St Maximus the Confessor: Are You Devoted to Contemplation

Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, the Holy Apostles

Maximus_Square_2.jpgLET US, THEN, consider closely the words of the oration On Love for the Poor by the blessed man Gregory the Theologian just as they are, so that their entire mystery might be revealed to us.

“I show my body consideration as a coworker, but have no means of fleeing its rebellion, or of not falling away from God, being weighed down by its bonds dragging me down or binding me to the earth.” In the first place, he did not address these words merely to himself, but through himself he holds a dialogue with humanity as a whole, knowing that whoever longs for salvation devotes himself to a life of either practice or contemplation—for without virtue and knowledge no one has ever been able to attain salvation. If, then, he says, through contemplation I find myself among those who are close to God, and who delight in His blessed beauty, experiencing peace in all things and holiness having simplified myself for God by the undivided identification of my will with His, it is because I have fittingly brought the irrational powers of the soul—I mean anger and desire—under the control of reason, and through reason have led them into intimate association with the intellect, so that anger is transformed into love and desire into joy. Now the chief characteristic of joy is a leaping and rejoicing in God, which we see quite clearly in John the Baptist, the great forerunner and herald of the truth, who leaped in the womb; we see it also in David, the king of Israel, who leaped for joy when the ark came to its rest. For it is true—though it may be a jarring and unusual thing to say—that both man and the Word of God, the Creator and Master of the universe, exist in a kind of womb, owing to the present condition of our life. In this sense-perceptible world, just as if He were enclosed in a womb, the Word of God appears only obscurely, and only to those who have the spirit of John the Baptist. Human beings, on the other hand, gazing through the womb of the material world, catch but a glimpse of the Word who is concealed within beings (and this, again, only if they are endowed with John’s spiritual gifts). For when compared to the ineffable glory and splendor of the age to come, and to the kind of life that awaits us there, this present life differs in no way from a womb swathed in darkness, in which, for the sake of us who were infantile in mind, the infinitely perfect Word of God, who loves mankind, became an infant.

If, then, as he says, I have attained the heights of contemplation; if I have risen to the very perfection of God (to the extent that this is possible in this present life), and then grow lax regarding the “deiform habit of mind, and of my own accord stoop to pander to the body, then I am “weighed down by bonds, dragging me down.” These bonds are the cares of life, and it is under their weight that I “fall away from God,” since my concern for and seeking for nothing but the kingdom of heaven has been diverted to something that is not permitted, by which I mean an earthly life, and I have chosen to wander among the senses rather than direct my mind to God.

If, however, I am someone who is still battling the passions with the weapons of practical ascetical struggle, and if, being still vulnerable to ambush by my enemies who seek to ensnare me in the passions, I should indulge in unreserved love for my body, it is obvious that I have been “bound” by the body, insofar as I have preferred my affection for the body over separation from it through virtue. From this we see that the person devoted to contemplation, even though his stable habit of mind has separated him from the body, is “dragged down” when he grows lax concerning the vision of God. The man of practical ascetic struggle, on the other hand, who is still battling with the body, is “bound to the earth” when he gives up the fight and sets aside the labors necessary for virtue—which latter constitutes the freedom of the soul—preferring instead to become a slave of the passions.

—St Maximus the Confessor, Book of Difficulties 6

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