Abba Maximos the Confessor - Part 2
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
The Process of Growth
The beginning of the process of growth is to recognize this transformation. It is by active participation that the grace of God is made known to the heart to effect a change of the will. The will of the individual is then placed upon the potential of what he or she can become.
“The inclination to sin does not disappear as long as they will it. For the Spirit does not give birth to an unwilling will, but converts the willing will toward deification.”
The Spirit of God gives birth to a will that conveys the potential for transformation.
The transformation of the will is then seen in practicing the commands of Christ.
“God the Word of God the Father [Jesus Christ] is found mystically in each of His own commandments; and God the Father is, by nature, entirely inseparable from His Word. Therefore, one who receives the Divine commandment, and applies it, receives also the Word of God, Who exists in it.”
Christ as the Divine Word, is the command of God the Father. So as you receive the commandments of Christ you receive the Word of the Father, and you receive the nature of God. The commandments of Christ can be clearly seen in the principles of the spiritual life that Christ lays out in the sermon on the mount. Christ takes what was taught in the ten commandments and deepens the impact of the law (i.e. whoever hates commits murder). These Divine commands contain within them the mystical power of God to transform.
Maximos goes on to say,
“Moreover, he receives the Holy Spirit, which coexists by nature with Him. The Holy Gospel says, in other words: ”Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receives whomsoever I send receives Me; and he that receives Me receives Him that sent Me” (St. John 13:20). Therefore, he who receives the commandment, and performs it, has received and contains mystically within himself the Holy Trinity.”
Hearing and obeying the commands and words of Christ carry within the potential to receive the fullness of the Godhead within the heart of man, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As we receive the commands of Christ and attempt to practice the life of Christ we come into contact with our inner nature that wars against us. It is at this point that God begins revealing what lies hidden in our souls.
“Many passions lie hidden in our souls; they are only revealed when the things that feed and arouse these passions are brought to light.”
The circumstances that arise with our attempts to practice the spiritual life reveal to us our inner wounding, our passions as they are commonly referred to in the desert fathers.
Maximos taught that difficult circumstances will arise in order to work within an inner tenacity to resist the temptation of past sin, or to correct our present failures, or to harden us against future sin. Affliction comes from three sources, past sin (in order to reveal and heal), present sin (in order to chastise and correct), or prevention of future sin (I will never do that mentality).
To Maximos, only a fool would miss the opportunity to work humility in light of present circumstances.
“The foolish man frequently asks God to show mercy to him and deliver him from difficulties; but when mercy comes, he does not accept it, since it did not come as he wished, but as the Physician of souls saw fit.”
The pull of temptation provides the moment to question the source of temptation.
“When a temptation comes upon you unexpectedly, do not blame the person through whom it came, but seek the reason for it and, when you discover it, correct yourself.”
When tempted to anger, the source of anger is not the person who has offended, but the state of your own heart. Rather than blaming the person, search your heart for the source of pain. Oftentimes a present pain is merely triggering a past wound, something that has lain dormant in the heart, biding its time to strike at an opportune time. The trauma of our past does not die without being exposed. A root when exposed runs the risk of losing its source of life. So it is with the pain of our past that lies dormant in our hearts.
Maximos taught that we would go through periods of perceived abandonment. To him, abandonment was not to be misunderstood as being forsaken, but rather to understand the purpose of the trials of life where God appears distant. The first purpose is what happened to Christ on the cross so that others would come to salvation. We are sometimes called to suffer on behalf of others that they would find Christ. The second is to work something deep within as with the example of Joseph and Job. Joseph developed an inner resolve to withstand the temptation of sin (Gen 39:8) and Job become a pillar of courage. The third is that of fatherly correction, that we might receive an abundance of grace. Paul is an example of this when he is shown that grace is perfected in weakness, not in strength. The fourth is to spur repentance. The Israelites were punished by the removal of God’s presence in order to bring them back to a place of humility and repentance.
Lastly, Maximos taught that the moral conscience was to be safeguarded.
“Do not disdain your conscience, for it always gives you the best advice. It sets before you the Will of God and the Angels, frees you from the secret defilements of the heart, and grants you boldness before God at your departure from this life.”
The mark of spiritual maturity is not external fulfillment of rules, but rather the interior life of peace. The mature monk would have cultivated an interior life of dispassion, or rather, the inability to be moved by great praise or great insult. The dispassionate state of the interior life is those that have entered into the deep peace the Spirit of God engenders.
“A pure soul is one freed from passions and constantly delighted by divine love. A culpable passion is an impulse from the soul that is contrary to nature. Dispassion is a peaceful condition of the soul in which the soul is not easily moved to evil.”
The one who is a mature monk is the one whose inner life is trained on divine love. Dispassion was not a state of unfeeling, but a state of interior peace.
This peace would be the mark of one healed of the wounds of the passions.
“Is there anyone, I wonder, in this generation who has completely delivered himself from passionate thoughts and been deemed worthy to engage unceasingly in pure and immaterial prayer? This is precisely the mark of the inner monk.”
Those who have engaged in unceasing prayer have the Lord constantly before them, engaged in a divine romance.
This person would find a depth of humility beyond most others.
“Humility is constant prayer combined with tears and toil, for it always calls upon God for help and does not allow a man to be recklessly confident in his own abilities and wisdom or to behave arrogantly towards another; these are dangerous diseases of the passion of pride.”
The spiritually mature would rely on God and not on self, recognizing the fallibility of your own heart and relying upon the grace of God through faith in him.
They have entered into the life of heaven in the present, finding a taste of the life of the age to come in the here and now.
“He who is poor is one who has abandoned all that he has and who has retained nothing of those things which exist on the earth.”
Finding poverty of spirit (Matthew 5:3) is a significant factor in developing spiritual maturity. Without poverty of spirit it is difficult to find humility, without humility it is difficult to recognize need, and without need the life of heaven remains distant and foreign.
Those who have discovered a depth of maturity refuse to evaluate themselves based upon the failures or successes of others…
“Do not compare yourself with weaker men but rather apply yourself to fulfilling the commandment of love. For by comparing yourself with the weak you will fall into the pit of conceit, but by applying yourself to the commandment of love you will reach the height of humility.”
We tend to justify our actions based upon the actions of others, rather than presenting ourselves to God, simply as we are. This betrays how uncomfortable we are with ourselves, and our lack of self-awareness. Immaturity prefers to keep God safe and distant, where we live a life that is neither human, nor divine. To truly embrace the spiritual life and become fully human we must recognize the depths to which we lack the character and nature of Christ.
After all, “You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters.”
In 638 Saint Sophronius, the man Abba Maximos considered his spiritual father passed away. In the wake of his passing Maximos become one of the foremost opponents of the monothelitism heresy. This culminated in the persecution of Maximos when he was 75 years old. When Constans II become emperor, the position of monothelitism was strengthened, and the Emperor arrested Maximos and others who defended the orthodox Trinitarian position. Maximos was found guilty of heresy (only owing to the erroneous beliefs of his captors) and had his tongue cut out so he could not teach and his right hand cut off so that he could not write. He died shortly thereafter in 662 AD.
Twenty years after he died, the argument came to a head and Pope Agatho called a council to determine the correct theological position. The result of this council was the monothelitism was soundly condemned and Maximos was venerated in memory. His memory lingers today in our understanding the nature of Christ as fully human and fully divine. And his impact can be felt today as we understand the transformation of the will and the deification of the inner man.