The Lord’s Prayer According to St. Maximos: Part 2 Allegory
The Allegorical Interpretation of the Scriptures
We have travelled so far down the path of Maximos’ thinking that we must stop for a moment to catch up with him. We must explain why Maximos boldly rejects the literal interpretation of the Kingdom and the meaning of Thy will be done on “earth.”
We are familiar with the modern approach to scripture study that finds the meaning of the words of Bible in their context. This set of methods strives to avoid reading our own ideas into the text. But rather it attempts to “let the text speak to us.” This way of interpretation is like the grammatical-historical method of Antioch and St. John Chrysostom. It explains the meaning of Scripture as it is written in its original setting.
But alongside this method, the church fathers used the allegorical method. The center of this approach was Alexandria in Egypt, and the writers who used it (besides Maximos) included Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose and Augustine.
What then is allegory? Allegory is a literary technique that uses characters and events on the literal level to convey symbolic understandings on deeper levels of meaning. This method of interpretation depends on the distinction between “letter” and “spirit.” St. Paul laid out this distinction when he wrote, “God who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant not of the letter but of the Spirit for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (OSB 2 Corinthians 3:6).
This distinction between literal and spiritual presumes that there must be a deeper, hidden, and mystical meaning to a passage of Scripture. Despite the popular mistrust of this method, Jesus himself used a similar anagogical method. He taught in parables to convey spiritual truths. He said of His method of instruction, “To you [the disciples] it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables” (OSB Mark 4:11). Then when he was alone with his disciples and some others, he divulged the secrets of the allegory of the parable of the Sower and the Seed saying: “The sower sows the word, these are the ones by the wayside where the Word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes the seed away…” etc. (Matthew 4:15).
Maximos explains that allegory contrasts the literal and spiritual meaning of the writing. “Scripture,” he says, “contains the letter, the visible text, which is transitory. But it also contains the spirit hidden beneath the letter, and this is never extinguished and this ought to be the object of our contemplation.”[i] Thus the Scriptures are like the human body. The literal sense of the sacred writings is the outward flesh but the inward meaning is the soul.[ii]
We may question how reliable this search for hidden meaning below the text is. But St. Paul also speaks about truths and meanings not available to our normal and earthly way of thinking. He teaches the difference between “natural wisdom” and the “Wisdom of God.” The apostle says that to the spiritually mature, he speaks “the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages, for our glory…” (OSB 1 Cor. 2:6). Paul says that the “natural man” cannot grasp these hidden spiritual things (OSB 1 Cor. 2:14). But God has given us the Holy Spirit “so that we might know the things that have been freely given us by God” (OSB 1 Cor. 2:12). Paul summarizes that the “natural man” thinks the things of the Spirit are foolishnes, but the “spiritual man” knows them because they are “spiritually discerned”(OSB 1 Cor. 2:14).
An Example of Maximos’ Allegorical Method
The allegorical method turns St. Paul’s concept of the wisdom of God into a search that uses spiritual disernment to probe the depths of scriptures for hidden meanings. For example, when the fiery chariot swept Elijah into heaven, the great prophet cast off his cloak and it fell on Elisha (2 Kings 2:11-14). Maximos says that this garment was Elijah’s “mortification of the flesh.”[iii] By this spiritual power that subdues the body, Elisha would also be free of the “slime of material attachment.”[iv] Thus Elisha could carry on Elijah’s prophetic work without being ensnared with earthly desires.
Meanwhile, Maximos wrote that Elijah advanced toward unity with God, not bound to the earthly things but with “undivided desire” and an “unmixed” will.[v] In Maximos’ view, Elijah was carried to the heavenly realm by the “cardinal virtues” “harnessed to each other like horses of fire.”[vi]
So Elijah is a “type,” a pattern for us, of overcoming of the passions by the virtues. With that understanding we can clarify Maximos’ purpose in treating Lord’s Prayer allegorically. He wants to teach his readers how to purify the “intellect” of its attachments to the body and to material things. Such cleansing is important because the “intellect” is the highest faculty of the mind. By the “intellect” (the nous) we know God through direct experience.[vii] But we cannot attain this divine knowledge if the intellect is encumbered with worldly things.
But how does the purified intellect, discern the things of the Spirit, the “Wisdom of God”? Maximos answers that it is by contemplation. The “Glossary” of The Philokalia states that contemplation “is the perception or vision of the intellect through which one attains. spiritual knowledge.” [viii] It is contrasted with the practice of the virtues. But this ascetism of purification and keeping the commandments is a prerequisite.[ix]
[i] (Maximos 1981)
[ii] (Confessor 1981, 134)
[iii] (Maximos 1981, 293)
[iv] (Maximos 1981, 294)
[v] (Maximos 1981, 294)
[vi] (Maximos 1981, 294)
[vii] (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 384)
[viii] (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 380-81)
[ix] (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 381)