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Costache - Living Above Gender

Costache - Living Above Gender

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Published by Doru Costache
Sometimes, one finds in the Maximian corpus passages which reprimand gender, womanhood, marriage, sexuality and pleasure. Analyzing some relevant texts, mainly from his Ambigua, this article proposes that the Confessor did not dismiss gender-related themes. Drawing on Paul, Gregory of Nyssa and his own experience of holiness, Maximus was concerned with the misuse of gender in humanity’s sinful condition, and with its virtuous restoration. He worked within a holistic, realistic and spiritual framework, which led him to construe the spiritual lifestyle not as an abolishment of gender, marriage and pleasure, but as a dispassionate and compassionate experience of human life.
Sometimes, one finds in the Maximian corpus passages which reprimand gender, womanhood, marriage, sexuality and pleasure. Analyzing some relevant texts, mainly from his Ambigua, this article proposes that the Confessor did not dismiss gender-related themes. Drawing on Paul, Gregory of Nyssa and his own experience of holiness, Maximus was concerned with the misuse of gender in humanity’s sinful condition, and with its virtuous restoration. He worked within a holistic, realistic and spiritual framework, which led him to construe the spiritual lifestyle not as an abolishment of gender, marriage and pleasure, but as a dispassionate and compassionate experience of human life.

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Published by: Doru Costache on Apr 22, 2013
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[
 Journal of Early Christian Studies
21:2 (2013) 261-290]
Living above Gender: Insights from Saint Maximus the Confessor
Doru Costache
Abstract:
Sometimes, one finds in the Maximian corpus passages whichreprimand gender, womanhood, marriage, sexuality and pleasure. Analyzingsome relevant texts, mainly from his
 Ambigua
, this article proposes that theConfessor did not dismiss gender-related themes. Drawing on Paul, Gregory of  Nyssa and his own experience of holiness, Maximus was concerned with themisuse of gender in humanity’s sinful condition, and with its virtuousrestoration. He worked within a holistic, realistic and spiritual framework,which led him to construe the spiritual lifestyle not as an abolishment of gender,marriage and pleasure, but as a dispassionate and compassionate experience of human life.The reader of Maximus the Confessor’s works finds a discord between his at timeschastising phraseology regarding gender, sexuality and pleasure, presented as sordidaspects of human nature, and his spiritual anthropology that generally depictshumankind, including married people, as called to a holy life. This tension denotes thecomplexity of his anthropological thinking, which cannot be reduced to either of thetwo sides. Whilst a reductionist approach leads to inevitable misinterpretations, likedismissing the Confessor’s musings on gender as unimportant within the context of his spiritual worldview,
1
it is necessary to discern between his……….262……….infrequent bursts of reprimanding phraseology and the actual content of the teaching.Such discernment is the task of this article, which aims to prove that whilst being primarily directed to a monastic readership, the Maximian corpus bears relevance towider Christian milieus, thus sharing certain features in common with Byzantinehagiographical literature and its paradigms of holy life outside the monastic world.Below, I shall explore a series of passages from the
 Book 
 
of 
 
 Difficulties
(better knownas the
 Ambigua
), in their immediate setting and with reference to themes in St. Pauland St. Gregory of Nyssa on which the Confessor obviously drew. Given the multi-layered character of the Confessor’s writings, in addressing these texts my intention isnot to ascertain the existence of direct connections between them—other than their 

In its original form, this paper was presented for 
Gender and Class in Byzantine Society
, 16
th
BiennialConference of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies (University of New England, Armidale NSW, Australia, 16-18 April 2010). I am grateful to Bronwen Neil, Carole Cusack, Bogdan Bucur, Neil Ormerod, Mario Baghos, and the
 JECS 
reviewers, for their insightful observations on earlier versions of the article.
1
Cf. Fedor Stanjevskiy, “Une anthropologie à la base d’une pensée religieuse: L’unité de l’hommedans la théologie de Maxime le Confesseur,”
 Forum Philosophicum
12 (2007): 409-28, esp. 424-25.
 
having been authored by Maximus of course. I simply take them as glimpses of thecomplexity of his thinking on gender-related themes.The analysis will progress first by considering a number of texts from
 Difficulties
7,10 and 67 (the latter together with
To
 
Thalassius
, 59),
2
which rehearse themes fromGen 1-3 and Gal 3.28. The goal is to make sense of the occasional strident phraseology in the Confessor’s moralizing discourse, which, far from being unusualin Byzantine spiritual literature, cannot be taken as a consistent denial of gender-related aspects. Upon establishing that St. Maximus’ anthropological thinking, whichdeveloped within a broad cosmological narrative, was both holistic and realistic, Ishall argue that even when depicting perfection in terms of a state above gender— identified as virtue—he never envisaged a schematized, literally asexual anddisembodied human nature. To this end, I shall apply the famous distinction betweenthe “existential mode” and “nature” to the state above gender, by which I hope tomake clear that within his thinking the divine plan for humankind refers to our existential destination and not to our natural makeup. Furthermore, I shall utilize thisdistinction in association with the notion of realized eschatology, which in turn casts anew light upon the idea of a spiritually transformed humankind, in the here and now.The analysis will continue by examining two more notorious loci, in
 Difficulty
41(considered together with the prologue of 
To
 
Thalassius
,
 Difficulty
42 and
Chapters
 
On
 
 Love
, 2.30) and another passage from
 Difficulty
10. The goal is to highlight theMaximian contributions to a holistic spirituality, which built on the idea of thevirtuous path as a transformative process with repercussions for gender-relatedaspects. Virtue will be discussed here from an existential and not an ethical viewpoint,as illustrating a lifestyle accessible to, and a common denominator for, all people. Thearticle will……….263……….end by pointing out the significance of St. Maximus’s approach, which draws on theexperience of holiness.I shall argue that for the Confessor gender and sexuality were problematic only because their misuse caused tensions and addictions, preventing people from walkingthe path of holiness; likewise, that living above gender was for him not a spiritualvictory over the gendered humankind, but instead represented the virtuousreorientation of the human energies toward dispassionate relationships; finally, that heconsidered dispassion as a steppingstone toward compassion for both celibate andmarried people.ON EVE, ADAM AND BYZANTINE PEDAGOGICAL RHETORICMaximus’s depiction of the ascetic path is typical for the Byzantine monastictradition, with its high spiritualizing standards and propensities. That said, since his personal journey exposed him to a variety of social contexts and his mind was setupon strong incarnational presuppositions, it comes as no surprise to find throughouthis writings a realistic and nuanced concept of the spiritual life,
3
meaningful beyond

2
Also known, improperly, as
Questions to Thalassius.
 
3
Cf. Andrew Louth,
 Maximus the Confessor 
(London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 35, 38-41.
 
cloistral experiences. Christoph Schönborn
4
and Bronwen Neil
5
rightly observed that by reinterpreting the virtuous journey as culminating in compassion and community,the Confessor made the ideal of living spiritually relevant to wider milieus. Wecannot ignore the precedence of this message over Byzantine hagiography, whichabounds in examples of holiness from all walks of life;
6
Alexander Kazhdan’s silenceregarding the significance of the Maximian corpus for later Byzantine literature isunfortunate. Indeed, as we shall see below, although sharing in the ambiguities thatcharacterized Byzantine society,
7
along with addressing concrete aspects of life—likegender,……….264……….marriage, sexuality and pleasure—usually avoided by monastic authors,
8
St. Maximusachieved a balanced synthesis of spiritual anthropology. The ultimate proof of thisachievement is the acknowledgment, received during his lifetime, as a genuine father (
abba
) or spiritual guide, a fact illustrated by most of his literary productions whichanswer questions posed by various correspondents both from within and outside themonastic world.
9
This synthesis was, and supposedly remains, relevant to any seeker of the authentic Christian experience, irrespective of gender and social status. Thisessay will show that this assessment withstands the scant examples of questionable phraseology that traverse the Maximian corpus.To this end, I shall briefly discuss the Confessor’s portrayal of womanhood andsexuality, the latter in an implicit manner but nevertheless as a main issue, byanalyzing the images and terms he used within two passages concerning Adam andEve. Albeit a worthwhile topic, I cannot deal in detail with the phraseology of hismoralizing discourse; this section is only meant to prepare us for the big question of whether there is more to Maximus’s views of gender than his at times appalling

4
Cf. Christoph Schönborn, “Plaisir et douleur dans l’analyse de S. Maxime, d’après les Quaestiones adThalassium,”
 Maximus Confessor:
 
 Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur 
, Fribourg (2-5septembre 1980), ed. Felix Heinzer and Christoph Schönborn (Fribourg: Éditions UniversitairesFribourg, 1982), 273-84.
5
Cf. Bronwen Neil, “‘The Blessed Passion of Holy Love’: Maximus the Confessor’s SpiritualPsychology,”
 Australian EJournal of Theology
, 2:1 (2004), athttp://aejt.com.au/2004/vol_2,_no_1,_2004/.
6
See Alexander Kazhdan et alii,
 A History of Byzantine Literature (650-850)
(Athens: The NationalHellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research, 1999); Alexander Kazhdan,
 A Historyof Byzantine Literature (850-1000)
(Athens: The National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research, 2006).
7
For the ambiguities related to womanhood and gender, see Carolyn L. Connor,
Women of Byzantium
 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 85; “Editor’s Introduction” to
 ByzantineWomen: Varieties of Experience 800-1200
, ed. Lynda Garland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), xiii-xix,esp. xiii-xiv; Alexander Kazhdan, “Byzantine Hagiography and Sex in the Fifth to Twelfth Centuries,
 Dumbarton Oakes Papers
44 (1990): 131-43; Anna M. Silvas, “Kassia the Nun c.810-c.865: AnAppreciation,in
 Byzantine Women
(quoted above), 17-39, esp. 18; “General Introduction” to
 HolyWomen of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation
, ed. Alice-Marie Talbot (Washington,D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996), vii-xvi, esp. x-xi, xiii. On marriage asan obstacle to holiness before ninth century Byzantium, see Averil Cameron,
The Byzantines
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 123.
8
Cf. Kazhdan,
 A History of Byzantine Literature (850-1000)
, 214, 242.
9
Cf. Paul M. Blowers,
 Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor: An Investigation of the
Quaestiones ad Thalassium (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 52-56 etc.;Louth,
 Maximus the Confessor 
, 20-21.

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