Science of the Saints, 3-II-2019 (21 Jan.), Venerable Maximus the Confessor

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The Monk Maximus the Confessor was born in Constantinople in about the year 580 and raised in a pious Christian family. In his youth he received a very diverse education: he studied philosophy, grammatics, rhetoric, he was well-read in the authors of antiquity and he mastered to perfection theological dialectics. When Saint Maximus entered into government service, the scope of his learning and his conscientiousness enabled him to become first secretary to the emperor Heraclius (611-641). But court life vexed him, and he withdrew to the Chrysopoleia monastery (on the opposite shore of the Bosphorus – now Skutari), where he accepted monastic tonsure. By the humility of his wisdom he soon won the love of the brethren and was chosen hegumen of the monastery, but even in this dignity, in his own words, he “remained a simple monk.” But in 633 at the request of a theologian, the future Jerusalem Patriarch Saint Sophronius, the Monk Maximus left the monastery and set off to Alexandria.

Saint Sophronius was known in these times as an implacable antagonist against the Monothelite heresy. The Fourth Ecumenical Council (year 451) had condemned the Monophysite heresy, which confessed in the Lord Jesus Christ only one nature (the Divine, but not the Human nature, of Christ). Influenced by this erroneous tendency of thought, the Monothelite heretics introduced the concept that in Christ there was only “one Divine will” (“thelema”) and only “one Divine effectuation or energy” (“energia”), – which sought to lead back by another path to the repudiated Monophysite heresy. Monotheletism found numerous adherents in Armenia, Syria, Egypt. The heresy, fanned also by nationalist animosities, became a serious threat to church unity in the East. The struggle of Orthodoxy with the heresies was particularly complicated by the fact, that in the year 630 three of the Patriarchal thrones in the Orthodox East were occupied by Monothelites: at Constantinople – by Sergius, at Antioch — by Athanasias, and at Alexandria — by Cyrus.

The path of the Monk Maximus from Constantinople to Alexandria led through Crete, where indeed he began his preaching activity. He clashed there with a bishop, who adhered to the heretical opinions of Severus and Nestorius. At Alexandria and its surroundings the monk spent about six years. In 638 the emperor Heraclius, together with the patriarch Sergius, attempted to downplay the discrepancies in the confession of faith, and the issued an edict: the so-called “Ecthesis” (“Ekthesis tes pisteos” – “Exposition of Faith), which ultimately decreed that there be confessed the teaching about “one will” (“mono-thelema”) operative under the two natures of the Saviour. In defending Orthodoxy against this “Ecthesis,” the Monk Maximus recoursed to people of various vocations and positions, and these conversations had success. “Not only the clergy and all the bishops, but also the people, and all the secular officials felt within themselves some sort of invisible attraction to him,” testifies his Vita.

Towards the end of 638 the patriarch Sergius died, and in 641 the emperor Heraclius also died. The imperial throne came to be occupied by the cruel and coarse Constans II (642-668), an open adherent of the Monothelites. The assaults of the heretics against Orthodoxy intensified. The Monk Maximus went off to Carthage and he preached there and in its surroundings for about five years. When the successor of patriarch Sergius, patriarch Pyrrhus, arrived there in forsaking Constantinople because of court intrigues, and being by persuasion a Monothelite, there occurred between him and the Monk Maximus an open disputation in June 645. The result of this was that Pyrrhus publicly acknowledged his error and even wanted to put into writing to Pope Theodore the repudiation of his error. The Monk Maximus together with Pyrrhus set off to Rome, where Pope Theodore accepted the repentance of the former patriarch and restored him to his dignity.

In the year 647 the Monk Maximus returned to Africa. And there, at a council of bishops Monotheletism was condemned as an heresy. In the year 648, in place of the “Ecthesis,” there was issued a new edict, commissioned by Constans and compiled by the Constantinople patriarch Paul, the “Typus” (“Tupos tes pisteos” – “Pattern of the Faith”), which overall forbade any further deliberations, whether if be about “one will” or about “two wills,” as regarding the acknowledged “two natures” of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Monk Maximus thereupon turned to the successor of the Roman Pope Theodore, Pope Martin I (649-654), with a request to examine the question of Monotheletism at a conciliar consideration by all the Church. In October of 649 there was convened the Lateran Council, at which were present 150 Western bishops and 37 representatives of the Orthodox East, amongst which was also the Monk Maximus the Confessor. The Council condemned Monotheletism, and its defenders – the Constantinople patriarchs Sergius, Paul, and Pyrrhus, were consigned to anathema.

When Constans II received the determinations of the Council, he gave orders to arrest both Pope Martin and the Monk Maximus. This summons took five years to fulfill, in the year 654. They accused the Monk Maximus of treason to the realm and locked him up in prison. In 656 he was sent off to Thrace, and again later brought back to a Constantinople prison. The monk, together with two of his students, was subjected to the cruellest torments: for each they cut out the tongue and cut off the right hand. Then they were sent off to Colchis. But here the Lord worked an inexplicable miracle: all three of them found the ability to speak and to write. The Monk Maximus indeed foretold his own end (+ 13 August 662)

The Monk Maximus has left to the Church a large theological legacy. His exegetical works contain explanations of difficult places within the Holy Scripture, also Commentary on the Prayer of the Lord and on the 59th Psalm, various “scholia” (“marginalia” or text-margin commentaries) on treatises of the Hieromartyr Dionysios the Areopagite (+ 96) and Sainted Gregory the Theologian (+ 389). To the exegetical works of Saint Maximus belongs likewise his explication of Divine-services, entitled “Mystagogia” (“Introduction concerning the Mystery”).

To the dogmatic works of the Monk Maximus belong: the Exposition on his dispute with Pyrrhus, and several tracts and letters to various people. In them are contained expositions of the Orthodox teaching of the Divine Essence and about Hypostatic-Persons of the Holy Trinity, about the Incarnation of God, and about the “theosis” (“deification”, “obozhenie”) of human nature.

“Nothing in theosis is the product of human nature,” the Monk Maximus writes in a letter to his friend Thalassius, “since nature cannot comprehend God. It is only but the mercy of God that has the capacity to endow theosis unto the existing… In theosis man (the image of God) becomes likened to God, he rejoices in all the plenitude that does belong to him by nature, since the grace of the Spirit doth triumph within him and because God doth act within him.” (Letter 22).

To the Monk Maximus belong also works concerning the anthropologic (i.e., concerning man). He deliberates on the nature of the soul and its consciously-personal existence after the death of a man. Among his moral compositions, especially important is his “Chapters on Love.” The Monk Maximus the Confessor wrote likewise three hymns in the finest traditions of church hymnography, following the lead of Saint Gregory the Theologian.

The theology of the Monk Maximus the Confessor, based on the spiritual experience of the knowledge of the great Desert-Fathers, and utilising the skilled art of dialectics worked out by pre-Christian philosophy, was continued and developed upon in the works of the Monk Simeon the New Theologian, and Sainted Gregory Palamas.

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