There is a helpful word of reminder given by Saint Maximus the Confessor, one of the Fathers of the Church that was in the Breviary yesterday. I want to rework the order of what he writes, if only for the purpose of applying it to the times in which we live. But for the sake of respect here is the original quote as he sets it forth.
This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church. For while the Word was hidden under the bushel, that is, under the letter of the law, it deprived all men of eternal light. For then it could not give spiritual contemplation to men striving to strip themselves of a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own. But the Word wills to be set upon a lampstand, the Church, where rational worship is offered in the Spirit, that it may enlighten all men. For the letter, when it is not spiritually understood, bears a carnal sense only, which restricts its expression and does not allow the real force of what is written to reach the hearer’s mind.
From an inquiry addressed to Thalassius by Saint Maximus the Confessor, abbot (Quaest. 63: PG 90, 667-670)
Thus let us look at this teaching in three sections –
1. The Problem of the Flesh –St Maximus explains well the deadening effects of the flesh in coming to grasp the beauty and sublimity of God’s Word, of his vision for our lives. He therefore speaks of those living in the flesh who indulge a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own.
We who live in the increasingly decadent and self indulgent West need to be sober about these words, first of all for our very selves. All day long we are bombarded with temptations to sensuality, self indulgence and almost complete preoccupation with the flesh.
Biblically the “flesh” is more than just our body, it is more generally our rebellious sin-nature. It is that part of us that is resentful of any instruction, limits or being told what what to do. It doesn’t want to have a thing to do with God and prefers the darkness to light.
Yet “the Flesh” is very connected to bodily sensuality and St. Maximus emphasizes this here. Sins related to the body especially regarding sight, taste and touch, are not the most serious sins (sins against the spirit are). But they are among the most disgraceful because of their capacity to cloud our intellect and to make rather obvious truths seem extreme or less obvious. This effect on the intellect is disgraceful, since our intellect is our glory and the clouding of the intellect by sensuality amounts to a kind of fall from grace.
We must stay on guard from the indulgence of the flesh so easily available today lest we soon discover that our intellect is clouded and finds the clear light of God’s vision too strong or “harsh.” In excessive self indulgence, any call to self denial seems arduous, even obnoxious. In excessive sensuality, any appeal to matters spiritual seems strange, foreign, even threatening.
And this is what the Church is largely facing today in trying to preach to an increasingly decadent, excessively sensual world. While these tendencies can be ascribed to the fallen human condition, perhaps as at no other time, the capacity to indulge the flesh has never been greater. Almost endless and often instant self gratifications and diversions have become available. There are a wealth of comforts today that Kings and Queens of old never dreamed of.
Synonymous with the onset of this extreme sensuality has come the darkening of the intellect such that some of us, who by God’s grace alone have been spared some of the worst trends of modern culture must often ask with dismay, “How can people get this confused?”
St. Maximus supplies the general answer. [They have indulged] a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own. In other words, the flesh cannot perceive the things of spirit. And once the flesh gains ascendency in the human psyche it capacity to appreciate anything other than the flesh and sensuality becomes increasingly eclipsed.
Thus St. Maximus adds, For the letter [of the Law], when it is not spiritually understood, bears a carnal sense only, which restricts its expression and does not allow the real force of what is written to reach the hearer’s mind.
And thus the plainest and most beautiful utterances of God’s moral and spiritual vision make little impact on many moderns who see God’s glorious call to human freedom from the slavery to passions, as intrusive, limiting, intolerant, even hateful. No matter how deep the darkness of indulgent flesh gets, it seems the proposed answer by the fleshly is always going to be to further indulge the flesh. And herein is manifest the darkening of the intellect, and human spirit, that the indulgence of the flesh brings about. Paradoxically, indulging the physical senses leads us to have senseless minds.
St. Paul says, Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and their senseless minds were darkened….Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another….to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (Rom 1:18ff)
Homosexuality and other sexual sins are not the only manifestation of the flesh’s darkening impact. For St. Paul goes on to state other ills proceeding from ascendent flesh, reduced spirit, and darkened intellect: They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom 1:-29-32)
Yes, the flesh is deceitful, blinding and degrading. It makes us hostile to the more elevated things of both the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. You might almost think that St. Paul had visited our Century.
2. The Passion of the Lord – In the face of this cancerous situation, what does the Lord want? St. Maximus says here: This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church….
And therefore God continues to speak forth his Word. He continues to let the light of His truth shine forth. He has a passion to call his wayward children home. Too easily we are like the foolish prodigal who had wandered off. Yet the Father never stopped looking. And when the foolish prodigal took one step back, the Father took two, and started running.
For as once the Eternal Father uttered the WORD of his Son, and through this one Word all creation came forth, thus this Logos (Word) imbued all creation with the “logike” (logic) or impression of his will and glory.
Sadly in our fallen condition, many indulging the fallen flesh no longer love or appreciate the logike, the Logos or the Father who utters the Logos.
Yet still the Father speaks the Word, the Logos. He has a passion that will not end to summon all his fallen children back to the glory of his Word. And his Word, Jesus, has a passion too. The Word must still go forth! As Maximus teaches.
3. The Purpose of the Church – But how? And as we can see, St Maximus says how. This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church.…the Word wills to be set upon a lampstand, the Church, where rational worship is offered in the Spirit, that it may enlighten all men.
And here then is our role as the Church, to be the lampstand on which God sets his word to enlighten all. And, as Maximus says, through our “rational” (a spiritual worship, rooted in truth), we are to enlighten all.
There is of course a lot of tension in the past 60 years or so about what in the Church needs updating and where we must be unwavering. Clearly our Dogma and Doctrine, though they may develop and become more deeply what they are, still they cannot change. Yes the languages and modes of communications may alter, but not the message. We need to be clearer about this than we have. Too many have the impression that eventfully we will “see the light” and come come round to worldly thinking.
But those who speak this way do not understand that our mission is not reflect worldly “lights” but to set forth the LIGHT of the world Jesus. We are to speak this Word, not parrot the passing words or “lights” of this world.
The Church must continue to set out the lamp of God’s Word, Jesus. And while light may bring different things to light, the Light itself never changes. And though translated into a thousand different languages, the Word himself does not change or mutate.
Note too the reference to Liturgy by Maximus wherein we are formed by God unto “rational worship.” The Sacred liturgy both forms and conforms us to the truth of God and the truth about ourselves. We become the Word we hear proclaim, and the Word made Flesh whom we receive. The Church must ever undertake her sacred liturgy with joy, reverence and profound attentiveness. And old saying goes, “Save the Liturgy, save the World.”
Yes, the Church is but the lampstand on which God sets his Light. It is God’s Light that must shine. We can do no other. She is the pulpit from which he proclaims His Word.
St Peter richly combines Word and Light when he says, we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic Word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
And St. Paul adds, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
Yes, we can do no other. The world has lately indulged the blindness of the flesh, But the Father has not stopped uttering his Word and setting forth the light of his truth. On account of this we can do no other, for we are his instrument, we are his lampstand.