Mortification (Living the Resurrection through Ascetic Struggle:Maximus the Confessor and the Lenten Fast, Part 5)

Christ died that we all might find life. Yet, to approach that life we must go through the valley of the shadow of death. We are buried with Christ in Baptism. We die to self in turning away from sin. We die a natural death at the end of our lives. We also, especially during Lent and Holy Week, die through the mortification of our flesh in fasting. These deaths, however, do not crush, but give life because of the hope of the resurrection, and St. Maximus the Confessor teaches us that they in fact make that hope real in the world today.

In the resurrection, the body will become an incorruptible manifestation of the love of God, and this reality can already be participated in through virtue. The subject of this week’s special series is not is not merely the manifestation of the resurrection life in the present, it is the role of ascetic struggle. So what, then, does Maximus see as the purpose of ascetic struggle?  Maximus is insistent that it is ascetic suffering that allows the soul to manifest virtue. The reason for this necessity is found in the nature of vice.

If you’ll recall, creaturely movement in the present age is tied in deeply with freedom of the will. However, this freedom allows us to move in ways contrary to the purposes of God, to live, as I have mentioned, with ill-being. Such a life is ultimately destructive, contrary to the intended destiny of both soul and body. As Maximus says: “if someone is moved in accordance with this [divine purpose], wisely as well as reasonably, he will come to exist in God, fulfilling his own place and dignity within the body of Christ as a member who does useful work. But whoever, abandoning his own logos [that is purpose], is brought deceptively towards nonexistent things, he will justly pay the eternal penalty of whatever reproach has come upon him in the body of Christ.”1 The first manifestation of the dissolution of non-being brought about by deviance of will is the present distortion of bodily life.

Without going into too much detail, we need to understand that there is a distinction in Maximus between nature and the way in which that nature is actualized. The body is part of human life by nature, part of God’s will for human beings, but due to sin the body exits in a way (mode or tropos as Maximus calls it) that is problematic due to its subjection to deviant passions.

According to Maximus, therefore, salvation calls for the mortification of the flesh through ascesis for the purpose of transforming the passions in order to bring about the rationalization of the body that prefigures its resurrected life. This is because the root of the body’s current problems lies in an improper valuation of the body that subverts the ordering of divine love. This improper valuation consists of degenerate self-love, the chief of the vices. While union is the goal of cosmic motion and love is the principle of that union, self-love effects the opposite: In Maximus’s words “Human self-love and craftiness … severed the one nature into many pieces,” leading to division.2 Maximus calls this self-love “the irrational love of the body.”3 While true love puts God before all else, irrational and wicked choices prioritize what is lower, namely the body and its desires. At the beginning of creation, Satan tempted Adam into preferring the pleasures of the body to the love of God, leading to division. The devil’s deception turned humanity to self-love, leading to fragmentation. Love focused on God leads to a love for neighbor that unifies all creation, but self-love’s materialistic focus leads us to, in Maximus’s words, “fight with men.”4 Again, we should think here of a rich man hoarding wealth, or perhaps of nations fighting wars for gold or land. Self-love is, in Adam Cooper’s apt phrase, “bodily egoism” and the resulting disunion that makes overvaluation of the body problematic.5 This division arises from fragmentation of inclination. Rather than having a unity of will for the Good, a person seeks desires founded in the demands of his or her own body.

Self-love, in other words, manifests itself as a deviance of will.  This deviance of will is not simply an autonomous choosing of wrong. Rather, willing becomes “bent” towards the self as we become lost in moral confusion. Due to the clouding of our judgment regarding God’s purposes, natural self-determination now manifests itself, in Melchizedek Törönen’s words, as “the individualistic will.”6 Humanity’s Fall bound it to “hedonistic passions” that introduced a deliberative will that “inclines toward wicked pleasure against [humanity’s] own best interest,” and thus to “his enslavement, being unable, in his fear of death, to free himself from his slavery to pleasure.”7

It is passion, therefore, which ascetic struggle seeks to combat, and so it behooves us to examine what Maximus means by “the passions.” Maximus defines passion as “a movement of soul contrary to nature either toward irrational love or senseless hate of something.”8 Once again, we see the deviance of vice as one of improper orientation. Where the earlier monastic thinker Evagrius and the Origenist monks who followed him saw embodiment as a corrective punishment for a pre-cosmic Fall and therefore located the deviance of the passions in the reality of embodiment itself, Maximus sees embodiment as a positive part of the divine plan. Unable to follow the Origenists, Maximus instead draws on Gregory of Nyssa’s move “to subsume the human passions under his doctrine of free will.”9 The passions and their deviance is not a matter of the body per se, but of the way sinful misuse of the will causes us to relate to the body.The irrational passions exist in the body because of its fallen modality, and we must wrestle with them because of the soul’s close relationship with the body. Only by doing so can we return to our natural motion according to God’s will towards union with him.

The goal of this wrestling is not simply to eliminate the passions but to reorient them.  According to Maximus, humans can use the passions in the pursuit of virtue, despite the fact they are alien “gentiles” of the soul. At base, the passions are reflective of natural faculties created by God, which are good; it is their current tendency towards vice that we must sacrifice. More striking still, Maximus states that we can use the passions for good when we transform them into love. In his allegorization of Hezekiah and his armies’ defense of Jerusalem against Assyrians, Maximus identifies Hezekiah as the nous that commands reason, concupiscence, and irascibility to guard the mind and turn the battle toward victory. Significantly, Maximus makes it clear that in order to proceed towards union with God, the mind actually transforms the passions into love!

It is therefore necessary for salvation that the bodily passions be reoriented. This healing almost always involves suffering, which may come in the form of external discipline from God, willful spurning of evil, or imitation of the saints who engaged in ascetic practice as “a death for death.”10 Maximus, therefore, encourages ascesis for the sake of overcoming passion and restoring love for God, saying that “[T]he aim  of ascetic labor . . . is to extract the nails of desire, which fasten us to sensual pleasure (for it was through these that the soul, in the wake of that ancient disobedience, lost its longing and inclination for God, and became infixed within matter and corruptible things.)”11 Ascetic struggle overcomes the sensual pleasure that binds us to the cycle of disunity and death, allowing us once again to long for God naturally and so to ascend towards him.

Maximus therefore exhorts his readers: “Afflict your flesh with fasting and vigils. Devote yourself diligently to psalmody and prayer, and holiness in chastity will come upon you and bring love.”12 The vicious passions, present in our body through the Fall, block our ascent to God; we must therefore afflict the flesh in order to transform passions into love. Put another way, the goal of asceticism is to combat individualistic self-love for the sake of the true love that will allow our wills to move once more according to the will of God in rational self-determination. Ascetic practice, therefore, helps to rationalize the body and so bring it into a mode consistent with its eschatological destiny. This rationalization of the body in turn allows it to play a proper role in the human task of integrative love. As Paul Blowers puts it, “Healing or redirecting the passions is the underside of a process of spiritual development that centers on the positive, reintegrating power of virtue.”13

None of this, of course, happens without divine grace, and one does not need to be a monk to participate in this death to self. Almost all of us are called to ascetic struggle at different times throughout the Christian year, especially during Lent and Holy Week, and all of us suffer throughout our lives. All of our suffering and our little deaths are joined to great death of Christ, for we were wedded to Him in our Baptism and our sacrifices become His in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In so doing, we do not attain or own salvation, but participate in the work Jesus Christ did for us. In turn, His resurrected life can become part of our life as grace transforms our little ascetic endeavors into a resurrected life of virtue.


Footnotes

  1. Maximus the Confessor, St. Maximus the Confessor’s Questions and Doubts, trans. Despina D. Prassas (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010), 128; Q173. Brackets original.
  2. Maximus the Confessor, “Letter 3,” PG 91:408D, quoted in Union and Distinction in the Thought of St. Maximus the Confessor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 180.
  3. Maximus the Confessor, “The Four Hundred Chapters on Love,” in Maximus Confessor, trans. George C. Berthold (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 55.
  4. Maximus the Confessor, “The Ascetic Life,” in St. Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life, the Four Centuries on Charity, trans. Polycarp Sherwood (New York: Newman, 1955), 107.
  5. Adam G. Cooper, The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 215.
  6. Melchisedec Törönen, Union and Distinction in the Thought of St. Maximus the Confessor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007),181.
  7. “Ad Thalassium 21,” in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ:
    Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003),, 112; CCSG 7:131.
  8. Maximus the Confessor, “Chapters on Love,” 48, II.16.
  9. Paul M. Blowers, “Gentiles of the Soul : Maximus the Confessor on the Substructure and Transformation of the Human Passions,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 4 (1996):65.
  10.  Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 10,” in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, vol. 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014),251; PG 91:1157C.
  11. Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 13,” in On Difficulties 1: 351; PG 91:1209A.
  12. Maximus the Confessor, “Chapters on Love,” 39, I.46.
  13. Blowers, “Gentiles of the Soul,” 76.

This post is Part 5 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, 2, 3, and 4

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