03 February 2009

'Love Through Long-Suffering'—St Maximus the Greek


While St Maximus the Confessor has become increasingly well known of late, another St Maximus whom we commemorate today—St Maximus the Greek—remains a good deal more obscure. Although he was Greek and a monk of Vatopaidi on the Holy Mountain, I found the most interesting account of him, not in any of my books about Greek Saints or the Holy Mountain, but in James Billington’s magisterial study, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (NY: Vintage, 1970), pp. 91-5.

According to Billington, ‘the remarkable figure’ of St Maximus was the ‘finest representative of Renaissance culture in early-fifteenth-century Russia [sic; he means 16th-c. Russia]’ (p. 91). Born to a noble family of Arta in 1470, St Maximus went to Venice, Padua, and Florence for his higher studies (see this post at the Βατοπαίδι blog, in Greek). He became a devotee of Plato, heard the preaching of Savonarola (under whose influence he briefly joined the Dominican order), frequently discussed bookprinting with Aldus Manutius, whose edition of the Bible he took to Russia from Venice, and met the Greek librarian of the Medicis, Janus Lascaris (Fr Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, Part I, trans. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979], p. 25). St Maximus’s Greek was an extremely learned, literary prose similar to that of the Bible (Fr Florovsky, p. 25). Although Fr Florovsky calls him more accurately a ‘Byzantine humanist’ than a ‘humanist’ in the Western sense (p. 25), Billington rightly notes, ‘Maxim illustrates the humanist temperament not only in his knowledge of the classics and interest in textual criticism, but also in his concern for style and his inclusion of poetry and a grammar among his works’ (p. 91).

But St Maximus wanted something more than worldly learning and glory. He left Italy and became a monk on the Holy Mountain, where he struggled for ten years at Vatopaidi. St Maximus spent his time there well, studying the patristic writings, acquiring the virtues of self-control, humility, and love, and attaining to unceasing prayer and union with God (Βατοπαίδι). Thus, he was duly prepared for the work that lay ahead, though Billington writes that he ‘always felt close to this center of the contemplative life and of Hesychast spirituality’ (p. 92).

In 1518, at the suggestion of the Protos of the Holy Mountain, St Maximus was summoned by the Tsar Vasily III to ‘help translate holy texts from the Greek and Latin’ (Billington, p. 91). There he stayed for the rest of his life, until his repose in 1556. Fr Florovsky tells us that St Maximus could not speak Russian when he first arrived in Moscow, and not a single person there could speak Greek, adding, ‘This seems almost incredible’ (p. 24). But fortunately, the learned man knew Latin, a language more familiar to the Muscovites, and their translation projects consisted of St Maximus rendering the Greek into Latin, and the Slavs rendering the Latin into their language.

According to Fr Florovsky, St Maximus spent most of his time in this way on translation work (p. 25), as well as producing more than 150 extant original compositions and attracting ‘a large number of monastic and lay students’ (Billington, p. 91). But in the ferment of thought in Renaissance Italy, he also seems to have developed a penchant for argument. Billington writes that he ‘delighted in the favorite humanist pastime of refuting Aristotle (even though this hero of the medieval scholastics was barely known in Russia)’ (p. 91). Fr Florovsky adds that he ‘totally and characteristically rejected western scholasticism’ and that ‘he argued a good deal . . . against the “gift of stargazing”, and generally against Latin propaganda, Hagarene impiety, the Judaizers, or even the Armenian heresy’ (p. 25). St Maximus denounced immorality and secularisation wherever he saw it, stridently opposed the ‘Josephite’ party of monks in Muscovy, and inveighed against the divorce of the Tsar, ‘unsuccessfully attempting to make young Ivan IV “the just” rather than “the terrible”’ (Billington, p. 92). All of this was to get him into trouble. But according to Billington:

This foreign teacher was revered, however, not for the logic of his arguments or the beauty of his style but for the depth of his piety. In his early years he argued for a crusade to liberate Constantinople and for a preventive war against the Crimean khan; but as time went on, the simple Pauline ideals of good cheer, humility, and compassion dominate his writings. In and out of monastic prisons, confronted with false accusations, torture, and near starvation, Maxim underscored with his own life his doctrine of love through long-suffering. Far from showing bitterness toward the ungrateful land to which he had come, he developed a love of Russia, and an image of it different from that of the bombastic Josephite monks in the Tsar’s entourage. (p. 93)

While he was in prison, an Angel appeared to St Maximus to give him the Holy Mysteries and exhort him to endure his suffering. After this experience, St Maximus was inspired by God to compose the Canon to the Holy Spirit, which he wrote on the wall of his cell with a charcoal. He endured six years in prison, afterwards being sent into exile in Tver for twenty years. Finally, at the age of nearly 70, St Maximus was allowed to go to the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra, where he gave his soul into the hands of the Lord on 21 January 1556 (see the Life at the St John’s Cathedral website).

Two short quotes will summarise the two sides of St Maximus’s personality:

No dogma, human or divine, can firmly be considered reliable among them [scholastics], if Aristotelian syllogisms do not affirm that dogma and if it does not respond to artistic demonstration. (qtd. in Fr Florovsky, p. 25)

True Godly reason not only beautifies the inner man with wisdom, humility and all manner of truth; but also harmonizes the outer parts of the body: eyes, ears, tongue and hands. (qtd. in Billington, p. 92)

19 comments:

Justin said...

Let us be satisfied simply with what sustains our present life, not with what pampers it.

The Ochlophobist said...

It is downright eerie to me how much our readings coincide. I am preparing to give a talk on Sts. Nil and Joseph and the whole non-possessor "movement" vs. the Josephites and just re-read the account of St. Maxim the Greek in Florovsky last night. I had not thought to check with Billington. I will grab my copy of The Icon and the Axe this evening for more material. Thanks for the leads.

aaronandbrighid said...

Ochlophobist> That really is pretty eerie, especially considering that you were motivated to re-read Florovsky for reasons different than mine. Did you notice that Edgecomb and I posted about Shelley's 'Ozymandias' on the same day, again, for completely different reasons?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Spooky! But much too serious! Rejoice!

Let us all rather gaze in awe at that incredible beard of St Maximus the Greek!

Wow.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yeah, I've got St Maximus in a gallery of 'Distinguished & Fascinating Beards' on my MySpace page.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Didn't St Maximus belong to the Dominican Order before he left Italy for the Holy Mountain?

aaronandbrighid said...

Esteban> I didn't see that in Billigton or Florovsky, and while it seems like they would have mentioned it, these are basically the only sources I have right now with more than a cursory reference to St Maximus. They do mention that he was strongly influenced by Savonarola, who WAS a Dominican I believe.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Aaron> Yes, Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican.

Digging around a little bit, I have found a few sources that state that St Maximus was a Dominican in Italy, probably from 1502 to 1504: Fr John Meyendorff, Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, pp. 140-1; Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, page 327; and Liturgical Press' New Dictionary of Saints: East and West, pp. 416-7. Also, this article apparently discusses St Maximus in that connection.

aaronandbrighid said...

Way to go, Esteban! Unfortunately, I can't get that link to work though...

Anonymous said...

Aaron-

You may also be interested in the chapter on the life and works of St. Maximos contained in Sir Dmitri Obolensky's 'Six Byzantine Portraits' (see link: http://www.amazon.com/Byzantine-Portraits-University-Academic-Monograph/dp/0198219512) which also contains scholarly accounts of Sts. Sava of Serbia, Theophylact and Clement of Bulgaria, Vladimir Monomach, and Constantine/Cyril the Philosopher. Coming from a Greek Church background- where he is perhaps lesser known- this is where I first encountered information about St. Maximos, and what a fabulous life! As I recall, Obolensky also presents strong evidence that prior to his joining the community of the Holy Mountain, he very likely belonged to the Dominican order. It seems Obolensky's principal source is Jack V. Haney's 'From Italy to Muscovy: The Life and Works of Maxim the Greek', itself unfortunately very scarce. Anyway, Obolensky's work is well worth the effort to track down as it presents a pretty thorough biography of the Saint, probably the most concentrated of all accounts generally accessible at present. Happy reading!- In XC, Symeon.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the tip, Symeon! I hadn't come across that one before, but I always love Obolensky. My neighbour in Greece was a student of his, and he had very good things to say about him.

Esteban Vázquez said...

I too thank you for the bibliographical note, Symeon! I have seen the book before, but haven't had a chance to read it. I'll try to search for it more diligently now.

Aaron, the site is for subscribers only, I'm afraid. I don't have access to it either, but I have seen references to this article as a source indicating that St Maximus was a Dominican.

Anonymous said...

Aaron and Esteban- Dear brothers, you're very welcome for the tip. The book is definitely worthwhile, and although certainly scholarly in tone as one would expect, certainly not lacking in spiritual significance. One last note: the link I gave should have led to an Amazon page for the Oxford U. Reprint edition of this book. But note that the reprint was (partly, at least) under the auspices of Powells bookstore in Chicago, who should still have new copies for sale for pretty cheap (?). I wonder if either of you- or anyone out there- could help me to track down an icon (preferably an earlier one) of St. Maximos? I've been looking for some time but he's one of those saints you don't see icon copies for very often (at least not the mass-produced ones.) Any help would be much appreciated!- In XC, Symeon.

aaronandbrighid said...

Symeon> Here is the only one I recall seeing for sale anywhere: http://www.uncutmountainsupply.com/proddetail.asp?prod=1MA80

If you order it, tell Fr Hartung I sent you!

Anonymous said...

Aaron-

Thank you, Thank You, Thank You! We all have a sense of our heavenly patrons somehow and I thank you sincerely for this link since this helps me to connect with someone I've come to regard as such. As my spiritual Father always says 'You need all the help you can get!', so thanks again for helping me to connect with another one whose help I have dire need of (St. Maximos) and reminding me again that we are all truly of One Body. 'As many of you as are baptised into Christ, have put on Christ (Alleluia.)' I will drop a note to Fr. Hartung. In Christ's Love, Symeon.

JeremiahSD said...

I wrote a brief paper about St. Maxim Grec just a week or so ago. Jack Haney (From Italy to Muscovy) discusses the fact that St. Maxim was a Dominican, but there is really very little information about this period of his life. He was certainly influenced by Savonarola in his decision to enter the order, and even later in life he said that Savonarola was a man "filled with every kind of wisdom" who would have been counted a confessor of the Church had he been Orthodox and not Roman Catholic. He was only a Dominican for about two years (1502-4) and next appears in the historical record in 1506 as a monk of Vatopaidi monastery. In his youth he participated in the Florentine Platonic Academy, and knew Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and possibly Michelangelo. I particularly like the following passage which Haney includes from the letter of recommendation sent by the Abbot of Vatopaidi, Anfimy, to Moscow:

"our most worthy brother Maxim, who is from our holy cloister of Vatopedi, experienced in the divine scripture and capable of interpreting all sorts of books, both church and those called Hellenic, because from his youth he has grown up in them and has been instructed virtuously, and not like others, only having read them."

aaronandbrighid said...

JeremiahSD> Wow, that's a great tip you've shared! I actually was a little disappointed that Billington and Florovsky didn't talk more about possible connections between St Maxim and the various figures of Cinquecento Florence (particularly the ones you named). I need to get my hands on Haney's book!

Constantinus said...

See my blog about st. Maxim the Greek (Trivolis): http://maksimthegreek.blogspot.com Contents many books and articles about st. Maxim the Greek.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for the link, Constantinus--I'll link to it in the sidebar. Unfortunately, my Russian is pretty terrible, but I'll try to struggle through some of the blog later. Also, you've reminded me that I really need to get around to ordering Sir Dmitri Obolensky's Six Byzantine Portraits so I can work on a more informed follow-up to my own St Maxim post.