25 January 2009

'The Athonite Ascetic Life In Its Most Uncompromising Form'—St Maximus of Kapsokalyvia

Two Saints rather leapt out at me today (liturgically speaking, it's already Monday): St Maximus of Kapsokalyvia and St Hilary of Poitiers. The first was a famous Athonite of the 14th century, and according to Bishop Kallistos (Ware), in an authoritative article on the Saint, ‘Maximos represents the Athonite ascetic life in its most uncompromising form.’ Here is St Nicholas’s account in the Prologue:

In the fourteenth century, Maximus led an ascetical life as a monk on Mt Athos in his own unique way. That is to say, he pretended to be a little crazy and constantly changed his dwelling place. His place of abode consisted of a hut made from branches. He built these huts one after the other and then burned them, for this he was called Kapsokalivitos, i.e., ‘hut-burner’. He was considered insane until the arrival of St Gregory Sinaites to Mt Athos, who discovered in Maximus a unique ascetic, a wonder-working intercessor and ‘an angel in the flesh’. He died in the Lord in the year 1320 A.D.

Such a barebones outline of St Maximus’s ascetic exploits may well strike us as rather severe. Fortunately, the picture is filled out by some of the material from his Life (that is, the Life by Hegoumen Theophanes of Vatopaidi), which Bishop Kallistos relates in his article. Most interesting of all however, to me at any rate, is some of the dialogue between St Maximus and St Gregory of Sinai. It is excerpted in the Philokalia (Η Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος Ε’ [Athens: Astir, 1982], p. 104), but unfortunately is not among those texts which have thus far been translated into English. Bishop Kallistos provides a couple of key quotes, but mostly retells it, and I can’t tell from his renderings if the source text is different from what the Philokalia has or if he is simply making some changes for readability or something. Anyway, in the end, I made my own little translation of the very beginning of the dialogue, which may well be faulty (at least once I had to guess at a word from context), and is certainly literal to a fault, but it’s mine!

The divine Gregory of Sinai, visiting St Maximus and speaking with him, among other things also said this: ‘I beg you, O most reverend Father, to tell me: do you maintain noetic prayer?’

And he smiled a little and said, ‘I do not want to hide from you, reverend Father, the miracle of the Theotokos that happened to me. From my youth I had a great faith in my lady Theotokos and besought her with tears to grant me the grace of noetic prayer, and one day I was going to her temple, as was my custom, and again entreated her with immeasurable warmth of heart. And when with longing I kissed her holy icon, immediately I felt in my chest and in my heart a warmth and a flame, which came from the holy icon, that did not burn me, but refreshed and sweetened me and brought into my soul a great compunction. From then on, Father, my heart started to say the prayer from within and my nous to be sweetened in the remembrance of my Jesus and of my Theotokos, and to be always together with their remembrance. And from that time on the prayer hasn’t left my heart. Forgive me.’

Well, that’s taken a lot out of me! I was going to do an analysis talking about the apparent discrepancy between the 'tough-guy' exterior of the ascetic and the sweet tenderness of his devotion to our Lord and the Theotokos, but I'll leave it alone. Also, I am still intending to talk about St Hilary, but briefly, and in another post. In the meantime, be sure to check out the very interesting ‘Hymn of Praise’ to St Maximus in the Prologue.

(The icon can be acquired here.)

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