Saturday, September 05, 2009

Two Early Liturgical Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662), who is sometimes also referred to as St. Maximus of Constantinople, has been on my mind lately, specifically his Mystagogia, or, The Church's Mystagogy accordingly summarized as a text "in which are explained the symbolism of certain rites performed in the divine synaxis."

The "divine synaxis" or "holy synaxis" makes reference to the liturgical rites and ceremonies, with synaxis meaning literally "gathering" or "assembly". Maximus' Mystagogia considers the mystery of the Church through the lens of the sacred liturgy, and in his various allegorical liturgical considerations, one can clearly hear the echo of the texts of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Accordingly, amongst other elements of theological and ecclesiological value, his work is also important as an insight into some of our early liturgical history.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his discourse on St. Maximus the Confessor, given on June 25, 2008, comments that amongst Maximus' writings, "the Mystagogia is outstanding. This is one of St Maximus' most important writings, which gathers his theological thought in a well-structured synthesis."

St. Maximus himself introduces his Mystagogia accordingly: heard me once relate, in a brief and cursory way, the beautiful and mystical reflections of a certain grand old man and truly wise in divine matters, about the holy Church and the holy synaxis performed in it. And as they are especially rich in teaching value you hastened to ask me to make a written account of these things for you....

A further excerpt may give a greater sense of the work:
...every Christian should be exhorted... to frequent God's holy church and never to abandon the holy synaxis accomplished therein because of the holy angels who remain there and who take note each time people enter and present themselves to God, and they make supplications for them; likewise because of the grace of the Holy Spirit which is always invisibly present, but in a special way at the time of the holy synaxis. This grace transforms and changes each person who is found there and in fact remolds him in proportion to what is more divine in him and leads him to what is revealed through the mysteries that are celebrated, even if he does not himself feel this because he is still among those who are children in Christ, unable to see either into the depths of the reality or the grace operating in it, which is revealed through each of the divine symbols of salvation being accomplished, and which proceeds according to the order and progression from the preliminaries to the end of everything.

Thus we see effected in the first entrance [of the liturgy] the rejection of unbelief, the increase of faith, the lessening of vice, the bestowal of virtue, the disappearance of ignorance, and the development of knowledge. By the hearing of the divine words there is effected the firm and unchangeable habits and dispositions of the realities just mentioned, that is, of faith, virtue and knowledge. Through the divine chants which follow there is effected the deliberate consent of the soul to virtue as well as the spiritual delight and enjoyment that these arouse in it....[etc.]

Within St. Maximus' introduction to the Mystagogia, he also makes reference to another important early writing which draws on the liturgy, the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:
...the symbols of the sacred celebration of the holy synaxis have also been considered by the most holy and truly divine interpreter [Pseudo] Dionysius the Areopagite in a manner which is worthy of his great mind in his treatise Ecclesiastical Hierarchy...

This spiritual writer, who is thought to have written from the 5th or 6th century, was also touched upon in the 2008 discourses of Benedict XVI, given May 14, 2008:
Pseudo-Dionysius' theology became a liturgical theology: God is found above all in praising him, not only in reflection; and the liturgy is not something made by us, something invented in order to have a religious experience for a certain period of time; it is singing with the choir of creatures and entering into cosmic reality itself. And in this very way the liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastical, becomes expansive and great, it becomes our union with the language of all creatures. He says: God cannot be spoken of in an abstract way; speaking of God is always - he says using a Greek word - a "hymnein", singing for God with the great hymn of the creatures which is reflected and made concrete in liturgical praise.

Here is Pseudo-Dionysius as seen in some of his own words, taken from the third chapter of his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy:
We must, then, in my opinion, pass within the All Holy Mysteries, after we have laid bare the intelligible of the first of the votive gifts, to gaze upon its Godlike beauty, and view the Hierarch, divinely going with sweet fragrance from the Divine Altar to the furthermost bounds of the holy place, and again returning to it to complete the function...

...the Divine initiation (sacrament) of the Synaxis, although it has a unique, and simple, and enfolded Source, is multiplied, out of love towards man, into the holy variety of the symbols, and travels through the whole range of the supremely Divine description...

The chanting of the Psalms, being co-essential with almost all the Hierarchical mysteries, was not likely to be separated from the most Hierarchical of all. For every holy and inspired Scripture sets forth for those meet for deification, either the originated beginning and ordering of things from God; or the Hierarchy and polity of the Law; or the distributions and possessions of the inheritances of the people of God; or the understanding of sacred judges, or of wise kings, or of inspired Priests: or philosophy of men of old time...; or the treasures of wisdom for the conduct of life... and implanted them in the holy and Godlike instructions of the mystic rites...

When, then, the comprehensive melody of the holy Hymns has harmonized the habits of our souls to the things which are presently to be ministered, and, by the unison of the Divine Odes, as one and concordant chorus of holy men, has established an accord with things Divine, and themselves, and one another, the things, more strained and obscure in the intellectual language of the mystic Psalms, are expanded by the most holy lections of the inspired writings, through more full and distinct images and narratives. He, who devoutly contemplates these, will perceive the uniform and one conspiration, as being moved by One, the supremely Divine Spirit...

For those who would like to read more of Pseudo-Dionysius, his work on Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is available online. I would point you in particular to the third chapter, Concerning things accomplished in the Synaxis.

Both the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and St. Maximus the Confessor may be purchased in hard copy as part of The Classics of Western Spirituality series published by Paulist Press.

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