44. The virtues separate the intellect from the passions; spiritual contemplation separates it from its passion-free conceptual images of things; pure prayer brings it into the presence of God Himself.
I believe I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s important to keep in mind that the word translated intellect in these texts is nous. And we don’t really have a good english word for nous. It’s the receptive part of our mind. It’s the part that perceives, experiences, and understands as opposed to the active cogitating part of our mind. The virtues help free our nous from the passions which bind it. The passions themselves are just the natural energies of our bodies. They become passions when they become distorted and destructive and rule over us. For instance, hunger is a natural and good energy. It’s intended to tell us we need to eat and provide the drive and motivation for us to find or produce food. But hunger can become distorted in a host of ways and become a passion instead.
St. Maximos also recognizes in his writing that we understand the world around us through conceptual images of things around us. These are not passions and they do not bind us, but our understanding can be limited by the way we have constructed those images. The nous can be separated from them and be prepared for the direct experience of God, who is the ground of reality itself. Since we are always in the presence of God, whether we practice that presence or not, bringing our nous into the presence of God is more a matter of tuning it to accurately perceive and experience reality.