Παρασκευή, 12 Ιουνίου 2015

"Love through long-suffering - St. Maxim the Greek

     While St Maximus the Confessor has become increasingly well known of late, another St Maximus whom we commemorate today—St Maximus the Greek—remains a good deal more obscure. Although he was Greek and a monk of Vatopaidi on the Holy Mountain, I found the most interesting account of him, not in any of my books about Greek Saints or the Holy Mountain, but in James Billington’s magisterial study, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (NY: Vintage, 1970), pp. 91-5. According to Billington, ‘the remarkable figure’ of St Maximus was the ‘finest representative of Renaissance culture in early-fifteenth-century Russia [sic; he means 16th-c. Russia]’ (p. 91). Born to a noble family of Arta in 1470, St Maximus went to Venice, Padua, and Florence for his higher studies (see this post at the Βατοπαίδι blog, in Greek). He became a devotee of Plato, heard the preaching of Savonarola (under whose influence he briefly joined the Dominican order), frequently discussed bookprinting with Aldus Manutius, whose edition of the Bible he took to Russia from Venice, and met the Greek librarian of the Medicis, Janus Lascaris (Fr Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology, Part I, trans. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979], p. 25). St Maximus’s Greek was an extremely learned, literary prose similar to that of the Bible (Fr Florovsky, p. 25). Although Fr Florovsky calls him more accurately a ‘Byzantine humanist’ than a ‘humanist’ in the Western sense (p. 25), Billington rightly notes, ‘Maxim illustrates the humanist temperament not only in his knowledge of the classics and interest in textual criticism, but also in his concern for style and his inclusion of poetry and a grammar among his works’ (p. 91).       But St Maximus wanted something more than worldly learning and glory. He left Italy and became a monk on the Holy Mountain, where he struggled for ten years at Vatopaidi. St Maximus spent his time there well, studying the patristic writings, acquiring the virtues of self-control, humility, and love, and attaining to unceasing prayer and union with God (Βατοπαίδι). Thus, he was duly prepared for the work that lay ahead, though Billington writes that he ‘always felt close to this center of the contemplative life and of Hesychast spirituality’ (p. 92).
        In 1518, at the suggestion of the Protos of the Holy Mountain, St Maximus was summoned by the Tsar Vasily III to ‘help translate holy texts from the Greek and Latin’ (Billington, p. 91). There he stayed for the rest of his life, until his repose in 1556. Fr Florovsky tells us that St Maximus could not speak Russian when he first arrived in Moscow, and not a single person there could speak Greek, adding, ‘This seems almost incredible’ (p. 24). But fortunately, the learned man knew Latin, a language more familiar to the Muscovites, and their translation projects consisted of St Maximus rendering the Greek into Latin, and the Slavs rendering the Latin into their language.

      According to Fr Florovsky, St Maximus spent most of his time in this way on translation work (p. 25), as well as producing more than 150 extant original compositions and attracting ‘a large number of monastic and lay students’ (Billington, p. 91). But in the ferment of thought in Renaissance Italy, he also seems to have developed a penchant for argument. Billington writes that he ‘delighted in the favorite humanist pastime of refuting Aristotle (even though this hero of the medieval scholastics was barely known in Russia)’ (p. 91). Fr Florovsky adds that he ‘totally and characteristically rejected western scholasticism’ and that ‘he argued a good deal . . . against the “gift of stargazing”, and generally against Latin propaganda, Hagarene impiety, the Judaizers, or even the Armenian heresy’ (p. 25). St Maximus denounced immorality and secularisation wherever he saw it, stridently opposed the ‘Josephite’ party of monks in Muscovy, and inveighed against the divorce of the Tsar, ‘unsuccessfully attempting to make young Ivan IV “the just” rather than “the terrible”’ (Billington, p. 92). All of this was to get him into trouble. But according to Billington:
         This foreign teacher was revered, however, not for the logic of his arguments or the beauty of his style but for the depth of his piety. In his early years he argued for a crusade to liberate Constantinople and for a preventive war against the Crimean khan; but as time went on, the simple Pauline ideals of good cheer, humility, and compassion dominate his writings. In and out of monastic prisons, confronted with false accusations, torture, and near starvation, Maxim underscored with his own life his doctrine of love through long-suffering. Far from showing bitterness toward the ungrateful land to which he had come, he developed a love of Russia, and an image of it different from that of the bombastic Josephite monks in the Tsar’s entourage. (p. 93)
       While he was in prison, an Angel appeared to St Maximus to give him the Holy Mysteries and exhort him to endure his suffering. After this experience, St Maximus was inspired by God to compose the Canon to the Holy Spirit, which he wrote on the wall of his cell with a charcoal. He endured six years in prison, afterwards being sent into exile in Tver for twenty years. Finally, at the age of nearly 70, St Maximus was allowed to go to the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra, where he gave his soul into the hands of the Lord on 21 January 1556 (see the Life at the St John’s Cathedral website).Two short quotes will summarise the two sides of St Maximus’s personality.
     No dogma, human or divine, can firmly be considered reliable among them [scholastics], if Aristotelian syllogisms do not affirm that dogma and if it does not respond to artistic demonstration. (qtd. in Fr Florovsky, p. 25).
     True Godly reason not only beautifies the inner man with wisdom, humility and all manner of truth; but also harmonizes the outer parts of the body: eyes, ears, tongue and hands. (qtd. in Billington, p. 92)

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