“Wheels within Wheels” (Ezekiel 1:16): Chapters 2 and 3 of the Mystagogy of St Maximos the Confessor

Fr Maximos Constas

Dome, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

In this essay, the fourth in this series,* we will treat chapters 2 and 3 of the Mystagogy as a single unit. The text of the Mystagogy is traditionally divided into 24 chapters framed by a prologue and epilogue. These chapter divisions, however, and the headings or subtitles that accompany them, were almost certainly the work of a later Byzantine scribe or editor (though they had already been introduced into the manuscript tradition by the early ninth century). Given the thematic unity of chapters 2 and 3 — which latter consists of a single sentence — we will consider them as a single unit.

As we saw in chapter 1, Maximos presented the unity of the Church as the completion of God’s unifying work in creation. In chapter 2, the focus shifts from the Church as an image of creation in general, to the Church as an image of a particular aspect of creation, namely, the distinction of created nature into visible and invisible realities.[1] This theme is extended into chapter 3, which further narrows the focus exclusively to the visible dimension, according to which the sanctuary is an image of heaven and the nave an image of the earth, so that the Church is also a symbol of the visible world itself.[2]

Windows, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

If, in the first chapter Maximos moved from the unity of creation to the unity of the Church, he now moves from the structure and design of the church building to the structure and design of creation. And he does this because it is the structure of the church that enables us to understand something of the structure of the world. Thus, the unity and diversity seen in the physical form of the church building is reflected in the unity and diversity present in the cosmos as a whole.

The Sanctuary and the Nave

Sanctuary, Nave, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

Though a single structure, the church building is divided into the two major performance spaces of the liturgy: the sanctuary, which is reserved for the clergy, and the nave, which is reserved for the laity. Despite this division or distinction, the church remains “one in its hypostasis, not being divided by the difference of its own parts.” In this fusion of ecclesiastical architecture and language evocative of the hypostatic union of two natures in Christ, the sanctuary and the nave are “identical to one another and each exists in the other according to a condition of mutual reciprocity.”[3] Maximos expands on this concept by noting that the nave is the sanctuary in potential, while the sanctuary is the nave in actuality. The potential present in the nave is actualized through its ongoing “reference” (anaphora) to the mystery of the Eucharist celebrated in the sanctuary. At the same time, the sanctuary is the nave in actuality, since it “posseses the nave as the principle and beginning (arche) of its own mystery (mystagogia), while the Church remains one and the same through both.”

Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy, Sanctuary, Altar, Light

The Cosmic Temple

Maximos observes that, like the church building, creation is also divided into two parts: the intelligible world and the sensible world, which latter is “ingeneously woven together from many forms and natures, and which is a kind of church not made by hands (acheiropoietos),” indications of which can be seen “through this church, which has been made by hands.” Here it is worth noting that the “intelligible world of intellective and incorporeal substances” is a reference to the orders of angels, or what Dionysios the Areopagite famously described as the “celestial hierarchy,” so that the “mutual reciprocity” of the intelligible and the sensible is Maximos’s somewhat subtle way of gesturing toward the interface of the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies.[4]

Angel, Fresco, Mosaic, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

Thus, the cosmic sanctuary is the “upper world” which is inhabited by the “higher powers,” while the nave of this cosmic temple is the “lower world” inhabited by “those who live according to sense perception.” Nevertheless the cosmos is one, “not divided by virtue of its parts, but to the contrary the difference of its natural parts is contained in a higher unity and indivisibility,” so that the parts “are identical with that unity and with each other without being confused with each other.” Each part “wholly enters into the whole of the other, and both together complete the whole, and, as the parts of the whole, they are completed and unified.”

The Sensible and the Intelligible

Nature, Creation, Matter, Material, Sensible, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

With these formulations, Maximos gives us a deeper look into the mechanics of the “mutual interiority” that obtains between the sensible and the intelligible; and how the whole of one reality may be wholly and fully present in the whole of the other. At first glance this might seem to be nothing more than the standard Platonic division of the cosmos into the sensible and the intelligible. However, in Maximos’s understanding, the relationship between them is no longer the same; they are no longer elements in a binary opposition, since the Confessor has restructured them into something entirely interdependent and reciprocative.

“Wheels within Wheels”

To illustrate this relationship, Maximos uses the image of a “wheel within a wheel” described by the “marvelous seer of great visions,” the prophet and priest Ezekiel:

The whole intelligible world appears[5] imprinted[6] in the whole sensible world mystically by means of symbolic forms (for those who are capable of seeing them). And the whole sensible world exists in the whole intelligible world simplified in the logoi in accordance with the cognitive power[7] of the intellect. This one (i.e., the sensible world) is in that one (i.e., the intelligible world) by means of the logoi, and that one (i.e., the intelligible world) is in this one (i.e., the sensible world) by means of figures, and their function is like a “wheel in a wheel” (Ezek 1:16).[8]

Nature, Creation, Sensible, Material, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

Maximos immediately links this passage with Romans 1:20:

And again, just as the divine apostle says: “Ever since the beginning of creation, the invisible attributes of God have been clearly seen and apprehended in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). And if invisible things can be grasped through visible things, how much more can the visible things be grasped by those who devote themselves to spiritual contemplation? Because the symbolic contemplation of intelligible realities through visible things is the spiritual knowledge and understanding of visible realities through invisible ones.

The Confessor had already commented on Romans 1:20 in his Responses to Thalassios 13, where he argued that the “invisible things” of God were the logoi, that is, the spiritual principles and divine intentions for everything he created:

Angels, Immaterial, Intelligible, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

When with true understanding we contemplate cognitively all of God’s creatures according to their nature, they secretly announce to us the principles (logoi) by which they were created, disclosing in themselves the divine intention for each one, consistent with the words, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands” (Ps 18:1).[9]

In the biblical image of the “wheel in a wheel,” Maximos sees the unity of the visible and the invisble creation on the level of the logoi, which are themselves recapitualed in the Divine Logos. With this image, Maximos would seem to be moving away from a sharply hierarchical ordering of reality toward an emphasis on something more perichoretic and synergistic. Thus, a construal of creation as a binary opposition in which the sensible and the intelligible are set off against one another is replaced by something circular and concentric, mirroring the co-operation, reciprocity, and mutual interiority of the nave and the sanctuary.

Icon, Christ, Wheel, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

The sensible and the intelligible world would seem to be interconnected in this way partly because they both originate from one and the same divine cause, which is why they exhibit the same ontological relation that Maximos sees in all created things, since they are united through the logoi which are one in the Logos. Here, however, the Confessor may be proposing something slightly different. The two parts (or dimensions) of the world, the visible and the invisible, form a synthesis, and thus together manifest the same logos or inner principle. They have their unity in a common logos which is not generated by them as parts but rather through their mutual interiority, their condition of being wholly contained in the other.

Ezekiel, Prophet, Wheel, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

Maximos’s theological exegesis of Ezekiel 1:16 is, to my knowledge, without precedent in the patristic tradition. Patristic commentary on this verse before the seventh century often associated Ezekiel’s wheels with Psalm 77:18: “The sound of your thunder is in your wheels.” Earlier exegetes also pointed out that the “wheel” represents the fullness of life, which is why the world itself is spherical, and moves in a circle, like a “wheel within a wheel.” Because the angelic wheels are also “full of eyes,” they were additionally understood as a figure of the human soul containing Christ, in which the soul becomes the vehicle or “chariot” of the divine.[10] But none of this comes particularly close to the interpretaiton of Maximos.

Dionysios the Areopagite also mentions Ezekiel’s “flying wheels,” which for him are an example of a biblical absurdity, that is, something which is absurd on the literal level, since angels are not literally wagon wheels rolling around in heaven. At the same time, however, such textual “absurdities,” placed in Scripture by the Holy Spirit, conceal a deeper meaning disclosed through spiritual contemplation:

I must now look at the reason for applying to heavenly beings the names of “wheels” and “chariots.” These winged wheels move forward with neither twist nor swerve, and signify the power to progress directly along the straight road, without wandering off … Yet it is also possible that these wheels may be explained by another anagogical interpretation.[11] For the prophet calls them “Gelgel”[12] (Ezek 10:13) which in Hebrew means both “revolving” and “revealing” … for they expose hidden things and lift up the mind from below and carry the most exalted illuminations down to the lowliest.[13]

As this passage indicates, that there exists a meaningful reality behind the outward absurdity of certain physical or visible phenomena is not essentially different from the point which Maximos is making, since the “wheel” symbolizes a circular exchange, an ascending (anagogical) movement from perceptible images to intelligible meanings and a descending movement from intelligibes to sensibles, and thus can easily be accommodated to the Confessor’s understanding of the logoi of creation.

Spiral, Nature, Wheel, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

Based on Maximos’s vision of the mutual interiority of the sensible and the intelligible, the sphere of the sensible is no longer simply the passive recipient of intelligible form, to which it contributes nothing, as if it were nothing more than the negative shadow of the intelligible world, a dispensable vehicle for external representation. Instead, the existence and meaning of sensible phenomena are not limited to the sensible or material alone, because matter is no longer seen as an extrinsic substance to which the spirit must accommodate itself, as if it had to make the best of a recalcitrant medium to which it is not inherently suited. On the contrary, the material is already present in the spiritual and as such is simply the expression of the spiritual in the realm of material visibility. Both the sensible and the intelligible together communicate or convey the reality of God, which results in a much more positive understanding of the material world.

Thomas, Doubting, Touch, Matter, Sensible, Incarnation, Patristics, Maximos, Mystagogy

And this is exactly what we would expect from any theology rooted in—and responsive to—the Incarnation, the Liturgy, and the sacraments. Despite the dualism seemingly inherent in the difference between the sensible and the intelligible, the Greek Church Fathers were not dualists and developed a sophisticated phenomenology of representation consistent with their belief that the invisible God had revealed himself to the human senses. For Maximos the Confessor, the appearance of the invisible God in the fabric of a human body disrupted the binary oppositions of ancient philosophy and promoted a new Christian synthesis of ontology, semiotics, and aesthetics, all of which found superlative expression in the Byzantine liturgy. Indeed, what has been argued concerning the intellectual development of Gregory of Nyssa can reasonably be asserted of the Byzantine theological tradition as a whole, namely, that it was a “movement away from a Platonizing and exaggerated dualism between mind and body, between intelligibles and sensibles, towards a more specifically Christian understanding of reality.”[14] The result was a sacramental vision of the self and the world which did not simply disallow facile disjunctions of sensibles and intelligibles, but defined salvation itself as a coincidence of such opposites centered within, and transcended by, the dual-natured person of Christ.


* Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

[1] This is the second of “five divisions in the existence of all things” discussed in Amb. 41: “The second division is that according to which the totality of nature, which received its being through creation by God, is divided into the intelligible and the sensible” (DOML 2:103).

[2] Compare Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs 13: “As Paul says, ‘The invisible things of God have been clearly apprehended in his works’ (Rom 1:20), for the creation of the cosmos signifies the foundation of the church, in which, according to the prophet, is both ‘a new heaven,’ which is the ‘firmament of faith in Christ’ (Col 2:5) as Paul says, and ‘a new earth’ (Is 65:17)” (GNO 6:384-85).

[3] ταὐτὸν ἀλλήλοις ἄμφω δεικνύουσα θάτερον θατέρῳ κατ᾽ ἐπαλλαγὴν ὑπάρχον.

[4] For example, humans and angels are united when human beings join the angelic choirs in the singing of the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with your glory” (cf. Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8), though Maximos’s rich liturgical angelology has deeper anthropological foundations.

[5] φαίνεται, i.e., appears visibly, manifestly.

[6] τυπούμενος, i.e., stamped, impressed, figured in, “iconized in.”

[7] I.e., γνωστικῶς, which parallels μυστικῶς in the preceding sentence, each of which designates, respectively, the epistemological modalities proper to the sensible and the intelligible.

[8] Ὅλος γὰρ ὁ νοητὸς κόσμος ὅλῳ τῷ αἰσηθτῷ μυστικῶς τοῖς συμβολικοῖς εἴδεσι τυπούμενος φαίνεται (τοῖς ὁρᾶν δυναμένοις), καὶ ὅλος ὅλῳ τῷ νοητῷ ὁ αἰσθητὸς γνωστικῶς κατὰ νοῦν τοῖς λόγοις ἁπλοῦμενος ἔνεστιν. Ἐν ἐκείνῳ γάρ οὗτος τοῖς λόγοις ἐστίν, κἀκεῖνος ἐν τούτῳ, τοῖς τύποις, καὶ τὸ ἔργον αὐτῶν ἦν, καθῶς ἂν εἴη «τροχὸς ἐν τροχῷ» (CCSG 69:16-17, lines 241-246).

[9] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 13 (trans. Maximos Constas, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture, p. 123); cf. Amb. 10:20 where Maximos again comments on Psalm 18:1 (DOML 1:179-81).

[10] Here I am drawing on Eusebius, Commentary on the Psalms (PG 23:897); Basil of Caesarea, On the Psalms (PG 29:292); and Makarios, Homily 1 (ed. H. Dörries, E. Klostermann, and M. Krüger, Die 50 geistlichen Homilien des Makarios, Patristische Texte und Studien 4 [Berlin: De Gruyter, 1964], 1-13).

[11] “Anagogical” literally means “upward lifting” or “elevating,” and is a mode of interpretation that maps the return of created forms to their source in God; cf. Paul Rorem, “The Anagogical Movement,” in id., Biblical and Liturgical Symbols within the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1984), 99-116.

[12] See the parallel passage in Daniel 7:9, where “Gelgel” (galgal) means whirlwind or revolution, which is a more fluid and perichoretic image than a mere “wheel” (or chariot wheel) which is a solid object that does not interpenetrate with another wheel.

[13] Dionysios the Areopagite, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy XV.9: τὰς ἀνακαλύψεις δὲ τῇ τῶν κρυφίων ἐκφαντορίᾳ καὶ τῇ τῶν περιπεζίων ἀναγωγῇ καὶ τῇ τῶν ὑψηλῶν ἐλλάμψεων εἰς τ ὑφειμένα καταγωγικῇ διαπορθμεύσει (ed. B. Suchla, p. 58, lines 16-22; 340A).

[14] Alden Mosshammer, “Gregory of Nyssa and Christian Hellenism,” Studia Patristica 32 (1997): 170-95, at 172. Jaroslav Pelikan, Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), has similarly described the general movement of Eastern Christian thought from late antiquity to the early Byzantine period as a shift from “Christian idealism” to “Christian materialism,” signaling a “new Christian metaphysics and aesthetics” and a “new Christian epistemology” (pp. 99, 107).