The person who loves God values knowledge of God more than anything created by God, and pursues such knowledge ardently and ceaselessly.”
– Saint Maximos the Confessor
A few weeks ago, I was reading The Philokalia, a multivolume compilation of the writings and teachings of the desert and church fathers of Eastern Orthodoxy. As I was reading Saint Maximos the Confessor’s Four Hundred Texts on Love, I came across the aforementioned epigraph. Even though I kept reading, my mind kept circling back to that statement by the beloved saint. I constantly asked myself this question: If the person who loves God values knowledge of God, where can one find such knowledge, thereby deepening his or her love for the Almighty?
I have pondered this question for weeks. I love reading the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and many other authors of literary classics, classics which motivated me to get my B.A. and M.A. in English. I consider these authors to have, at varying levels, some knowledge of God, if not a love for God, because many of their works are grounded in religious, spiritual, or philosophical thought. Moreover, in an effort to deepen my faith in God, I try to provide an Orthodox perspective on the works I read and in my literary essays. I made it my goal as an essayist and a Christian to unite Orthodox theology and ethics with the great authors of Western literature. But, with this quote from Maximos the Confessor, this great defender of Orthodoxy, I cannot help but question the legitimacy of my goal. Even if I managed to write about Orthodox principles in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost or Chekhov’s Ivanov, what virtue, if at all, does it produce if it does not lead me to the knowledge of God and, therefore, love of God? I submit that the knowledge and love of God can be found both in spiritual texts and classical literature, for both of these types of texts are seeking knowledge of God, which can ultimately help readers attain the love of God.
Spiritual texts have their place in the world of Christendom and, therefore, contain invaluable knowledge of God that can assist readers in drastically improving their spiritual lives. The Bible, for instance, contains deep spiritual wisdom that both informed and thereafter illuminates some of the most revered saints. Saint Anthony the Great became one of the most renowned ascetics in all of Christianity because he heard the Gospel of Matthew where Christ instructed the rich man to give all he owned to the poor and follow Him (19:21). Yet, the Bible can only be considered one source, although a large one at that, for knowledge of God. Even Saint Maximos writes in his “Foreward to Elpidios the Presbyter,” which prefaces his Four Hundred Texts on Love, that he referenced other church fathers in his writings:
Moreover, you should know, Father, that these chapters are not the products of my own mind. On the contrary, I have gone through the writings of the holy fathers and collected from them passages relevant to my subject, condensing much material into short paragraphs and in this way making it easy to remember and to assimilate.
This is not to say that Saint Maximos did not quote or reference biblical passages in his work. In fact, there are multiple occasions where he cited specific passages from the Bible to illustrate the boundless love God has for His followers and how Christians can — and should — strive endlessly and relentlessly to love God and attain knowledge of Him. For example, Saint Maximos states that Christians who love God are able to follow Christ’s commandment in the Gospel of John: “He who loves Me, says the Lord, will keep My commandments (cf. John 14:15, 23); and ‘this is My commandment, that you love one another’ (John 15:12).
So why does Saint Maximos write in his letter that he referenced other church fathers? Because these men not only have a deep knowledge of the Bible and God, but they also developed a deep love for Him because that is how the saints exist. Their lives were examples of how to love God wholly and, because of that reality, Saint Maximos sought to incorporate their teachings into his work so that Christians throughout the generations can learn from them. Ultimately, this is why Saint Maximos places such a strong emphasis on the knowledge of God. Such knowledge can be found in what and who He created – especially in the many saints He made – because they used their knowledge of Him to love Him. If Christians study the lives and teachings of the church fathers, in addition to the Bible, it will not only further their knowledge of the Lord, but it will also assist them in utilizing that knowledge to love Him, which is what Saint Maximos wants Christians to achieve.
However, even though the Bible and the writings of the church fathers contain knowledge of God, they are not the only sources that have this knowledge that can lead Christians to develop the love for God that Saint Maximos writes about. The “worldly” texts of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and many other authors contain knowledge of God that can lead people to love God.
Christians would not fully understand monks are supposed to live if Chaucer did not critique the Monk in the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales for wearing a luxurious coat and eating red meat. Hamlet would not be regarded as one of Shakespeare’s best plays if it did not challenge Saint Paul’s famous verse “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the LORD” (Rom. 12:19) through Thomistic-Aristotelianism (i.e., with Prince Hamlet (arguably) acting as an agent of divine justice to avenge his father’s murder). Milton’s Samson Agonistes would be regarded as insignificant to the Miltonian canon had he not fused the story of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges with the Greek tragedies of Euripides in order to further illustrate Samson’s suffering and sacrifice. The novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy would not be regarded as some of the best literary works without the constant, deeply religious, spiritual, and philosophical introspection of their characters. Each of these works — along with many others — possess some form of knowledge of God and, through this knowledge, one could strengthen his love for Him. Even though these authors are not church fathers, their writings should not be dismissed because they do adopt some of the teachings of the church fathers, albeit not explicitly.
The purpose of this article is not to suggest that spiritual texts are of more didactic value than literary texts or vice versa. Rather, they both carry weight in developing the spiritual virtue of love for God because they both contain knowledge of Him, and this can strengthen their love for Him. It is for this reason that I plan to write more articles providing an Orthodox Christian view on literary texts. The principles and teachings of the church fathers are not absent in the literary classics, which is why they need to be compared. By doing these comparisons, men could be inspired to read more of the spiritual and literary texts, which would assist them in developing a love for God, which is in accordance with what Saint Maximos wants Christians to attain.