“Just be natural.” Variations on the theme of the importance of nature are common in our culture, but what is nature? Sometimes we mean the material world as science reveals it to us. At other times we mean the untrammeled wilderness or the world as it is unmodified by human technique. Most often, I think, we mean the world as our unrefined passions wish it were. None of these are what St. Maximus (or indeed any of the Christian Tradition) means when he speaks of nature.
In Maximus’s cosmology motion is an intentional part of God’s creation, directed towards the end of union with God. Motion here does not primarily refer to physical motion, such as a ball falling towards the earth, though it certainly includes that. Rather, Maximus refers to willed motion—everything from reaching for a piece of food out of bodily need or desire to acts of heroic virtue. In this framework, what is natural is not merely what appears in front of us, but the end towards which that appearance is heading. In Maximus’s terms, God grants to creatures being, and they then proceed through this current period of motion towards eternal-being in union with God. That middle period of motion is said to be living in well-being when it proceeds towards union with God, ill-being when it does not.
Nature is, therefore, teleological, or ends oriented, and it is alignment with the end of union with God’s will and nature that love moves us. This means, in immediate terms, that love demands an orientation towards God and away from matter, but this orientation ultimately brings about unity at every level of creation, including unity between matter and spirit.
That ultimate integration does not wait for the far off future, however, it begins in the present so that the bodies of Christian saints become vehicles of divine goodness in a way that realizes in the present their bodies’ eschatological destinies in the resurrection.
It is loving virtue, in turn, which makes this manifestation of the eschaton in the present possible. The period of motion in well-being towards our ultimate end in union with God is determined by the orientation of the creature’s will. Maximus believes that the will is the primary means of motion in rational creatures, for “by it alone we seek being, life, movement, thought, speech, perception, nourishment, sleep, rest, and all else that sustains nature.”1 Since will is relative to the ends of our nature, it furthermore includes orientation towards our ultimate end of eternal-being in union with God. Well-being demands that the temporal ends of physical health be submitted to the goal of union—Maximus sees Jesus doing this in Gethsemane when he submitted his natural desire to live to the higher end of our deification (which his Passion would accomplish). There is thus a fundamentally spiritual and eschatological orientation to this ethic: our wills are free, but this freedom is meant to align itself with the spiritual end of union with God.
Maximus at times puts this in terms of Aristotelian logic, the proper alignment of will with the purposes of God results in the actualization of the potentials of our being that suit us for union with God (a side note: Maximus sees this actualization of potentials as gifted by God and believes that though this actualization is necessary for union with God, deification is entirely a gift of God’s grace).
The basic idea at play behind this Aristotelian system is that things are what they are most fully when they reach the ends for which they exist (e.g. a hammer is most fully itself when hammering). The potential to be hammering already exists in the hammer, but it is when that potential is actualized that the hammer is most truly a hammer. According to Maximus, faith, sowed in baptism, gives to the believer the potential for well-being, which is most fully actualized when we are deified, but is partially actualized now through love.
This becomes apparent if we look at Maximus’s understanding of the relationship between our eschatological destiny and our current temporal reality. Maximus makes this relationship especially clear in Ad Thalassium 22. In this work, Maximus responds to a perceived contradiction in St. Paul. The apostle claims in Ephesians 2:7 that God will show the riches of his glory in the age to come, but in 1 Corinthians 10:11 claims that the end of ages has already come. Maximus argues in response that there are two “ages,” that of incarnation and that of deification. Both are parts of one whole, however: the incarnation creates by faith the potential of deification, while deification actualizes that potential. Maximus argues, in Paul Blowers’s words, that the “end (telos) of the ages which will in actuality come about by grace or the deification of the worthy ‘has come upon us’ in potency through faith.”2
Maximus, therefore, considers the virtuous life to be one that brings itself into alignment with the purposes of God under the influence of love, thereby manifesting the unifying power of love. This, in turn, means that Maximus’s approach to virtue is fundamentally eschatological in focus, as creaturely motion in alignment with the divine purpose manifests the reality of eternal-being, or deification in the present. As he himself says, love “grant[s] enjoyment of those things believed in and hoped for, by itself making present the things to come.”3
This week, as you reflect on how Jesus willingly entered into His Passion, think about your own nature, not only as it is, but as it is meant to be. Ask that God would unite you more fully to Christ so that the potential of faith which was sown in your baptism but realize the hope of heaven in your life today.
This post is Part 3 of a special 6 part series. It is drawn from the public presentation of my Master’s thesis given at Regent College in 2015. I will be putting up one post per day through Maundy Thursday. Read parts 1 and 2.
- David Bradshaw, “St. Maximus the Confessor on the Will,” in Knowing the Purpose of Creation: 145; Manoussakis, “Dialectic of Communion,” 168-69.
- Paul M. Blowers, “Realized Eschatology in Maximus the Confessor, ad Thalassium 22,” Studia Patristica 32 (1997): 258.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Letter 2: On Love,” in Maximus the Confessor, trans. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 83; PG 91:393D.