by St. Maximos the Confessor
Those permitted by God to test us either
- inflame the desiring aspect of the soul, or
- stir up its incensive power, or
- darken its intelligence, or
- envelop its body in pain, or
- deprive us of bodily necessities.
by St. Maximos the Confessor
Those permitted by God to test us either
by St. Maximus the Confessor
Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.
by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
Popular morality in current American culture is heavily in debt to both the Nominalism of the Late Middle Ages and the Voluntarism of the Enlightenment. Since I regard this debt as deplorable, it might be good to begin with a brief explanation of these terms.
According to the Nominalism of the Late Middle Ages, our concepts are the creations of our thought. Following this theory, we take information derived from our senses, and we use this data to give coherent form to those abstractions known as “ideas.” That is to say, “truth” is a creation of our thinking processes. We share the common “names” (nomina) of things, but not the very truth to which the names refer.
This theory of knowledge forms the basis of Enlightenment Voluntarism. According to this moral school, the human will (voluntas) creates moral norms, rather much as the human intellect creates abstract concepts. Moral reasoning serves a commitment of the will, and moral norms are validated by moral choices. The moral law is based on a moral decision.
Apart from this decision there is no moral law, just as there is no “truth” transcendent to human conceptions of it. The only “moral principle” is an act of decision. All ethics are chosen ethics. There are no abiding moral norms that are really—in re— “out there.” There is nothing “existent” that can dictate precepts to the conscience.
The thought of Kierkegaard comes to mind here. Although faith and morality are different things for Kierkegaard, both rest on personal choice, and neither is based on a rational perception.
Ethical theories of this sort are attractive to certain kinds of Christians. I am thinking of those believers for whom-in moral terms-the guiding principle is simply, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” My “following,” that is to say, depends utterly on my “deciding.” If I have made no decision with respect to Jesus, then there is no imperative for me to follow him. I am free as a bird.
Is there really—in rebus—no universal moral law, however? Are Christians so different from other people that they share no moral principles or moral perceptions?
According to certain recent Orthodox commentators, one might think so. Let me cite a single example of a moral concern about which some Orthodox voices are making major contributions to the confusion: the nature of marriage.
Our dogmatic agreement is clear enough: According to Orthodox sacramental theology, marriage is a sacrament that unites a man and a woman in a holy union which forms an icon of Christ’s union with the Church. No Orthodox Christian—certainly not myself—would question this. My trouble is not the sacramental theology of the Orthodox Church.
I have a great deal of trouble, nonetheless, with those Orthodox Christians who pretend that marriage outside the Church can be whatever society or the State wants it to be. Thus, they recognize no problem in the recent disposition to alter the structure and nature of marriage. (Theories like this seem designed to make the Orthodox Church completely irrelevant to a larger moral discourse; we are limited to talking theology among ourselves, while the world around us starves for moral guidance. We chosen ones have decided to follow Jesus, and everybody else can go to hell.)
I wonder how much this intellectual vacuity and social surrender have to do with the distressing disregard for Natural Law current among Orthodox Christians (I would feel less distress if I thought they were devoted to a more intense study of Kierkegaard.).
Here is my simple thesis: man’s capacity for moral perception is native to his created being. Whether or not his perception is enlightened by the Gospel and elevated by divine grace is irrelevant to its origin; there are laws to which all men are bound by reason of the created order.
Moreover, the created structure of marriage—to stick with the same example—is presupposed in the sacramental understanding of marriage.
I invite Orthodox Christians to look more closely at the teaching of St. Maximus the Confessor with respect to the Natural Law in the moral life, because the perception of this law this is what we share with others, and about which we can discourse with others. There is moral inequality among us, wrote Maximus,
“because we do not all put into practice (energein) what is natural. If we all equally did what is natural according to our human origin, there would be evident among us, not only one human nature, but one human nature admitting no degrees of “more’ or ‘less'” (Disputation with Pyrrhus 93; cf. Gnostic Chapters 58).
by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
Since the understanding of anything—according to Aristotle—consists in the discernment of its cause, man’s freedom cannot be understood, for the simple reason that a free choice is its own cause. It is impossible, therefore, to trace the effect to the cause. Like a tautological proposition, freedom’s predicate is contained in its subject.
Freedom, therefore, is the most mysterious of everything human, and trying to understand it is the least satisfactory and most frustrating of all endeavors of the mind. Alas, an enormous amount of mental energy has been wasted in the attempt, especially in the grace/works controversies raised at the time of the Reformation.
The synergistic theology (the “cooperation” of the divine and human wills) taught by St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662)—the theology canonized at the Sixth Ecumenical Council and completely embraced in the Orthodox Church—recognizes the logical impasse inherent in the concept of freedom. Orthodox Christians prudently spare themselves the frustration of trying to figure it out.
Part of the mysterious quality of the events of salvation derives from the intersection of divine and human freedom implied in the historicity of those events. By this comment I mean to suggest two inquiries:
First, if the freedom of man is inherently mysterious (indeed, aporetic), what shall we say of the freedom of God?
Second, going one step further, who can say what happens when divine and human freedom confront one another in an individual moment of time? In other words, since we predicate freedom in God by way of analogy with human freedom—and human freedom itself is beyond understanding—how can we even begin to grasp how divine and human freedom are related to one another in the great drama of Salvation History?
The biblical writers themselves do not even try. They simply tell the stories of Rebecca and Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24), Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-45), Ruth and Boaz, Jonathan and his armor-bearer (1 Samuel 14), Esther and Mordecai, Paul and his nephew (Acts 23), and so forth—without attempting to examine the “mechanics” or “meshing” of divine and human freedom. The biblical authors seem simply to accept that the synergism of Salvation History—the workings and interplay of God’s will and man’s—lies outside of human reckoning.
As though these considerations were no sufficiently puzzling, a third dilemma intrudes itself: God’s providential use of man’s evil will (sin, infidelity, apostasy) in the fulfilling of His own salvific purposes. That is to say, the theology of synergism must find some place for God’s ability to bring good out of evil, to employ “vessels of destruction,” as well as “vessels of election,” in the course of Salvation History.
Romans 9-11 is a meditation on that theme, founded on the thesis enunciated earlier in 8:28; to wit,
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
In Romans 9-11 Paul attempts to show that Israel’s failure to recognize the Messiah (a major theological problem in the New Testament) conforms to a pattern found elsewhere in the Scriptures: God, in His provision for Jacob/Israel, employed the resistance of certain opponents (Esau and Pharaoh) to make good on His promise and election.
The explicit context of Paul’s discussion is the puzzling fact that Israel failed to recognize it Messiah. This question, and this alone, is the task to which Paul directs his thought.
Paul reasons: man’s opposition to God’s will, exemplified in Esau and Pharaoh, was subsumed into His providential activity, so that a greater good ensued. How God accomplishes this no one can grasp. It pertains to the mysterious quality of Salvation History.
Much of Western theology has sought to evade this mystery by substituting another. It has removed Romans 9-11 from the dynamics of Salvation History and translated it to the realm of an eternal decree, according to which God predestines some people to heaven and some people to hell.
I suppose one can make an argument that both Esau and Pharaoh found their way to hell. However that may be, it has nothing to do with Romans 9-11.
by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
Pleasure and Pain According to St. Maximus the Confessor
In his Centuries on Theology St. Maximus the Confessor refers to the nexus of the dualism of pleasure and pain, which, by any standard, is an important subject. This means that we cannot discuss Orthodox Theology if we fail to face this crucial point, because the transcendence of pleasure and pain is, precisely, a prerequisite for correct Orthodox Theology. As St. Maximus the Confessor says, the transcendence of pleasure and pain proves that man has cleansed his heart from the passions.
As we pointed out above, the whole of modern life is governed by pleasure and pain, since, in our age, enjoyment and the gratification of the senses dominate, while at the same time deep grief, an inner pain, prevails. In reality, modern man tries to escape pain through the satisfaction of sensual pleasure. All contemporary problems, such as AIDS and drugs, are to be found in this connection. This is why I believe it is extremely important to see this link between pleasure and pain, as elaborated by St. Maximus the Confessor.
a) The origin of pleasure and pain
The world was created by God in Trinity. The most perfect creature is man, for he is the apex of creation, the microcosm in the macrocosm. Analyzing the issue of the creation of man and its relation to the birth and the origin of pleasure and pain, St. Maximus says that God the Word who created man’s nature, made it without pleasure and pain.
“He did not make the senses susceptible to either pleasure or pain.”
He insists on this point by saying:
“Pleasure and pain were not created simultaneously with the flesh.”
While there was no pleasure and pain in man before the fall, there was a noetic faculty towards pleasure, through which man could enjoy God ineffably. But he misused this natural faculty. Man oriented the
“the natural longing of the nous for God”
to sensible things and thus “by the initial movement towards sensible things, the first man transferred this longing to his senses, and through them began to experience this pleasure in a way contrary to nature”. The words “according to nature” and “contrary to nature” show the complete ontological change that took place in man and depict his fallen state clearly.
Of course, man did not invent this mode of operation of the faculties of the soul on his own, but with the advice of the devil. The devil was motivated by jealously against man, for whom God had shown special care and attention. It is interesting that the devil envied not only man but God Himself:
“Since the devil is jealous of both us and god, he persuaded man by guile that God was jealous of him, and so made him break the commandment”.
After the unnatural movement of the noetic capacity of the soul to sensible things and the birth of pleasure, God, being interested in man’s salvation
“implanted pain, as a kind of chastising force”.
Pain, which God, in His love for man, tied to sensual pleasure, is the whole complex of the mortal and passible body, that is the law of death, which has, ever since then, been very closely connected to human nature. In this way, the “manic longing of the nous” which incites the unnatural inclination of the soul to sensible things, is restrained.
This whole analysis by St. Maximus the Confessor in no way reminds us of Platonic teaching about the movement of the immortal soul from the unborn realm of the ideas, and its confinement to a mortal body which is the prison of the soul.
This is simply because St. Maximus the Confessor, being an integral member of the entire Orthodox tradition, makes no distinction between a naturally immortal soul and a naturally mortal body, he does not believe in an immortal and unborn realm of ideas, and, obviously, does not adopt a dualistic view of man, according to which salvation consists in his liberation from the prison of the soul, which is the body. In St. Maximus’ teaching there is a clear reference to the unnatural movement of the faculties of the soul and to the
“manic longing of the nous”,
which draws the body into situations and acts which are against nature.
It is clear, then, that ancestral sin consists of the
“initial movement of the soul”
toward sensible things and in the “law of death” granted by God’s love for man. Therefore, pleasure and pain constitute so-called original sin. Pleasure is the soul’s initial movement toward sensible things, while pain is the whole law of death which took roots in man’s existence and constitutes the law of the mortal flesh.
St. Maximus makes some marvellous observations. He states that the transgression (of the commandment) devised pleasure
“in order to corrupt the will”, i.e. man’s freedom, and also imposed pain (death) “to cause the dissolution of man’s nature”.
This means that pleasure causes sin, which is a voluntary death of the soul, while pain, through the separation of soul and body, causes the disintegration of the flesh. This was, actually, the work and objective of the devil, but God allowed the link between pleasure and pain. That is, He allowed death to come into man’s existence on grounds of love and philanthropy, for pain is the refutation of pleasure. Thus,
“God has providentially given man pain he has not chosen, together with death that follows from it, in order to chasten him for the pleasure he has chosen.”
On several occasions, St. Maximus refers to “voluntary pleasure” and “irrational pleasure”, as well as to “involuntary” and “sensible” pain. Pain balances the results of pleasure, that is, it subtracts pain, but does not completely revoke it.
Therefore, pleasure precedes pain, since all pain is caused by pleasure, and this is why it is called natural pain. For Adam and Eve, pleasure was without cause, that is, it was not preceded by pain, while pain, which is a natural consequence of pleasure, is an obligation, a debt, paid by all men who have the same human nature. This is what happened to Adam and Eve. For their descendants, things are a little different; the experience of pain leads them to the enjoyment of pleasure.
After the Fall and the entry of the law of sin and death into his existence, man is in a tragic state, because, even though pain reverses pleasure and annuls its active movement, man cannot reverse and eliminate the law of death which is found within his being, and this law brings a new experience of pleasure.
“Philosophy towards virtue”,
namely man’s whole ascetic struggle brings dispassion not in his will but in his nature, because asceticism cannot defeat death, which is found as a powerful law within man’s being. Herein lies the tragedy of man, who may cure pleasure and obtain inner balance through voluntary pain (asceticism) and involuntary events (external grief, death) but is unable to liberate himself from pain, which is determined by the law of death.
b) The purpose of Christ’s incarnation
So far we have described how the link between pleasure and pain was established after the Fall. Pleasure was a result of the irrational movement of the faculty of the soul , with its natural consequence the coming of pain, along with the entire law of death. This combination of pleasure and pain became a law of human nature. Obviously, while living a life contrary to nature, man could not be delivered from this state which had become natural. Christ’s incarnation contributed to man’s liberation from this connection between pleasure and pain. St. Maximus the Confessor also makes some marvellous observations on this point too.
It was absolutely impossible for human nature which had fallen to voluntary pleasure and involuntary pain to return to the former state
“had the Creator not become man”.
The mystery of incarnation lies in the fact that Christ was born human, but the beginning and cause of His birth was not sensual pleasure, for He was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, outside the human way of generation, and He embraced pain and death by His own free choice. For man, pain came as a result of sin, it was involuntary. While for Christ, who was born without sensual pleasure, pain was received by choice.
All humans born after the transgression, are born with sensual pleasure, which precedes their birth, because man is an offspring of his parents’ pleasure and, of course, no one is free, by nature, from impassioned generation provoked by pleasure. Thus man had the origin of his birth
“in the corruption that comes from pleasure”
and would finish his life
“in the corruption that comes through death”.
Therefore, he was a complete slave to pleasure and pain “and he could not find the way to freedom”. Humans are tortured by unjust pleasure and just pain and, of course, by their outcome which is death.
For man to return to his previous state and to be deified, an unjust pain and death without cause had to be invented. Death had to be without cause, not to be caused by pleasure, and unjust, not following an impassioned life. In this way, most unjust death would cure unjust pleasure which had caused just death and just pain. In this way mankind would enjoy freedom again, delivered from pleasure and pain. Christ became perfect man, having a noetic soul and a passible body, like ours, but without sin.
He was born as a man by an immaculate conception and, thus, did not have any sensual pleasure whatsoever, but voluntarily accepted pain and death and suffered unjustly, out of love for man, in order to revoke the principle of human generation from unjust pleasure, which dominates human nature, and in order to eliminate nature’s just termination by death. Thus, Christ’s immaculate conception as man and His voluntary assumption of the passibility of human nature, as well as His unjust death, liberated mankind from sensual pleasure, pain and death.
Christ’s birth as man took place in a way contrary to that of humans. After the Fall, human nature has its principle of generation in
“pleasure-provoked conception by sperm”
from the father. A direct consequence of this sensual birth is the end, namely
“painful death through corruption.”
But Christ could not possibly be ruled over by death, because He was not born in this pleasure-provoked way. With His incarnation, Christ offered a different principle of generation to man, the pleasure of the life to come, by means of pain. Adam, with his transgression, introduced a different way of generation, a generation originating in sensual pleasure and ending in pain, grief and death. Thus, everyone who descends from Adam according to the flesh, justly and painfully suffers the end from death. Christ offered a different way of generation, because, through His seedless generation (birth) and His voluntary and unjust death, He eliminated the principle of generation according to Adam (sensual pleasure) and the end which Adam came to (pain-death). In this way “he liberated from all those reborn spiritually in him”.
The way by which Christ became incarnate and cured human nature reveals indisputably that He is wise, just and powerful. He is wise because He became a true man according to nature without being subjected to any change. He is just, because He voluntarily assumed passible human flesh, out of great condescension and love for man. This is also why He did not make man’s salvation tortuous. He is also powerful, because He created eternal life and unchangeable dispassion in nature, through suffering and death, and in this way He did not show Himself to be at all incapable of achieving the cure of human nature.
by St. Maximus the Confessor
If you bear a grudge against anyone, pray for him and you will stop the passion in its tracks. By prayer you separate the hurt from the memory of the evil which he did you and in becoming loving and kind you completely obliterate passion from the soul. On the other hand, if someone else bears you a grudge, be generous… and humble with him, treat him fairly, and you will deliver him from the passion.
by St. Maximus the Confessor
Our venerable and God-bearing Father Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662) was an Orthodox Christian monk and ascetical writer known especially for his courageous fight against the heresy of Monothelitism. His feast days in the Church are celebrated on January 21 and, for the translation of his relics, on August 13.
“If you bear a grudge against anyone, pray for him and you will stop the passion in its tracks.
By prayer you separate the hurt from the memory of the evil which he did you and in becoming loving and kind you completely obliterate passion from the soul.
On the other hand, if someone else bears you a grudge, be generous and humble with him, treat him fairly, and you will deliver him from the passion.”
St. Maximus the Confessor was a monk and teacher, well versed in rhetoric and the classical arts. He wrote against false teachings about Christ when few would do so.
His enemies had little defense against his logic, and so rather than answer his arguments, they cut off his right hand and tore out his tongue, so that he would be able to neither preach nor write about the Truth.
Now that’s great preaching.