I was recently moved by reading an article by Saint Maximus the Confessor. I was surprised at its clarity and simplicity, yet its completeness and elegance. I had always thought of Saint Maximus as one to avoid reading because he was so hard to grasp. What I found was the opposite. It will try and capture the essence of this article which is a dialogue between a brother and an old man.
It is titled “the Ascetic Life”.
He begins with a question asked by one of his spiritual children who asks,
“What was the purpose of the Lord’s becoming man?
Answer: Our salvation.
Question: How do you mean?
Answer: Man, made by God, disobeyed God in Paradise. He then was subject to death. From generation to generation he became more and more evil because of his dedication to his passions rather than to the commandments of God. God then sent His Son to take on flesh to show us the way to live according to His commandments. He promised man at this time that those who did follow Him would live in heaven forever. He also threatened man with eternal punishment if he did not obey. The Son suffered, was killed, but then resurrected showing that all those who struggle will find the path to eternal life in heaven.
Question: What are the commandments?
Answer: As the lord said, “Go, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19).
Question: But Father, who can do all the commandments, there are so many of them?
Answer: He who imitates the Lord and follows in His footsteps.
Question: Who can imitate the Lord? He was God and I am a man, a sinner, enslaved by many passions.
Answer: The Lord tells us, “Behold I have given you the power to tread serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. (Luke 10:19) Paul tells us, “They that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh.” (Gal 5:24) Christ says, “He that loves father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). “He that taketh not up his cross and followeth me, is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38). And, “Every one that doth not renounce all that he possesseth cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
Question: But the Lord’s commands are so many , who can keep them all in mind in order to strive for them?
Answer: They are all summed up in one word. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole strength and with thy whole mind, and thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:30). We need to separate from worldly things and passions to genuinely love either God or neighbor.
Question: What things do you mean?
Answer: Food, money, possessions, acclaim, relatives and the rest.
Question: But, didn’t God make these things and give them to us for our use?
Answer: Yes He did, and everything He made is good. Our error is that we prefer material and worldly things above the commandment of love. The Lord has said, “He that loves me will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)
Question: But, how can I love the person who hates me?
Answer: The Lord does not command the impossible when he says, “Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you” (Matt 5:44). It is because we are lovers of material things and pleasure, more than His commandments, that we are not able to love those who hate us.
Question: Look Father, I have given up everything, relatives, property, luxury, and acclaim but still I am not able to love one who hates me. What am I to do?
Answer: You cannot love your tormentor unless you know the purpose of the Lord.
Question: What is the Lord’s purpose?
Answer: The Lord knew the whole law rested on love (Matt 22:37-40). He therefore set out a life to demonstrate a life of love and claim victory over the devil and all his temptations. He tried to teach the Jews this way of love. But this only stirred up their hatred of Him. But He did not hate them who opposed him or who tried to kill him. Instead of hate He set forth love. After complete victory over the devil, He crowned Himself with the Resurrection all for our sake. His purpose was as a man to obey the Father until death keeping the commandment of love. In addition to his life we can also learn from the lives of His disciples. Remember what he said on the Cross, “Father, forgive them, since they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Question: What you say is true, pray for me that I may have the strength to know perfectly the Lord’s and His Apostles’ purpose so I can be sober minded in time of temptations.
Answer: If you are always attentive to what I have told you you can have this awareness. You must remember that your brother is tempted in the same way you are.
Question: Tell me how to hold on to soberness.
Answer: Complete lack of concern for earthly things and continuous meditation on the divine Scriptures brings the soul to fear God. It is the fear of God that brings soberness.
Question: What should one do to devote one’s self continuously to God?
Answer: Be merciful and do good to one’s neighbor, be long suffering in this regard, endure all he inflicts. It is love that tames our anger.
Question: What is long suffering?
Answer: perseverance in adversity, endurance of evils, to abide to end of temptation, not to let anger out by chance, not to think anything that does not become a God fearing man. (Eccl 1:29) Many difficulties that we are given are part of our training. We should give thanks to God for everything He gives us like David, Job and his wife.
Question: Why do I lack compunction?
Answer: Because you have no fear of God and are complacent. Such people scorn the thought of the dreadful punishment of God that awaits us if we do not live with love. Maximus then give an extensive review of this punishment as recorded in Old Testament and New Testament. (Deut 32:22, 41; Isa 33:14, 50:11, 66:24; Jer 13:16, 5:21, 2:19-21, 15:17; Ezech 7:8; Dan 7:9, 7:13-15; Ps 61.12; Eccles 12:13; 2Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10; Jer 31:10; Matt 7:13, 25:41; Exod 20:13-15; Matt 5:20; Jer 9:1.) We must think about the defense we must have on that judgement day. Are not we all gluttonous? Are we all not lovers of pleasure? Are not we all desirous of material things? Are not we all nurturers of wrath? Are not we all revilers? Are we not fond of scoffing…. Are we not worse than the Jews who killed Christ? How can we be called sons of God? Do we show the fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, faith, meekness, contingency (Gal 5:22). How can we be called Christians, who have nothing at all of Christ in us?
Maybe someone will say, I have faith and faith in Him is enough for my salvation. But James tells us, “The devils also believe and tremble; Faith without works is dead in itself (James 2:17; 2:19; 2:26). So also is works without Faith.
Those who truly believed Christ and made Him dwell within themselves spoke like this: “And I live, now not I; but Christ lives in me. And that I live now in the flesh: I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself for me (Gal 2:20). Christ clearly said, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that treat you with despite (Luke 6:27).
Question: After hearing all this the brother is in tears saying, there is no hope of salvation for me.
Answer: the Lord said, “With men salvation is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26) Isais said, “When you return and moan, then you will be saved” (Isa 30.15). The Lord says, “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). Let us purify our hearts, let us weep for our sins, let us quite our vices, let us hear His threats, let us love one another with our whole heart. Let us master our passions.
We must rid ourselves of every bit of sinfulness from our hearts. “Let us then love one another and be loved by God; let us be patient with one another and He will be patient with our sins. Let us not render evil for evil, and we shall not receive our due for our sins.” (Maximus)
The Lord has told us as follows:
“Forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). If you will forgive men their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offenses”(Matt 6:14). Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt5:7). “With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matt 7:2).
Our salvation is in our will’s grasp. Let us give ourselves totally to the Lord. Let us place all our hope in Him alone. Let us love every man sincerely, but put our hope in none. Let us truly do penance. Let us watch and be sober. Let’s emulate the Holy apostles and the saints imitating their combats., eagerness, preserve fence, patience, endurance, in long suffering, compassion, meekness, zeal, unfeignedness in love, sublimity in low lioness, plainness in poverty, kindness, clemency.
Reference: The Ascetic Life, Vol 21 Ancient Writers, pp 103-135