The Christian Neoplatonism of St. Maximus the Confessor

‘Oneself’ is not the subject isolating itself from the world, but a place of communication,
of fusion of the subject and the object.
– Georges Bataille

In this paper[1] I will examine an aspect of Maximus’ doctrine where the Neoplatonic influence is most evident, namely, eschatology.  First, I will focus on his cosmology, specifically the eschatological implications of the doctrine of the creation of the cosmos in time.  Secondly, I will examine some key aspects of Maximus’ eschatology, particularly asceticism.  Finally, this discussion will allow me to demonstrate Maximus’ role in the development of Neoplatonic philosophy, and to address the major difficulty that his speculative theology introduced into Eastern Christian thought.


Simplicius, in his rebuttal to Philoponus, remarked that “the whole intention of [the Christians’] piety is to show that both the heavens and the heavens’ creator do not differ from them in any respect.”[2]  Maximus, however, went even further, and taught that humanity is actually superior to the cosmos in which it temporarily resides.  According to Maximus, all things are in motion toward God, their prime mover and creator; and this motion is the source of their differentiation and discontinuity.[3]  However, these beings in motion are also understood as logoi or “energies” proceeding from God.[4]  When their motion ceases and they reach their end and repose in God, they will no longer be differentiated beings comprising a kosmos, but united in the divine Logos.[5]  Finally, since all beings obtain their essence from God and not through their own act, all must be regarded, according to Maximus’ explication,[6] as ontologically equal.

This presents a problem.  The philosophical conclusion that all created beings are ontologically equal does not support the Christian theological dogma that only humanity – to the exclusion of other species and things – has been created in the image of God.  It was Maximus’ task to harmonize the philosophical conclusion with the theological dogma.

Maximus went on to interpret the “image of God” not in terms of essence, but of function, i.e., the biblical reference to humanity’s creation in God’s image cannot mean that humanity shares in the essence of God, which is beyond being,[7] but rather participates in God’s energies (energeiai).  This participation enables the soul to serve as a mediator between the divinity and the rest of creation.[8]  As Maximus explains, “the soul is a middle being between God and matter and has powers that can unite it with both, that is, it has a mind that links it with God and senses that link it with matter” (Amb. 10, 1193D).[9]  This means that human beings, while ontologically equal to all the divine logoi, are given the task of uniting creation with the creator; it does not imply that humanity has a monopoly on reason, or on God’s providential care.  Regarding animals, for example, Maximus writes:

[I]f we approach [animals] in a rational way we shall find a trace of the intelligible in them which is a not unworthy imitation of what is above reason.  For if we look at those beings that naturally care for their offspring, we are encouraged to define for ourselves reverently and with godly boldness that God exercises providence in his sovereign uniqueness over all beings ...” (Amb. 10, 1189B-C, tr. Louth)

The human being’s status as an “image of God” means that he or she is a partner or co-operator with God, for the purpose of uniting the creation with the creator, and achieving the divine end.  Other beings, like animals, are pursuing their own telos, and are equally logoi of God. 

So how, then, can the human soul possibly be understood as superior to the cosmos, if it is ontologically equal to the existents comprising the cosmos?  Maximus’ answer is elegantly simple.  Beings in motion, he argues, are not existing according to their nature, but to their hupostasis; therefore, they are not perfected and, for that reason, are equally imperfect.  The cosmos is the “empty space” in which this motion toward perfection of natures occurs;[10] when this motion ceases, and all existents return to God as unified logoi, they will have transcended this place of motion and temporality and will be equal not in their mutual imperfection, but in the perfection of their unique natures.  As Basil Tatakis has adequately and succinctly explained:

Maximos’ philosophical and theological analysis reduces itself to the following: The principle of operation belongs to one’s nature and not to one’s person.  This Aristotelian concept is not the only one in his work.[11]

Indeed, Maximus understood created beings as in motion from their very inception,[12] and recognized the attainment of their fulfilled nature only in the eschatological state of rest within God.

Tatakis goes on to state that:

[T]he fundamental theme that commands and explicates Maximos’ thinking ... is the image of a life of the universe that alternates between emanation from God and reabsorption into God, an image which is very common to the Greek spirit after the Stoics.[13]

Like Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus viewed cosmic reality as consisting of a hierarchy of existents emanating from, and returning to, God.[14]  However, the Christian heritage of Maximus is, expectedly, given primacy in his thought.  Drawing upon the doctrines of the Areopagite, Maximus posits the Church as a spiritual cosmos, an ideal antitype of the imperfect, divided material realm.[15]  The physical cosmos, or place of motion, is transcended and abandoned in salvation, while the Church is fulfilled, in its nature, as the collectivity of divine logoi in mutual perfection, according to individual natures.

Salvation is the union of creatures with God; the world thus annihilates itself or, rather, the world, together with human bodies, is transformed into spirit.  Up to this point Maximos follows Dionysius, but when he senses that the substance of Christianity, its truth as well as its grandeur, lies preponderantly in its historicity, he defends the historicity with all his might, with his very life.[16]

To summarize: Maximus’ eschatology is to be understood as the final expression of an historical process – carried out by created beings – of fulfilling the possibilities for creation conceived by and in the mind or logos of God.  The “historicity” or historical aspect of this co-operative participation in the divine will is the ascetic discipline of human beings seeking to align themselves – and all of creation – fully and clearly with the divine energies. 

I will now discuss Maximus’ teaching regarding the ascetic discipline necessary to achieve the aptitude (epitêdeiotês) to act as a co-operator with God.


According to Maximus, when the human being (understood as a composite of soul and body) achieves salvation “only God shines forth through body and soul when their natural features are transcended in overwhelming glory.”[17]  Lars Thunberg elaborates on this Maximian conception by stating that the human being “should receive [God] as a substitute for his own ego ...”[18]  Yet such a reception requires preparation, and Maximus remarks – in a statement deemed wonderfully paradoxical by certain theologians – that the human soul receives deification to the extent that it has deified itself.[19]  Maximus explains:

God rests from his natural activity in each being by which each of them moves naturally.  He rests when each being, having obtained the divine energy in due measure, will determine its own natural energy with respect to God. (Chapters on Knowledge 1.47, tr. Berthold)

This reciprocal relationship between the human and the divine is, according to Maximus, maintained and perfected through the continual effort of the soul to attain the aptitude (epitêdeiotês) for deification or theôsis.[20]  For the quest of temporal existence is to fashion the human being into a fitting receptacle of divinity.[21] 

This situation necessitated, for Maximus, the transformation of the “volitive faculty” or “gnomic will” (gnômikê epitêdeiotêti) from a tool of sin, into a tool of personal transformation.  Describing the divine attributes bestowed upon humanity by God, Maximus writes:

[T]o the volitive faculty [gnômikê epitêdeiotêti] [God] gives goodness and wisdom in order that what [God] is by essence the creature might become by participation.  For this reason [the human being] is said to be made “to the image and likeness of God.” (Capita de caritate 3.25, tr. Berthold)

This does not mean that the human soul is, in its temporal incarnation, passive and lacking its own energy.  Rather, the activity of the temporally subjected human soul is ideally trained toward a final passivity in which it will participate in the divine energies without mediation.

[I]n the coming ages, we shall undergo transformation into the grace of deification and no longer be active but passive; and for this reason we shall not cease from being deified.  At that point our passivity (to pathos) will be supernatural, and there will be no limit to the divine activity in infinitely deifying those who are passive. (Maximus, Quaestiones ad Thalassium 22)[22]

It is clear, from this passage, that Maximus does not understand deification as a mere reception of divine attributes by a passive soul; rather, he sees, in the present temporal state of the soul, a real danger in remaining passive in the face of the divine.  The soul must actively work to align itself with God, and set the stage, as it were, for the final, decisive union of creation with the creator.  This final union will only be achieved, Maximus argued, by one who has engaged in the practice of asceticism.

Ascetic practice, for Maximus, is concerned primarily with training the mind to meditate continually upon God.  While this does require a certain level of bodily discipline, Maximus’ regiment is not nearly as severe as that of the earlier Desert Fathers, for example.  His goal is simply the removal of all distractions that keep the mind from uniting with God.  For this reason, a healthy, moderate diet and reasonable sleeping habits are essential.  However, the main concern of Maximus is with affections of the soul like anger, jealousy, pride, etc. – i.e., all symptoms of what he refers to as “self love” (philautia).[23]  When these affections are removed from the soul, an intellectual flight to God is made possible.

Here is Maximus describing the mystical experience of the perfected soul, in a passage that could easily be mistaken as from the Enneads:

When in the full ardor of its love for God the mind goes out of itself, then it has no perception at all either of itself or of any creatures.  For once illuminated by the divine and infinite light [apeiron phôtos], it remains insensible to anything that is made by him, just as the physical eye has no sensation of the stars when the sun has risen. (Cap. car. 1.10, tr. Berthold)

This is the final goal of asceticism.  However, unlike Plotinus, who described a type of ‘instant salvation’ attainable by the soul that merely recalls its divine provenance,[24] Maximus – in a manner similar to Iamblichus – understood salvation as the final result of a long, deliberate process of purification.[25] 

This purification or katharsis, however, is not achieved through dialectic or intellectual meditations, but through a process integral to the human being as a composite of soul and body.  In this sense, Gregory Shaw’s remark that for Iamblichus “theurgy did not act through the intellect but through one’s entire character”[26] can easily be applied to Maximus’ ascetic doctrine.  As Maximus himself explains:

For the mind of the one who is continually with God even his concupiscence abounds beyond measure into a divine desire and [his] entire irascible element is transformed into divine love.  For by an enduring participation in the divine illumination it has become altogether shining bright, and having bound its passible element to itself ... turned it around to a never-ending divine desire and an unceasing love, completely changing over from earthly things to divine. (Cap. car. 2.48, tr. Berthold)[27]

Maximus understands the “end of beings” in terms of an intellectual subsistence.  He describes the “kingdom of God” as “the apprehension of the pure eternal knowledge of beings in their inner meaning of God.”[28]  This “pure eternal knowledge” is not available to the human being as such, but only to the one who has, through ascetic practice, become transformed into a worthy receptacle of God.  This transformation is the end, the eschatological culmination, of humanity according to Maximus.    

I will now proceed to discuss, briefly, Maximus’ role in the development of the Neoplatonic philosophical and religious tradition.


The two main influences on Maximus’ philosophical theology are Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and Stephanus of Alexandria.  Through the work of the former, Maximus was introduced to categories derived from Proclus,[29] and to a version of Christian theurgical practice bearing affinities with the doctrines of Iamblichus.[30]  It is doubtful, however, that Maximus ever studied the work of pagan philosophers – other than Plato and Aristotle (and possibly Plotinus) – directly.  Yet it is highly likely that he was acquainted with the ideas of his contemporary, the nominally Christian philosopher Stephanus, who was invited to Constantinople around 610, and appointed “ecumenical teacher” (oikoumenikos didaskalos) at the Pandidacterion.[31] 

Although Stephanus professed the Christian faith, his philosophical teachings were virtually identical to those of pagan Neoplatonism.  Among the doctrines of Stephanus that caught Maximus’ attention were the eternity of the world, and the pre-existence of souls.[32]  Indeed, these are precisely the two doctrines that Maximus attacks at great length in one of his earliest, and longest, philosophical tracts, the Ambiguum 10 (as we have seen above).  Yet Maximus’ opposition to the doctrines of Stephanus did more than simply provide him with an opportunity to express the rationality of Christian dogma; it also provided the occasion for a more comprehensive revision of Christian metaphysics along largely Neoplatonic lines.

The Alexandrian School, from which Stephanus emerged, “laid aside the ontologies of Iamblichos and severely limited the role of ecstasy ... [T]his school severed the exclusive bond between metaphysics and paganism, and ... rendered possible the liaison between Neoplatonism and Christianity.”[33]  It is precisely through this “liaison” that Maximus received both the inspiration and intellectual background for the elaboration of his theological schema.

Drawing upon the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus was able to develop his own mystical theology, which was seemingly more universal than that of his predecessor, in the sense that Maximus emphasized the salvific or mystical state of the soul as containing the “pure eternal knowledge of beings in their inner meaning of God,” as we have seen.  Pseudo-Dionysius, however, described the final state as follows:

[R]enouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, [the human being] belongs completely to him who is beyond everything.  Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing. (De mystica theologia 1001A, Heil/Ritter: 144.11-15)[34]  

So it seems that Dionysius – who viewed salvation as the cessation of all intellectual endeavor in the face of the “ divine gloom” – was diametrically opposed to Maximus, for whom salvation consisted in the realization of ‘absolute knowledge’.  Yet such is not the case.

According to Tatakis:

Maximos served as a bridge for introducing Pseudo-Dionysios into Christian mysticism, and he infused into his teacher’s arid expression the profound emotion of his own soul, totally avoiding ... the dangers to Christianity that were implied within Pseudo-Dionysios’ Neoplatonism.[35]

Tatakis goes on to explain these “dangers” as involving a rationalistic downplaying of God’s transcendence, and a loss of historical connectedness with the Christ-event.  Be that as it may.  A more pressing danger is implicit in the systematic theology of Maximus himself: the loss of individual personhood through union with God.

We have seen how the final goal of salvation, for Maximus, is the transformation of the soul into a receptacle of God involving, as Thunberg summarized, the substitution of the human ego with the divine presence.  Indeed, as Maximus clearly states in his Chapters on Knowledge, in salvation “only God shines forth through the body and soul when their natural features are transcended in overwhelming glory” (2.88, tr. Berthold).  Such a statement implies that the redeemed soul is stripped of its nature and of any defining characteristics qualifying it as a distinct, autonomous being, a person – or, in the words of Pseudo-Dionysius, “neither oneself nor someone else.”

A younger contemporary of Maximus, Anastasius of Sinai, recognized the implications of this conclusion, and regarded it as ultimately fatal to the authentic Christian view of God and humanity as mutual co-operators – a view that Maximus himself seems to espouse in so many parts of his voluminous writings, but clearly contradicts at the highest speculative levels of his thought.  Anastasius corrected the Maximian notion, arguing that “theosis is the ascension toward what is better – it is neither a diminution nor an alteration of nature.  In other words, by theosis man will not cease being man; he will simply become perfect man.”[36]  Since we know that Maximus adopted the Aristotelian conception of activity as belonging to one’s nature rather than one’s person, then to state, as he does, that human nature is transcended in salvation, implies that human beings cease to act.  This is a most troublesome conclusion, especially since a main tenet of Christian dogma is that natures exist insofar as they act.[37]  To cease to act is to cease to exist.

However, apart from Anastasius’ clarification, the theoretical problem of the loss of personhood in salvation was never adequately addressed by Christian theologians of the Byzantine era.  Shortly after Maximus and Anastasius, the conversation was turned toward divine foreknowledge and predestination, notably in the works of Saints Germanus of Constantinople and John of Damascus.[38]  Here, however, the concern was no longer with the state of the deified soul, but with the dynamics of the soul’s temporal existence.

In the work of Maximus Confessor we find – to borrow a term and concept from Oswald Spengler – an “historical pseudomorphosis” [39]  in its final stage, i.e., we see the Christian spirit conforming to the older and more established pagan philosophical tradition.  While I do not seek to downplay or deny the deeply Christian spirit of Maximus’ work – and his death as a confessor of the faith speaks for itself – it is clear that, at the highest speculative level of his thought, Maximus displays marked affinities with Neoplatonic thinkers, notably Plotinus and Iamblichus.  He agrees with the latter in the matter of the soul’s gradual working toward salvation, and with the former in his view that the redeemed soul merges with the godhead and ceases all motion, no longer existing as a distinct person.[40]

Origen of Alexandria, himself a Christian Platonist, nevertheless posited endless intellectual motion toward God as the eternal life of the redeemed soul.[41]  Origen’s ontological triad of stasis – kinêsis – genesis (which expressed his view that humanity fell from an originary state of repose with God, thereby setting in motion a universal history in which each person develops uniquely in relation to God, and never ceases developing) was reversed by Maximus, with the result that motion toward, or, in the case of the recalcitrant sinner, away from God, must be necessarily finite.[42]  Maximus, of course, did not accept the Origenian doctrine of apokatastasis or “restoration of all beings,” which was condemned as a heresy by two Oecumenical Councils.  Yet, in his zeal to correct Origen, and, as we have seen, to provide a rational, philosophical explication of Christian dogma, Maximus ended by articulating a salvation theory that is, perhaps, more Neoplatonic than authentically Christian.

This leads immediately to a demand for definitions of Neoplatonism and Christianity.  Are the two, in fact, separable?  Is the systematic theology of Maximus truly the culmination point in the evolution of Christian theology? – or, rather, in the evolution of Christian Neoplatonism

In this brief discussion of Maximus’ eschatology I have attempted to articulate a problem that calls into question his entire Christian program, a problem recognized by his younger contemporary Anastasius, and addressed more recently by certain Christian Existentialist theologians[43] – i.e., the problem of the loss of individual personhood in salvation.  I believe that the historical roots of this problem reside in the early interaction between Christianity and Platonism, and that further study of this problem and its sources will lead to greater understanding of both Christian theology (of which Maximus is one of the greatest exponents), and the Neoplatonic philosophy by which Christian thought was so deeply informed.

End Notes

[1] This is a revised version of a paper presented at the annual conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, New Orleans, June 2003.  I wish to thank my colleagues Cosmin Andron, Melanie Mineo, Sara Rappe, and Lewis Shaw for inspiration, constructive commentary, and some help with tracking down obscure citations.

[2] Simplicius, In  physicorum 10.1327.20-21 (ed. Diels), tr. C. Wildberg, in Simplicius: Against Philoponus on the Eternity of the World (London: Duckworth 1991).

[3] Maximus, Ambiguum 10, 1169B-D, 1176D-1180B.

[4] See Lars Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1985), pp. 137-143.

[5] Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup 1965), p. 81; Alain Riou, Le monde et l’église selon Maxime le Confesseur, Théologie historique, no. 22 (Paris: Beauchesne 1973), p. 58.

[6] See also Maximus’ discussion of monad and dyad in Amb. 10, 1184B-1188C. 

[7] Maximus, Chapters on Knowledge 1.1-2.

[8] See Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, pp. 80-91.

[9] Andrew Louth, tr., Maximus the Confessor (New York: Routledge 1996), p. 147.

[10] Maximus, Amb. 10, 1180B-1181B; also Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, pp. 63-64.

[11] Basil Tatakis, La philosophie byzantine (Presses Universitaires de France 1949), English translation by N.J. Moutafakis, Byzantine Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett 2003), p. 64.

[12] See, for example, John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1975), pp. 132-133; and Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, pp. 59-60.

[13] Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, p. 63.

[14] See, for example, Proclus, Institutio theologica 3.7-4.7, Theologia Platonica 2.4, 3.14.4-9, 4.1.5-12; Ps.-Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy, esp. 164D-168B, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 376B.

[15] Maximus’ fully developed ecclesiology is rather more complex; however, this generalization is accurate for my present purpose.  For a detailed discussion of Maximus’ doctrine of the Church, see Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, ch. 6, pp. 113-129.

[16] Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, p. 64.  Maximus died shortly after being brutally mutilated for refusing to accept the official Monothelite position of the governing officials of Constantinople.

[17] Maximus, Chapters on Knowledge 2.88, tr. George C. Berthold, in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press 1985), p. 167.

[18] Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos,  p. 89.

[19] Berthold, Maximus Confessor, p. 11; Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, p. 64.

[20] Maximus, Capita de caritate 2.62, 3.12-13.

[21] Iamblichus, also, recognized the importance of aptitude (epitêdeiotês) in the soul’s quest to become a receptacle of divinity; see Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 1995), pp. 86-87.

[22] Tr. Paul M. Blowers, in Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor (University of Notre Dame Press 1991), p. 130.

[23] Cap. car. 3.1-20.

[24] See Enneads

[25] Maximus, Amb. 10, 1108A-1109D; also, on Iamblichus, see Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, ch. 4, esp. pp. 51-54.

[26] Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, p. 69.

[27] Translation modified by present writer.

[28] Chapters on Knowledge 2.90, tr. Berthold.

[29] See H. Urs von Balthasar, Kosmische Liturgie: Das Weltbild Maximus des Bekenners, second edition (Einsiedeln: Johannes-Verlag 1961), pp. 256-259.

[30] See Gregory Shaw, “Neoplatonic Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite,” in Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol. 7, no. 4 (Winter 1999).  Though Maximus was introduced to conceptions derived by Ps-Dionysius from Iamblichus, he was likely unaware of the connection.  It is quite improbable that Maximus ever read Iamblichus.

[31] L.G. Westerink, “The Alexandrian Commentators and the Introductions to Their Commentaries,” in R. Sorabji, ed., Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence (London: Duckworth 1990), pp. 340-341; Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, p. 36.

[32] These are the main issues tackled by Maximus in his philosophical writings; on Stephanus, see Westerink, “The Alexandrian Commentators ...,” in Aristotle Transformed, p. 340.

[33] Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, p. 36.

[34] Tr. C. Luibheid, P. Rorem, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press 1987).

[35] Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, p. 63.

[36] Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, p. 67; J.P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Graeca, vol. 89 (Paris: 1866), cols. 35-1180 – hereafter abbreviated PG.

[37] St. Athanasius, De incarnatione verbi 4.6.1-5, 7.3.4-8; also see G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: S.P.C.K 1952), p. 234 ff., and Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, p. 87.

[38] PG 94, 1553-1577; PG 98, 109-129; Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, pp. 81-83, 97-98.

[39] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, tr. C.F. Atkinson, ed. H. Werner, A. Helps (New York: Oxford University Press 1991), p. 268.

[40] Plotinus, Enn.,  While these affinities are easily noted, I hasten to point out that there is likely no direct influence of these pagan thinkers on Maximus’ thought.  Rather, Maximus is responding, in my view, to an intellectual tradition – Christianity – that is the heir to Neoplatonism; or, as Gregory Shaw has suggested, is “the reliquary of the hieratic vision and practices of the later Platonists” (Theurgy and the Soul, p. 242).

[41] Origen, De principiis 2.11.7.

[42] See Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, pp. 132-133.

[43] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1985); Edward Moore, “‘The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion’: The Christian Neoplatonism of St. Maximus Confessor,” in Neoplatonism Online Journal, 2 (January 2003).

Edward Moore, S.T.L. is Executive Editor of Theandros: An Online Journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy, and Area Editor (Late Hellenistic Philosophy) for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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