“The Feast of Wisdom”: The Prologue to the Mystagogy of St Maximos the Confessor

Fr Maximos Constas

We began the previous post by noting that St Maximos the Confessor’s Mystagogy is a commentary on the Eucharistic synaxis or Divine Liturgy. At the same time, the Mystagogy is much more than this, since it is not narrowly focused on the sacrament of the Eucharist or even the larger liturgical setting in which the Eucharist is celebrated. Instead, the Mystagogy is a work of ecclesiology (or theological reflection on the nature of the Church), written by a patristic author who has been rightly called “the greatest ecclesiologist among the Fathers.”[1]

'Wisdom Has Built her House,' Narthex of the Church of the Mother of God Perivleptos, Ohrid, Pappas Patristic Institute
'Wisdom Has Built her House,' Narthex of the Church of the Mother of God Perivleptos, Ohrid, late 14th century

To be sure, the Eucharist is at the center and summit of ecclesial experience, but it would be reductive to consider the Mystagogy simply as a commentary on the Divine Liturgy. This is evident not only from the work’s location in a trilogy of writings (including the Ambigua to John and the Responses to Thalassios[2]) but also from its close connection to Maximos’s Commentary on the ‘Our Father,’ a prayer that is central to the Eucharistic liturgy and which figures prominently in traditional Christian initiation into the sacramental life of the Church.[3]

Maximos’s interest in larger questions of ecclesiology is apparent already in chapter one, where he develops a parallel between the activity of the Church with respect to its members and the activity of God with respect to his creations. In creation, all things are connected to God as their cause, and, because they all have God as their common cause, they are also connected to each other. As the new creation (cf. Rev 21:5; 2 Cor 5:17), the Church completes this unity by uniting the faithful, through baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit, as members of the body of Christ. We will consider this question more closely in our next post. For now, our focus is on the work’s prologue.

The Prologue

The Mystagogy is addressed to Theocharistos, whose identity remains uncertain, though attempts have been made to identify him with a number of individuals bearing the same name. Depending on how one interprets the evidence, Theocharistos was either a priest or a high-ranking layman, which latter could be significant for the way that Maximos shaped his commentary on the liturgy, though this is not to say that the work is anything like an elementary catechism for lay readers.[4]

The prologue bears comparison to the prologues of several of Maximos’s other works. As was the case with these works, Maximos wrote the Mystagogy in response to a request from a friend. As a rule, he is initially reluctant to respond to such requests, typically claiming that the task is beyond his abilities.[5] In the prologue to the Mystagogy, he protests that he has “no experience in the art and practice of speaking,” because he was “privately educated and uninitiated in the craft of words, which possess value merely in their delivery, in which the masses greatly delight, limiting their pleasure to the sound of the words.”[6] Maximos says very much the same thing in the prologues he wrote for the Responses to Thalassios,[7] the Chapters on Love,[8] and again in the Ambigua to John, where we find a near exact parallel:

I ask that when reading the following, you not look to me for any literary refinement, since I have not that power over words to make them ring winningly in the ears of the audience, and know not how to round them out with calculated pauses and stops; insofar as I am unschooled in the rules of style and inexperienced in their practical exercise, it seems preferable, indeed desirable, for me to concentrate on the inner meaning of what our holy and great teacher has written, though I do so in rough-hewn phrases, and only partially at that.[9]

Despite these common features, the prologue to the Mystagogy nonetheless stands out for its unusual complexity, which is without parallel in the other prologues. Maximos begins the prologue with a reference to a passage in Proverbs, followed by a complex framing device introducing a certain “wise and blessed elder” and explaining the work’s origins. This is followed by a statement defining the relation of the Mystagogy to Dionysios the Areopagite, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, after which the prologue concludes with an elaborate peroration on apophatic theology. These are among the major themes and subjects that Maximos touches on in the prologue, and we shall consider them briefly in what follows.

The Feast of Wisdom

In his opening address to Theocharistos, Maximos cites Proverbs 9:9, which states that, “given the opportunity, a wise man will become wiser, and a righteous man will continue to receive knowledge.” Maximos contends that Theocharistos has not only understood what Scripture here only “hints at” but has also put it into actual practice, suggesting that Theocharistos is the “wise man” who exemplifies in his life the principle and practice of mystagogy (which, as noted in the previous post, is largely a hermeneutic process). In these same opening lines, one notes multiple references to the word wisdom and its cognates (i.e., σοφώτερος, ὁ σοφός, σοφῶς, σοφῷ).[10]

As both Maximos and Theocharistos surely knew, these references to wisdom resonate with the larger context of the passage from Proverbs, which famously refers to the figure of Wisdom building her house and preparing her table:

Wisdom has built herself a house and established it upon seven pillars; she slaughtered her own sacrifices, she mixed her own wine in a mixing bowl, and she prepared her own table … she summoned all to her feast, saying, ‘Whoever is foolish, let him turn to me!’ And to those who lack understanding, she said, ‘Come! Eat of my bread, and drink wine that I have mixed for you.’ (Prov 1:1-5).

In the New Testament, Christ is identified with the “Wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:17-2:13), an association that was given monumental architectural expression in the church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople (along with its various Solomonic connotations).[11] Even more to the point are the allusions to the sacrament of the Eucharist prefigured in Wisdom’s table laden with a feast of bread and wine, making this a fitting reference for a work on the Divine Liturgy.

The Wise Elder

Maximos subsequently reveals that Theocharistos had once heard him recounting the teachings of a certain wise elder concerning the symbolism of the church and the liturgy. At some point after that, Theocharistos asked Maximos to write these teachings down, which constitute a significant part of the Mystagogy. The importance of the anonymous elder in the formation of Maximos’s theology is probably much greater than is ordinarily acknowledged, though admittedly it is not easy to assess.[12]

In the first place, it does not seem unreasonable to identify the elder of the Mystagogy with the elder whom Maximos mentions eight times in the Ambigua to John, where he apears as an authoritative interpreter of Gregory of Nazianzus (cf. Amb. 27.5; 28.2; 29.2: 35.2; 39.2; 66.2). In Amb. 35.2, the elder refers to two passages in Dionysios the Areopagite’s On the Divine Names, which suggests that his teaching on the Eucharistic synaxis may have been related to On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.[13] Based on these passages, the elder was not simply a spiritual father in the sense of someone providing spiritual advice or direction, but someone deeply knowledgeable in the thought and language of Gregory of Nazianzus. Maximos describes him as a “philosopher skilled in every kind of teaching,” and thus as a kind of polymath. It seems clear from the Ambigua that the elder was an authority on the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, and there is no reason to believe that he was not equally well versed in the writings of Dionysios. Thus it may be that the elder’s interpretation of the liturgy was itself indebted to or in conversation with the work of Dionysios.

Dionysios the Areopagite

At this point, Maximos introduces a caveat, namely, that because the “symbols” of the Liturgy have already been considered by Dionysios the Areopagite in his On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, he will make no attempt “to repeat the same things” Dionysios said, nor “follow the same themes or subjects.” To attempt to do so, Maximos points out, would be “arrogance and madness for those who are not on his level of understanding.” Yet he argues that it was God’s will that Dionysios “omitted certain things from his exposition,” so that “others could display and train their habit and desire for divine things,” and it is these omitted or overlooked topics that Maximos will address, so that those who arrive after Dionysios will not be “altogether idle in the vineyard of life,” an argument he develops through an elaborate analogy to the biblical parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-6).

This is not the place to explore the complex relationship between the theology of Maximos the Confessor and Dionysios the Areopagite. It is nonetheless worth noting that, while Dionysios coined the word “hierarchy,” this is a word that Maximos never uses. It seems to be the case that, in place of Dionysian hierarchical verticality, Maximos’s doctrine of the divine logoi generates something akin to a non-spatial model, in which presence and dependence are collapsed—like “stars vanishing at the appearance of the sun”[14]—into the immediate and dynamic continuum of Logos, logoi, and beings.[15] Thus, the mediating structures of super- and sub-ordination yield to a more deeply inward and more intensely immediate presence of the Word.

An Apophatic Ecclesiology

As noted above, Maximos concludes the prologue with an extended argument about God’s radical transcendence of the world. Indeed, God so radically transcends creation that he cannot properly be said even to exist or possess being, since this would place God on the same level as his creations. It seems that, before embarking on the series of images and analogies that he will use to describe the Church throughout the Mystagogy, Maximos found it necessary to establish the limits of theological language. This strong emphasis on the via negativa is key to what Nikolaos Loudovikos has described as Maximos’s “apophatic ecclesiology,” which does not reify hierarchical structures but presents us with the “dynamic fact of participation in the mode of divine being,” which requires an “iconic, participatory condition of becoming” realized in part through ongoing negation.[16] Paraphrasing Loudovikos’s argument, we can say that the mode of ecclesial being, understood as dynamic participation in the mode of divine being, is realized in part through apophatic negation. This means that, rather than give us a new way of defining the Church, Maximos gives us a new way of seeing the Church—a new, existential vantage point from which we can witness and experience the Church’s being as it is constituted in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

That the mode of ecclesial being has an irreducibly apophatic component safeguards the Church against any reification of its structures and charisms. Here, negative theology is not understood in a reductively linguistic sense, but encompasses the negation of all stasis, whether it is objective or subjective, internal or external, institutional or charismatic. It is a corrective, in other words, to the reification of either extreme in the polarization of charisma and institution, along with any ecclesial office, charism, sign or symbol taken as an end in itself.

Apophatic ecclesiology has a positive aspect as well, since it ensures that the Church as “icon” remains an open, dialogical reality. From this point of view, the notion of “icon” does not denote a mere isolated and inert representation, but a reality that exists in dynamic continuity with its source, making it the locus of an active encounter, an existential response to a gift, a condition of openness and a movement toward its uncreated archetype, which offers itself to the world in and through the Church. An icon or image is always an image of something, and thus by definition is a referential reality, inherently relational or dialogical in its very being, pointing beyond itself — and not simply “beyond,” but forward, in a dynamic movement toward its eschatological fulfillment and completion in God, who is also its cause and origin.[17]

To be continued...

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[1] Nikolaos Loudovikos, Church in the Making: An Apophatic Ecclesiology of Consubstantiality, translated by Norman Russell (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), 43; see my review of this important book in Analogia 6 (2019): 103-16.

[2] As noted in the previous post.

[3] The connection between the Mystagogy and the Commentary on the ‘Our Father’ was first pointed out by Alain Riou, Le monde et l’église selon Maxime le Confesseur (Paris: Beauchesne, 1973), 123-71; cf. Andrew Louth, “Mystagogy in Saint Maximus,” in Seeing Through the Eyes of Faith: New Approaches to the Mystagogy of the Church Fathers, ed. Paul van Geest (Leuven: Peeters, 2016), 375-88.

[4] That Theocharistos was a priest is argued by Christian Boudignon, “Maxime le Confesseur était-il Constantinopolitain?” in Philomathestatos: Studies in Greek and Byzantine Texts Presented to Jacques Noret for his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. B. Janssens and P.V.D. Roosen (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), 11-43, at 38-41. Without addressing the question of authorship, Nicholas Marinides, “Lay Piety in Byzantium” (PhD diss., Princeton, 2014), 244-317, suggests that the Mystagogy is largely a work of lay piety. In the Greek text, the Mystagogy is addressed to “lord Theocharistos” (κυρίῳ Θεοχαρίστῳ), whereas the Chapters on Love is addressed to a priest or monk (πάτερ Ἐλπίδιε), who is characterized as τῇ σῇ ὁσιότητι and ἡ σὴ ἁγιωσύνη (ed. Aldo Ceresa-Gastaldo, Massimo Confessore, Capitoli sulla Carita [Rome: Editrice Studium, 1963], 48).

[5] Scholars refer to such reluctance as a “modesty topos,” but it seems to me that St Maximos is modeling the virtue of humility for his reader, which is a necessary spiritual condition for the theological tasks set forth in his works, which are neither finished products nor simply meant to be read but rather to be internalized and bring about a change of mind and heart.

[6] The phrase “privately educated” (ἱδιωτείᾳ συντεθραμμένος) has also been translated as “rudely educated” (Armstrong) and “brought up without education” (Stead).

[7] “When I received and read your list of these passages, I was overwhelmed in mind, hearing, and thought and subsequently implored you to permit me to decline your request, saying that the questions you had put to me were such as could scarcely be approached even by those who are greatly advanced in contemplation, and who have drawn near to the highest knowledge far beyond the reach of most men .... I consequently renewed and indeed enlarged my request — more than once — to be released from such a task” (Maximos Constas, St Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios [Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018], 74-75).

[8] “These chapters I have sent to you asking that you read them with indulgence and look only for what is of profit in them, overlooking the inelegance of the words (τὸ ἀκαλλὲς τῶν λέξεων), and to pray for my modest ability which is bereft of any spiritual profit” (ed. Ceresa-Gastaldo, 48).

[9] For the text and translation, see Nicholas [Maximos] Constas, Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua (DOML 1:66-67).

[10] See Marcus Plested, “Wisdom in St Maximus the Confessor,” Studia Patristica 42 (2006): 205-209; and Vladimir Cvetkovic, “Wisdom in St Maximos the Confessor Reconsidered,” in Saint Emperor Constantine and Christianity, vol. 2, ed. Dragisa Bojovic (Niš: Centre of Church Studies, 2013), 197-214.

[11] Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto 3.47, reports that the Gnostics were among the first to identify Christ with Wisdom, but by the fourth century it was a common Christological figure; cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Apollinarios (GNO 3/1:144); and Evagrios, Scholia on Proverbs 103-107 (SC 340:202-205).

[12] Some scholars claim the elder is a literary fiction invented by Maximos to import novel ideas into his work. However, Theodor Nikolaou, “Zur Identität des Μακάριος Γέρων in der Mystagogia von Maximos dem Bekenner,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 49 (1983): 407-418, argues that the elder is someone whom Maximos knew, and who is mentioned throughout his writings with an immediacy and in a manner that is not at all systematic or possessed of any literary or structural intent — all of which argues against the notion that he is a literary device.

[13] Note the prominent role of the elder in The Ascetic Life (PG 90:912-56), where he engages in a dialogue with a novice.

[14] Amb. 7.12 (DOML 1:93).

[15] For further discussion, see my article, “Maximus the Confessor and the Reception of Dionysius the Areopagite,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dionysius the Areopagite, ed. Mark Edwards, Dimitrios Pallis, and Georgios Steiris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 222-240, at pp. 230-31.

[16] Loudovikos, Church in the Making, 43-45.

[17] I borrow some of these arguments from my article, “St Maximus the Confessor: A Bridge Between the Churches,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 63 (2018): 5-29, at pp. 14-15 (note that this issue appeared in December of 2021).