensation, as being understood. And again the universal is corrupted by change into the particular, and the particular, turned into the universal by reduction, also suffers corruption. And there comes about the corruption of everything that owes its coming to be to others. For the union of universals with one another, which causes the coming to be of particulars, is the corruption of one another by change, and the reduction of particulars to universals by the dissolution of their being bound together, leading to corruption, is the continuance and coming to be of the universals. And learning that this is the constitution of the world of the senses?the change and corruption of the bodies through which and in which it consists, one into another?we come to understand that it follows from the natural property of the bodies in which it consists?their instability and changeability and their chameleon-like alteration of universal qualities?that it is not possible for the world to have a necessary consummation. Nor can it be rightly thought that what does not possess eternity should appear to any rational understanding as eternal, separate from change and alteration, and not rather scattered and changing in a myriad of ways.
When desire grows strong, the intellect in sleep imagines things that give sensual pleasure; and when the incensive power grows strong, it imagines things that cause fear. For the impure demons, finding an ally in our negligence, strengthen and excite the passions. But holy angels, by inducing us to perform works of virtue, make them weaker.
Those whom divine providence is leading towards holiness in this life are tested by the following three tests: by the gift of agreeable things, such as health, beauty, fine children, money, fame and so on; by afflictions causing distress, such as the loss of children, money and fame; and by bodily sufferings, such as disease, torture and so on. To those in the first category the Lord says, ?If a person does not forsake all that he has, he cannot be My disciple? (Luke 14:33); and to those in the second and third He says, ?You will gain possession of your souls through your patient endurance? (Luke 21:19).
When our Lord says, ?I and My Father are one? (John 10:30), He indicates their identity of essence. Again, when He says, ?I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? (John 14:11), He shows that the Persons cannot be divided. The tritheists, therefore, who divide the Son from the Father, find themselves in a dilemma. Either they say that the Son is coeternal with the Father, but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not begotten from the Father; thus they fell into
Thus ? to go back a little and comment briefly on what has been said ? if we really wish to be delivered from evil and not to enter into temptation, we should trust in God and forgive our debtors their debts. ?For if you do not forgive people their sins?, says Scripture, ?your heavenly Father will not forgive you yours? (Matt. 6:15). We should do this not only to receive forgiveness for the offences we have committed, but also to defeat the law of sin -because then we would not be allowed to undergo the experience of being tempted by it ? and to trample on the originator of this law, the evil serpent from whom we entreat God to deliver us? Being the bread of life, of wisdom, spiritual knowledge and righteousness, He arouses in us an insatiable desire for Himself. If we fulfill His Father?s will He makes us co-worshippers with the angels, when in our conduct we imitate them as we should and so conform to the heavenly state. Then He leads us up still further on the supreme ascent of divine truth to the Father of lights, and makes us share in the divine nature (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4) through participation by grace in the Holy Spirit. By virtue of this participation we are called children of God and, cleansed from all stain, in a manner beyond circumscription, we all encircle Him who is the author of this grace and by nature the Son of the Father. From Him, through Him and in Him we have and always will have our being, our movement and our life (cf. Acts 17:28).
When passions dominate the intellect, they separate it from God, binding it to material things and preoccupying it with them. But when love of God dominates the intellect, it frees it from its bonds, persuading it to rise above not only sensible things but even this transitory life.
There are three things that impel us towards what is holy: natural instincts, angelic powers and probity of intention. Natural instincts impel us when, for example, we do to others what we would wish them to do to us (cf. Luke 6:31), or when we see someone suffering deprivation or in need and naturally feel compassion. Angelic powers impel us when, being ourselves impelled to something worthwhile, we find we are providentially helped and guided. We are impelled by probity of intention when, discriminating between good and evil, we choose the good.
There are virtues of the body and virtues of the soul. Those of the body include fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground, ministering to people?s needs, working with one?s hands so as not to be a burden or in order to give to others (cf. 1 Thess. 2:9, Ephes. 4:28). Those of the soul include love, long-suffering, gentleness, self-control and prayer (cf. Gal, 5:22). If as a result of some constraint or bodily condition, such as illness or the like, we find we cannot practice the bodily virtues mentioned above, we are forgiven by the Lord because He knows the reasons. But if we fail to practice the virtues of the soul, we shall not have a single excuse, for it is always within our power to practice them.
Things are outside the intellect, but the conceptual images of these things are formed within it. It is consequently in the intellect?s power to make good or bad use of these conceptual images. Their wrong use is followed by the misuse of the things themselves.
This kingdom is characterized, as we have shown, by humility and gentleness of heart. It is the combination of these two qualities that constitutes the perfection of the person-created according to Christ. For every humbler person is invariably gentle and every gentle person is invariably humble. A person is humble when he knows that his very being is on loan to him. He is gentle when he realizes how to use the powers given to him in a manner that accords with nature and, withdrawing their activity completely from the senses, places them at the service of the intelligence in order to produce the virtues. In this way his intellect moves incessantly towards God, while where his senses are concerned he is not in the least perturbed by any of the things that afflict the body, nor does he stamp his soul with any trace of distress, thereby disrupting his joy-creative state. For he does not regard what is painful in the senses as a privation of pleasure: He knows only one pleasure, the marriage of the soul with the Logos. To be deprived of this marriage is endless torment, extending by nature through all the ages. Thus when he has left the body and all that pertains to it, he is impelled towards union with the divine; for even if he were to be master of the whole world, he would still recognize only one real disaster: failure to attain by grace the deification for which he is hoping.
This surely is why God wishes us first to be reconciled with one another. He Himself has no need to learn from us how to be reconciled with sinners and to waive the penalty for a multitude of atrocious crimes; but He wishes to purify us of our passions and show us that the measure of grace conferred on those who are forgiven corresponds to their inward state. It is evident that when man?s will is in union with the principle of nature, he is not in a state of rebellion against God. Since the principle of nature is a law both natural and divine, and there is nothing in it contrary to the Logos, when a man?s will functions in accordance with this principle it accords with God in all things. Such a condition of the will is an inner state actively characterized by the grace of what is good by nature and hence productive of virtue.
This, then, is the inner state of the man who prays for Gnostic bread. After him comes the man who, constrained by nature, seeks ordinary bread, but sufficient for one day only. He will attain the same inner state as the first when he has forgiven his debtors their debts, as he knows that he is by nature mortal. Moreover, by accepting the uncertainty of the future and waiting each day for what is provided by nature, he anticipates nature, choosing to become dead to the world and to comply with the text, ?For Thy sake we are put to death all the day long; we are regarded as sheep for slaughtering? (Ps. 44:22; Rom. 8:36). He makes his peace with all in order to be free from all the depravities of this present age when he departs to eternal life, and to receive from the Judge and Savior of the universe a just recompense for what he has done in this life. Both these kinds of men, therefore, need to exhibit a pure disposition towards those who have offended them. This is true in general; but it has particular reference to the concluding words of the prayer: ?And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from what is evil? (Matt. 6:13).
Those permitted by God to test us either inflame the desiring aspect of the soul, or stir up its incensive power, or darken its intelligence, or envelop its body in pain, or deprive us of bodily necessities.
themselves. In relation to women, for example, sexual intercourse, rightly used, has as its purpose the begetting of children. He, therefore, who seeks in it only sensual pleasure uses it wrongly, for he reckons as good what is not good. When such a man has intercourse with a woman, he misuses her. And the same is true with regard to other things and our conceptual images of them.
Theology without practice is the theology of demons.
There are also three things that impel us towards evil: passions, demons and sinfulness of intention. Passions impel us when, for example, we desire something beyond what is reasonable, such as food which is unnecessary or untimely, or a woman who is not our wife or for a purpose other than procreation, or else when we are excessively angered or irritated by, for instance, someone who has dishonored or injured us. Demons impel us when, for example, they catch us off our guard and suddenly launch a violent attack upon us, stirring up the passions already mentioned and others of a similar nature. We are impelled by sinfulness of intention when, knowing the good, we choose evil instead.
There are said to be five reasons why God allows us to be assailed by demons. The first is so that, by attacking and counterattacking, we should learn to discriminate between virtue and vice. The second is so that, having acquired virtue through conflict and toil, we should keep it secure and immutable. The third is so that, when making progress in virtue, we should not become haughty but learn humility. The fourth is so that, having gained some experience of evil, we should ?hate it with perfect hatred? (cf. Ps. 139:22). The fifth and most important is so that, having achieved dispassion, we should forget neither our own weakness nor the power of Him who has helped us.
There are three main inner states characterizing the life of the monk. The first consists in not sinning in actions; the second in not allowing the soul to dally with impassioned thoughts; the third in being able to contemplate dispassionately in the mind the forms of women and of those who have given one offence.
The reward of self-control is dispassion, and the reward of faith is spiritual knowledge. Dispassion engenders discrimination, and spiritual knowledge engenders love for God.
The rewards for the toils of virtue are dispassion and spiritual knowledge. For these are mediators of the kingdom of heaven, just as passions and ignorance are mediators of eternal punishment. It is because of this that he who seeks these rewards for the sake of human glory and not for their intrinsic goodness is rebuked by the words of Scripture, ?You ask, and do not receive, because you ask wrongly? (Jas. 4:3).
The Savior Himself has led me to this interpretation of the phrase we are considering, because He commands His disciples explicitly not to take any thought at all for sensible food saying, ?Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will put on. For the heathen seek all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things as well will be given to you? (Matt. 6:25, 32, 33). How then can it be that He teaches us to pray for what He commands us not to seek? Obviously He does not order us to do anything of the kind: we should ask in prayer only for things that we are commanded to seek. If the Savior commanded us to seek only the kingdom of God and righteousness, then surely He intended those who desire divine gifts to ask for this kingdom in their prayers, in this way, by showing what petitions are blessed by His grace. He conjoins the intention of those who ask with the will of Him who bestows the grace. If, however, we also take this clause to mean we should pray for the daily bread that sustains our present life, let us be careful not to overstep the bounds of the prayer, presumptuously assuming that we will live for many cycles of years and forgetting that we are mortal and that our life passes by like a shadow; but free from anxiety let us pray for bread sufficient for one day at a time, thus showing that as Christian philosophers we make life a rehearsal for death, in our purpose anticipating nature and, even before death comes, cutting off the soul?s anxiety about bodily things. In this way the soul will not transfer its natural appetite to material things, attaching itself to what is corruptible, and will not learn the greed that deprives it of a rich possession of divine blessings.