Maximus: The Passive Sabbath

I didn’t do this last week, because I wanted to do the wax thing, but I guess we should take some time to introduce this book in a little more depth. Maximus the Confessor, our current author, is a 7th century theologian who got on the wrong side of some nonsense arguments about stuff that doesn’t really matter. He got mutilated in his 80s and died a couple months later. His book that we’re dealing with currently is Two Hundred Chapters on Theology, where the ‘chapters’ are more like aphorisms, short little snippets and whatnot. The bitsy nature of this genre gives rise to some very specific manuscript issues – basically there are a bunch of copies and imitations and so on, and it’s hard tracking down which one is the actual real original text. The introduction in this edition, from St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, notes that what follows is only a “working edition,” as no critical edition exists. So that’s fun: we’re dealing with a text from 1300 years ago, in translation, with very limited cultural context, and the text itself is possibly also unreliable. It’s honestly the best way to read this shit – you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The other thing, and I guess it’s the thing that makes this so much fun to read, is that you sort of have to piece together all the different fragments of this work to figure out what Maximus is on about. He has specific terms that he’s using in a specific, unusual way, and he never just comes out and gives it to you in one go – it’s scattered across these different chapters. A good example is this idea of the Sabbath, which Maximus uses as a sort of metaphysical conceit. I’ll give you this chapter in full (1:35), and then we’ll see what we can do with it.

“Whatever things exist in time are being fashioned in accordance with time and, having been perfected, they are brought to a standstill, thereby having ceased from growth according to nature. Whatever things God’s science effects in the realm of virtue, when they have been perfected, they move again for increase, for their ends have established the starting points of further ends. For, he who through the virtues puts an end to the ground of corruptible things in himself, in accordance with the practical life has made a beginning of other more divine configurations, for God never rests from good things, of which there is also no beginning. For just as it is the property of light to shine, just so it is the property of God to do good. Thus, while in the Law, which recounts in accordance with time the structure of things liable to generation and corruption, the Sabbath is honored by rest, in the Gospel, which illumines the constitution of intelligible realities, the Sabbath is celebrated through the beneficence of good deeds, even should those be infuriated who have not yet realized that ‘the Sabbath has come to be for the sake of humanity and not humanity for the sake of the Sabbath,’ and that ‘the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.'”

Cool, cool cool. So the basic starting point here – it’s probably easiest to start with the Bible stuff, actually. Maximus is picking at the thing at the end of Mark 2, where Jesus and his mates are getting in trouble for picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus turns around and says, well, it’s fine to pick grain on the Sabbath, because the Sabbath exists for us. It’s often read as like a distinction between Old Testament law and New Testament grace – the rules say you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, and picking grain is technically work, but if you’re hungry, just fucking go eat or whatever, it’s fine. The Sabbath exists for us, and so we can break the rules and pick some grain if we’re hungry.

That’s the typical reading, anyway. For Maximus, his reading starts with his ideas about Christian perfection. He sets up two categories: earthly stuff, and divine stuff. Earth stuff has a beginning and an end, but divine stuff has neither, because it’s eternal. Further, when you perfect something earthly, it has an end-point. It has a point where it reaches perfection, and then it stops. But when something divine reaches perfection, it gets a new set of goals, because, as Maximus says, its end has established the starting point of further ends. It’s perfect, but it can also be more perfect. It’s like how there are different sizes of infinity: they’re both infinite, but one can be bigger than another. It just keeps going forever.

Now, this is where the Sabbath thing comes back in. For Maximus, the Sabbath is a symbol of perfection. God ran around making the universe, and He spent six days or whatever pulling it together, making it develop and change and sticking on new bits, and then He was like ‘Okay, this done now,’ and stopped. And that’s the Sabbath: creation had reached its state of perfection, and so it stopped getting new stuff. It’s not a day where God took rest per se, it’s a day where creation (which is earthly) reached its zenith and stopped changing. From that perspective, the scene in Mark takes on a different light. It’s not about the difference between grace and law – well, it sort of is, but more importantly it’s about the difference between the earthly and the divine. It’s about how Jesus and the Pharisees have, respectively, divine and earthly perspectives on what the Sabbath – or perfection – means. The Pharisees have the earthly perspective, seeing it as a day of rest (because all perfect earthly things stop), and Jesus has the divine perspective, seeing it as a day of action (because all perfect divine things keep going on to greater heights).

But we’re not even finished. That’s just one chapter. From 1:36 through to 1:47, Maximus sets out a tripartite structure explaining how humans can transcend their earthly nature and become themselves divine, even while still on Earth. That’s right, we’re going in hard on divinization. For Maximus, and a bunch of other theologians, part of our redemption involves us becoming divine, or becoming gods – not in any way that erases the distinction between us and God, but in some meaningful manner nonetheless. (You can read more about it here, if you’re interested.) Maximus writes that there’s a three-tier system whereby humans can transcend their earthly form and move into the divine. As before, if you’re earthly, when you reach perfection you stop. We have to reach earthly perfection before we can start to move into the divine and towards divine perfection – so the goal is to basically stop yourself, to bring yourself to a place of passivity where you aren’t doing anything. It is to come to the Sabbath.

So the Sabbath is not only about finding ways to read this one particular verse in Mark. It’s also about what Maximus sees as the mystical path towards transcending our earthly nature and becoming gods. It’s also where the manuscript issues become pretty important. Because Maximus is scattering his ideas over all these different chapters, it’s potentially quite easy to distort his overarching theory with one or two incorrectly attributed paragraphs. We might not have been looking at Maximus’s ideas at all here. We might be looking at a bad transcription, or at some variation put together by a later disciple. We can’t be totally sure whose ideas we’re talking about. You’re also reading this whole thing filtered through my understanding, which possibly has its own gaps and errors. I wouldn’t get too caught up in it all, is my point. It’s interesting as an idea, but – you know.

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