The Cosmology of Maximus the Confessor  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Maximus the Confessor (ca 580-662) is perhaps the leading Patristic-era theologian of the Eastern Church.  His works are prolific and cover a very wide range of topics.  He is the most anthologized author in the Philokalia, the multi-volume collection of spiritual writings collected by two Athonite monks and first published in 1782.  An invaluable reference work dealing with the Philokalia is the collection of essays called The Philokalia:  a classic text of Orthodox spirituality, Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds, Oxford, 2012.  Bingaman's essay "Becoming a spiritual world of God:  the theological anthropology of Maximus the Confessor" (chapter 9) is an excellent overview of Maximus' theology, dealing with a number of topics.  In this post we will look at his approach to cosmology.

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...one text in particular, his Fourth Century on Love, provides a helpful summary of his cosmology...In the first section of this century, there are eight discernible elements of cosmology.  The first is creatio ex nihilo.  In line with orthodox Christian tradition, Maximus asserts that God created the world out of nothing...This view expresses the superiority of God over all creation, as well as the idea that God does not need any pre-existent material in order to create.  It safeguards the distance and distinction between God and creation.

A second cosmological element concerns creation because of God's will...The world was created according to God's sovereign will, not because of obligation or any other external factor.  Linked with the idea of creation by God's sovereign will is Maximus' theology of the logoi...For Maximus, the logoi are the divine ideas for all things that have received their being from God.  Not only are these principles of differentiated creation preexistent in God, as God's thoughts, but they are divine wills or intentions...

The third element...is creation because of God's benevolence..Maximus explains that God's creative activity is rooted in divine goodness...Maximus asserts that the reunification of all things through communion with the Logos is an original divine intention, something interrupted by humanity's fall into sin.

A fourth element in Maximus' cosmology is creation by the Word...God creates through God's coessential Logos and Spirit.  The creation of all things is a trinitarian work...God's purpose [was] to create a world of differentiated creatures, independent creatures that find their unity in relationship to the Logos.  The logoi, those divine ideas or intentions in the mind of God, are dynamic realities that radiate from God, the Creator and Cause of all...through centempation in the Spirit, believers are enabled to see the Logos in the logoi of creation...Therefore, those who are in communion with Christ are enabled to see the logoi, the world of differentiated creatures, in light of their integral connection to the Logos...

...a fifth aspect of Maximus' cosmology can be seen:  creation on the basis of God's prudence...God's prudence or practical wisdom transcends the human intellect and is beyond human comprehension...

A sixth element...concerns creation as an act of God's condescension...Creation is good because God is its Cause...God enters into a deep relationship with creation by simply giving it existence...God the Logos actually indwells all of creation..

...The next element [is] the notion that every creature is a composite of substance and accident...God is pure being or substance, while creatures are given qualified being with the possibility for participation in something more than general being...Creaturely existence...is the gift of participation in God's own being, goodness, wisdom, and life...Human beings are able to transcend nature without violating it, and to realize their created purpose, which is union with God or deification...This union is made possible for humanity through the coming of Christ, through the hypostatic union of his human and divine natures.

The eighth and final point of Maximus' cosmology...is that creation is in need of divine Providence

Trinity and Liturgy  

Posted by Joe Rawls

When confronted with the doctrine of the Trinity, we are probably better off contemplating how a triune God interacts with us during worship rather than trying to imagine how the three persons interact with each other, a task which many learned theologians assure us is is impossible.  A good example of this can be found in an essay by Marquette University theologian Susan K Wood, "The Trinity in the liturgy, sacraments, and mysticism", found in The Cambridge Guide to the Trinity, Peter C Phan, ed, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp 383-384.

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The movement of God's saving action and our response are related to two essential liturgical elements, anamnesis and epiclesis.  Anamnesis, translated as "memorial", commemoration", or "remembrance", actually has the much stronger meaning of making present an event or person from the past.  Anamnesis asks God to remember his saving work in Jesus Christ in order that the benefits of Christ's sacrifice may be made present to the faithful here and now.  These deeds are actually made present in the liturgy in the anamnesis, not as a repetition of his saving deeds or as a mere recollection of them, but as an actualization of them within the modality of sacramental sign.  The anamnesis is accomplished through the work of the Spirit, who "awakens the memory of the Church then inspires thanksgiving and praise."

The epiclesis is a calling on the Spirit to transform the material of creation and make it salvific in its sacramental use.  Sacraments are effective because they are Christ's action, made present through the power of the Spirit.  Although we may think of the epiclesis primarily in terms of the Eucharist, most of the sacraments, as we shall see, have an epicletic moment.  The Holy Spirit brings us into communion with Christ, effects our spiritual transformation into the image of Christ, both individually and corporately, and constitutes Christ's ecclesial body, the corpus mysticum.  Thus the Spirit is the bond of unity in the church and the source of empowerment for service and mission.

The Father as the source and end of all blessings of creation and salvation is the source and goal of the liturgy, which reveals and communicates the divine blessing.  We receive these blessings through the incarnate Word of the Father, who, in turn, pours out the gift of the Spirit.  The liturgy offers adoration, praise, and thanksgiving to the Father by offering to the Father his own gifts, especially the gift of his Son.  The Spirit "recalls and makes Christ manifest to the faith of the assembly",  "makes Christ present here and now", and "unites the Church to the life and mission of Christ."

The end or purpose of all the sacraments is reconciliation with the Father and the Father's glorification (Eph 1:12; 2 Cor 3:18; Jn 17).  The Latin word for sacrament, sacramentum, is a translation of of the Greek word mysterion, which refers to God's plan for salvation (Col 1: 26-27).  This plan is the Father's plan "to reconcile to himself all things through Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, who made peace through the blood of his cross" (Col 1: 19-20).  The paschal mystery is the keystone of the Christian mystery.  All the liturgical feasts and sacraments are referenced to the event of Christ's dying and rising and to this great pattern of reconciliation with the Father through Christ in the power of the Spirit.  Thus the liturgical year is not simply a memesis or imitation of Christ's life.  Christmas is primarily about God's Word becoming flesh and dwelling among human beings in order to bring salvation.  Sacraments are not just seven anthropological markers of lifetime passages such as birth, puberty, sickness, and marriage, but relate to the two fundamental sacraments, baptism and Eucharist, in their functions of reconciliation and building up the church as a messianic saving community.  Sacraments give access to participation in this plan of salvation, anamnesis (memorial) and epiclesis being essential to each of them.

Theosis and the Holy Spirit  

Posted by Joe Rawls

A bit in advance of Pentecost, we have some words on the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of deification by Greek Orthodox priest and theologian Christoforos Stavropoulos.  It first appeared in Partakers of Divine Nature (Light and Life 1976); I found it in the excellent compendium Eastern Orthodox Theology:  A Contemporary Reader, 2nd edition, Daniel B Clendenin, ed,  Baker Academic 2003, where it appears on pp 188-189.

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The Holy Spirit is the great resident of the church.  It is there that the Holy Spirit exercises all of his sanctifying and deifying power.  The work of our theosis, which our Lord Jesus Christ accomplished objectively, is completed by the Holy Spirit, adapting it to the life of every faithful Christian.  The Holy Spirit is the main and essential beginning of sanctification.  The Fathers of the church specifically teach that the theosis of human beings is attributable to the Holy Spirit.  The essential place of the Incarnate Word of God is matched by that of the Holy Spirit.  The divine Spirit that proceeds from the Father divinizes us.  The Spirit is "divine and divinizing".  The Holy Spirit is a divine bond which harmonizes and draws the mystical body of Christ, that is, the church, together with its Lord.  It is the Holy Spirit who makes the faithful into other Christs, and thus creates the church.  Our incorporation in the mystical body of Christ and our theosis are not exclusively the work of the incarnation of Christ.  They are also the work of the creative Holy Spirit, who creates the church with his spiritual gifts.

Through the Holy Spirit the faithful become sharers of divine nature.  They are formed in the new life.  They put off corruption.  They return to the original beauty of their nature.  They become participants of God and children of God.  They take on the shape of God.  They reflect the light of Christ and inherit incorruptibility.  Thus, the contribution of the Holy Spirit is always a finalizing action.  God the Father, before all ages, conceives of the work of salvation and theosis.  He realizes it in time, in the Son.  The Holy Spirit completes and perfects and adapts this work to people.  In the sphere of the church, the Holy Spirit mystically sanctifies and unites the faithful with Christ, thus creating and giving life to the mystical body of the Lord.  Here, in this  mystical body, the Holy Spirit's sanctifying energy shines forth.  These divine energies and the variety of graces of the Holy Spirit and the gifts which he mystically transmits to the soul of the believer, all shape and form the new Godlike human nature.  The Holy Spirit consequently has a power which re-creates, renews, and causes a rebirth.  Basil writes, "From the Holy Spirit there are the foreknowledge of the future, the comprehension of mysteries, the understanding of hidden things, the distribution of graces, the heavenly way of life, association with angels, unending happiness, residence in God, the likeness of God, and the highest of all things to be desired, to become God."  This re-creative power of the Holy Spirit is what is known as divine grace.  It comes and meets people.  It does not force.  It strengthens them in a spiritual way to walk the road leading to theosis.  However, it is absolutely necessary that people receive divine grace willingly and without coercion.  It is absolutely necessary for individuals to freely cooperate with divine grace in order to be able to travel the blessed road of union with God.

Alan Watts, Anglo-Catholic Roshi  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Many people with only a casual acquaintance with Alan Watts (1915-1973) are probably unaware that he was an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church earlier in his life.  As a boy he was a somewhat nominal member of the Church of England, but for a time he attended Canterbury School (adjacent to the Cathedral) at a time when the Cathedral dean was a strong Anglo-Catholic.  The young Watts was an acolyte under the dean and was exposed at an impressionable age to the glories of bells and smells.  After his first marriage, he and his wife moved to the United States where he came back--for a time--to the active practice of Christianity after an intense involvement with Buddhism.  They attended St Mary the Virgin (aka "Smokey Mary's") in New York City which further strengthened his love of high-church ritual.  Watts decided to become a priest and was accepted as a postulant for Holy Orders by the Bishop of Chicago, despite his lack of a university degree.  He was able to enroll in Seabury-Western Seminary and was ordained in 1945.  Following this, he was assigned to serve as Episcopal chaplain at Northwestern University.  For a time his ministry flourished; liturgies in the chapel featured lots of incense and Gregorian chant performed by Northwestern music students.  He became a popular lecturer and attracted many in the university community.

This all came crashing down in 1950 when his marriage failed.  He and his wife were unfaithful to each other, in both cases with Northwestern students.  His wife informed the bishop of the situation, and that was the end of Fr Watts. (the sordid details are recounted by Monica Furlong in her biography Zen Effects [1986, Houghton Mifflin]).  But before Watts self-destructed as a priest, he was able to publish Behold the Spirit:  A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (Vintage 1971; orig 1947).  This amazing book was a reworking of his seminary master's thesis, and must be considered a minor masterpiece of Christian spirituality, all the more so considering the author's dedication to Zen and other Eastern traditions.  The book reveals a thorough knowledge of the Western Christian spiritual tradition.  Had Watts remained a priest, he might well have become one of the leading Anglican spiritual masters of the 20th century.

The final part of the book contains his thoughts on liturgy, some of which is excerpted below.

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On the whole...it is probably safe to say that it impresses [the modern person] as less awkward when the form of worship is very frankly archaic and symbolic.  It may still seem unreal and remote from life, but this will only be true so long as the Church fails to complement symbolic religion with mystical religion.  Given an understanding of mystical religion, we shall not need or desire to mix formal religion with everyday life or make any compromise between secular forms and religious forms.  On the contrary, we shall keep our forms separate and realize complete harmony of inner meaning.  It is highly probable, therefore, that as the mystical understanding of Christianity increases, as union with God is realized more and more in everyday life, our forms of worship will become unashamedly archaic and symbolic.  We shall keep the ancient symbols of the Christian religion in all their original purity, for our spiritual progress will not consist in a development and adaptation of symbolism, but in an increased understanding of its meaning.

By and large, a prayer meeting in a modern living-room leaves one with nothing but a bad taste in the mouth.  The characteristic mentality of our time finds this kind of thing totally awkward and absurd, not because it "brings religion home" or too close for comfort, but because it smacks of exhibitionism.  Yet at Christmas intelligent pagans go by thousands to Midnight Mass in the local Roman or Anglican church and enjoy themselves immensely...Of course, they go in part to "see the show" and to hear fine music, but there is also the attraction of the numinous, the infectious fascination of the holy which delivers the soul from its own futility.

Isaac the Syrian on Repentance  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hat-tip to the Glory to God for All Things site.

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 Be crucified, but do not crucify others.

Be slandered, but do not slander others.

Exult with those who repent.

God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.

That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion:  remorse.  But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.

Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God.  That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance.  Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it.  By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.

God's recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.


Gregory of Nyssa  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Gregory of Nyssa (ca335-395) was the brother of Basil the Great and the friend of Gregory Nazianzus.  Collectively, they are known as the Cappadocians, after the region in Anatolia where they spent most of their lives.  Gregory of Nyssa had a strongly philosophical bent--he was especially influenced by Plotinus--and he aimed to engage his theology with the best philosophical thought of his day.  He played a key role in formulating the late fourth-century theological understanding of the Trinity, which remains foundational for orthodox theology.  He is commemorated by the Episcopal Church on March 9.  Below is an excerpt from his treatise on the Lord's Prayer.  Along with other quotes by Gregory, it can be found here

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"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God".  Who are these?  Those who imitate the Divine love of others, who show forth in their own life the character of the Divine energy.  The Lord and Giver of good things completely annihilates anything that is without affinity and foreign to goodness.  This work he ordains also for you, namely to cast out hatred and abolish war, to exterminate envy and banish strife, to take away hypocrisy and extinguish from within resentment of injuries smoldering in the heart.  Instead, you ought to introduce whatever is contrary to the things that have been removed.
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St Gregory of Narek  

Posted by Joe Rawls

This week Pope Francis declared St Gregory of Narek--or Grigor Narekatsi, as he is known in Armenian--a Doctor of the Church.  Gregory lived between 951-1003 and spent his entire life in the town of Narek, located near Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey.  He was born into a clerical family (his father was an archbishop) and he soon entered the local monastery.  He wrote poetry of a strongly mystical nature and is considered one of the major figures in Armenian literature.  The sample excerpted below is from the Book of Lamentations, written about 977.  The translation is by Thomas J Samuelian, and the on-line version is available here.

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Prayer 1

The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,
I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,
placing the fruits of my wavering mind
as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul
to be delivered to you in the censer of my will.

Compassionate Lord, breathe in
this offering and look more favorably on it
than upon a more sumptuous sacrifice
offered with rich smoke.  Please find
this simple string of words acceptable.
Do not turn in disdain.

May this unsolicited gift reach you,
this sacrifice of words
from the deep mystery-filled chamber
of my feelings, consumed in flames
fueled by whatever grace I may have within me.