Monthly Archives: October 2021

Maximus the Confessor 3

Thomas Merton speaking to the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani about the writings of Maximus the Confessor says that being open to theoria physike and the inner logoi – the essence of Christ’s love within every part of creation, means that we can begin to understand the hidden purposes of the creative wisdom and the divine mercy of God, and can cooperate with Him as children of a loving Father.

Theoria is then contemplation of the splendour of divine wisdom in Christ, with nature on one side, and law on the other, both looking to Him as to their fulfilment. In the full development of theoria they both disappear and we see Christ alone. Von Balthasar who wrote about the writings of Maximus says: ‘The meaning of each natural thing and the meaning of every law and commandment is to be an Incarnation of the divine Word; to realize fully its proper nature or its proper law is to cooperate fully in the total realization of the Word in the world.’

Christopher Pramuk in his book ‘Sophia’ uses Merton’s definition of theoria physike as multiform wisdom that apprehends the wisdom and glory of God through the spirit of scripture, things and within ourselves – the full definition I quoted a couple of weeks back in the first post on this subject. For Merton the focus is on the natural world as an epiphany of divine presence. A focus that we all need to open ourselves to in order to defend and repair our destruction against God’s creation. Here the work of Maximus and Merton is both timeless and totally relevant to our contemporary state. Merton urges the novices to appreciate the crucial role played by human beings, through theoria physike, ‘in the spiritualization and restoration of the cosmos.’ Merton sees theoria physike as a dynamic unity of contemplation and action that means we too can take part in creativity. He offers examples of work attuned to the logoi of things that includes Shaker furniture and handicrafts confirming that seeing the logoi of things is not abstract ‘but attends to the concrete nature (inscape) of things in relation to the whole.’

Merton writes about the ‘silent eloquence of Shaker craftsmanship’ where there is the integration of the spiritual in the physical. In Shaker work there is the participation in God’s work of creation where each object might fulfil its vocation. Merton famously wrote:  ‘the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.’

This sophianic wisdom contrasts with the purely instrumental and exploitative relationship with nature – of which we have seen too much in the last decades – consuming, producing and destroying – for its own sake. Christopher Pramuk writes: ‘in honouring the logoi of all living and non-living things, we become “conscious of their mute appeal to us to find and rescue the glory of God that has been  hidden in them and veiled by sin”’

Thomas Merton’s photo of a Shaker barn at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky


Maximus the Confessor 2

In his talks to the novices on Christian Mysticism, (found in ‘An Introduction to Christian Mysticism’ edited by Patrick O’Connell) Thomas Merton sharing the writings of Maximus the Confessor emphasised that we are led to spiritual contemplation, which is a gift proceeding from love. Spiritual contemplation is not only the crown of the active life and the beginning of the contemplative life, but it also is necessary to complete the moral purification effected by the active life. This is both a transformation and a deepening, and it leads to a meaningful sense that leads us to experience the heart of things – Maximus uses the term ‘the logoi of things’.  So, what might this mean?

Merton describes St. Maximus as the great doctor of theoria physike. He says:

‘The love of Christ hides itself mysteriously in the inner logoi of created things . . . totally and with all His plenitude . . . in all that is varied lies hidden He who is One and eternally identical; in all composite things, He who is simple and without parts; in those which have a beginning, He who has no beginning; in all the visible, [is] He who is invisible’.

Thomas Merton teaching the novices

There is then something – the essence of God’s love in every created thing. The term theoria physike is then about the reception of the mysterious, silent revelation of God in His cosmos and in the way everything works as well as in our own lives. This as I understand it, is then about the very reality of things. According to Maximus we are made to know God – it is natural and we need to be restored to this ‘natural’ contemplation of the cosmos. It is demanded as Merton explains to the novices by the cosmos itself and by history.

‘Theoria physike is a most important part of [our] cooperation in the spiritualization and restoration of the cosmos. It is by theoria that [we help] Christ to redeem the logoi of things and restore them in Himself.’

This theoria is inseparable from love and from a truly spiritual conduct of life. We have to see not only the inner meaning of things but then regulate our entire life and use of time and of created beings:

‘…according to the mysterious norms hidden in things by the Creator, or rather uttered by the Creator Himself in the bosom of His creation. The vision of theoria physike is essentially sophianic.’

Merton describes how it is possible to unite the hidden wisdom of God in created things with wisdom within ourselves and so we can become a mirror of the divine glory and life a life of divine truth. This is:

‘a sophianic, contemplative orientation of … life. No longer are we reduced to a purely negative attitude toward the world around us, toward history, toward the judgements of God. The world is no longer seen as merely material, hence as an obstacle that has to be grudgingly put up with. It is spiritual through and through. But grace has to work in and through us to enable us to carry out this real transformation.’

If we can awaken to this then everything becomes transfigured.

St Maximus the Confessor and ‘theoria physike’

One of the subjects that Thomas Merton spoke about in his lectures to the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani was the legacy left by Maximus the Confessor – a theologian, Christian monk and scholar. Maximus was born in AD 580 in the Byzantine Empire and there are different accounts of his early life, but he arrived in North Africa as a monk in 630 and from which time many of his writings are dated, and his reputation had developed. Maximus opposed monothelitism a theological doctrine, first proposed in 622 and endorsed by the Emperor Heraclius, that argued that Jesus Christ, though having two natures (divine and human), had only one will. As a result of opposing this, Maximus was arrested in Rome with two of his disciples and sent to Constantinople. At his first trial in 655, Maximus was first of all accused of treason, then. accusations turned to theological matters, in which Maximus denied that any Emperor had the right to encroach on the rights of priesthood and define dogma. Maximus was exiled to what is now the Turkish Bulgarian border where further attempts followed to break his resolve.

When they failed, Maximus was tried again in Constantinople, tortured, had his tongue and his right hand – the instruments with which he had defended Orthodoxy (or to his judges proclaimed heresy) – cut off, and exiled to Lazica, now western Georgia where he died, over eighty years old, on 13 August 662. He died abandoned, except for his two disciples. Within twenty years the teaching for which he had given his life – the doctrine that Christ had two wills, a divine will and a human will – was vindicated at the sixth Ecumenical Council, convened at Constantinople in 680, though no mention was made there of the great confessor of Orthodoxy, St Maximus.

Maximus’ uppermost concern was for the life of prayer and engagement with God; it has been written that he was able to draw disparate things together in a profound and compelling way, and whilst many of his ideas can be traced back to early Christianity and indeed even earlier sources, with links to Evagrius and Neoplatonism, his thinking feels surprisingly relevant and important not just for the twentieth century when Merton was teaching but also for the twenty-first century.

St Maximus the Confessor

Merton emphasises the contribution by Maximus to ‘the great mystical tradition’. Maximus saw that this ‘is not separated from the dogmatic and moral tradition but forms one whole with it. Without mysticism there is no real theology, and without theology there is no real mysticism.’

Merton spoke to the novices about Maximus’ teachings on contemplation and on the cosmos using the term ‘theoria physike’. Merton explains this as ‘a contemplation according to nature (physis). It is also a contemplation of God in and through nature, in and through things He has created, in history … It is wisdom in all its forms, the gnosis that apprehends the wisdom and glory of God, especially His wisdom as Creator and Redeemer’. It is in the spirit of Scripture and not in the letter; in the logoi of created things, not in their materiality; in our own inmost spirit and true self, rather than in our ego; in the inner meaning of history and not in its externals (in other words the history of salvation, and the victory of Christ); and in the inner sense of the divine judgements and mercies (not in superstitious and pseudo-apocalyptic interpretations of events).

The super ego and religious groups 3

Peter Ball and John Smyth were both obsessed with masturbation and linked this to the beatings they inflicted on the young men that they groomed and influenced, and here Sigmund Freud is still helpful where he sees masturbation and a beating fantasy connected in what he calls an ‘event’. The link with an actual experience or experiences of having been beaten as a child is not so clear – for example people who have fantasies about being beaten or beating others convincingly report memories of having been beaten in childhood, at home or at school. However there are others in whom no such memories exist or emerge during therapy, but who do speak about terrifying and exciting expectations of being beaten. Individuals from both groups can keep such fantasies and experiences from childhood long into adult life.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Beating and watching others being beaten are also especially associated with slavery and serfdom, and it is worth noting that both Stephen Neill and John Smyth beat young men whilst Neill was in Kenya and Smyth in Zimbabwe and South Africa – this adds a further dreadful dimension to their abuse linked to colonialism.

Why bother to dress all this up with apparent theological justifications by for example abusers quoting bits of bible verses here and there before administering beatings. At one level this is a form of defence by such perpetrators – a rationalisation or reasoning that in some way explains their sadism as an act of Christian charity. There is a narcissistic and omnipotent identification with the punishing god – Jesus had to die for our sins so as to bring us back into relationship with God, so the person has to be beaten to be brought back into ‘right relationship with god’ as judged by the abuser (or with the abuser who seems to be god).

The penal substitution theory of the atonement can be then used to justify punishments, whereby like Jesus the person is punished to satisfy God’s wrath, or jealousy,  and sense of justice or revenge. This theory of the atonement is a development of the Reformation (favoured by the evangelicals) and has a different emphasis than the Catholic satisfaction theory in that God is not satisfied with a debt of justice being paid by Jesus, but that God is satisfied with punishing Jesus in the place of humankind. As Stephen D. Morrison explains Jesus is punished (penal) in the place of sinners (substitution) so meeting the retributive requirements of God’s justice. In other words, Jesus died for legal satisfaction and a bloody sacrifice needs to take place.

It’s not difficult to see how the power and persistence of powerful, internalised figures contribute to projections onto the punishing God. The real inner work is to develop faith in the loving and merciful God who can provide deep healing to past traumas and deprivations. A God who is not fickle and moving into violent and vengeful actions, but who remains a compassionate and forgiving Presence. The real outer work is for religious groups to collectively believe and trust in this vision and react accordingly.