Do you see yourself as a liturgy? Do you see yourself as a sacred text? Do you see yourself as a cosmos of wonder and awe? Though I would not blame any of you for wondering what trendy, self-help guru I have been reading to get such flowery questions from, the source of these ideas is the seventh century spiritual master Maximus the Confessor.
Last week, we explored Maximus’ vision of the Church as a community of vibrant contrast, seeing a necessary diversity in the Church in contrast to a monochromatic view of the Church that is narrow in spectrum, focusing only upon its structural elements. This week, we will explore how this vision of a vibrant contrast extends not only to the Church, but how we view ourselves as people. We will discover a vision of the person that is not reduced to a monochromatic understanding of flesh and bone, but a textured spirituality of depth, mystery, and beauty. Key to this exploration is a connection between the “inner cosmos” that is the human person and the cosmos in which we live. We will then speculate as to how our modern sense of the cosmos could have informed Maximus the Confessor’s theology of the human person and, in future reflections, see how that vision could be apply to our understanding of public worship in the liturgy.
At the heart of this reflection is a question that is prominent today: What does it mean to be spiritual? In our modern situation, it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer most would give had something to do with time spent in prayer. Yes, this is a core aspect of the spiritual life, but to the ancient Church the spiritual life was far more than private prayer. Spirituality touched every part of a person’s life.
The heart of this spirituality for Maximus contains ten dimensions of the human person that are necessary for us to engage to develop our relationship with God, leading us to truth and goodness. These dimensions are separated into five pairs: mind and reason, wisdom and prudence, contemplation (reflecting on our potential choices in life) and action, knowledge and virtue, and, lastly, enduring knowledge (knowledge that transcends the sensible world) and faith.
Again, the modern approach to spirituality might want to separate these dimensions into different academic categories such as science, philosophy, morality, ethics, and so forth. For example, using our mind and reason to know the material world would easily be seen as something distinct from spirituality. However, to the ancient Church, academic study was part of the spiritual life. One must wonder how the sciences would be transformed if all scientists were to see their intellectual work as a form of prayer, giving praise to God by understanding God’s creation? Of course, there are some who do view their work in such a manner already – like the Jesuits at the Vatican Observatory.
It is this broad approach, dare I say vibrant contrast to spirituality that also contributes to a broad sense of liturgy, seeing the engagement of these ten dimensions as necessary to an act of praise, allowing every aspect of the human person to participate in coming to know God. Our modern approach to spirituality has chosen to become rather monochromatic, seeing in the simple acts of meditation and contemplation all that is needed for spirituality. Yes, the Christian disposition of prayer includes forms of meditation and contemplation, but how would our individual and communal prayer be transformed if we allowed every part of who we are, every sense we possess be illumined by God’s grace?
To accompany this interior liturgy, Maximus draws comparisons between the human person, Sacred Scripture, and the world or cosmos. In both examples, Maximus compares the human body with the “natural” aspects of Sacred Scripture and the world in which we live. Maximus sees in the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament the foundational, natural law that is written upon every human heart. Regarding the world, Maximus equates the human body to the sensible aspect of creation, focusing on material reality.
Regarding the spiritual aspect of the human person, Maximus sees in Jesus Christ the fulfillment of the Old Testament, breathing new life into the natural state of who we are, leading us to an encounter with the divine. It is this co-mingling of body and soul in relation to the Old and New Testaments which becomes the metaphorical language that Maximus speaks of the person as Sacred Scripture, a sacred text to be read and encountered.
In regard to the world, Maximus focuses on how the soul is like the intelligible things that go beyond the sensible, but are still intimately connected with the material world. When looking at the idea of the human person as cosmos, both in terms of the sensible and the intelligible, I find Saint Bonaventure’s vision of ascent in “The Mind’s Journey to God” of great help, making a distinction between comprehension, a way of knowing a thing in creation to its material depths, and apprehension, accepting that there are limits to our knowledge of the world that points to a transcend aspect of creation. (Click here to see the video I did for the VOF on Saint Bonaventure’s work The Mind’s Journey to God for more details.)
When reflecting on Maximus’ understanding of the human person as cosmos in modern terms, I can only wonder what he would have penned if he had access to the Hubble Space Telescope? I can’t help but think that the realization of a universe that is 13.7 billion light years would only deepen the metaphorical beauty, awe, and wonder of the human person. If our understanding of the material world serves as a backdrop for understanding the depths of who we are, then the deeper the universe becomes the deeper and more wondrous our self-exploration can be, seeing in our very person a cosmos of flesh, bone, atoms, and molecules comingled with a spiritual disposition of exploring meaning and purpose.
I find a beautiful symmetry in the realization that the answers to these questions of materiality and spirituality cannot be fully exhausted in one lifetime. This points to an ongoing, eternal aspect of our existence, allowing our pilgrimage of truth not to be limited to our material existence, but finds in those limits a necessary transition to prepare for a resurrection, a new reality, and a new creation. It is through this veil of the partially known that the depth and meaning of the person as cosmos reaches its deepest vibrancy, returning our lives as gift to God from whom our existence was first given as gift. Death becomes not a cadence of ultimate ends, but another type of womb that we pass through, revealing a new range of reality that now lays dormant, like how an infant’s eyes, mouth, lungs, hands, and feet take on a radically new understanding of purpose after the child is born. Death can become an awakening of a new dimension of our being this is already present, but lays hidden from our current sense experience.
When I wrestle with these ideas, I can’t help but wonder how our Sunday liturgies would change if we truly allowed this vision of the vibrant contrast of our person to be embraced and then bring that vision to our communal worship? Would we discover a rich multiverse of praise to God or would we prefer to remain inwardly closed, hiding the mystery of our very person out of fear spiritual vulnerability, wishing to only be seen in monochromic terms? The natural inclination of the human heart is to explore the depths of world of which we live and the cosmos that is ourselves. From this perspective, the Mystical Body, too, is a mystery in need of exploration, both individually and communally, participating in a truly cosmic worship as we allow authentic praise to transform our material existence into a spiritual existence, being drawn into closer union with God and one another.
Then the body will become like the soul and sensible things like intelligible things in dignity and glory, for the unique divine power will manifest itself in all things in a vivid and active presence proportioned to each one, and will by itself preserve unbroken for endless ages the bond of unity. (Maximus the Confessor, The Church’s Mystagogy, Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings 197)
I can hear the ancient seeds of the French Jesuit Teilhard De Chardin’s vision of an evolutionary spirituality of matter becoming spirit in Maximus’ reflection on the human person. Though some struggle with this notion, the idea was not lost to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, reflecting on Chardin’s thought as a cosmic act of sacramental transformation.
“Let Your Church offer herself to You as a living and holy sacrifice”. This request, addressed to God, is made also to ourselves. It is a reference to two passages from the Letter to the Romans. We ourselves, with our whole being, must be adoration and sacrifice, and by transforming our world, give it back to God. The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. And let us pray the Lord to help us become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves. That our lives may speak of God, that our lives may be a true liturgy, an announcement of God, a door through which the distant God may become the present God, and a true giving of ourselves to God. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Homily at Vespers, July 24, 2009)
Do you see yourself as a vibrant contrast of spiritual wonder, awe, and mystery or do you prefer a monochromatic view of self, flattened to a material existence rooted in functionality? Next week, we begin our shift to explore more intentionally the vision of Cosmic Liturgy, one of the greatest contributions that Maximus made to Christian thought. We will explore how the God of the cosmos meets that cosmos in our communal celebration of the Eucharist, seeking to transform our world, to borrow from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, into a “living host.”