Feast of St Maximus the Confessor

Feast of St Maximus the Confessor August 12, 2009

180px-Maximus_ConfessorSt Maximus the Confessor is one of the most important theologians in history. When one reads from the works of St Maximus, one is reading the work of a genius. But he did more than write about theology, he lived it out. He followed the path his theology suggested he should go, even when it cost him. For rejecting the monothelite heresy and its attempt at a false theological understanding of Christ for the sake of political expediency[1], Maximus, an elderly man, was abducted from Rome (where he was residing, in part because Rome was working against the monothelite heresy), taken to Constantinople and put on trial. He was asked if he would recant and accept the decrees of the Patriarch of Constantinople – Maximus said he would not; his conscience would not let him do so. Even if Rome had joined in with Constantinople proclaiming only one will in Christ (as they were falsely telling him), he said he would continue to hold to his understanding of Christ, even if it cost him his life. They did not execute him, but they made an example of him – they cut off his right hand and cut out his tongue, with the intention of silencing the saint. Legend says that after his tongue was cut out, the Holy Spirit gave him the ability to speak. We can certainly say that his witness as a confessor made him heard, and his works were studied even more because of it so that years later, St Maximus would be vindicated by an ecumenical council (III Constantinople) and declared a saint.

By an outpouring of the Holy Spirit thou didst pour forth Christ’s sacred teachings. Thou didst expound with divine authority the self-emptying of God the Word and wast radiant in thy confession of the True Faith. Glorious Father Maximos, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy” (Troparian of St Maximus).

St Maximus’ Christological work went beyond his refutation of monothelites. Obviously, he stood as defender of the decrees of Chalcedon, because his work reflected upon the practical application of that great council. But he also was interested in soteriology, in the way Christ saved the world. In its fallen state, creation is a world of division, where everything and everyone fights against each other, along the lines of distinctions, until all that is left is mere individuals cut off from everything and everyone else. The distinction between creature and creator brought hostility and division between the two; the distinction between humanity and the animal world brought hostility and division between the two; the distinction between man and woman brought hostility and division between the two. The work of Christ was to end the division and hostility while preserving the distinctions: Christ worked to overcome the dualism created by sin without creating an absolute monism in return. Salvation is of a participatory unity in the divine life founded up the interdependent relationship of all things. God became man in Jesus; since he was man, he was also one with the rest of creation, and so was able, as man, to work for the wellbeing of the whole of creation and not humanity alone. “Because of Christ – or rather, the whole mystery of Christ – all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ. For the union between a limit of the ages and limitlessness, between measure and immeasurablity, between finitude and infinity, between Creator and creation, between rest and motion, was conceived before the ages. This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time, and in itself brings God’s foreknowledge to fulfillment, in order that naturally mobile creatures might secure themselves around God’s total and essential immobility, desisting altogether from their movement toward themselves and toward each other.[2]

This work would have been enough for any one man or woman, to give them a proper place in the history of theology. But for St Maximus, this is only a small portion of his contribution to Christendom. He was a monk who worked with monastic theology and used it for his theological reflections, purifying it from mistakes of the past;[3] he was a scholar who examined difficult questions and tried to provide reasonable answers to them;[4] he was the first great expositor of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopigate, establishing their place in the Christian tradition;[5] he was a firm defender of Rome even when the Greeks of his day disputed Rome’s authority or Rome’s adherence to the filioque.[6]

The monastic ideal, that of detachment and apatheia, is manifest and expounded upon by St Maximus through his understanding of love. Apatheia is not loveless, but rather, comes about because of love. Indeed, it is his understanding of love which unites the monastic discipline with the ordinary Christian witness: while a monk might live an ascetic life, all Christians are called to follow the way of love in order to follow Christ. This can be shown by the opening of his “Four Hundred Chapters on Love”:

  1. Love is a good disposition of the soul by which one prefers no being to the knowledge of God. It is impossible to reach the habit of his love if one has any attachment to earthly things.
  2. Love is begotten of detachment, detachment of hope in God, hope of patient endurance and long-suffering, these of general self-mastery, self-mastery of the fear of God, and fear of faith in the Lord.
  3. The one who believes the Lord fears punishment; the one who fears punishment becomes master of his passions; the one who becomes master of his passions patiently endures tribulations; the one who patiently endures tribulations will have hope in God; hope in God separates from every earthly attachment; and when the mind is separated from this it will have love for God.
  4. The one who loves God prefers knowledge of him to all things made by him and is constantly devoted to it by desire. [7]

Our love for God puts God first in all things, and so detaches us from everything else which would get in our way, including our very selves. This is not to say we should ignore creation; we are called to work for its betterment so it can share in the glory and glorification of God. “13. The one who loves God cannot help but love also every man as himself even though he is displeased by the passions of those who are not yet purified.”[8] But it is through our love for God we open ourselves up and overcome all inordinate desires, all inordinate attachments which attempt to keep us connected merely to the things of the world and place them on a higher level of attention than they deserve. When we find any hate still left in our hearts, we have yet to achieve this detachment, and therefore, we have yet to really love God as we should. “15. The one who sees a trace of hatred in his own heart through any fault at all toward any man whoever he may be makes himself completely foreign to the love for God, because love for God in no way admits of hatred for men.[9] Monks work this out throughout their life, but one does not need to be a monk to do this – a monk is merely a witness of this; their life serves to show what a Christian is by their extreme ascetical example. And indeed, we must see that the sufferings he was to endure proved that he was able to follow through with his own exposition, so that he died a follower of Christ and not a hypocrite who suggested to others what he didn’t strive for himself.

May we, on this feast of St Maximus say:

O Maximos divinely inspired champion of the Church, sure and illumined exponent of Orthodoxy, thou harp and trumpet of godliness, divine and holy adornment of monks: cease not to intercede for us all” (Kontakion of St Maximus).


[1] The monothelite heresy said there was only one will in Jesus Christ, thus abandoning Chalcedon and its understanding that Christ possessed all that is in God and all that is in man in his person. St Maximus pointed out the absurdity of positing one will in Christ by saying it ended up making God willing, as God, such mundane things like eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, et. al. To understand Christ as fully God and fully human requires us to understand he wills both as God and as man, and he wills according to what is natural for each (so as God, Jesus wills as God wills; as man, Jesus wills as humans will). Obviously the difficulty is that it might appear as if Jesus wills as God and man in opposing ways, and so it must always be understood that this is never the case: the two wills always work in unison, though in the way proper to each. The monothelite heresy was an attempted theological abstraction used to form a union between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians alike. While the idea of finding a theological union was not bad, when that union proclaimed error, it had to be rejected, as with all attempted theological unions which absolutely contradict the teachings of either side in a given debate.

[2] St Maximus the Confessor, “Ad Thalassium 60” in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 125.

[3] This is the theological tradition which can trace itself back to Evagrius, that great monastic genius whose ideas have been adapted and employed by monasticism ever since, even if Evagrius’ own theological speculations have sometimes been unorthodox. The Evagrian tradition can be easily seen in the works of St Maximus, but, as with Origen, St Maximus tries to take what is good and purify it so to no longer cause theological confusion.

[4] His Questions ad. Thalassium is a work of theological genius, but also, a work which requires much struggle to go through and understand all his points, because of the subtle nature of his responses.

[5] Dionysius after St Maximus would become one of the primary sources for medieval theological reflection on issues of hierarchy and apophaticism.

[6] Vladimir Solovyov rightfully puts Maximus in the same tradition in which he stood, as an Easterner who understood Rome: “As a member of the true and venerable Eastern or Greco-Russian Orthodox Church which does not speak through an anti-canonical synod nor through the employees of the secular power, but through the utterances of her great Fathers and Doctors, I recognise as the supreme judge in matters of religion him who has been recognised as such by St. Irenaeus, St. Dionysius the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Flavian, the Blessed Theodoret, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Theodore of the Studium, St. Ignatius, etc. etc. – namely the Apostle Peter, who lives in his successors and who has not heard in vain our Lord’s words: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church’; ‘Strengthen they brethren’; ‘Freed My Sheep, feed My lambs,’” Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church. trans. Herbert Rees (Lond: Geoffrey Bles: 1948), 34-5.

[7] St Maximus the Confessor, “The Four Hundred Chapters on Love,” in St Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings. trans. George C. Berthold (New York: Paulist Press, 1985),36.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] Ibid., 37.

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