The life of virtue is a life of death to self and resurrection into the life of God. To pull together what we have learned from St. Maximus the Confessor this week—we could say that the ethic of love oriented towards God is also a resurrectional ethic within which the body prefigures its final deified glory in the present day. Maximus makes this connection explicit when he states that “with the gradual eradication of the mind of flesh through the hardships of the practical life, [the outer man] ebbs away like a dissolving corpse, leaving not even so much as a trace of his former tyranny, so that those who have attained their freedom through Christ can cry even before the general resurrection (on account of the voluntary resurrection of their will that has already taken place), and say: Death, where is thy sting? Hades, where is thy victory?”1
Asceticism facilitates an alignment of the will with logos that Maximus regards as a resurrection of the will. This resurrection of the will makes the benefits of the future general resurrection—specifically freedom from the corruptibility of death—manifest in the present. Love, therefore, enacts an eschatological ethic that makes the reality of spiritual and bodily incorruption partially present in the here and now, and guarantees that “they, who have already shared in the likeness of His death through their sufferings, shall come to be natural outgrowths of His resurrection,” coming to true bodily incorruptibility.2
According to Maximus, the human life of virtue is a life of transformation into the likeness of God. This transformation is chiefly centered on love as the principle of union with God, neighbor, and within the self. The union which love brings about is an ordered hierarchy that places God first, neighbors second, and self third, with the soul prioritized over the body within the self. This means that love, to some extent, requires a distancing of ourselves from our bodies as we place regard for God and concern for the needs of our neighbors above its demands.
Our bodies are involved in virtue in a way that prefigures our deified and resurrected life—life lived in bodies that have become rationalized and incorruptible, and therefore divinely beautiful. As virtue makes it possible for us to move according to the will of God, we manifest a mode of being reflective of God’s intention for our creation. Because the fundamental identity of creatures is relative to their eschatological destinies, virtue manifests our eschatological mode in the present. Virtue causes the soul to separate itself from the current mode of bodily life through ascetic struggle, but this separation, in turn, allows the body to manifest its future resurrected life.
If humans had not sinned, a growing manifestation of God’s life in our own would have come to us automatically. It was Adam’s decision to value the body over the soul that led the body into a mode subject to deviant passions.3 These passions cause humans to struggle to live according to God’s will, so we must practice ascesis in order to transform the passions back towards love. It is ascesis, therefore, that allows us to bring our eschatological life into the here and now.
I certainly don’t think that Maximus’s vision is definitive. St. Paul, after all, seems ambivalent about the practical worth of asceticism. On the one hand, he says “I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27) but on the other claims that certain ascetical practices “have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:23).
The key, I think, lies in the preceding verses of Colossians—namely, all of these things have worth if they are done as part of Christ’s body and nourished by the head (who is Christ himself). They do no good as mere works apart from grace. Thus, as I tried to indicate in my previous post, I don’t think asceticism itself accomplishes the transformation, but is instead given worth as it participates in Christ’s death. This participation is effected with special reality in Baptism and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It also (counter to much anti-Catholic polemic) requires faith to be of any benefit to us.
I don’t think Maximus (or the Eastern Fathers in general) always did the best job of explicating this tension, perhaps in part due to his monastic vocation. Yet, what compels me about Maximus’s picture is that it presents a deeply hopeful Christian anthropology that frames life today in terms of our ultimate destiny in a way that takes seriously both the Christian doctrines of resurrection and heavenly citizenship. It presents resurrection life as immediately accessible not merely in our joys and triumphs, but in our suffering, including ascetic practice, which is particularly pertinent as we approach the celebration of Good Friday and Easter.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 39,” in Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 21,” in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, vol. 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 95; PG 91:1301A.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 32,” in On Difficulties 2: 53; PG 91:1281B.
- This, again, is about individualistic self-love, which is seeking personal consolation over the good of the other and the worship of God, not appreciation of the materiality of the body as such. It’s easy for us modern readers to mistake this because St. Maximus, in company with most ancient writers, thinks of body-soul relations in a different way then we tend to. I’ll probably write about this in the future.