The Asceticism of the Desert Fathers and the Unconscious: the projection of the enemy within and the cleansing of the heart
I have always thought of the desert Fathers as the first depth psychologists. From experience, they came to know and understand the dark underground of the human heart and the obscure workings of the unconscious. As one who has had the opportunity to study psychoanalysis, I have become even more convinced of the Fathers great psychotherapeutic shrewdness and their ability to see and understand what lies beneath.
Paul Evdokimov in his work The Struggle with God captures beautifully not only this shrewdness but what the Fathers struggle has brought and continues to bring to us today. He writes:
“The ascesis of the desert is a vast psychoanalysis followed by a psychosynthesis of the universal human soul. Origen, the brilliant commentator, compares the desert to Plato’s cave. The desert with all its arsenal of phantasmagoria was a theater of shadows, a spectacle for men and angels; only the shadows did not reflect the reality outside the cave. They were the projection of the world inside man.
The Gospel speaks of the possessed, of disturbing elements and of the perversity of the human heart. The abysses we discover are haunted; there are secret places where evil powers are crouching and they rule us if we are ignorant or heedless. Ascesis cultivates our attention and begins by an experimental phenomenology of our human interior. It was necessary to materialize and personalize the perverted elements of a being, the hateful ego with its self-love, the doubter and demoniacal counterpart. Above all, it was necessary to extirpate them, to vomit them, and to objectify them, in order to look them in the face as detached and exteriorized. This objectification creates a distance, permits the projection of all interior elements as on a screen (Plato’s cave of shadows) under the form of monsters, wild beast and demons. This operation requires a very precise conviction of the reality of the enemy, in order to cut every bond and communion with him.
The Fathers of the desert have carried out this operation once for all and in the place of all. ‘He who has seen himself such as he is and has seen his sin is greater than he who raises the dead.’ They have shown man naked, and they have put a face and name on every obscure element of evil. The hidden play, both human and demoniacal, is demonstrated and brought to light. After this demonstration, the man going to confession knows what he has to do and what is going to happen. Each time he reproduces the experience of the desert Fathers. He can look within himself, but now without being troubled by the unknown. In order not to remain in a stifling tete-a-tete with his sins and with himself, he can discern their elements and exteriorize them by confession. Here only Christ, the absolute innocent and the absolute victim, can bring about the unique living transference, ‘by canceling the decree against us.’
. . . humanity was different before the incarnation from what it is now. One can say also that human consciousness was different before the ascesis of the desert from what it was after. Just like the event of pentecost, this ascesis has modified the dominant energies of the psyche and has renewed the human spirit.
The therapeutic effect formed by ‘the desert’ in the profoundest depths of the human spirit is universal. It represents the collective vomit, the objectification and the projection on the outside of the original and the accumulated impurity. This is perhaps the meaning of the words of St. Paul, ‘to add to the suffering of Christ’, something that the innocent Christ could not do in the place of man; only the sinner, the man of the desert, could do it in the place of all and with a universal significance. From a positive point of view, it was the formation of the ascetic archetype of man. It pre-formed ‘the violent’ in order to fight evil and the evil one inside and outside of man.’ (pp. 103-104)
This is perhaps the most compelling understanding of the nature of desert asceticism that I have ever read. More later . . .