St. Maximus the Confessor on Mind, Knowing, and Prayer

Post by
Tyler Cohen

The mind, or its mode, must go beyond the finitude and limit of conceptual thought in order to achieve a “life without limits” characteristic of the eschatological mode of the righteous.

For when compared to the ineffable glory and splendor of the age to come, and to the kind of life that awaits us there, this present life differs in no way from a womb swathed in darkness, in which, for the sake of us who were infantile in mind, the infinitely perfect Word of God, who loves mankind, became an infant.[1]

Fr. Joshua Lollar and Nevena Dimitrova’s monographs along with Maximos Constas’ introduction to the ​Quaestiones ad Thalassium​ are the most definitive works on St. Maximus the Confessor’s gnoseology. Dimitrova’s work notes at moments the soterio-economic modal dimensions of Maximus’ gnoseology. What this paper aims to present are the essentials of that soterio-economic structure, progression and operations more acutely. Furthermore, to demonstrate its intersection of the well known themes of Maximian Tri-ontology and gnomic/natural will. This, I believe will provide development to the Maximian moment within a broader historiographical narrative, found in Norman Russell’s recent monograph on Palamism, precisely on the relationship between dogmatic theology and mystical theology[2] - or for our purposes, academic theology and prayer.

Adamic Knowing

One must demonstrate Maximus’ protological or Adamic knowing in order to grasp the soterio-economic and modal changes. As a prologue, one must understand Adam’s “nakedness,” which may refer to additional qualities added to man post-lapse; that is, from his prior simplicity, multiplicity and complexity are introduced into humanity. Maximus states, one can know “’s attributes as they were then by stripping away those that are contemplated around him now.”[3] Granting this, what are the pre- and post-lapse characteristics of Adamic mind and knowing? Maximus says Adam failed to “focus the eye of the soul on the divine light” which leads him to “groping willfully with both hands through the confusion of matter, surrendered his whole being to the power of sensation”[4] Part of Adam’s fall entails a forgetfulness and ignorance of God as the First Cause which blinds the intellect from divine knowledge and opens the possibility for impassioned knowledge and experience of sensible things,[5] such that Adam “...completely mixed the whole of his intellective power with the whole of sensation, and drew into himself the composite, destructive, passion-forming knowledge of sensible things.” Adam became like the “irrational beasts,” even “surpassing them in their lack of reason by exchanging natural reason for something contrary to nature.”[6] Ignorance and descent into irrationality establishes a new preoccupation with the knowledge of and “endless meddling into”[7] sensible things, “solely according to the senses,” from which he never arrives at the principles or logoi​ ofthe sensible world which would propel one up the gnoseological schema. This state of sensible subjection further generates ignorance of God.[8] Having gained insight into Adam’s fall, it is now necessary to hear Maximus at length to hear the status of his knowing beforehand:

“For it was fitting for the primal man” to be wholly undistracted by any of the things that were beneath him, or around him, or oriented to him, but to have need of one thing alone for his perfection, namely, the unconditioned motion of the whole power of his love for what was above him, by which I mean God… [being free of necessity, need of skill, deceptive passions in the imagination]...and being wise, ​his knowledge​ placed​ him above the contemplation about nature​. Thus the first man possessed nothing between himself and God, which might have veiled his knowledge), or hindered his kinship with God...[9]

This statement, that Adam was “above the contemplation of nature,” is the most definitive statement of Maximus concerning Adamic knowing and is further clarified with parallel packed statements in ​Ambigua 45​: that he was “beyond every form of inquiry into nature,” and bare “of the manifold contemplation of nature and [manifold] knowledge,” and “originally had no need to rely on ideas discursively drawn from sensible objectsfor the consideration of divine things.”[10] The question then is: what is the “contemplation of nature”? And following this question: what is the place of this kind of contemplation in Maximus’ entire gnoseological scheme? And what is the knowing which is ​not​“discursively drawn” from the sensible world?

Gnoseology and Post-Lapsarian Liminality

We can speak of the post-lapse situation Adam finds himself in, the fall from the mode of knowing above natural contemplation to a modal spectrum of a more or less paltry sensate existence as an ​epistemological subjection​.This will make itself clear upon grasping the relation of the post-lapsarian stages and eschatological state of knowing. One finds brief summaries throughout the Maximian corpus which demonstrates this most clearly, and often which demonstrate their taxis.[11] In one such passage, Maximus sketches his general epistemology succinctly, as an anagogical interpretation of Genesis 3:17-20, concerning Adam’s chastisement. Adam must eat, the ​earth ​(the work of purifying the heart through ascetic practice or practical philosophy), ​grass​ or ​small​greens​ (“true understanding of beings according to natural contemplation,”) and ​bread ​(the “true initiation into the mystery of theology”).[12] There is a clear hierarchical progression or refinement from earth, to grass or greens, to bread. 

Without dwelling too much on these first two stages, the structure is helpful for our purposes. To situate Adam in this structure, Adamic knowing is above ​askesis ​and natural contemplation, placing Adam solely in the realm of theology, contemplation of God, specifically non-discursive immediacy with God. Post-lapsarian liminal knowing on the other hand is precisely the knowing we know (or ought to know) characterized by Maximus’ gnoseological schema. One may observe that there seems to be a persistent theme of avoiding or escaping the material or sensible. But sensible reality itself is not the problem: only one’s engagement with it. Maximus will say that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is representative of “visible creation” insofar as it contains “spiritual principles” which “nourish the intellect” and “natural potential” to “delight the senses and distort the intellect.”[13]

when spiritually contemplated it possesses the knowledge of the good, but when it is received in a corporeal manner it possesses the knowledge of evil, and to those who partake of it corporeally it becomes the teacher of passions, making them oblivious to divine realities.[14]

Seeing the world in this way, leads to ecstatic union, a point of which beholding God is not the erasure of the sensible, or the abolition of the faculties to see it, but it is similar to how one beholds the rising sun and can no longer see the stars, even though they are present.[15] The senses being deceived by sensible experience impedes the intending cataylzing movement of the soul, much as a veil prevents true sight.[16] Another way to view Maximus’ gnoseology is to attend to his distinction of the mental faculties and their activities. One distinction Maximus makes is between the mind (​νοῦς), reason (λόγος) and sensation (αἴσθησις) each which have “three general movements of the soul” which are “gathered into one”[17] and are involved in the three stages.[18] The movement of ​mind is “simple” and “inexplicable” around God “in a mode beyond knowledge” while ​reason ​is aligned with the cause which defines things unknown, garnering principles, thus shaping the soul. Lastly, ​sensation a ​synthetic motion, composed of the soul and body, grasping the sensible and procuring impressions which carry the intelligible principles of the sensible. It is the ​mind which “seeks” and “researches” with a “simple movement” by desire toward something known and while ​reason “investigates” or “inquires” by making distinctions.[19] That is, the activity of the ​mind is again, simple, while the activity of ​reasonis discursive, dialectic, and manifold, complex, distinguishing reality in conceptual parts. When ​reason is perfected according to nature it is,

a pure intellect that, [which] through ​union ​with its ​divine Cause​, has​ acquired a relation transcending intellection​, according to which the intellect— having ceased from its multiform natural motion and relation to things subsequent to the Cause, and having reached the ineffable limit — cleaves in a manner beyond cognition solely to the all-blessed silence that transcends intellection. Reason and intellection cannot in any way give expression to this silence, which is revealed only to those who have experienced it through direct participation, having been counted worthy of spiritual joy transcending all intellection.[20]

In other words, reason raises up sensation and its derived intelligibles together to be united with the ​mind and ceases from its “natural activity,” which is the discursive activity of reason which belongs to ​mind. The purpose of this schema of faculties and gnoseology is for one “to raise themselves up from the forefather’s fall” arriving at ineffable knowledge and union with God[21] and through the activity of ​reason to restore “nature to itself”[22] - preparing the way for knowing which is beyond nature. 

One must acknowledge that prayer also plays an important role in this gnoseological schema. It is prayer that enables the mind to “get out from among existing things”[23] and ascend to God which of course occurs with the help of divine knowledge.[24] In fact, without love, self mastery and prayer, the ​nous​cannot “devote itself perfectly to God.”[25] Other dimensions such as “love” (ἀγαπή) factor into this gnoseology as well. Vassányi acknowledges that both gnosis and agape, ​or a “loving knowledge” or “knowing love”[26] propels the mind to immediacy with God. In effect, loving propels all knowing, and conversely, knowing generates love. Desire and love are likewise closely linked, and intimately foundational to all of the activities of the ​mind.[27]

Eschatological Knowing

The mind, or its mode, must go beyond the finitude and limit of conceptual thought in order to achieve a “life without limits”[28] characteristic of the eschatological mode of the righteous. The deified human person must mirror God’s transcendent existence, even in its knowing. Knowing in the eschatological mode (knowing God, primarily) is beyond the temporal succession of discursive ratiocination, knowing things as God knows them. The human being becomes “simple to God”[29] mirroring his simplicity. This simplicity makes sense, given that the kind of knowledge of God, already possible in this life, is grasped by a simple union​, and not intellectually as an “object of knowledge or predication” according to “certain condition” but is “unconditioned,” “beyond all thought” because of a “certain unutterable and indefinable principle” known only by grace; all “multiform movement” and motion, including that of the mind’s discursivity, will cease.[30]

This simplicity is rooted in the union of the lower powers of the soul, ​θυμός and​ἐπιθυμία with ​reason​’s overarching guidance, as well as reason itself and even sensation, to become one singular movement with mind. Of course this simplicity is ​according to potentiality​ and grace, rather than a simplicity rooted in substantial change of the human essence, allowing for the perpetuity of epektasis without clearing the diastema.[31]

What might strike many in this Maximian notion, is that there does not seem to be a clear distinction between the highest kinds of knowing we can attain here and the eschatological mode of knowing. This is intentional, I believe, as Maximus’ reiterative statements of sainthood are essentially statements about their achievement of at least some realization of that eschatological state. And indeed, while investigative reason breeds faith (along with love and desire), this faith drives the ​mind​to be “taught by God in a manner beyond words and because God is always present​, the things of the future ​are present​, through hope​, together with Him.”[32] And it is the “principle of faith” which alone grasps “all things beyond ​physis and ​gnosis​.”[33]

The motion then, of intellective beings, is to become a “knowing intellect” by the animus of love and desire, whose consummate end is to be “wholly present in the whole beloved” to be wholly encompassed by the “whole saving circumscription” and no longer “known by its own qualities,” but only by those of “circumscriber.”[34] Even the qualities of knowing are transfigured beyond any conceivable mode. Being in God in this way, who is the limit of “every definition, order and law, whether of mind, reason, or nature,” is necessarily, to transpose mind, reason and nature beyond their limits, into what is without limit.[35]

The Tri-ontological Modes and the Soterio-Economic Willing as Indicators

The Ages are divided into three: those that were for the incarnation, which has come to completion, those which are “intended for the grace of human deification” which has “not yet arrived” and an unnamed third state of liminality.[36] The past and future ages are defined by passivity, the present by activity in which humans will “reach the end of the exertion of our power and activity.” No natural principle in humankind will restrict deifying increase; nature altogether lacks the potential for deification. In fact, in our knowing we have an active and passive dimension; the “rational faculty” which is active and used for performing the virtues, while the “spiritual faculty” which is “unlimited in its potential, capable of receiving all knowledge, capable of transcending the nature of all created beings and known things and even if leaving the “ages” of time behind it.” We will have fully transcended our very nature and “ completely traversed the inner ​logoi​” while arriving at the “true Cause” in order to operate “in a manner beyond knowledge.”[37]

“Being (​τὸ εἶναι),” “well-being (​τὸ εὖ εἶναι),” and “eternal well-being (​τὸ ἀεὶ εὖ εἶναι)” are three terms which represent providential human modes of existence. Being is the basis of human existence, as even in the postlapsarian state, God “preserves”[38] their Being. Yet even this contains the potentiality which, when actualized, constitutes Well-Being; Well-Being is already what is teleologically inherent, “directed,”[39] or potential in Being. Eternal Well-Being, however, is something entirely beyond nature. The Maximian Tri-ontological modes are closely related to the relation between the principles (​logoi​) of creatures and their “universal essences,” which have been created since the beginning and the entire “formation, progress and sustenance of the individual parts that are potential within them,” are unfolding ​via God’s providential work.[40] It is the relation between the ​logoi ​and nature which accounts for both the persistence of humans ​qua humans, and their dynamic unfolding; the ​logoi​ of humans holds human nature and its potential becoming just as Being holds Well-Being potentially. Eternal Well-Being, however, is something beyond this entirely, achieved only by union and grace. For Maximus, this scheme is the very structure of not only human becoming and deification, but also bears the identical marks of the modal changes which mind and knowing undergoes as well, most generally: a basic knowing which can be better or worse, beastly or sublime, which culminates in an ecstatic knowing possible only by grace and union.

Natural and gnomic willing enters here tied up both with knowing and with the tri-ontological modes. Adam chose the material and sensible instead of “intellective beauty” after which forgetfulness of his former dignity and the ignorance of God entered the picture, allowing for evil which is “the irrational movement of natural powers toward something other than their proper goal, based on an erroneous judgment.”[41] This primordial error of judgment is precisely the instigation of the Adamic epistemological subjection and the advent of the gnomic or deliberative will. Well-Being on the other hand is realized by the use of natural powers (such as mind, reason and will) in accord with nature.[42] For this reason, “Well-Being” and “Eternal Well-Being” are linked to the will, realized only by “self-chosen impulse,” “self-determination,”[43] and “​deliberately ​choosing,”[44] from which Eternal Well-Being requires grace beyond the will and mind.

Conclusion and Retrieval

In summary, Maximian soterio-economic dimensions of mind and knowing are characterized by a movement from the ​epistemological subjection​ of Adam to the merely sensible, to the union and sublation of discursive reason into the immediacy of the mind’s knowing of God ​via​union, grace and potential simplicity. This progression of the mind is one axis which cuts across the axes of the particular modes of willing (natural and gnomic) on the one hand, and the general overarching Tri-ontological modes of human existence and destiny on the other.

There are myriads of insights one can draw from all of this for our division between the academic intellectual work of theology and prayer on the other hand. To begin, readers may notice specific term ​prayer​ has rarely arisen above; yet upon attending to Maximus’ statements concerning higher echelons of the mind’s activity, one finds virtual synonymy to statements about prayer[45] and even identical to the three stages one point.[46] Additionally, Maximus enumerates futile forms of knowledge which were alien to Adam and will be again to the deified human being: “principles of technical skills,” “investigation of natural principles,”[47] and “academic knowledge.”[48] This is the case simply because union​transforms this manifold knowledge, characterized by conceptual parts, manifold and multiform, discursive and dialectic, into an immediate knowledge of spiritual sensation or ​aisthesis​- effectively, touching God[49] Our ‘theology of concepts,’ or “academic” theology, then is, as St. Paul says, “knowing in part” (1 Cor 13:9).


[1] Amb. Io. 6.3 (1068B) in ​On Difficulties in the Church Fathers​: The Ambigua, Vol. I, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014) 72-3. Both volumes of Constas’ translation of Ambigua will be relied on for translation, with occasionally emendation from the Greek where desired.

[2] ​The section “​What is the Relationship between Dogmatic Theology and Mystical Theology?,” 147ff​in ​Gregory Palamas and the Making of Palamism in the Modern Age​.

[3] Amb. Io. 45.4 (PG 1353B-C), Constas, Vol. II, 196-7, with some alteration.

[4] Amb. Io. 10.60, (PG 1156C) Ibid., 246-7.

[5] ​Q. Thal. Intro. 1.2.12-13, 16 in ​St. Maximos the Confessor: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassio​, trans. Nicholas Constas, (Washington, DC: CUAP, ), 82-3, 85-6.

[6] ​Q. Thal. Intro. 1.2.13., Constas, 83.

[7] ​Q. Thal.​Qu. 5.2, Constas, 107.

[8] ​Q. Thal.​Intro. 1.2.14, Constas, 83-4.

[9] ​Amb. Io​.45 (1353C-1353D), Constas, 196-9. My addition and emphasis.

[10] ​Am . Io. 45 (1353D-1356A), Constas, 196-9. With my emendations.

[11] ​Q. Thal. Prologue, 1.1.1. Constas, 69-70.; Qu. 5.3., 107.; QD 190 in ​St. Maximus the Confessor’s: Questions and Doubts​,trans. Despina D. Prassas (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press), 136-7.

[12] ​Q. Thal.​Qu. 5.3, Constas, 107.

[13] ​Q. Thal. Intro. 1.2.17-18.

[14] ​Q. Thal. Intro. 1.2.18.

[15] ​Centuries on Love​,(PG 90 964 A 4-8).

[16] ​Amb. Io.​10 1112A-B, Constas, 158-161.

[17] ​Amb. Io. 10 1112D-1113C, Constas, 161-5.

[18] There are numerous instances of cross over of the faculties between the three staged gnoseological schema. One example is a passage by Gregory of Nazianzus which instigates the interpretation of ​Ambigua 10​which identifies reason​or logos ​with the responsibility of the cultivation of virtue, under the premise that practice and reason are conjoined. Amb Io. 10, (1105C-1108A) Constas 150-151.

[19] ​Q. Thal.​Qu. 59.14, Constas, 424.

[20] ​Q. Thal. Prologue, 1.1.1. Constas’ translation, 69-70.

[21] ​Amb. Io. 45.5 (1356B) Constas, 200-1

[22] ​QD​5, Prassas, 45.

[23] ​Chapters on Love​,1.11.

[24] ​Chapters on Lov​e, 1.12.

[25] ​LA​19, ​St. Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity​,trans. Polycarp Sherwood (New York, NY: Newman Press, 1955), 114.

[26] Miklós Vassányi, “Gymnastics of the Mind: The Theory of ​gymnos nous​in Maximus the Confessor,” 37 , in The Immediacy of Mystical Experience in the European Tradition, eds. EnikőSepsi, Miklós Vassányi, A. Daroczi (Switzerland: Springer, 2017) 31-37.

[27] ​Amb Io.​7.10 (1073C-1076A), Constas, 86-89.

[28] ​Q. Thal.​61.15,

[29] ​Amb. Io. 6, (1068A), Constas, 70-1.

[30] ​Amb. Io. 15 (1220B-C), Constas, 372-3.

[31] See Lollar, To See into the Life of Things, 228-9; ​Blowers, Paul M. "Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Concept of "Perpetual Progress"." ​Vigiliae Christianae​46, no. 2 (1992): 151-71.​; Maximus, ​Amb. Io.​10 (1196A11-C1).

[32] ​Q. Thal. Qu. 49.4, Constas, 282.

[33] ​Amb. Io.​41.12 (1313D), Constas 121. My emphasis and alteration.

[34] ​Amb. Io.​7.10 (1073C-1076A) Constas, 86-89

[35] ​Amb. Io.​41.5 (1308B-C), Constas’ 108-9.

[36] ​Q. Thal.​22.2-5, Constas, 150-2.

[37] ​Q. Thal. 22.7, Constas, 153.

[38] ​Q. Thal. 2. (CCSG 7:51).

[39] ​Myst. 5​.(CCSG 69:21-4).

[40] ​Q. Thal..​2.2., Constas, 97.

[41] ​Q. Thal.​Intro. 1.2.12. Constas, 82.

[42] ​Am. Io.​10. (1116C), Constas 168-169.

[43] ​Q. Thal.​2​.2 (CCSG 7:51). etc.

[44] ​Amb. Io.​65 (PG 91:1392D)

[45] Indeed, Maximus will even say that “​mystical theology​” (​μυστικῆς θεολογίας) is believed (​πιστεύεται​) through “prayer” (​προσευχῆς). Amb. Io. 10.53 (1149B), Constas, 234-5.

[46] ​Q. Thal. 25 Scholia 12​, Constas, 170-1.

[47] ​Amb. Io.​45, passim.

[48] ​Th. Oec.​1.22.

[49] ​Q. Thal. 60, passim.

[Paper First Delivered at the 2020 Villanova Patristics, Medieval and Renaissance Conference]

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