Today we celebrate the memory of our venerable Father St. Maximos the Confessor (c. 580-662). Studying St. Maximos, his writings and especially his life, is both edifying and intriguing. St. Maximos is called “the relentless champion of the subtlest consequences of the orthodox faith”.1 The intriguing part is that today we tend to brush aside “subtleties”, and agree on the “essential elements” of the faith. In this respect he serves as a guide to us.
St. Maximos was born in Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, toward the end of the sixth century, of noble and pious parents. He was adorned with many virtues. Very early on a keen intellect and an eagerness to learn became apparent. He was very intelligent and applied himself to his studies. He excelled especially in philosophy, and retained what was good for his soul.
Everyone admired and respected him, because he was humble, although he was of a noble descent, and although he was so wise and virtuous. His fame was such that Emperor Heraklios made him his first secretary and speech writer. St. Maximos, however, was troubled by the heresy of Monothelism, which divided the Church. Therefore he left his high position and all the glory, comfort and family, and embraced the life of the monastics.
Such was his virtue, piety and ascetical struggles, that upon the repose of the abbot the monks asked him to become their abbot. He was hesitant to ascend this position of leadership, but he did so for their spiritual benefit. Seeing, however, the heresy growing and spreading, he was greatly distressed and was crying from sorrow.
There was a great confusion in the Church. Most hierarchs and the civil authorities espoused the heresy that Christ had one will and one energy (or activity or operation). Since the Patriarch of Constantinople himself and the other Patriarchs followed this heresy, what were the simple faithful to think but to follow them? So the same thing that was happening then is happening now, in our days, when most of our bishops are following the new heresy of ecumenism, which compromises the uniqueness of the Orthodox Church.
The Patriarch of Antioch Athanasios2 and the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergios were monophysites, as was also the Archbishop of Edessa Jacob, after whom the monophysites of Syria are called Jacobites. This Jacob convinced Emperor Heraklios to favor a certain Cyros, of the same heretical opinion, who eventually became Patriarch of Alexandria. Together they attempted to sway the pope of Rome to join them in their false belief. At this point Maximos went to Rome to make sure that pope Martin would not become a communicant of their heresy. In essence Maximos broke communion with the Monothelites.
In those days Rome was a bastion of Orthodoxy. Rome had retained the faith of the Apostles untainted from heresy. Like Athanasios the Great before him, St. Maximos called on the successor of Peter to stay firm, like his predecessors. Pope Martin convened a synod comprised of 150 bishops who anathematized Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter (Patriarchs of Constantinople), Cyros of Alexandria, Athanasios of Antioch and the rest who were of the same heretical opinion as they were.
St. Maximos stayed in Rome some 27 years, teaching, admonishing, encouraging the faithful, writing treatises, biblical commentaries, books about the spiritual life, writing epistles in support of the Orthodox faith and sending them around the world. Emperor Constans, however, who had succeeded Heraklios, had other ideas. He had St. Maximos arrested, brought to Constantinople and tried for treason. Failing to dissuade him from the Orthodox faith he banished him along with his two disciples. He was recalled from his exile, and upon persisting in his faith he was beaten, his tongue was ripped out from the root and his right hand amputated from the wrist–typical punishment for those who had spoken against the emperor. Neither his age (he was over 80 years of age) and frail constitution, nor his angelic countenance, nor his meekness stopped his persecutors. Then he was led once more to exile, where shortly thereafter he died, on August 13, 662.
The Church gave St. Maximos the title of Confessor because of his suffering on account of the faith. Later his contests for the truth were fully justified. Under the kinship of Constans’ Orthodox son Constantine, a synod, known as the Sixth Ecumenical Council, was convened. It declared the two wills and energies of Christ in His two natures, and anathematized the Monothelites.
In today’s ecumenistic climate, I am not so sure to what extent we can appreciate the fight St. Maximos gave all his life for the faith. Someone could argue that the points debated were too subtle for anyone to comprehend. That Christ remains a mystery, and we can never fully describe Him, and therefore we should allow for minor differences in interpretation. Perhaps we should be more attentive to the “big picture”, if we are to preserve the unity of the faithful and peace in the Church.
Today, even where differences are recognized, they are downplayed by drawing a distinction between “the content of faith and the words in which that faith is expressed”3. “Since,” they say, “human words can never exhaust the divine mystery, our effort… is to look beyond what appear to be contradictory verbal formulas to the faith that underlies them, to determine whether or not those formulas are witnessing to the same faith in different ways”. Thus we find agreement even in our very disagreements.
From this premise the heresies only appear to be heresies, whereas in fact they are expressions of the same point of view in different words. The distinction drawn between truth and its expression leaves the faith open to a variety of interpretations, all legitimate and valid. [If this is so], we must then conclude that St. Maximos was wrong in fighting heresy and we must say that all of the God-bearing holy Fathers were deceived in believing that their differences from the heretics were real. This must be the new definition of “fools for Christ.”
The modern “theologians” of the ecumenistic variety sit across the table with anyone, in a perpetual quest for common ground. They emerge from their bilateral and multilateral meetings and seminars with “agreed statements” to the effect that even in their condemnations of heresies the Fathers attested to the same truth—only in a different way.
The fight of the Fathers of the Church for the truth is now labeled “polemics” of the past, while the debates are called “divisive”. Now it is stated that the divisions that resulted from fighting for the truth “do not honor God”. The Fathers of old were not as imaginative and resourceful as we are today. These modern theologians view the Fathers as bigots, who were moved out of hatred for each other, rather than out of love.
They say that faithfulness to Christ and to the truth is stated not in dogmatic formulations which are divisive, but in “acts of love and mutual forgiveness.” Thus unity is pursued not in truth, but in the name of love. The Apostle Paul, however, gives us the rule to speak the truth in love, but speak it! He also says, “But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—I believed, and so I spoke—we also believe, and so we speak” (2 Cor. 4:13).
St. Maximos in his defense said,
“Once the Arians put this forward, ‘Let us remove the Homoousion and the Heterousion and let the churches unite.’ Our God-fearing Fathers did not consent to this; but rather they preferred to be pursued and put to death than to pass over in silence” … the use of equivocal terms.”4
And further on he said,
“I cannot grieve God by keeping silent about what He ordered us to speak and confess.”5
We too, my brothers and sisters, should pray fervently to Christ our God to keep us and preserve us in the most precious commodity we have, our undefiled, Orthodox Faith, through the intercessions of His champion, St. Maximos the Confessor and of all the Saints. Amen.
- Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings, Irenee-Henri Dalmais, O.P., Preface, p. xiii.
- (nothing to do with the great Patriarch of Alexandria, whose memory we commemorated on January 18)
- References in quotation marks are from the document, SHARING THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION, Statement on the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue And the Ecumenical Movement – The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, Brookline, Massachusetts, June 1, 2000.
- Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings, Irenee-Henri Dalmais, O.P., “The Trial of Maximus,” pp. 20-21.
- o.c., p. 24.