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George Dion Dragas
University of Durham

The Church in St. Maximus' Mystagogy
The Problem and the Orthodox Perspective

From "Theology", no 1, 1985

Chapter 1 : Introduction

In practice if not in theory, there is still today considerable confusion concerning the Church. This is obvious from the way in which many people write and speak about Her. The Church is all too often identified with the clergy as opposed to the laity, with the Church building; (the temple or the chapel) as opposed to other secular places, with the ecclesiastical institution as opposed to the people connected with it, with the liturgical gatherings as opposed to everyday life activities, with the community of believers as opposed to the single individual, etc. Sometimes, of course, these definitions are reversed by way of protest, and then the Church is re-defined as the people of God (the priesthood of all believers) in contrast to the clergy (the historic priesthood), as a basis for social institutions and activities in contrast to strictly religious and liturgical ones, or as a federation of groups of individual believers who decide whether and how they can form some sort of conventional ecclesiastical association, which, however, will never inhibit or suppress their individual rights.

It is not so difficult, for anyone who wants to think more seriously and more realistically, let alone more constructively, about the Church, to realize that such definitions are partially true, and therefore, their dialectical affirmation against one another deprives them of their real significance and turns them into bearers of unreality. The Church, who is by authentic definition, «the pillar and concrete foundation of the truth» (I Tim. 3:15), cannot be identified with any one of the above to the exclusion of the others. She stands for a truth which contains all this plurality and which is totally revealed in all its parts without exclusion or opposition.

Truth and partiality are incompatible. Indeed partiality is the entelechy of error, which stands in opposition to the truth. Above all else, truth means wholeness and unity, whereas error means partiality and fragmentation. But even in saying this, one should be cautious in case he falls into the trap of dialectics. The wholeness of the truth is not totalitarianism as opposed to the error of pluralism. Totalitarianism is as partial as pluralism, and both of them are equally erroneous and equally, though differently, opposed to the truth. Totalitarianism suppresses 'the many' by subordinating them to 'the one', and all this is said and is done allegedly (hence, falsely) in the name of unity and wholeness. Pluralism, on the other hand, subordinates unity and wholeness to 'the many'. Looked at from these two erroneous positions, the truth is asymmetrically related to them and belongs to another level. We might say, using the appropriate Greek expression, that in relation to totalitarianism and pluralism, truth is a μετάβασις εις άλλο γένος. Here (in the truth) there is unity in multiplicity, the whole in the parts, and vice versa.(1)

With these clarifications in mind we may now return to the partial truths about the Church, which were mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay, and make an attempt to see them in their proper light as parts or aspects of the whole truth. The crucial question is how to relate the Church with the world, the institution with the people, the liturgy with life, the clergy with the laity, the community with the individual, etc., without losing sight of the wholeness of the Church, and without minimizing in any way the truthfulness and significance of Her parts in their capacity to become real openings to the particular truths of one another and to the whole truth. Fortunately I am not the first one to raise this crucial question, and therefore not the first one to attempt an answer. Though the context and the motivation were perhaps somewhat different, in fact this question was raised and was answered in Byzantine times by one of the greatest theological minds of Orthodox Byzantium, Saint Maximus the Confessor and Martyr. I am, of course, thinking here of Saint Maximus' Mystagogy (Initiation into the Mystery), which constitutes one of the most seminal literary pearls of Greek Orthodox Byzantine culture and spirituality, whose tremendous importance for our present world is yet to be discovered.(2) In this Mystagogy, Saint Maximus presents us above all with the total mystery of the Church, which embraces all reality in its totality and its parts, and gives it an eternal significance. He is able to do this by employing the Greek Patristic ontological category of the eikon. Thus, the Church is presented as a reality, which does not stand over or against the world but alongside, with and for the world, viz as a reality, which reveals its proper function. Indeed the Church is the proper eikon of the world. She is the world seen in another perspective which is more human, and which is imbued with a divine quality of being and manner of existence. Saint Maximus leads us to see the great mystery of the Church in the specific and realistic eikons which constitute our total everyday experience, and which, far from opposing one another, help distribute the light of God's glory and truth from the outer galaxies of heaven to the innermost sanctum of the soul, the human mind. In this perspective the Church is a manner of existence, which transforms all creaturely existence in its totality and in its parts without leaving anything outside.


1. -See here my article, «Orthodox Ecclesiology in Outline», in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 26 (1981) pp. 185ff.

2. - According to Polycarp Sherwood, who dated the works of St. Maximus, The Mystagogy was most probably written around A.D. 628-630. The original text of this work (Migne 's Patrologia Greca, vol. 91: 657-717) was reprinted at Athens with Introduction, notes and a modern Greek translation and published by the Apostolic Diaconia of the Church of Greece as first volume in a series called «To the Sources» under the editorship of Panagiotis Nellas. The full title is: Μυσταγωγία του αγίου Μαξίμου του Ομολογητού, Εκδόσεις Αποστολικής Διακονίας, Athens, 1973. Charalambos Soteropoulos published an excellent literary study on the Mystagogy and the first critical edition in Athens, 1978. The Mystagogy was translated into Latin in the 16th Century, into Turkish in 1799 (for the Greeks of Turkey), in Italian by R. Vantarella in 1931, in French in 1936 (by Borodine in Irenikon, 13 (1936) 766ff: cf. also Hamman's Initiation Chrétienne, Paris, 1963), and in Modern Greek by Ignatios Sakalles in 1973. An English translation has just appeared in America: The Church, the Liturgy and the soul of man by Dom Julian Stead O.S.B., St. Bede's Publication, Still River, MA., U.S.A

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