Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor

Feast of St Euphemia the Great Martyr

AN EXTRAORDINARILY bold statement: “Von Balthasar developed his view of the importance of the Confessor within the horizon of patristic thought but also in the broadest possible context of the history of thought. He considers this possible, because he begins with the assumption that there is, in the final analysis, one single question for human thought at every time and in every place: whether, and under what conditions, the world can be affirmed in all its finitude... the value that von Balthasar attaches to the work of a thinker is ultimately determined by his answer to this question” (Werner Loser as quoted in the Introduction; author’s italics). Offered here is a discrete interpretive key to the massive corpus of von Balthasar, and indeed to this massive and nuanced particular piece of that corpus. Among great thinkers of the Patristic period, von Balthasar “attaches most value” to those in the Greek and Platonic tradition, specifically St. Irenaeus, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in this book (the last of his books devoted to particular patristic figures) St. Maximus Confessor (580-662). Broadly organized into sections summarizing Maximus’ treatment of God, ideas, the cosmos, humanity and sin, Christ, and the spiritual life, von Balthasar sees Maximus’ supreme and original theme as the Liturgy as symbol of “the cosmic mystery,” in which the whole cosmos is drawn into that hypostatic union already achieved in Jesus Christ. Thus, we see how (to return to Loser’s remark) “the world can be affirmed in all its finitude.” The undeniable brilliance and historical importance of von Balthasar’s study in highlighting Maximus’ significance for all later twentieth-century patristic thought should not blind us to a few caveats (noted by Daley in his helpful Introduction), principal among them von Balthasar’s reading of Maximus in the context of the tensions between German idealism and Catholic scholasticism; and we might add, his several rather hackneyed appraisals of Byzantium’s ‘caesaropapism’ and his easy dismissal of hesychasm, which we will charitably ascribe to relative ignorance. But who are we, molehills at the foot of the mountain of von Balthasar? Take and read, judge for yourself, and above all be instructed.

424 pp. paper $24.95

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