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The Stages of Spiritual Progress

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

Since February 23, Fr Maximos Constas, Director of the Pappas Patristic Institute, has been leading a seminar entitled Solomon's Trilogy: The Stages of Spiritual Progress at the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge, MA, exploring the tradition of the threefold ascent to God through purification, illumination, and mystical union.

Solomon's Trilogy: The Three Stages of Spiritual Progress

Christian thinkers from antiquity through the medieval period and beyond have traditionally understood the Christian life as an ascent to God through three stages: (1) purification, (2) illumination, and (3) union with God. These stages were often seen to correspond to the three Solomonic books of the Old Testament: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

Solomon's Trilogy explores the patristic understandin of spiritual progress and the different stages of the spiritual life by looking at the role of asceticism, allegory, the nature of knowledge, the structure of the world, mystical union with God, and other themes in the writings of Origen, Evagrios, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Maximos the Confessor



1 Arnold I. Davidson, Introduction to Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual

Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, translated by Michael Chase (Oxford: Blackwell

Publishers, 1995), 1-36.

2 Pierre Hadot, “Forms of Life and Forms of Discourse in Ancient Philosophy,” in id.,

Philosophy as a Way of Life, 49-70.

3 Maximos Constas, “A Tale of Two Trees: Nature and Human Transformation”

(unpublished paper).

4 Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 1.2.11-22 (trans. 81-93).

Origen and Gregory of Nyssa

1 Origen, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs (trans. 21-57).

2 Gregory of Nyssa, Preface to the Commentary on the Song, and Homily 1

(trans. 3-45).

Some helpful secondary studies: (1) Louth, Origins of Christian Mysticism, 57-62; (2) Ludlow, “Theology and Allegory: Origen and Gregory of Nyssa on the Unity and Diversity of Scripture”; (3) Boyarin, “Origen as Theorist of Allegory: Alexandrian Contexts”; (4) Martens, “Revisiting the Allegory/Typology Distinction: The Case of Origen”; (5) Struck, “Allegory and Ascent in Neoplatonism.”

Evagrios of Pontus

1 Evagrios, Praktikos: A Treatise on the Practical Life (trans. 95-114).

1a Evagrios, The Three Stages of Spiritual Progress (Diagram).

Some helpful secondary studies: (1) Louth, Origins of Christian Mysticism, 102-11; (2) Driscoll, “Spiritual Progress in the Works of Evagrius Ponticus”; (3) Stewart, “Cassian the Theologian”; (4) Konstantinovsky, “Evagrius Ponticus and Maximus the Confessor: The Building of the Self in Praxis and Contemplation”; (5) Constas, “Nothing is Greater than Divine Love: Evagrios of Pontos, Maximos the Confessor, and the Philokalia”; see also (6) Bradford, “Evagrios Ponticus and the Psychology of Natural Contemplation”; and (7) Ekman, “Natural Contemplation in Evagrius Ponticus’ Scholia on Proverbs.”

Maximos the Confessor

1 Constas, Introduction to the Responses to Thalassios, pp. 21-32.

2 Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios, Qu. 32.

3 Maximos the Confessor, Ambiguum 10.28-41 (On the Transfiguration).

4 Maximos the Confessor, Amb. 6.

5 Maximos the Confessor, Amb. 20.

6 Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogy 4, 23 (trans. 189-90; 204-6).

See also: Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios, Qu. 49 (On natural contemplation); Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios, Qu. 51.8-15 (natural contemplation).

For further reading: Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Paul Blowers, Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor: An Investigation of the Quaestiones ad Thalassium (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1991); Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Chicago: Open Court, 1995); Adam G. Cooper, The Body in St Maximus the Confessor: Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Luke Steven, Imitation, Knowledge, and the Task of Christology in Maximus the Confessor (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020); Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Download the syllabus as a PDF here.

The Abigail Adams Institute

The Abigail Adams Institute, located on Arrow St in Cambridge, is an independent scholarly institute dedicated to providing supplementary humanistic education to the Harvard intellectual community. The mission of AAI is to foster shared intellectual life by exploring questions of deep human concern that cut across the boundaries of academic disciplines. Throughout the year, AAI provides a range of programming for Harvard and other Boston area university students, as well as Cambridge and Boston area young professionals, including reading and discussion groups, workshops, lectures, conversations with faculty, intellectual retreats, and mentoring, while our summer seminars attract students and scholars from around the world. The name of the Institute honors the Massachusetts native Abigail Adams, whose capacious learning, judicious insight, and wise counsel shaped the founding and early development of the American nation. Visit their website here.

The seminar, which runs through March 23, is offered free of charge, and includes students from Harvard University, Boston College, and Holy Cross, as well as young professionals from the greater Boston area.

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