Part III. Chapter 2
Psychology of Asceticism.
Those interested in the spiritual path often have a false notion about ascetism. The excesses of asceticism which have occurred throughout monastical history are put forth as an excuse to abandon all effort and to do nothing. A middle path between these two extremes has to be found; to do this, we shall first examine excessive asceticism in depth then go on to define correct asceticism, that is how to disengage oneself from the identification to the body without maltreating it, and then try to find the causes which have led to violent asceticism in Christian tradition.
Monks are not ordinary people : through practice they have developed an uncommon intensity in the concentration of the mind. The difficulties that they encounter cannot be explained by the theories put forth by psychologists who themselves have no experience of retreat or sustained meditation. Apart from labelling asceticism as "masochism", they have not much more to say.
A comparative spiritual psychology, on the contrary can provide concrete references in other traditions. We shall then discuss the notion of correct asceticism and of the disengagement from the body consciousness both in Hinduism and in Christianity. In India, excessive ascetism was widespread at the time of the Buddha; he himself tried it before defining the rule of the middle path. The anthologies of the texts written by the desert monks discard the descriptions of excessive asceticism; I have however read some complete works in which a frightening asceticism is evoked along with words of a sublime nature. We shall attempt to clarify this.
EXCESSIVE ASCETISM - THE FACTS
Excessive asceticism was so popular in the early monasticism, that it was given the special name of "epaskesis" (over-asceticism). The reference to Christ’s cross was the apparent justification to these excesses. Saint Paul himself declared, "I bruise my body and drag it along, enslaved" (Cor9,26). He also spoke of all the trials and tribulations like hunger, cold and persecution that he had endured. These were taken as examples by the monks, although not being missionaries they were much less exposed to the hazards of an active, itinerant life. Macaire one of the early anchorites after Saint Antony, defined a monk unambiguously : "A monk is he who indulges in violence against himself in every way".1 A far cry indeed, from the gentleness of hesychia ... !
Let us begin with a caricatured example of violent asceticism : "Saint" Eusebius wore a chain linking his neck and back; as the chain was a short one he was obliged to stoop continuously; he wore this chain for forty years, until his death. This example gives a physical illustration of the risk of a pathological deviation which lies behind the need for "voluntary humiliation". another monk did not raise his eyes for twenty years...3
Following the example Saint Symeon the Stylite climbing on a pillar which was considered as a cell became the fashion. Since it was difficult to stay alone however, the stylites regrouped into communities; one of them at Gethsemani had about a hundred members. Sometimes especially if they were of different theological beliefs, they did not agree with one another, and were disputing with each other from their pillars....4
At other places there were "the grazers" who had vowed only to move on all fours and to eat grass or whatever else they found on the ground without using their hands...5 As for Abbot Bessarion, he spent fourteen days with his arms raised in prayer.
One form of ascetism popular in Oriental nonasticism is that of tears. Crying diminishes the sense of ego, the tendency towards anger - and desire. Compunction (‘penthos’) is thus presented as the chosen weapon of the monk. Here too there were numerous excesses. Abbot Arsenius shed so many tears that he lost his eyelashes.6 Another monk cried continuously day and night for two years.7 In principle, these tears ought to have been like those of a child, a mixture of joy and sorrow; but it was easy to slide into pure depression(‘acedia’). The tears of a child call out to its mother, and if the mother does not come, a reaction of despair is possible. The last words of some of the monks express a fear of damnation, or of sinning in the last few hours of life left to them: something which is not really a sign of success on the spiritual path.
John Climacus provides an interesting case study for the history of asceticism. Having entered a monastery at sixteen, he placed himself under the discipline of a master named Martyrius, whose very name can be felt as inspining or frightening according to one’s taste; he later wrote "The Holy ladder" which was the main book used by the Abbot of Rance, the founder of the great Trappe and the ascetic reformer of the Cistercians in the XVIIth century. Among the wise words about prayer and stages of spiritual progress that this book contains are found many "ascetic gems" of this kind : "The most advanced person whom I knew in the desert were the monks who sincerely believed that they had failed in their vocation".8 Or again: "Whipped by your prayer the evil spirits will fly as before fire".9 "The desire to drink water has to be fought with thoughts of the flames of hell; the thirst for humiliation is a signe of perfection".... He advises monks to be like "the prisoners in the mines who are constantly being beaten by their guards" .10
All this seems to be more in keeping with a spiritual concentration camp than a monastery..... . . The poison of sin also contaminates the methods of salvation: "At each communion, pray that it be not for year condemnation".
Psychological auto-flagellation is as insane as the physical one. The last line of an otherwise interesting book on Christian monastic life contains the word "devil" which is regrettable when one knows that one finally becomes that on which he has concentrated for a long time. It is only practically at the end of the volume on the "words of the Ancients" that some positive advice is found:" Let your thoughts dwell on the Realm of the skies, and soon you will possess its heritage".11
Before considering the psychology of excessive asceticism let us try to understand right asceticism, and the balanced rapport between the meditator and his body.
In my opinion, right asceticism consists of accepting suffering which comes by itself, while excessive asceticism consists of creating this suffering. According to one of the Father : "It is not enough to renounce life it is necessary to hate it".12 This, to me, is the very definition of excessive asceticism. Correct asceticism, on the contrary, seems to have been defined by Simone Weil when speaking of humility : "It is intelligence which most resembles true humility".
Excessive asceticism had of course, already been criticized within Christrianity. Abbot Poemen said, "All that which goes beyond moderation comes from demons".13 wishing to soften his stand, however, he could not help but reintroduce the devils and thus fell prey to an unending conflict the subject and "his" devils.
The Bhagvad-Gita the great text of the Hindu tradition on the contrary takes care to emphasize that yoga is neither for those who eat too much or too little, nor for those who sleep too much or too little. The Middle path was so important in Buddhist thought that one of its main school was named after it (Madhyamika); it is interesting to note that the word "middle" is not taken in the ordinary sense of the term : "lukewarm" for example is not the state in between "hot" and "cold" but a third state which goes beyond the hot-cold duality.
According to Indian thought suffering comes from ignorance; it is thus understanding which can cure suffering - an idea which modern psychology agrees with. From an understanding (‘viveka’) which is not only intellectual but also deeply lived through meditation, comes the letting-go of one’s hold (‘vairagya’). On this path, inner happiness is a powerful driving force. Once an Ancient was asked why the soul constantly sought transitory and impure things; He replied : "It is because it has still not tasted heavenly blessings; whoever has tasted them, seeks God with all his heart; he who has not returns to impure things".14
The mixture of suffering and happiness is not experienced by ascetics alone. Those in the throes of passion experience this state intensely similarily, those practising competitive sport put their bodies to a lot of suffering; but they find pleasure in surpassing themselves. It could also be argued that a mountaineer, risking his life to "conquer" a peak which has been conquered a number of times before suffers from a more serious pathological contempt of his body, than does a monk in the desert who fasts because he finds it lightens his mind.
Violence in asceticism comes from the ignorance about a fundamental law of the psyche : fear of desire reinforces desire, and anger against ones own anger doubles this anger. In the short run violence against the mind might yield results, but mind will take its revenge later, in one way or another just as a child violently punished by its father finds ways of taking revenge during adolescence: The psyche functions through the alternating of opposites (‘dvandas’); seeking to forcefully humiliate the ego only serves to prove that the ego exists and that it is strong. There is a deep manicheism underlying the incapacity of going beyond these opposites, as in the case of the monk of Mount Athos who said : "The only enemies of the monk are the demons. Praying for them is impossible".15 This dualism is psychologically linked to the difficulty of genuinely overcoming sexual desire: "He who possesses the pearl of chastity can never be free of the fear of having it stolen (by the demons) until he has attained th sanctuary of the tomb, that is, the land of rest".16
It would however, be unfair to say that the Fathers did not think about going beyond the pairs of opposites. Gregory the Theologian said, "To think of oneself as a great sinner is almost as pleasant as considering onesllves as a saint or a genius. But to consider oneself as one is, neither too high nor too low, seems mediocre". 17 The anger between passions, which is a sign of the dualism of the beginner should be avoided. According to Isaac the Syrian : "It is better to push back the passions with the memory of virtues, rather than to resist them." Saint Nil also said, "Prayers begins with tears of contrition, but this method of fighting passions should not itself become a passion".18 Another sign of the overcoming of the dualities may be seen in the capacity that some monks had of acknowledging and accepting temptations, where however it was not just another symptom of the hunger for self inflicted suffering. In the devotional context, grace is what can save the soul from the sad, unending conflict between good and Evil, on the condition that it is present ; if not, the soul fails prey to another duality that of the presence or absence of grace, a duality which is a great source of anguish in the spiritual evolution of Christians.
The path of meditation, which consists of the observation of the mind as it is, is very rarely advocated. The advice of Saint Nil, however, comes closest to this practice : "A man truly prays when he offers all his first thoughts to God".
RESPECTING THE BODY
According to the Vedanta, three factors go together : the disengagement from the body, from the ego, and from a personal god. When from body consciousness is successful, the rest follows. There is a deep intimate repport between idolatry, "autolatry" and "somatolatry". All traditions, including Tantrism and Chamanism, agree on the necessity of modifying the usual consciousness which one has of the body. From the neurophysiological viewpoint, the use of "hallucinogenic drugs is also linked to a modification of corporal consciousness.
Among the Christian authors, it is perhaps Maximus the Confessor who deserves credit for best highlighting the link between an attachment to the body and the attachment to the ego, which he calls "philautia". Iren’ee Hausherr, the great specialist of the greek fathers, has devoted an entire book to the subject. According to him, Maximus defined "philautia" thus : "It is the passionate and unreasonable love for the body [......]".19 Philautia is, as I have said, the mother of all vices; once it is destroyed, all its off shoots, all its scions get destroyed with it. It disappears, without leaving a single trace of malice anywhere".20 In the ascetic language of his time, Maximus, in fact, goes very far: he agrees with the Vedanta, that the complete nondentification with the body and the ego lead, to perfection to the state of the "liberated being". Does that however mean that the body should be maltreated? No, because the real process is a process of consciousness : "It is not a question of suppressing the senses or the objects of the senses, but that of changing the inclination of the soul towards them."21
Nisargadatta Maharaj was not an ascetic living in the desert. He was married with several children and had a small shop in Bombay. This however did not prevent him from strongly advocating disengagement : "Once the disengagerent from the body-mind takes place, Brahman (the Absolute) will fall at your feet with folded hands ...."22
In traditional thought, the body would correspond to what Winnicott in psychoanalytical language would have been called a transitional object : it would be like those old worthless pieces of cloth to which a baby is attached with all its heart and soul, and from which it refuses to be separated.
BEYOND BODY CONSCIOUSNESS
The new consciousness of the body that develops with the experienced meditator is a paradoxical state, and as such it constitutes an awakening. This state is described by Saint Paul when he speaks of an experience which was decisive for him, and from which he derived his spiritual authority based on what he had directly lived and "seen"; "I know a man in Christ, who fourteen years ago was in this body or outside this body, I know not; God knows- [.....] this man was transported to heaven [......] he heard inexpressible words, which no man is allowed to repeat "(II Cor 12, 24) In the XIVth century, Gregory Palamas fought to have the importance of the body acknowledged in prayer in opposition to the more intellectual views of Balaam, a brilliant professor of philosophy at the court of Constantinople. Gregory asserted : "we say that it is evil to keep thinking of the body : but to be in the body is not evil, because the body is not wicked".
The paradox between consciousness and the body is this : it is necessary for consciousness to descend within the body to be able to understand how it is attached to it; only then can it seriously think of detaching itself. At that moment disengagement is not a weakning but a renunciation, because it allows one to be identified with the Self, and with his one’s true nature. This is the meaning of the Zen saying, "To go beyond body and mind", or of what Vivekananda tells, "It is the foolish people, identified with their bodies, who tremble piteously exclaiming, ‘weak, weak, we are weak’".23 It is necessary to take the middle path between acceptance of the body and its control : if there is only control of the body, without acceptance of it, it leads to suppression and sheer moralism. If there is only attention to the body without control of it, it leads to either hypochondria, or to a kind of pan-sexualism which causes regression from the spiritual point of view. There may be then an exaggerated self-centration, an egoism of the kind that is sometimes found in people who have undertaken ten years of psychoanolysis; not content with hankerings after the satisfaction of their conscious needs like the majority of people, they also seek the satisfaction of their unconscious needs and became trapped in this process.
The interest in living in solitude in that external thoughts diminish to a great extent and that the physical basis of the mind becomes evident; but even here, it is necessary that this consciousness is accompanied by detachment, if not the mind will keep turning around into circles.
Like Maximus, Mark the Ascetic acknowledges that he who succeeds in disengaging himself from the body consciousness is a kind of "liberated being" : "He who, through Divine wishes, has succeeded in evercoming the soul’s inclination towards the body, is free of all limitation, even while being in the body. His natural life will not be an obstacle to his living within God, whose nature is beyond all comprehension".24 Indian sages like Ramdas or Ma Anandamayi spoke of their bodies in the third person. On the first page of his "Four Centuries on Love" Maximus the Confessor also describes same state of the mind : "A man who attaches himself to God with love, considers visible things, including his body, as being non-existent, as if even his body were not his own.
With a profound understanding of the paradox of the body, the apparently contradictory statements of Nietzsche and Francis of Assisi no longer seem so. The former said in the "Zarathustra" : "There is more wisdom in your body than in all your reason", and the latter thought that the body ought to be treated as a "donkey". The wisdom that comes from the body only exists because the body is conscious. In the same way, the energy of a well-mounted donkey is controlled by the consciousness of the one who sides it. It both cases, the goal which is sought is this wisdom-consciousness and not the body considered as just another object of consumerism.
The thinking process of the sage is like that of the child close to the body. Through meditation he has found the direct path leading from the bottom to the top. He has awakened the Kundalini. In the section on "Hesychasm and Yoga" we will return to the indirect evocation of this awakening by certain Fathers. Like a layer of clouds between the earth and the sky, it is the vital mind which creates the real separation as a thick layer between body and spirit. The consciousness of the experienced meditator traverses this layer like lighthing.
The vital mind continuously oscillates between fear and desire; it is not a question of "sin", for it is in its very nature to oscillate between the two extremes like the pendulum of a clock. When one day, however, this pendulum ends its oscillation and attains equilibrium thanks to spiritual practices - which, in a meditator, can be compared to a reorganization of energy on a vertical axis (‘sushumna’) - then the Earth meets the Sky, there is fusion in Space, and Time in no more.
The Psychology of Excessive Asceticism and Anguish
We have already briefly mentioned some causes of excessive asceticism. We shall now go deeper and try to expand on the problem from the point of view of suffering, a question which has been raised in every spiritnal tradition, but which has been resolved in Christianity in a particular way which has influenced the Western cultural background.
One of the main causes of excessive asceticism or suffering which is inflicted on oneself is anger turned both outwards and towards oneself. From a psychological point of view, the impulse for suicide and the impulse to murder are closely linked. In India too, the ascetics (or ‘tapasvis’) were known for their anger. This anger could be against the illusory nymphs (‘apsaras’) to whose attractions they had succumbed earlier and who returned to tempt them. These ascetics could burn them, out of anger which they third eye. As long as they were subject to desire or anger they could not attain Realization.
The pleasure that suffering gives is an obvious cause for excessive asceticism, buy labelling it "masochism" is not an explanation in itself. One of the laws of popular medicine which says. "The more bitter the medicine, the better it is", seems to have been transposed into the psycho-spiritual domain as, "The greater the suffering, the greater the well-being". The problem is this is not the way it works : this kind of popular psychology is as misleading as its equivalent counterpart in medicine.
The propensity for suffering can assume the proportion of a delirium of damnation as happened in the case of Jean-Joseph Surin the exorcist of Loudun, a convent where nuns had been possessed by the Devil in France before the Revolution. It is a classic symptom of deep depression (melancholia) in psycho-pathology but it exists more often in an attenuated form : even if a feeling of being completely damned is not present there is the impression of constantly being in hell and of being obliged to remain there. The monk thus takes as a norm what was probably a difficult stage of his practice. This joy felt by some on seeing themselves to be in hell could be called anti-ecstasy.
A simple explanation of this propensity to attach oneself to suffering as such can be inertia, what is called ‘tamas’ in Indian, psychology, and ‘simple conditioning in behavioural psychology. An experiment in animal psychology is important from this point of view : a dog was tied to a leash and given electric shocks. Later it was released and given the shock in a box from which it could escape; surprisingly after having repetitively gone round the box, it preferred to remain inside and be electrocuted: sometimes, it is more "peaceful" to quietly remain in one’s hell. Seligman who conducted this experiment called it "conditioned helpessness".25
How suffering can become a habit is well-known. Vivekananda recounts the story of the fisher-women who were taken by surprise by a storm and thrown onto the coast with their baskets of fish. They were saved by a rich man who allowed them to sleep in his rose-garden; but when they lay down they could not sleep until they had collected the stinking baskets of fish that they had left behind on the coast ........ . Rumi also tells a similar story. Perhaps all this should be borne in mind when interpreting the words of a monk who said, "When I have no temptation, I feel abandoned by God".
THE DESIRE FOR ASCETICISM
The word ‘asceticism’ comes from the Greek word "askesis" which means "exercise" in the sense of an athletic tranining. The well-being that is felt during an intensive practice of sport and for some time afterwards, is linked to the production of endorphines. Some kinds of ecstasis might also be connected to these endorphines. As for fasting, it encourages the production of adrenalin and possibly of endorphines as well to compensate for a lowering of the blood-sugar level. I have myself tried to take an inhibitor of endorphines. Naltrexone, for a few days and it seemed that the increase of well-being in meditation during fast was suppessed by Naltrexone, which proves that endorphines are involved as a link between fasting and well-being in meditation. The level of adrenalin also goes up in people who are constantly listening to the radio or to music; that is why they feel deprived when they find themselves surrounded by silence. Those with anorexia, who hardly eat anything have a paradoxical dynamism which masks the weakening of the body.
The deprivation of water (nazareat) which was so important to the Fathers could come from the will to limit urination, the desire to urinate having about the same localisation as exual desire. For the inhabitants of the desert, it could also have been a kind of survival training, corresponding to the practices of inner fire by the Tibetans who had to live in freezing cold all through the winter. The deprivation of sleep produces an afflux of dreams while awake and thus facilitates what could be called "visions". However, this afflux of images can accelerate the process of the purification of the unconscious for someone who knows how to meditate, if he does not fall asleep during his practice...... . Besides, the erection reflexes which normally take place during sleep, could take place while awake, which would create a problem for a monk and which he could interpret as demoniac attacks in the Christian context. All these facts show that intensive retreat with deprivation of sleep should only be taken up with great care, especially by people who are psychologically fragile; it should not be undertaken by those who have a history of hallucinations.
Another factor favouring excessive asceticism is emulation. Even while living in relative isolation, the monks heard visitors talking of the ascetic exploits of their brothers and wished to imitate them in order to win their laurels in the great tournaments of mortifications...... . If the imitation of peers was a considerable stimulant, that of the Fathers was even more so. The monks had a kind of a "descendant complex" vis-a-vis their predecessors or the founders of monasticism who were necessarily thought of as being better than them; it was a kind of nostalgia of origins. As regards the first Fathers they visible suffered from the same complex vis-a-vis the Apostles who were themselves martyred, and, above all, vis-a-vis Jesus who died on the Cross. This crucifixion represents a kind of fatal birth trauma. Saint Paul explicitly said that Christ’s Cross should not be in vain. However, seeking too much significance or giving too much meaning to past suffering mainly leads to being buried deeper in that suffering.
The people invested the martyrs and their tombs with miraculous powers. In sacrificing themselves, they became sacred. The monks who left for solitude were not devoid of the wish for this power which came with a sacred status. They became some sort of scapegoats sent to the desert charged with the sins of the people and, in this capacity, certainly had powers....... .
The desert was inhabited by demons (Lev 16,8), associated by the Fathers with pagan Gods ; The Fathers of the monks, Saint Antony, has been described as being surrounded by the ferocious beasts of the desert at night while he was awake. He said to them, "If the power of God has sent you against me, I am ready to be devoured; if you have been sent by the demons, do not wait, go away; at these words the beasts fled, chased away so to ssy by the whip of Antony’s discourse".27 The spiritual criticism of sacrifice could be that it repeats an action aimed at gaining something, either credit or power - but real love or real knowledge is free.
In the context of this relationship between sacrifice and sacredness, the works of Rene Girard, who criticises the Christian idea of sacifice, of Nietzsche, and finally of Eugen Drewermann, who has given a precise psychological analysis of sacrifice, can be refered to.28
AUSTERITY AND POWERS
In India, there is a clear link between austerity (‘tapasya’) and powers (‘siddhis’); but powers are considered to be obstacles to liberation. The monks also knew this, but quite a few among them nevertheless sought subtle forms of power. Isaac the Syrian said, "Whoever has been refused great temptation, will be refused great charisma. In no case did God grant great charisma if there has been little temptation".29 Extraordinary asceticism attracted curious crowds, as in the case of Saint Symeon who stayed permanently on his pillar. This kind of penance conferred magical powers on the ascetics which enabled them to fight their pagan counterparts. In this context a link can be established between the desert monks and Milarepa : after devoting himself to magic and killing a number of people, one day he began to feel the weight of his sins on him and he began to lead an extremely ascetic life under the guidance of Marpa. He developed powers which enabled him to drive away the ancient religion of Bon which was overruning Tibet, and then to propagate the new wisdom of Buddhism.
The thought of heretics produced as violent a reaction among the monks as did the thoughts of women : inspite of the fact that Saint Antony devoted his life to developing humility and love of his neighbour’s his blood boiled when he realised that some of his visitor were followers of Arius : "Having known and judged their impiety he drove them away from his mountain, saying that their words were worse than the venom of serpents".30 Athanasius, Anthony’s biographer and the bishop of Alexandria was constantly fighting pagans and heretics; he ended the life of the saint anchorite by recommending that it should be read by the Hellenes in order "to prove to them that their gods were not gods but demons and that the Christians who piously believed in God would trample them underfoot, and drive them away as frauds and corruptors of men ...".31
Even if we take into account the spirit of that time, I find that this conslusion betray a limited notion of the fruits of asceticism and holiness. A cause of the sufferings of the fathers was this quasi-manichean conflict between orthodoxy on the one hand and pagans and heretics on the other, It was echoed in their psyche as a battle with demons, and as the unsurmountable duality between Good and Evil.
For them persecuting pagans seemed to be a natural situation : "Called by Archbishop Theophilus the Fathers went one day to Alexandria to pray and to destroy the pagan temples there".32 They certainly succeeded in eliminating the pagans and heretics but paid the price of their limited manicheism in their body and mind. Devoured by a missionary zeal, Saint Paul himself complained of all the suffering that he had had to endure, the splinters in his skin, and the slaps of one of Satan’s angels. (2 Cor XII 7). Saint John, on the contuary, spent a peaceful retreat on the island of Patmos, and does not mention any suffering in living for Christ. He seems more like the Indian sages, who do not set out on any mission, but wait for spiritual seekers to come and find them ; according to the Vedas, "When the lotus is in the bloom, the bees come to it of their own accord.
ASCETICISM AND SOLITUDE
Solitary life helps in the intensification of mental phenomena; it is a "sounding box", as the Master of novices of the Carthusians (Carthusians are the more secluded monks in Catholicism) I was visiting one day, told me. After a certain length of time there occurs a real awakening of what is called "Kundalini" by the sages of the Hindu tradition. The mind of the monk, which till that moment had been relatively peaceful, could be overcome by all kinds of violent desires and impulses. In the dualistic context, this awaking is interpreted as an attack by the demons. In fact, it is necessary to learn how to channelise this energy. There Yoga and meditation can be of help. The harshness desert asceticism is perhaps a reflection of the dryness of the landscape itself. The same relationship between cause and effect could be established for Russia which, noted for its harsh climate, was also one of the important source of excessive ascetic feats in Christianity.
Another reason for the excessive asceticism of the hermit is quite simply, the amount of time he has on his hands: to keep his mind occupied, the monk creates more and more bizarre ascetic exercises for instance imagining, among other things, all that the demons could possibly invent against him ..... . In those with obssessive tendencies, free time intensifies these symptoms. Asceticism then becomes an aim in itself, what is called "obssession" in psychology, and "idol" in religion. Besides, the battle with the demons produces an excitement which may prevent the depression of the monks: When me watch solitary, unoccupied children, one often sees them playing at fighting imaginary enemies, and it seems to give them great pleasure, This comparison cannot completely explain the phenomenon of demons, but it helps understanding certain things.
Desert Fathers rarely suggest that inner conflicts have a psychological origin; they seem to interpret them more in demonological terms. This kind of manicheism which we have mentioned earlier, is quite different from Indian thought according to which these conflicts are mere ripples on the surface of the water which is the Absolute : once these ripples disappear only the Absolute remains. Besides, the individual self and the absolute Self are denoted in Sanskrit by the single word ‘atman’ so they cannot be so much in conflict.
ANGUISH AND GRACE
In order to go to the root of the matter the very idea of duality involves anguish. The Taittirya Upanishad says (2-7) : "This then is the essence of happiness. On establishing oneself fearlessly within the invisible which is non-defined, without body or base, the true absence of fear is discovered; but if the slightest distinction is made, fear reasserts itself". According to Biblical conception, there is not just a gap, but a chasm between human substance and diving substance - a chasm which can only be crossed by the lowering or raising of the drawbridge of grace. This duality represents a kind of projection, a metaphysical consecration of the separation due to original sin.
The belief in the substantiality of the human body and the person is what, perhaps, makes Christian asceticism more laborious than its Oriental counterpart. Indeed, the ascetic is confronted with a contradictory message : he is asked to believe in the substantiality of an ego, which must ultimately disappear completely in order to make place for the Divine. The grace of God can help, but it is accompanied by its shadow which is the withdrawal of grace, whose reasons we cannot comprehend. In this sense it could be said that anguish is the shadow of grace.
The disbelief in reincarnation is also responsible to a great degree for the anguish of the Christian. He not only has to believe that a hereafter exists, and bet on it as Pascal did, but he also has to believe that he will go hereafter into Heaven and not into Hell. An old bishop once told one of my acquaintances : "I now understand Eastern reincarnation better : it is true that one life is too short to achieve perfection ..... ".
The Taoist and Buddhist hermits described by Michel Jourdan on "The life of Hermit "33, seemed to have an asceticism which was more integrated with nature. They sought both harmony with nature and a conjunction of opposites. The asceticism of the desert seems to be devoid of the latter. I have read most of "The Transmission of the little lamp" which is the basic text of Ch’an Buddhism. There is no mention of either tears or repentance. The masters are strict, but the stories that this text contains impart essential knowledge by going beyond the level of simple moralisation and ordinary mind.
As far as the Hindus were concerned, the absence of cultural dualism presented a real problem for the Christian missionaries, who did not know what chord to strike to bring about "the return to the true God" : the Hindus did not feel separated from Him.
The harshness of the asceticism of the desert had been tempered with a profound and personal rapport with an Ancient. Coenobitic life, however, soon lost sight of the importance of this relationship. The concept of obedience to a spiritual master who did not have an ego was replaced by the notion of discipline under the authority of an administration which was all the more heavy because it was considered to be endowed with a divine right. Abandoning one’s ego in the hands of someone who does not have one has a profound spiritual efficaciousness; but abandoning it to an institution which as such has a strong ego, is not only less efficacious, but can also be harmful. 34
Finally, another factor which made the desert asceticism so harsh was that the Christian teaching the monks were supposed to follow was based on love, yet not only did they live completly away from women, but even their community life was reduced if they followed the path of hesychia. Even if they did live in a large community, the relationship with the spiritual master was very diluted. Besides, the cult of the Mother of God, which tempered the austerity of later monasticism, had not yet developed at that time.
In short, if the desert hermits had evolved their devotion into knowledge, they would certainly have less suffered from all these contradictions. Evagrius realised this to some extent, but the majorty of monks did not understand the necessity of following this course.
In conclusion, even if the transition between love and knowledge is not so easy to grasp for most people, I hope at least that the necessity of passing from fear - which is the main cause of excessive asceticism to love is clear. As Saint John said, "There is no fear in love; on the contrary, perfect love banishes fear".(I Jn IV, 18)
1. Guy Jean-Claude, "Paroles des anciens - apophtegmes des Peres du desert ( Words of the Ancient Apophthegms of the desert Fathers) ed. Seuil, Coll-Points Sagesses, p.60
2. Aime Michel "Metanoia, phenomenes physiques et mysticisme" (Metanoia, Physical Phenomena and Mysticism), coll. Spiritualites Vivantes, ed. Albin Michel 1973,1986. p78
3. Guy, J.C. opcit p. 57
4. See "Les hommes ivres de Dieu" (Men drunk with god) Jacques Lacarriere ed. Seuil, coll. Points Sagesse.
5. Guy J.C., p. 77
6. Ibidem p. 30
7. Kadloubovsky E. and Palmer G.E.H. (translators) Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Faber and Faber, London, 1954, 1981 p.219.
8. Saint John Climacus, "L’echelle sainte" (The Holy Ladder) p. 142, Abbaye de Bellefontaine, coll. Spiritualites Orientale, 1987, p.II
9. Ibidem p. 299
10. Ibidem p. 115
11. Guy J.C. p. 169
12. Kadloubovsky p. 213
13. Deseille Placide, "L’evangile au desert" (Desert Gospel) p. 180, YMCA Press/ O.E.I.L. Paris, 1985.
14. Ibidem p. 170
15. Leloup Jean-Yves, "Paroles du Mont Athos" (Words from Mt. Athos), p.33, ed. A.lbin Michel, coll. Spiritualites vivantes.
16. Kadlowbovsky, p.220
17. Kovalevsky Eugraph, "La quete de l’esprit" (The Quest of the spirit) p. 194 Albin Michel, coll. Spiritualites vivantes
18. Lossky Vladimir, "Essai sur la theologie mystique de l’Eglise d’Orient" (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church), p.203 ed. Le Cerf coll. Foi Vivante, 1990
19. Haussherr Irenee S.J. "La philautie" p. 44. Orientalia Christiana Analecta Pont Institutum Orientalium Studionum, 1952, 1972.
20. Ibidem p. 45
21. Ibidem p. 54
22. Nisargadatta Maharaj,"Prior to Consciousness" p. 67, The Acorn Press USA 1985
23. Vivekananda quoted by Svahananda "Meditation and its Methods", Advaita Ashram 1976, 1992.
24. Kadloubovsky, p.78
25. Experiment by Seligman in Winn D. "The Manipulated Mind" p.70 Octagon Press London 1983
26. Vigne Jacques, "Endorphines et extase" (Endorphines and Ecstasy), Nouvelles Cles, Autumn 1993. Refer also to Orsetti Andre, "Sport et endorphines" (Sport and Endorphines), ed. Chiron 1991. See also Vigne, the chapter an "Substances" in "Meditation and Psychology" Albin Michel 1996.
27. Saint Athanasius, "Saint Antoine Pere des Moines" (Saint Antony, Father of Monks), p.66 ed. Le Cerf, coll. Foi Vivante, 1989.
28. Drewermann Eugen, "Fonctionnaires de Dieu" (Employees of God), p.241-251 ed. Albin Michel 1993.
29. Hausherr p. 128
30. Saint Athanasius p. 82
31. Ibidem p.105.
32. Guy J.C. p.68
33. Jourdan Michel, "La vie d’ermite" (Hermit’s Life) ed. Albin Michel, coll. Spiritualites vivantes.
34. On the question of obedience and martyrdom, see Vigne Jacques "Elements de psychologie spirituelle" (Indian Wisdom, Christianity and Modern Psychology) p.166 and 173 ed. Albin Michel coll. Spiritualite vivantes 1992.