Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lost Souls

[Note: This is a re-post from November, 2006]

Vox clamato in deserto . . .

The writings of the Christian ascetics of the Orthodox tradition comprise the collection of texts known as the Philokalia, and span the 4th to the 15th centuries. The first compilation of these writings was completed in the 18th century. In our time a four-volume set was compiled, translated and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, and published in 1979 in Great Britain under the auspices of the Eling Trust.

It is a shock to encounter the Desert Fathers. Almost everything that comes to mind when we hear of them is wrong, and there are vast layers of assumption and prejudice that have to be peeled away before we can understand what they mean about the different energy levels in human nature - intellect, image, emotion, wishing, perception, thinking, voluntary and involuntary. Compared to their acuity of discernment, Western philosophy seems a dry husk, and the massive accumulations of psychology and social science following the post-philosophical age - that is, the harvest of modernity - seem like mere dust.

The shock of Christian ascesis consists in realizing how much the activity of thought depends upon or presupposes the existence of the soul. But it is precisely the existence of the soul that is at issue. As Jacob Needleman writes in Lost Christianity, referencing a modern practitioner of Christian ascesis, "... the soul is not a fixed entity. According to Father Sylvan, it is a movement that begins whenever man experiences the psychological pain of contradiction." [1]

It was a disaster for Christianity, according to Father Sylvan, when it accepted the existence of the soul already "in finished form" in human nature.

This "given-ness" of the soul in the Christian view of human nature passed out of active use several centuries ago - what modern discipline concerns itself with the soul in any meaningful way? -- and has been succeeded by the "given-ness" of reason or intellect -- the a priori assumption of reason. John McMurtry writes that the first rule of the "Group-Mind" is that it cannot adopt itself as an object of critical reflection:

"When the most self-evident line of thought has been blinkered out across a people, only an a priori thought system can account for it. As with other great problems of our era, the group-mind disconnects by stopping thought before it arises."

Christian ascesis is the practice of giving attention to thoughts as they first appear, thus it is a practice wholly at odds with a priorism and with all forms of mechanical, psychic or associative activity which masquerades as "thought." According to Father Sylvan, a hundred, a thousand times a day, thoughts that challenge or contradict assumptions and beliefs, thoughts that might provoke self-questioning or discomfort about some fact or emotion or received wisdom, thoughts that might force one to confront one's own laziness, anger, lack of love, lack of integrity -- such thoughts are continually circling the perimeter of the mind and sometimes even penetrate its arena. And yet they come to nothing, they are quickly repelled, conveniently forgotten, dispersed, and covered over by compulsive action, rationalization, explanation, or emotional reaction. Father Sylvan calls this incessant activity of covering over the Question the "First Dispersal of the Soul." It means that the force of attention is wasted, degraded by absorption into one part or another of the psycho-physical organism, and rendered useless for the growth of the soul. Man becomes trapped in an "automatism of non-redemptive experience," which he likens to St. Paul's "body of death."

The struggle of Christian ascesis is to contain the energy of the Question within oneself so that the Soul can come into being. Thus, the existence of the Soul is not a given, not an a priori assumption. It is an energy formed through the confrontation with question and contradiction, an energy that has to be sought, recognized, collected and accumulated - "pondered in the heart." This is why "God can only speak to the soul," according to Father Sylvan, "and only when the soul exists." How accurately this comment foreshadows the condition of modern man, exemplified in John Derbyshire's complaint concerning his loss of religious faith. When asked by an interviewer whether he had ever had a religious experience, Derbyshire replied, "No, and I'm miffed by this."

It is a relief to move from this world of the whining modern, who expects to be provided with spiritual experience in the full armory of modern comforts, to the writings of the Desert Fathers. St. Mark the Ascetic (5th century; sometimes known as Mark the Hermit) says "Never belittle the significance of your thoughts; for not one escapes God's notice."

Of course - for it is these very thoughts, no matter how seemingly insignificant, that must be attended to and carefully 'interrogated.' The process of interrogating the thoughts is likened in the New Testament to 'dividing the sheep from the goats.' It is an activity of continuous discernment and sifting of thoughts that can lead to the 'gathering' of what is vital in them, 'saving' them and 'saving in them' that which is possible for future development.

Then there is this astonishing passage from "No Righteousness by Works:"

"Involuntary thoughts arise from previous sin; voluntary ones from our free
will. Thus the latter are the cause of the former." [Italics mine.]

I emphasized this last sentence as underscoring the fact of 'Presence,' which is the aim of Christian ascesis - dwelling in the presence and present attention of the soul, which acts retroactively upon the 'past.' It is not the past that determines in the present, as in deterministic modern psychology; it is the present disposition of the soul that influences the kind of past that we even perceive. And again, emphasizing our responsibility for our thoughts, as for our experience, St. Mark the Hermit says: "Do not say, 'I don't want it, but it happens.' For even though you may not want the thing itself, yet you welcome what causes it."

And again, responsibility is presence: "It is the uneven quality of our thoughts that produces changes in our condition. For God assigns to our voluntary thoughts consequences which are appropriate but not necessarily of our choice."

The quality of attention: "When you find that some thought is disturbing you deeply in yourself and is breaking the stillness of your intellect with passion, you may sure it was your intellect which, taking the initiative, first activated the thought and placed it in your heart."

And finally: "He who does not choose to suffer for the sake of truth will be chastened more painfully by suffering he has not chosen."

There are many other sayings of this quality in St. Mark the Hermit's "On the Spiritual Law." And his comprise a small portion of this wonderful collection of texts. In reading these texts one can understand why the West underwent a tremendous historical development, and how the energy these Fathers discerned and elucidated in the soul later exploded into so many fields - fields seemingly quite diverse from their lucid gaze. And reading them today brings one into a renewed sense for the failures of modern Western intelligence, which now at the pinnacle of its power seems like a blind and destructive giant. The recovery of lucid intelligence in the West would be greatly assisted by a revival and study of these texts. Thinking and empathy can only arise in the soul, but if there is no basis in the soul for them to become active and conscious, these manifestations attest to the presence of energies, and these energies do not just cease to be or disappear. They must go somewhere. Instead of empathy and thinking, the energies fuel cancerous hatreds and controlling, rigidifying obsessions.

The Philokalia is our crying need -- in the twilight of our souls, it can be a lamp to hold up against our darkening minds.

[1] Simone Weil on contradiction: "God has entrusted all phenomena, without any exception, to the mechanism of this world... The contradictions which the mind is brought up against form the only realities, the only means of judging what is real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test on the part of necessity."

Compare also Richard Weaver, speaking of the liberalism in Western societies: "Its fundamental incapacity to think, arising from an inability to see contradictions, deprives it of the power to propagate." From his Ideas Have Consequences (1948).

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