Maximus the Confessor

There has been much discussion, in the latter part of the last century, of our ‘denial of death’. But it would seem to me that the problem is deeper and more difficult. If it is true that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, quite simply, if we no longer ‘see’ death, we no longer see the face of God.

John Behr, “The Christian Art of Dying” in Sobornost, 35:1-2, 2013. 137.

The last issue of Sobornost contains a compelling essay by Father John Behr on the importance of taking back the Christian art of dying. Our culture’s denial of death is something that has been widely commented on, and something that I have become more aware of in recent years. This is not only related to becoming Orthodox (or, perhaps more broadly, engaging more seriously with the Christian tradition), but it does have something to do with it. There is nothing like going to a family funeral when you really need to grieve and pray for the departed, and realising that something crucial is desperately missing. And, linked to this, I have also become aware of the contrast between how aging is viewed in the Christian tradition and how it is viewed by our contemporary western society – as well as the related and potentially huge question of cultural (and religious) shifts in how the body is viewed. So it was against this backdrop that I thought this essay well worth noting and sharing with others.

However, this article takes these generally acknowledged issues a step further, for in it Father Behr argues that the fact that contemporary western culture no longer lives with death and dying as an ever-present reality undermines our ability to see something that is at the heart of our Christian faith, for it is in death that Christ shows us what it is to be God. Indeed, “the way that he dies as a human being sums up the theological heart of the creeds and definitions of the early Councils.” (137)

Facing death is an unavoidable human reality, but it is an even more crucial task for Christians. And it is in fact, Father Behr argues, the coming of Christ that has made our facing of death so crucial. Prior to the coming of Christ, death was simply a natural reality, but with Christ’s victory over death, death itself has been revealed as “the last enemy.” (1 Cor. 15:26) For, in the light of Christ, we see that people die not simply from biological necessity, but as a result of having turned away from the Source of life. And this is not simply a once-off occurrence that happened with Adam, but is a constant temptation for us – the temptation to live our lives on our own terms and turned in on ourselves.

It is precisely in death that Christ has shown Himself to be God and in His conquering of death, He has, in the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor, “changed the use of death.”

Through his Passion, destroying death by death, Christ has enable us to use our death, the fact of our mortality, actively. Rather than being passive and frustrated victims of the givenness of our mortality, complaining that it is not fair, or doing all we can to secure ourselves, we now have a path open to us, through a voluntary death in baptism, to enter into the body and life of Christ. Whereas we were thrown into the mortal existence, without any choice on our part, we can now, freely, use our mortality, to be born into life, by dying with Christ in baptism, taking up our cross, and no longer living for ourselves, but for Christ and our neighbours. In doing this, our new existence is grounded in the free, self-sacrificial love that Christ has shown to be the life and very being of God himself, for as we have seen Christ has shown us what it means to be God in the way he dies as a human being. (141)

Christian life is about learning to die so that we may be born to new life – and it is our physical death that will reveal the extent to which we have done this, for it will reveal where our hearts truly lie.

One way or another, each and every one of us will die, we will become clay. The only real question is whether, through this life, we have learnt to become soft and pliable clay in the hands of God, breaking down our hearts of stone so that we may receive a heart of flesh, merciful and loving. Or whether, instead, we will have hardened ourselves, so that we are nothing but brittle and dried out clay that is good for nothing. (143)

Father Behr uses two examples of martyrdom – of Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Blandina – to illustrate this understanding of death as revealing the deepest reality of being born into the new life of Christ. Such accounts have nourished the Church throughout the ages; they have changed our perception of “the use of death.” However, as the essay concludes:

If it is true, as I suggested earlier, that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, if we don’t see death (as I claimed that modern society doesn’t), then we will not see the face of God either. If we don’t know that life comes through death, then our horizons will become totally imminent, our life will be for ourselves, for our body, for our pleasure (even if we think we are being ‘religious’, growing in our ‘spiritual life’). And so, I would argue, we need to regain the martyric reality of what it means to bear Christian witness. Our task today is not just to proclaim our faith in an increasingly secular world; it is, rather, to take back death, by allowing death to be ‘seen’, by honouring those dying with the full liturgy of death, and by ourselves bearing witness to a life that comes through death, a life that can no longer be touched by death, a life that comes by taking up the cross. (147)

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

The journey towards the heart, and to the transformation of our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit who renews the Image of God in us, is not something that we engage upon as isolated individuals. There is a saying that we fall alone, but that we are saved together. For Orthodox Christians, our understanding of Christian life is fundamentally ecclesial. We do not distinguish between what some call “the institutional Church” and some sort of disembodied religious experience. Rather, it is in and through the visible, historically mediated Body of Christ – with all her historical limitations and particularities – that we encounter Christ and work out our salvation. And this Church is most fully encountered in the Eucharistic celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided over by our bishop – or someone delegated by him – who is the bond of unity connecting us to the rest of the Church, both throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

It is in the Divine Liturgy that we most fully encounter both the Mystery of the Church and the nature of our salvation in Christ. For here we find the recapitulation of the entire history of salvation, enabling us to enter into it and become truly present to the saving works of Christ. But the Liturgy is about more than just history, however, for it also leads us into the future, enabling us to glimpse a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. By offering our lives together with the Holy Gifts that are offered on the altar, and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, we become true participants in His Mysteries. In the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor:

Just as wine mingles in all the members of the one who drinks it and is transformed in him and he in wine, so does the one who drinks the Blood of Christ quench his thirst with the divine Spirit who commingles with his soul and the soul with Him. For through the Eucharist, those who commune with dignity reach the ability to partake of the Holy Spirit, and in this manner souls can live continually.

For Orthodox Christians, there is a correlation between the public Liturgy of the Church and the inner Liturgy of the heart. We cannot separate the “outer” and the “inward’ and the prayer, transformation and intercession that occurs on the inner altar of the heart both mirrors and is a mirror of, the Liturgy of the Church which is offered for the whole world. To quote Father Boris Bobrinskoy once more:

personal sanctification restores the human being to the liturgical function and vocation to encompass the entire world, the totality of humankind, in a pacified and loving heart. Sanctification restores the liturgical and royal mediation of the human person in a world shot through with waves of hatred and death, obscured by the powers of darkness, a world that groans and waits for the liberation of the children of God (Rom 8:21). Inner transformation of the human heart necessarily restores the sacramental function of the Church, which is to unite all human life to the mystery of the dead and risen Christ and to become transparent to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. *

The Compassion of the Father109.

The unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything.

St Maximus the Confessor

‘The dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything.’ This is the world that the icon depicts, a world seen not only with the eyes of the body but also with the eye of the heart. This is the meaning of Paradise, a world known not as mere object but as gift, a revelation of our Maker’s ‘fire of divine love’ for us.

To know the world and our Creator in this way is our natural state, a homecoming. Every one of us therefore has a profound longing to return to this home, which is not a place but a way of living and loving. We are blessed with nostalgia for the Land of the Living which is Christ, in whom all things are united, things in heaven and things on earth.

I believe it is precisely because it depicts our spiritual homeland that the icon has been steadily capturing the imagination of the West over the past few decades. It resonates with something somehow known but forgotten. On first encounter we are perhaps perplexed, or even scandalized by the way icons are painted. The perspective is all strange and the proportions are unfamiliar.

Or so we think, for steadily we begin to recognize something in these holy images. Deep calls to deep, like a fragrance evoking a forgotten person or place. And those who have followed this fragrance will know that what first appears to be a picture ends up being a gate that opens to a garden as real as this world.

Aidan Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, xix.

… the holy Church is like a man because for the soul it has the sanctuary, for mind it has the divine altar, and for body it has the nave. It is thus the image and likeness of God.  By means of the nave, representing the body, it proposes moral wisdom, while by means of the sanctuary, representing the soul, it spiritually interprets natural contemplation, and by means of the mind of the divine altar it manifests mystical theology. Conversely, man is a mystical church, because through the nave which is his body he brightens by virtue the ascetic force of the soul by the observance of the commandments in moral wisdom. Through  the sanctuary of his soul he conveys to God in natural contemplation through reason the principles of sense purely in spirit cut off from matter. Finally, through the altar of the mind he summons the silence abounding in song in the innermost recesses of the unseen and unknown utterance of divinity by another silence, rich in speech and tone. And as far as man is capable, he dwells familiarly within mystical theology and becomes such as is fitting for one made worthy of his indwelling and he is marked with his dazzling splendor.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, The Church’s Mystagogy, 4, in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)(SPCK / Paulist, 1985), 189-190.

In a recent post Joe Koczera discussed some of the issues involved in wearing clerical dress. That – and the related subject of religious or monastic dress – is a subject that I don’t intend getting into now, except to say that it is a complex issue and that I found Joe’s treatment of it provided a balanced and nuanced approach that is often lacking from online discussions. I may as well admit that if there is one thing that irritates me about some online discussions between Orthodox and Catholics, it is when both unite in demonising Catholic religious who do not wear habits!

But this post is not about whether clergy or religious should wear a distinctive dress. Rather, what struck me was my own response to the photo on his post of a priest (okay, I suppose that it could have been a brother or Jesuit scholastic) in black with a clerical collar. And I must confess that that image triggered all sort of negative anti-clerical associations in me. I know that that is what Jesuits wear if they’re going to wear something distinctive, but my own reactions clearly came from somewhere less than entirely rational. It’s rather strange: I suspect that I would react negatively to images of Benedictines who were not in habit, whereas I tend to react negatively to an image of Jesuits in clerics. That no doubt has something to do both with my experience of Catholic monasticism and dress, but also with my (positive) experience of Jesuits whom I very rarely saw in clerics, and with the assoication of the collar not with religious life but rather with priesthood. When it comes to Orthodox priests, I would probably not respond strongly one way or another, although I suspect that I’d prefer a cassock to a Roman collar and think that I’d be rather shocked to find Orthodox monastics who are not in monastic dress. But this is all rather subjective and fed by multiple factors.

Underlying this, of course, and here I am getting to the point of this post, is a sort of residual anti-clericalism in which clerical dress carries certain connotations, at least for me but I suspect also for some others, of a clerical caste that is set apart and viewed as ontologically distinct (in current Catholic teaching) from the rest of the Church. And I suspect that many of us in the West react to this, but in so reacting we tend to get things rather confused.


All are born into the Church and through it are reborn and recreated in the Spirit. To all in equal measure it gives and bestows one divine form and designation, to be Christ’s and to carry his name. In accordance with faith it gives to all a single, simple, whole, and indivisible condition which does not allow us to bring to mind the existence of the myriads of differences among them, even if they do exist, through the universal relationship and union of all things with it. It is through it that absolutely no one at all is in himself separated from the community since everyone converges with all the rest and joins together with them by the one, simple, simple and indivisible grace and power of faith. “For all,” it is said, “had but one heart and one mind.” Thus to be and to appear as one body formed of different members is really worthy of Christ himself, our true head, in whom says the divine Apostle, “there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither foreigner nor Scythian, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is everything in all of you.” It is he who encloses in himself all beings by the unique, simple, and single cause and power that the principles of beings become disjoined at the periphery but rather he circumscribes their extension in a circle and brings back to himself the distinctive elements of beings which he himself brought into existence. The purpose of this is so that the creations and products of the one God be in no way strangers and enemies to one another by having no reason or center for which they might show each other any friendly or peaceful sentiment or identity, and not run the risk of having their being separated from God to dissolve into nonbeing.

Thus, as has been said, the holy Church of God is an image of God because it realizes the same union of the faithful with God. As different as they are by language, places, and customs, they are made one by it through faith. God realizes this union among the natures of things without confusing them but in lessening and bringing together their distinction, as was shown, in a relationship and union with himself as cause, principle, and end.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, The Church’s Mystagogy, 1, in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)(SPCK / Paulist, 1985), 187-188.

One of the advantages of working for an academic institution, albeit in a non-academic capacity (and the issues involved in that distinction are something I won’t get into here; suffice it to say that it is an interesting experience), is that I have access to its library. On Thursday I decided that I’d finally better try and find my way around the library. I won’t begin commenting on the contents of its Religious Studies / Theology section, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this volume tucked away between Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the Philosophy section. And, seeing that Saint Maximus has been on my to-be-read list for some time, I decided to take it out and at least make a start with reading him. No sooner had I done this than Aaron Taylor posted on what looks like a “must read” book by Father Nicholas Loudovikos on Saint Maximus’ eschatological ontology and in a comment recommended reading The Church’s Mystagogy. So, here we are…

Photo courtesy of Jim Forest. More photos here


As I hinted at in the previous post, if earlier readers of this blog are still around they will appreciate that the coming of Father Andrew Louth to Amsterdam is a worthy occasion to resume blogging. (And if there are readers who don’t know why I should be interested in that they can click here). The reason for this was the launching of the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology at which Father Louth is going to be a guest professor and at which he was the guest speaker yesterday. This is a new institute located in the theology faculty of the Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam which will be more formally launched in October when Metropolitan Kallistos Ware will be guest speaker. Father Louth gave a lecture on “The Nature of Eastern Orthodox Theology.” I tried to take reasonably extensive notes, but couldn’t keep up with everything. However, I hope that the following is not too inaccurate an overview of his paper.

Father Louth began by noting that many people had first discovered Orthodox theology through Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Why Lossky used the term “mystical theology” in the title is not clear, for, having done a doctorate on Eckhart, he was acquainted with what the West considers mysticism, and yet the contents of Lossky’s book simply look like traditional Christian theology. However, in the introduction to the book, Lossky explains the complementarity between mysticism and theology, a complementarity that has been lost in the West:

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology, between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church… To put it another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically…

Lossky does not begin with the experience of God, but rather with participation in the divine mysteries, which refers both to the sacraments and to the truths of faith. These are truths that we experience and celebrate in the divine mysteries and within the Church. Experience cannot be detached from dogma, nor detached from the Church; it is not something individualistic but is rooted in the experience of the Eucharistic community.

Father Louth then proceeded to explore some of the features of this Orthodox theology by offering some reflections on the Fathers of the Church, specifically Saint Athanasius, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Maximus the Confessor and Saint Gregory Palamas.


This is quite long but I’ve been wanting to transcribe it for a while and I’d done enough packing for one day today. It’s an extract from Father Louth’s lecture on “Maximus the Confessor and Modern Science” that I mentioned a while ago.

At the beginning of his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, the first volume of which has been translated into English as The Experience of God, [Father Dumitru Stăniloae] has this to say:

Some of the Fathers of the Church have said that man is a microcosm, a world which sums up in itself the larger world. Saint Maximus the Confessor remarked that the more correct way would be to consider man as a macrocosm because he is called to comprehend the whole world within himself, as one capable of comprehending it without losing himself, for he is distinct from the world. Therefore man effects a unity greater than the world exterior to himself whereas, on the contrary, the world as cosmos, as nature, cannot contain man fully within itself without losing him, that is, without losing in this way the most important reality, that part which more than all others gives reality its meaning. The idea that man is called to become ‘the world writ large’ has a more precise expression, however, in the term macroanthropos. The term conveys the fact that in the strict sense the world is called to be humanised entirely, that is, to bear the entire stamp of the human, to become panhuman, making real through that stamp a need that is implicit in the world’s own meaning, to become in its entirety a humanised cosmos in a way that the human being is not called to become nor can ever fully become, even at the farthest limit of his attachment to the world where he is completely identified with it, a cosmosised man. The destiny of the cosmos is found in man not man’s destiny in the cosmos. This is shown, not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge and not the reverse, but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way.

These words of Father Dumitru Stăniloae sum up I think, more than Maximus himself ever does, the core of Maximus’ understanding of the analogy between the universe and the human person. The idea of the human as microcosm is of course an old one and in drawing on it Maximus would not have been thought to have been saying anything exceptional. It’s perhaps worth pausing on that for a moment. The ideas that Maximus draws on, the philosophical, anthropological, cosmological and medical ideas that he draws on in his understanding of the human person and the cosmos, would not have seemed strange to his contemporaries. His use of them, however, would have seemed striking if not actually strange.

If we are going to learn from Maximus, we shall have to think through his ideas again using concepts that are contemporary to us, just as he used concepts that were contemporary to him. If we simply attempt to revive an ancient cosmology we shall probably lose Maximus in the process. And the way Father Stăniloae restates the insight of Saint Maximus sees to me to be a step in the right direction. Because of the position of the human in the cosmos, ultimately because the human is created in the image of God, the human person is a bond of the cosmos, or, looked at another way, the human person is priest of the cosmos. It is through the human that the cosmos relates to God. And it is in the human that the cosmos finds its meaning. But, conversely, if the human person fails to fulfil such a priestly, interpretative, relating role, then that failure is not just a personal, individual failing, it is a failing with cosmic consequences.

We are becoming dimly aware of this as we realise how human behaviour that fails to recognise the integrity of God’s creation, its inherent value, its inherent beauty, and treats it simply as so much material to be consumed, how such behaviour is more than simply self destructive, or destructive of human society, but threatens the ordered beauty of the cosmos itself.

Saint Maximus goes even further than that. Fallen human activity, Saint Maximus suggests, threatens the very meaning of the cosmos, insofar as that meaning is perceived by and articulated through human beings. The cosmos ceases to be an ordered beautiful structure, an idea implicit in the very world ‘cosmos’ which in Greek suggests something ordered and beautiful, and becomes obscure, dark, dangerous, at least to humans, a forest of symbols no longer clearly disclosing the divine but difficult to interpret and easily misunderstood. The perfect fit, as it were, between unfallen humanity and the cosmos becomes awkward, ill-fitting, painful and mutually harmful.

Now this is one way in which Maximus understands the coherence of the universe, a sort of co inherence between the human and the cosmos more than simply a sympathy between all the different part of the cosmos, though that is implied too, but a sympathetic togetherness that is focussed on the human person for good or ill.

Father Andrew Louth, podcast, Maximus the Confessor and Modern Science.

The holy Church includes many people, men, women and children without number. They are all quite different from one another in birth, in size, in nationality and language, in style of living and age, in trades and opinions, in clothes and customs, in knowledge and rank, in welfare and in appearance. Thanks to her, they are nonetheless all reborn, newly created in the Spirit. The Church grants to all of them without distinction the grace of belonging to Christ and of taking his name by calling themselves Christians.

Faith, moreover, puts us in a position which is extremely simple, and incapable of separation, in such a way that the differences between us seem not to exist, because everything is gathered together into the Church and reconciled in her.

No one lives alone any more, no one is separated from the others, but all are mutually joined together as brothers and sisters in the simple and indivisible power of faith.

Of the first Church, Scripture says: ‘The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul’, [Acts 4:32] in such a way that all the many members looked like a single body, truly worthy of Christ himself, our true Head. And, speaking of the action of Christ in the Church, the Apostle asserts: ‘There is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither circumcised nor uncircumcised, neither barbarian nor Scythian, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is all and in all.’ [cf. Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11] Christ with the unique power of goodness and with infinite wisdom reunites everything in himself, as the centre from which the rays go out.

Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogia, I (PG91, 664) quoted in Thomas Spidlik (ed). Drinking from the Hidden Fountain. A Patristic Breviary (London, New City, 1992) 319-320.

The incarnation of the Logos is the blessed end on account of which everything was created. This is the divine purpose, which was thought of before the beginning of creation and which we call an intended fulfilment, and yet the fulfilment itself exists because of nothing that was created. Since God had this end in full view, he produced the natures of things. This is truly the fulfilment of providence and of planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by him. This is the mystery circumscribing all ages, the awesome plan of God, superinfinite and infinitely preexisting the ages. The Messenger, who is in essence himself the Word of God, became man on account of this fulfilment. And it may be said that it was he himself who restored the manifest innermost depths of the goodness handed down by the Father; and he revealed the fulfilment in himself, by which creation has won the beginning of true existence. For on account of Christ, that is to say, the mystery concerning Christ, all time and that which is in time have found the beginning and the end of their existence in Christ. For before time there was secretly purposed a union of the ages, of the determined and the Indeterminate, of the measurable and the Immeasurable, of the finite and Infinity, of the creation and the Creator, of motion and rest – a union that was made manifest in Christ during these last times.

Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassium 60, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 1-10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (InterVarsity Press, 2006) 34.