Understanding the Passions according to the Philokalia: Healing of the Soul and through the Science of the Fathers
Now that we have spoken a bit about asceticism and its goal, theosis or deification, it is appropriate I think to address the specifics of that path of conversion and transformation. What is it that we must do on our part and with the grace of God on the path of return - to restore the image that has been sullied by our sin and to open ourselves up to the gift of becoming partakers of the divine nature made possible through Christ?
Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann, in their wonderful book “Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart” describe this path beautifully; with an understanding arising from and obviously rooted in personal experience. It is perhaps the clearest description that I have come across and since the book is out of print I offer you the following lengthy excerpt:
“Rediscovering that which unifies us, rediscovering our first innocence leads us to become one with God to such an extent that there is no longer the consciousness within us of a differentiated self, distinct from God. All that we know then is love, nothing else: the unique desire for the unique desired One which makes life a communion of love with the Creator and with all that He endlessly creates at each moment.
The opposite is our propulsion toward the exterior which kindles the multiplicity of desires and makes of life only hatred and division: ‘We devour ourselves reciprocally like serpents. The communion of love is replaced by the hidden fear of death, and this death,’ says Maximus the Confessor, ‘is the cause of our turning love into destructive passions.’ The self is so closed in upon itself by this metaphysical anguish that the other, including God, is always, even unconsciously, a potential enemy.
In a person whose spirit is cut off from God, the soul enters into a radical change of perspective and passes into a state of dualism. Instead of living through God, of seeing in His light and with His eyes, the soul sees and lives through the self in an autonomous way. This is a false self, nonbeing, the empirical existence where each act of affirmation of the self increases the dualistic tension between the self and God, between the self and others. And as the self depends upon things to affirm it, the ditch never ceases to be dug and God Himself becomes an antagonistic and hostile being, a rival. Little by little all relationships are falsified: with oneself, with others, with God, with the whole of creation. This ontological denaturation brings to life in us a sort of predisposition to bad faith, where we constantly try to make things other than what they are, so that they serve our appetite for pleasure and power and our arbitrary impulses in every moment. This is the ‘noisy tumult of the passions’ according to the patristic expression . . .
Here is the beginning of decay. Our existence is fractured and we plunge into internal contradictions that can only make us suffer. A person who persists in walking with a broken leg will only suffer; and every desire comes out of this deep fracture which we carry within and which inevitably brings us to tragedy. The great significance of true asceticism is found here: in discerning the motives behind our way of being and acting.
Where does my desire come from and where is it going? That is the ground of asceticism, its primary matter, and the very place of our penitence. Asceticism is a guardian over every interior and exterior movement. Nothing is possible - no accomplishment, no happiness, no peace - as long as desire is turned in upon itself, egocentric and greedy! There is no spiritual way or prayer which can be maintained without battling these passionate desires” (Goettmann, “Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart,” 120-121).
The Desert Fathers understood the word “passion” to mean all the egocentric desires through which the demon seeks to capture human beings. These we must know along with their most subtle workings within us if we are to fully engage in the spiritual battle that confronts us. Such knowledge and the hard won skill of recognizing evil in order to avoid it is so valuable that St. Isaac the Syrian stated: “He who sees his sin is greater than he who resurrects the dead.” It is through this interior work that the passions are not destroyed but have their energy redirected and reordered toward God - to eternal Life.
The Goettmann’s aptly describe this purification of the passions as a kind of “‘homemade psychoanalysis,’ a therapy which attacks the roots of the illnesses of our being, not only to heal us on a human level, but to heal us for our union with God” (Ibid., 122). Faith is the point of departure for the Desert Fathers from modern psychology; the goal is to share in the life and intimacy of the Holy Trinity and the Fathers see the full flowering of the personality not simply as a function of human needs and potentials.
This is exactly the approach to and understanding of the writings of the Fathers of the Philokalia presented by Hierotheos Vlachos in his masterful work “Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers.” He presents us with much different understanding of the word "Psychotherapy" than we often have in mind.
Psyche, Vlachos reminds us, comes from the Greek and means "soul". In the Hebrew and Christian tradition the soul is the essence of one's existence. It represents the whole living being of an individual person. The soul in this sense is manifested through the body, the mind and other facets of the one's being. When we speak of "Psychotherapy" then we mean the healing of one's soul.
There are great differences then between modern psychotherapy and Christian psychotherapy. Contemporary psychotherapy focuses more on the mental and emotional dimensions of a person, thoughts, emotions and feelings; in particular by addressing the disorder and pathology that one may be experiencing in these dimensions. But most modern psychotherapy does not see itself as facilitating growth of person in their relationship with God; that is, in the realization and expression of divine truth. It hopes certainly to encourage more efficient living and functioning in the world. And yet, its values and intentions often reflect those that prevail in the culture at the given time. For example, modern psychotherapy often seeks to bolster one's capacity to gratify needs and desire and to achieve a sense of autonomous mastery over self and circumstance; that is, self-realization and self-fulfillment.
Christian Psychotherapy seeks liberation from disordered attachments and self-giving surrender to the power and will of God. The manner in which personal growth and healing take place depend not on self-mastery but upon the grace of God. The true healer, the Physician, is Jesus. The root of our illness, the disorder and lack of integration we experience, our sickness of soul, comes from sin. It is this we seek to remedy in and through our relationship with Jesus Christ (see “Orthodox Psychotherapy, pp 97-118).
It has been said that the Desert Fathers have provided us with a map of the soul:
“The passions and temptations which must inevitably beset any Christian were unearthed and described with almost scientific precision. Pride, vainglory, lust - each passion was isolated and catalogued. This ‘map’ of the Christian soul was then passed on from one generation of ascetics to another, each generation profiting from the discoveries of the previous ones. Not only were the passions and temptations which afflict the soul unearthed, however, but a ‘system’ was developed to combat them. This system was later to become know as ‘hesychasm’ or ‘prayer of the heart’” (Coniaris, “Philokalia: Bible of Orthodox Spirituality”, 148-149).
In future posts, we will consider how the Fathers of the Philokalia came to categorize the principle vices that give rise to these passions, how they manifest themselves and how they are remedied. The Fathers had no illusions about human nature, its woundedness and through the insights born from their spiritual life we stand to gain a deeper understanding of the human person and the truth that peace of soul can be bought only at the price of a long struggle.