A Summary of Orthodox Spirituality in St. Maximos

[Frederica.com; June 28, 2014]

Every day I get an entry from the writings of St. Maximos the Confessor, from his Four “Centuries” (four sets of one hundred short sayings) on Love. They come in Greek and English (from the Philokalia). I don’t know who sends them.

As I read today’s I thought how absolutely mystified I would have been by it, a few years back. The term “intellect” means something so different, in Orthodox spirituality. And “energies” is not a word you hear in Western spirituality, although St Paul uses it about 30 times. Indeed, the whole premise of St Maximos’s thinking is absent. I’ll summarize an explanation below, but first you can read over this to see how you’re coming along in understanding the Orthodox Way:

«82. Some say that there would be no evil in the created world unless there was some power outside this world dragging towards evil. But this so-called power is in fact our neglect of the natural energies of the intellect. For those who nurture these energies always do good, never evil. If this, this is what you wish to do, get rid of negligence and you will also drive out evil, which is the wrong use of our conceptual images of things, followed by the wrong use of the things themselves.

St. Maximos the Confessor, Second Century on Love, # 82»

First, “intellect” doesn’t mean human reasoning. The Greek term usually used for that it dianoia, but there’s no particular high regard for it in Scripture. Instead it usually means crafty and conniving thoughts, eg, “He has scattered the proud in the dianoia / imagination of their hearts.”

(How “head” and “heart” came to be understood as separate faculties, when they aren’t, and how “reason” came to be idolized, is something I’ve been curious abt a long time. I’ll paste in below an intriguing theory I recently came across—one that sees a 2-part change in Western theology in 5th and 12th century.)

But to stick with this: “intellect” here is the Greek word nous, pronounced “noose.” It means, not the active, cogitating mind, but the receptive, understanding mind. The mind has two gears, forward and reverse, and the nous is the mind that receives. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, “he opened their nous to understand the Scriptures.” Suddenly they saw a pattern there that they’d never perceived before, the silver chain of prophecies through the Old Testament of Christ’s life and work.

When God gave a revelation to a prophet, he delivered it to the prophet’s nous. Not to the prophet’s emotions; emotions are reactions to things, but the grasping of the thing itself has to come first. And not to the prophet’s dianoia/reasoning intellect, because again the thoughts that the prophet might have about that revelation (“I gotta get out of here!”) were a reaction to the revelation; they didn’t cause it.

The intellect St Maximos means here is the receptive mind, which can “hear” God’s voice, or “sense” his presence, or “see” his face. It’s a capacity to take something in. Often sensory metaphors are used, because it is like an eye or ear that takes in. (St Paul speaks of the Ephesians “having the eyes of your heart enlightened.”) Your five senses bring you information all the time; your nous sits at the center and receives and combines this input. Without the nous, it would be just be a stream of nonsense.

When God communicates with us it is by means of our nous. He made us that way. But the hungry nous would really rather keep itself filled up with other input all the time—music, video games, email. Nevertheless the nous is designed by God to be the point of contact. It is made for communion with God, and is able to remain in communion with God all the time. It just doesn’t want to.

St. Maximos is saying that the “force” that drags us toward evil is our own collusion in directing our nous-intellect away from communion with God. (He is not denying the presence of the evil one—but the evil one can only tempt, not compel. We voluntarily accept temptation and direct our nous away from God.)

[I am reminded just here by Elder Paisios’s saying that people come to him describing the overwhelming power of temptation and how it seems like an unstoppable force. He said that he knows what that force is. It’s love. We love our sins. We hunger to be near what we love, and so we throw ourselves into sin. The cure is to learn to love something else.]

And now the word “energies.” Greek energeia = English energy; we just took the word up intact. St. Paul uses energy words about 30 times. (He also uses synergy words.)  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is energizing in you, both to will and to energize for his good pleasure.”

But there was no Latin equivalent, so Jerome used operatio, working, instead. The sense of God permeating his world with his living energies was lost. Judaism and the OT had a sense of God filling the world (Isaiah heard the angels sing “Heaven and earth are full of your glory;” God said to Jeremiah, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”), but it got lost in the theology that was built up upon the Latin bible. It was really exhilarating to find it again in Eastern Christian spirituality.

The “natural energies of the nous” are the inborn abilities of our understanding to sense God’s presence and listen to his voice. If we “nurture” those energies we will think more clearly. We won’t be tossed in a foggy sea of desires and fears and scheming and shame all the time. We’ll be at anchor in a deep, deep harbor. In that condition we will not even want to do evil. Doing God’s will is our food and drink (as Jesus said of himself).

“If this is what you want to do, get rid of negligence.” It is hard work to attend to the presence of God. It takes a lot of practice, and the practice may seem tedious at first.  The Jesus Prayer is good for this; as they say, “Praying the Jesus Prayer will teach you how to pray the Jesus Prayer.” Just keep begging God for help and guidance. It is good to have a spiritual mother or spiritual father to help you.

Getting rid of negligence means observing your own thought processes. It means standing guard at the entrance to your heart (in the Scriptures, all thinking is done in the heart—actually, everything happens in the heart, because it is the center of personhood. It doesn’t mean “emotions,” but the entire person.)  Gradually you build up a little island where you can watch your own thoughts arrive, and look them over, and decide whether to entertain them or not. You wouldn’t let just anyone come through your front door; you learn to take the same care about which thoughts you let into your mind that you have about letting strangers into your house. This is definitely one of those things that gets easier and easier with practice! Don’t give up. It frees you from so many unnecessary bad emotions. Emotions are always based on thoughts, often quite rational thoughts. But you can choose not to focus on them, and just return to standing guard in God’s presence.

“The wrong use of conceptual images, followed by the wrong use of the things themselves.” Orthodox spirituality, as you see, is much focused on the thoughts we let into our minds; thoughts are where everything begins. A big part of the power of thoughts is due to your looking at visual images in your mind. We must learn to dispense with mentally caressing or exploring internal images. Instead, remain standing by the Lord, whose presence we internally perceive without using any images. We learn to abide in reality, the real reality around you right now, without contemplating inner imaginary images. God is present to you right now, so stay in the here and now, and don’t waste time looking at images in your mind or memory.

As St James said, sin is preceded by tempting thoughts; thinking about what we desire leads to sin. St. Maximos is saying that first you think about mental pictures that draw you to sin, then you sin with the things themselves. Stop the process as soon as you realize what’s going on. Stop the images, because they will only lead you to replicate the imagined actions in the real world.

Temptation really does get weaker and weaker, the more you turn away from it. Cut off tempting thoughts as soon as you realize what’s going on. Take up the Jesus Prayer, by an act of will if necessary. Then you will learn how the presence of God can fill your entire mind and guide you in all you do. Your intercessory prayers become more accurate. Your dealing with other people becomes more honest. You learn how to stay alert to real-reality all the time, and unafraid, and undisrupted by images and thoughts. This is freedom. In a blessed cycle you become more grateful to God and more humble; you see the extent of your sin as greater than you ever realized. Knowing how completely God has forgiven and loved you, what would you ever want to do but remain by his side? And gradually you see that nothing gives you as much joy as that, and temptations are cut down with an ax to the root of the tree.

That’s how it works, and that’s what St. Maximos is saying in this initially perplexing passage.

 «82. Some say that there would be no evil in the created world unless there was some power outside this world dragging towards evil. But this so-called power is in fact our neglect of the natural energies of the intellect. For those who nurture these energies always do good, never evil. If this, this is what you wish to do, get rid of negligence and you will also drive out evil, which is the wrong use of our conceptual images of things, followed by the wrong use of the things themselves.

St. Maximos the Confessor, Second Century on Love, # 82»

The “power” dragging us towards evil is our neglect of the inborn [natural] ability [energies] of our receptive mind [intellect/nous] to abide in God’s presence. Those who take care to cultivate [nurture] those natural abilities always do good. If you want to be like that, cut off your tendency to entertain thoughts that come to tempt you [negligience]. Reject both thinking about tempting images, and what comes as a result of such thinking, the wrong use of the real things those images represent.

* * *

OK, so how did human reason come to be so highly regarded in the West? In his paper “Drawing the Mind into the Heart: Psychic Wholeness in the Greek Patristic Tradition,” Dr. David Bradshaw at U KY thinks it may go back to St Augustine’s division btw good and bad will (voluntas). St Augustine posits two basically identical men, and one is moved by a sight to sin, and the other sees the same sight and resists sin.

What makes the difference? One of them just has a bad will, says St. Augustine. He didn’t take it to the next step, but eventually the idea developed that a good will is guided by clear thinking (reason) and a bad will is guided by something else—at any rate, not reason.

Dr DB says the second step came with the 12th c emphasis on intensity of feeling, isolated from the intellect (eg, St Bernard’s “bridal mysticism”). This “created a major new psychological category that was not readily at home within the Augustinian psychology of reason and will.” His thesis is that “the heart was adopted popularly (if not officially, so to speak) in order to serve as a home for this new category of feeling that exists in isolation from knowledge.”

And so the “head-heart” division was born—a division that does not exist in reality.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.