Filed under: Patristics
Here is Teresa Benedetta’s translation of Pope Benedict’s audience talk on St. Maximus. Raise a prayer, please, for this generous lady, who dutifully and promptly provides same-day translations of the pope’s Sunday Angelus and Wednesday audience addresses every blessed week!
Dear brothers and sisters,
I wish to present today the figure of one of the great Fathers of the Oriental Church in later times. He is the monk St. Maximus who merited from Christian Tradition the title of Confessor for the intrepid courage with which he bore witness – ‘confessed’ – even through suffering, to the integrity of his faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, Savior of the world.
Maximus was born in Palestine, the homeland of our Lord, around 580. From his childhood, he was attracted to the monastic life and the study of Scriptures, through the works of Origen, the great master who in the third century had already managed to define the Alexandrian exegetic tradition.
From Jerusalem, Maximus transferred to Constantinople, and from there, because of the barbarian invasions, he sought refuge in Africa. There, he distinguished himself with extreme courage in defense of (Catholic) orthodoxy.
Maximus did not accept any attempt to minimize Christ’s humanity. The theory had emerged that Christ had only one will, the divine. To defend the uniqueness of his being, these advocates rejected that he had his own human will.
At first glance, it might appear that it was good to say Christ only had one will. But St. Maximus saw right away that this would have destroyed the mystery of salvation, because humanness without its own will, a man without his own will, would not be a true man, would have been an amputated man. Therefore the man Jesus Christ would not have been a true man and would not have lived the drama of being human, which consists precisely in the difficulty of conforming our will to the truth of being.
Thus, St. Maximus affirmed with great decision: the Sacred Scripture does not show us an amputated man, without a will, but a complete true man. God, in Jesus Christ, had truly assumed the totality of being human – obviously, except for sin – and therefore, he had a human will. Stated that way, the question was clear: Christ is either a true man or not.
If he is man, then he has human will. But the problem then arises: do we not end up with a dualism? Is this not affirming two complete personalities with reason, will, and feeling? How to overcome this dualism, conserve the completeness of the human being in Christ, and still safeguard the unity of his person, who certainly was no schizophrenic?
St. Maximus demonstrated that man finds his unity, the integration of self, his totality, not in himself, but overcoming himself, getting out of himself. Thus, in Christ, man, stepping out of himself, finds God, the Son of God, and thus, he finds himself.
One need not ‘amputate’ the human Christ to explain the Incarnation. One must simply understand the dynamics of the human being who realizes himself only by stepping out of himself. It is only in God that we find ourselves, our totality and our completeness.
And so we see that it is not the man who is closed in on himself who is the complete man, but it is the man who opens up, who steps out of himself – it is he who becomes complete, who finds himself in the Son of God, finds in him his true humanity.
For St. Maximus, this vision was not merely philosophical speculation: he saw it realized in the actual life of Jesus, especially in the drama of Gethsemane. In that drama of Jesus’s agony, of his anguish about death, of the opposition between the human desire not to die and the divine will which offers the self to death, the entire human drama is played out, the drama of our redemption.
St. Maximus tells us – and we know this is true: Adam (Adam is we ourselves) thought that saying NO was the peak of freedom, that only he who could say No would be truly free, that in order to truly realize his freedom, man should say No to God; that only in that way he will finally be himself, arriving at the peak of freedom.
This tendency was also inherent in Christ’s human nature, but he overcame it, because Jesus saw that No did not represent maximum freedom. Maximum freedom is saying Yes – conformity with the will of God. Only in that Yes does man truly become himself. Only in the great openness of a Yes, in uniting his will with the divine will, can man become immensely open and become ‘divine’.
Adam’s desire was to be like God, meaning, to be completely free. But the man who is closed in on himself is not divine nor is he free. He will be, if he comes out of himself – he will be free when he says Yes. That was the drama of Gethsemane: ‘not my will, but yours, be done”. Transferring one’s will to the divine will, that is how a true man is born. That is how we are redeemed.
In brief, this was the fundamental point that St. Maximus wished to say, and we see that the entirety of being human is in question here, the entire question of our life.
St. Maximus already had problems in Africa defending this vision of man and God. Then he was called to Rome. In 649, he took active part in the Lateran Council, called by Pope Martin I to defend the two wills of Christ, against the edict of the emperor who, in the interests of peace, had forbidden any discussion of the issue.
Pope Martin had to pay a high price for his courage. Although he was in poor health, he was arrested and taken to Constantinople. Tried and condemned to death, his penalty was commutated to exile in the Crimea, where he died on September 16, 655, after two long years of humiliation and torture.
Not much later, in 662, it was the turn of Maximus who – also opposing the emperor – continued to insist: “It is impossible to state that Christ had only one will!” (cfr PG 91, cc 268-269). So, together with two of his disciples, both named Anastasius, Maximus underwent an exhausting trial at a time when he was already past 80.
The imperial tribunal condemned him for heresy to the cruel mutilation of his tongue and his right hand – the two organs through which, in words and writing, Maximus had fought the erroneous doctrine that Christ only had one will.
Finally, the holy monk, thus mutilated, was exiled to the Colchides on the Black Sea where he died at the age of 82, worn out by the sufferings he had undergone, on August 13 of that same year, 662.
Speaking of the life of Maximus, we already referred to his literary work in defense of orthodoxy. We refer in particular to the Dispute with Pirrus, then Patriarch of Constantinople, in which Maximus succeeded to persuade his adversary of his errors. With great honesty, in fact, Pirrus concludes the Dispute this way: “I beg pardon for myself and for those who came before me: through ignorance we reached these absurd thoughts and arguments; I pray that a way may be found to annul this absurdity, while saving the memory of those who erred” (PG 91, c. 352).
Dozens of his important works have come down to us, among which the Mistagoghia stands out, one of St. Maximus’s most important writings which puts together his theological thinking in well-structured synthesis.
St. Maximus’s was not just theological, speculative thinking that was folded in on itself, because it was always oriented towards the concrete reality of the world and its salvation. In this context, for which he had to suffer, he could not avoid philosophical statements that were theoretical: he had to find the sense of life, asking himself: who am I, what is the world?
To man, created in his image and likeness, God had entrusted the mission of unifying the cosmos. Just as Christ had unified man to himself, in man, the Creator had unified the cosmos. He showed us how to unify the cosmos in communion with Christ and thus arrive at a truly redeemed world.
One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, referred to this powerful saving vision when, in ‘re-launching’ the figure of Maximus, he defined his thinking as the representative expression of ‘cosmic liturgy’.
In the center of this solemn liturgy is always Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world. The efficacy of his saving action, which definitively unified the cosmos, is guaranteed by the fact that he, although he is God in everything, is also integrally a man, with the ‘energy’ and the will of man.
The life and thought of Maximus remain powerfully illuminated by his immense courage in bearing witness to the integral reality of Christ, without any reduction or compromise. Thus what and who man really is emerges, and how we should live to respond to our calling.
We should live united with God, in order to be united to ourselves and to the cosmos, giving the cosmos itself and mankind the correct form. Christ’s universal Yes also shows us clearly how to give the right context to all other values.
Let us think of values that are rightly defended today such as tolerance, freedom, dialog. A tolerance that can no longer discern good from evil becomes chaotic and self-destructive. In the same way, freedom that does not respect the freedom of others and fails to see the common measure of our respective freedoms, would become anarchy and would destroy authority. Dialog which no longer knows what there is to dialog about becomes empty chatter.
All these values are great and fundamental, but they can remain true values only if they have a unifying reference point to give them authenticity. This reference point is the synthesis of God and the cosmos – the person of Christ in whom we learn the truth about ourselves, and thus learn to place all other values in context because we would discover their authentic meaning.
Jesus Christ is the reference point who gives light to all other values. This is the end point of the testimony by the great Confessor. Thus, ultimately, Christ shows us that the cosmos should become liturgy, the glory of God, and that adoration is the start of true transformation, of the true renewal of the world.
And so I wish to end with a fundamental passage from the works of St. Maximus: “We adore the only Son, together with the Father and teh Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and for all times, and the times after time. Amen.”
St. Maximus is a must-read. Here are two great places to start: On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press “Popular Patristics” Series) and Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality Series).
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