Maximus the Confessor on “the Grace of Theology”

When the intellect practices the virtues correctly, it advances in moral understanding. When it practices contemplation, it advances in spiritual knowledge… Finally, the intellect is granted the grace of theology when, carried on wings of love beyond these two former stages, it is taken up into God and with the help of the Holy Spirit discerns—as far as this is possible for the human intellect—the qualities of God.

If you are about to enter the realm of theology, do not seek to descry God’s inmost nature, for neither the human intellect nor that of any other being under God can experience this; but try to discern, as far as possible, the qualities that appertain to His nature—qualities of eternity, infinity, indeterminateness, goodness, wisdom, and the power of creating, preserving and judging creatures, and so on. For he who discovers these qualities, to however small an extent, is a great theologian.

— Maximus the Confessor, Four Centuries on Love 2.25-26, in The Philokalia, vol. 2, 69.

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Spiders, Whales and Providence

We should on no account wear ourselves out with anxiety over our bodily needs. With our whole soul let us trust in God: as one of the Fathers has said, ‘Entrust yourself to the Lord, and all will be entrusted to you.’ ‘Show restraint and moderation,’ writes the Apostle Peter, ‘and be watchful in prayer… casting all your care upon God, since he cares for you’ (1 Pet. 4:7, 5:7). But if you still feel uncertainty, doubting whether he really cares about providing for you, think of the spider and compare it with a human being. Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect: ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3:10)… Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering according to its fancy, always hard at work—nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps. 113:5-6), extends his providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

One who is enslaved to greed may perhaps object: ‘I eat a great deal, and since this involves me in heavy expenses, I am inevitably tied up with all kinds of worldly business.’ Such a person should think of the huge whales that feed in the Atlantic Ocean: God gives them plenty to eat and they never starve, although each of them swallows daily more fish than a highly populated city would consume. ‘All things wait upon You, to give them their food at the proper time’ (Ps. 104:27). It is God who provides food both for those who eat much and for those who eat little. Bearing this in mind, anyone among you who has a capacious appetite should in the future set his faith entirely in God, freeing his intellect from all worldly distractions and anxieties. ‘Be no longer faithless, but have faith’ (John 20:27). (John of Karpathos, “For the Encouragement of the Monks in India,” §§47-8; in Philokalia, vol. 1, 308-9)

I think the journeying overseas bit is my favourite.

Diadochos of Photiki on Theology

All God’s gifts of grace are flawless and the source of everything good; but the gift which inflames our hearts and moves it to the love of his goodness more than any other is theology. It is the early offspring of God’s grace and bestows on the soul the greatest gifts. First of all, it leads us gladly to disregard all love of this life, since in the place of perishable desires we possess inexpressible riches, the oracles of God. Then it embraces our intellect with the light of a transforming fire, and so it makes it a partner of the angels in their liturgy. Therefore, when we have been made ready, we begin to long sincerely for this gift of contemplative vision, for it is full of beauty, frees us from every worldly care, and nourishes the intellect with divine truth in the radiance of inexpressible light. In brief, it is the gift which, through the help of the holy prophets, unites the deiform soul with God in unbreakable communion. So, among men as among angels, divine theology—like one who conducts the wedding feast—brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.

Our intellect often finds it hard to endure praying because of the straightness and concentration which this involves; but it joyfully turns to theology because of the broad and unhampered scope of divine speculation. Therefore, so as to keep the intellect from expressing itself too much in words or exalting itself unduly in its joy, we should spend most of our time in prayer, in singing psalms and reading the Holy Scriptures, yet without neglecting the speculations of wise men whose faith has been revealed in their writings. In this way we shall prevent the intellect from confusing its own utterances with the utterances of grace, and stop it from being led astray by self-esteem and dispersed through over-elation and loquacity. In the time of contemplation we must keep the intellect free of all fantasy and image, and so ensure that with almost all our thoughts we shed tears. When it is at peace in times of stillness, and above all when it is gladdened by the sweetness of prayer, not only does it escape the faults we have mentioned, but it is more and more renewed in its swift and effortless understanding of divine truth, and with great humility it advances in its knowledge of discrimination. There is, moreover, a prayer which is above even the broadest scope of speculation; but this prayer is granted only to those who fully and consciously perceive the plenitude of God’s grace within them. (Diadochos of Photiki, ‘On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination,’ §§67-68)

From the Philokalia. An utterly different understanding of the theological task than how we are led to think today. But may God heal our misconceptions.