03 February 2009

'The Mystical Silence of Inspired Experience'—St Maximus the Confessor

St Anastasius the Apocrisiarios—who is commemorated today along with his elder—begins his Life of St Maximus the Confessor with the proclamation, ‘Great not only in name (for in the Latin tongue, the word maximus means ‘greatest’), but also in his life, St Maximus was born in the great, reigning city of Constantinople’ (The Life of our Holy Father Maximus the Confessor, trans. Fr Dcn Christopher Birchall [Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1982], p. 1). It is an assessment that modern patristics scholars and even some theologians have come to share in the last few decades. Fr Andrew Louth calls him a ‘theologian of genius’ (Maximus the Confessor [London: Routledge, 1999], p. 21), and George Berthold writes in the ‘Foreword’ to his translation of a few of St Maximus’s works (Selected Writings, by St Maximus the Confessor, trans. George C. Berthold [Mahwah, NJ: 1985], p. xv):

The increasing recognition of the importance of Maximus the Confessor in the history of Christian thought has far outstripped the availability of his writings in English translation. It is astonishing that despite the lofty prestige of this great theologian over thirteen centuries no English version of any complete work of his was available until 1955, when Dom Polycarp Sherwood published his translation of The Ascetic Life and The Four Centuries on Charity.

Jaroslav Pelikan calls St Maximus the ‘dominant figure in the development of Christian doctrine in the East during the seventh century’ and quotes H.G. Beck’s assessment of him as ‘the most universal spirit of the 7th century and perhaps the last independent thinker among the theologians of the Byzantine church’, although he astutely observes that ‘the very title of confessor implied anything but being independent, original, or productive’ (The Spirit of Eastern Christendom [600-1700], Vol. 2 in The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1977], p. 8).

St Maximus ‘made a thorough study of philosophy and theology, he was renowned for his wisdom, and was respected even in the royal palace’ (St Anastasius, p. 1). Fr Georges Florovsky (in The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Century, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 9 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 208) notes that he ‘received the ἐγκύκλιος παίδευσις’, quoting Sherwood that this entails about 14 or 15 years of training in—

grammar, classical literature, rhetoric and philosophy (including arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy, logic, ethics, dogmatics and metaphysics), and also that it must have included his first contact with Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists (through the commentaries of Proclus and Iamblichus).

St Maximus was an imperial courtier, an example among monks, a fighter of heresy, a brilliant theologian of both dogma and the spiritual life, and a sufferer for the Faith, having his ‘divinely-speaking’ tongue cut out and his right hand cut off (St Anastasius, p. 46). There is an excellent overview of St Maximus’s life at Orrologion. For this reason, rather than rehashing everything, I will close with a typically profound passage from the Saint’s own words, forged, as Fr Florovsky has written, ‘in silent meditation, in the mystical silence of inspired experience’ (p. 215). I choose from among these a passage that I consider an excellent illustration of Fr Nicholas Loudovikos’s characterisation of St Maximus as ‘the greatest ecclesiologist among Church Fathers’ (Η Αποφατική Εκκλησιολογία του Ομοουσίου: Η αρχέγονη Εκκλησία σήμερα [Athens: Armos, 2002], p. 359):

For by plucking out self-love, which is, as they say, the beginning and mother of all evils, everything that comes from it and after it is plucked out as well. Once this is no more, absolutely no form or trace of evil can any longer subsist. All the forms of virtue are introduced, fulfilling the power of love, which gather together what has been separated, once again fashioning the human being in accordance with a single meaning and mode. It levels off and makes equal any inequality or difference inclination in anything, or rather binds it to that praiseworthy inequality, by which each is so drawn to his neighbour in preference to himself and so honours him before himself, that he is eager to spurn any obstacle in his desire to excel. And for this reason each one willingly frees himself from himself, by separating himself from any thoughts or properties to which he is privately inclined, and is gathered to the one singleness and sameness, in accordance with which nothing is in anyway separated from what is common to all, so that each is in each, and all in all, or rather in God and in others, and they are radiantly established as one, having the one logos of being in themselves, utterly single in nature and inclination. And in this God is understood: in him they are all beheld together and they are bound together and raised to him, as the source and maker. The logos of being of all beings by nature preserves itself pure and inviolate for our attention, who, with conscious zeal through the virtues and the toils that accompany them, have been purified from the passions that rebel against it. (Fr Louth, pp. 88-9)

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