Alright so last week we talked about how Maximus treats the Sabbath as a symbol of our perfection. It’s a spiritual, metaphysical process: in his view, it’s possible for humans to come to a state of perfection or even divinity while still on Earth. In and around 1:52 of his Two Hundred Chapters on Theology, he explains further the difference between earthly and divine ways of being. For Maximus, perfection involves stillness – a sort of spiritual process where instead of being led around by sin, we’re sort of in this zen state of inner passivity, so that God is the only one acting through us. But he draws a distinction between someone who’s just good at managing their emotions, and someone who has moved beyond the need to manage them. It’s a divide between what we can do by our earthly, human powers, and what we can do by the divine transcendent. There are a couple different metaphors that Maximus uses here, and one of them is the idea of the sixth and seventh days of creation.
Basically, Maximus treats the days of creation as like a metaphor for our spiritual development. The sixth day is the fulfillment and perfection of everything we can do by our natural powers. As we explored last week, it’s where we reach perfection and then plateau. Maximus quickly introduces another metaphor here, describing the difference between the sixth and seventh days as the difference between the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians and crossing into the Promised Land:
“He who carries out the sixth day only in accord with the Law, fleeing the tyranny of the passions actively oppressing the soul, crosses fearlessly through the sea into the desert, keeping the Sabbath by rest from the passions only. But he who crosses the Jordan, also leaving behind this very state that rests only from the passions, comes into the inheritance of the virtues” (1:52).
By ‘the passions’, Maximus isn’t referring to passion as we’d understand it. It’s more like – well, if everything good stems from God, then every good impulse that you have ultimately originates from God. That’s why the passivity thing becomes important, because you’re meant to not act out of yourself, but rather allow God (and His goodness) to be the motivator for all your actions. The ‘passions’, then, just refer to impulses that come from you alone – that is, sinful impulses that do not ultimately derive from God. It’s not referring to passion in our sense of the word, and it absolutely isn’t meant to suggest that being passionate is a sin. So when Maximus talks about fleeing the tyranny of the passions, he’s talking about the impulses inside you that aren’t any good and that in some sense we all struggle with in our day to day lives.
This metaphor of the fleeing Israelites actually gives us a pretty clear view into Maximus’s ideas. We can see the gap between what’s essentially behaviour management and the higher ideal of divine perfection. There are often people in Christian community who clearly have, like, a pretty developed behaviour management system. You’ll see them kinda pausing before they respond to things, as if they’re actively thinking through the appropriate way to respond. Sometimes that can be very healthy and sensible, but sometimes it can also be this kinda weird social conditioning where Christians feel obliged to perform a kind of piousness. At worst, it can feel like talking to a manikin – you can feel more like you’re engaging with this heavily scripted, managed persona rather than a real living human being. There are, definitely, in some churches, these awful rigid social expectations that govern how you’re supposed to behave. It varies from place to place, but it can be especially obvious with women, who are often expected to inhabit this very demure, polite, traditionally feminine role. You can see some of them work really hard not to break character and be like ‘ah piss off knobhead’.
What Maximus is suggesting, then, is that if you’re good at managing your emotions, you’re like the Israelites fleeing from Egypt – technically you’re not a slave, but you are having to run because your owners are coming after you. It’s imperfect because it’s a state that’s maintained. And it might not be particularly intensive maintenance. There are some people who are probably very disciplined and don’t have any outrageous outbursts and they’re generally pretty self-controlled. But by this metaphor, people who have good self-discipline are just really far ahead of the pursuing Egyptian army. They are still, in some sense, fleeing. The difference between great self-control and Maximus’s idea of perfection is that when you’re perfect, you have transcended beyond the possibility of being dragged about by the passions. You have crossed the Jordan, entered into the realm of perfection. Maximus repeats the same idea in 1:53:
“He who carries out the sixth day in accord with the Gospel, having already mortified the first motions of sin, through virtue reaches the state of dispassion, deserted by every vice; he keeps the Sabbath in his mind, even from the very simple impression of the passions. But he who has crossed the Jordan is transferred into the land of knowledge, wherein the mind, a temple mystically built by peace, becomes the abode of God in the Spirit.”
What’s interesting here is the method for reaching this state of perfection. It’s ultimately not achieved by increasingly getting better at behaviour management. It requires a shift into the divine, the supernatural. That said, Maximus does consider this sort of behaviour management to be a necessary prelude to becoming divine ourselves. In 1:57, he writes:
“Knowing the sixth day to be the symbol of the accomplishment of the practical life, let us fulfill every requirement of the deeds of virtue in it in such a way that the passage ‘and God saw as many things as He did, and look, they were very good,’ might also be said of us.”
It’s something we move through on our way to divine perfection. We perfect the practical life, and then we transcend into the divine, such that we’re not even needing to resist the passions. It’s a nice idea, although I’m not convinced that it’s something we achieve in this life.
[…] much is God’s action and how much we’re supposed to do. For Maximus, as I’ve said before, perfection is a passive state. It’s not about our actions, it’s about us being passive […]