Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Desert Fathers and Searching the Depths of the Unconscious: Descending with the Mind into the Heart

In a number of previous posts, I have already mentioned, albeit in a cursory fashion, the importance of the Heart in Philokalic Spirituality.  Yet, one cannot emphasize enough the significance and centrality of its place in the writings of the desert fathers.  Therefore, having a clear notion of how they define the Heart and its place in the spiritual and ascetical life is imperative for anyone wishing to approach the study of the Philokalia.  

The Heart is not simply a physical organ but rather the very epicenter of one’s identity as a person, one’s capacity to know, love and choose.  St. Maximus explains this as follows: “The mind’s aim is to have knowledge of God.  The sensation’s aim is to desire and love God, and the volition’s aim is the will to do what God commands.”  For this reason, the Heart has often been called “The Lord’s Reception Room.”  

Yet, given the fact that it encompasses all of the above mentioned faculties through which we are receptive to and engage God and the things of the world, Anthony Coniaris reminds us that it can also be the reception room, the abode, of demons, sin and evil.  As one familiar with modern psychology, in particular psychoanalytic thought, I found Coniaris‘ comparison of the Heart to the Unconscious to be of great interest and perhaps a helpful means to understand this central concept of the fathers’ thought.  He writes:
“In the heart, or the unconscious, are buried all the things we ever did (now forgotten) as well as all the passions we have inherited.  Jesus spoke specifically to this truth when He said, ‘Out of the heart’, the unconscious (not the conscious mind), ‘proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, murders . . .things which defile a person’ (Mark 7:21-23).  Yet out of the same unconscious mind, buried in the heart, we have also inherited many good things as well, such as the voice of conscience, the knowledge of God, a sense of right and wrong, etc.” (58)
While it is beyond the scope of this present post and while the nuances and distinctions about the unconscious that modern psychoanalytic thought makes might be quite different, Coniaris’ observation and comparison is astute and the similarities between the Heart and the Unconscious are indeed numerous and worthy of exploration.  Indeed, the fathers could rightfully be called the first psychoanalysts, seeking through prayer, ascetical practice and the solitude of the desert to enter into the depths.  They understood and respected the mystery of the human person, the contradictions found within and the value of becoming more conscious of both the integrating and disintegrating factors that establish personal identity for good or ill.  This is captured well by noted philosopher, religious writer and co-translator of the Philokalia, Philip Sherrard:
“ The receptacle of grace, the ‘place of the presence of divine life, is where we encounter God and in union with God become integrated and transfigured beings.  The art of the spiritual life is therefore to become conscious of the ‘treasure hidden in the heart‘ - to become conscious of the real but un-apprehended presence of God in the heart; and this art is effectuated by inducing the intellect, freed from extraneous thoughts and images, to ‘descend’ into the heart and so become conscious of the divine presence hidden there.”  
Again, while perhaps the nuances of an analytic understanding and exploration of the unconscious and the purposes of such an exploration may differ greatly, both appreciate the mystery and complexity that is the human person.  St. Macarious describes it insightfully: 
“Within the heart there are unfathomable depths.  There are reception rooms and bedchambers in it, doors and porches, and many offices and passages.  In it is the workshop of righteousness and of wickedness.  In it is death; in it is life . . . The heart is Christ’s palace: there Christ the King comes to take rest, with angels and the spirit of the saints, and he dwells there, walking within it and places his Kingdom there.” (60)
While appreciating the mystery of the human person, it should be clear even from the one reference above that these masters of the inner life had a different end in view with the descent of the mind into the heart.  Their goal was not a psychological integration or to create an emotional narrative through which they might understand their thoughts and feelings.  These are certainly valuable and may take place in the course of one’s spiritual life, but it simply wasn’t in their purview.  Their end, in light of their faith, was not integration so much as transformation through of rediscovery of the grace of Baptism and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.  To descend with the mind into the heart is, most importantly, to discover there the kingdom of God.  Through great ascetic effort and the struggle of prayer one seeks to reach a state which is free from all disturbance and there to encounter the God who dwells within.  This encounter is what transforms, illuminates and purifies.  The healing that is sought is that of the whole person by “tending to the inner flame of the Holy Spirit which burns before the image (icon) of God in the chapel of our heart.” (114)
All quotes taken from “A Beginners Introduction to the Philokalia” by Anthony Coniaris

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