In the near decade-and-a-half that I have been Orthodox, I cannot recall ever being asked, “How do you feel about that?” It is not a wrong question, but one that simply doesn’t come up much in Orthodox conversation. The Tradition of the Church is not set by feelings (at least officially). Neither is the Church a therapy group (officially). But I sometimes suspect that conversation is neglecting an important question – and that many Orthodox Christians are avoiding asking themselves an important question. “How do you feel about that?” is more than modern psycho-babble. It has a proper place within traditional asceticism.
The opening lines from the Philokalia (from the writings of St. Isaiah the Solitary):
There is among the passions an anger of the intellect (nous), and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without this anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them ‘dishonorable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to live with the dogs that guard my flocks’ (cf. Job 30-1-4 LXX). He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.
There is not time or space in this post to explain everything meant by intellect or passion – they are technical terms (among many) describing the inner life of man. What is of note here, is the balance and the wholeness described by St. Isaiah. Human beings are never deprived of feelings, even in a state of spiritual purification. When writing about the passions, the early fathers and later ascetical writers do not describe them in a wholly negative manner. They are simply energies of the soul – often distorted – but subject to healing like all of our human existence. They do not disappear in a haze of holy mindedness.
Feelings, of course, is a word used in modern parlance and in psychological systems. Passions, an earlier word for much the same thing, has shifted its meaning in modern English and refers largely to sexual and romantic urges. Language changes.
I began thinking recently about the role of feelings when a modern writer (in psychology) noted that the will and the decisions we make are not completely rational – they are not a product of pure thought. Many people think they are – but they are ignoring much of what takes place within themselves.
Decisions require more than reason – they require energy. To choose something goes beyond our reasons for making the choice – it requires something to power it. Decisions bring about changes. The energy of our thoughts does not derive from logic or discursive reasonings – it comes from that which we label feelings. Feelings (passions in the fathers) have an energy associated with them. Anger, for example, has a sudden power, giving us the ability to do things quickly and decisively. Other feelings have their proper function as well. A life of wholeness requires more than proper thoughts – it requires a proper ordering of our feelings – both in their character and their direction.
The inner life of Christian tradition has far more depth than is often treated in modern psychology. It is deeply neglected in much of modern Christian thought and writing. The living tradition of ascesis (spiritual discipline) was largely lost in the West through a variety of historical circumstances. The focus on a forensic model of salvation made the inner life of less interest within Protestantism. If one’s sins are forgiven by God and we are admitted to heaven – of what concern is the inner life? The evolution of Western monasticism away from the contemplative life of prayer (as well as the growth of scholasticism) weakened the primary means of remembrance of the ascetical life. The virtual disappearance of fasting within Catholic devotional life is but one example of this weakening.
What remains within Western Christianity is the theological life of the mind (doctrine) and the inner life of a modern secularist. Popular books on Christian spirituality are largely Christianized versions of the psychological self-help genre. The three-fold dynamic of purification, illumination and theosis (the traditional Orthodox description of stages within the spiritual life) is foreign to Western ears and unknown to most modern Christians.
Books on the topic (of which there are today an abundance) are insufficient. We cannot regain the knowledge of tradition through reading, regardless of the benefits of information. The Orthodox spiritual life cannot be borrowed from without. Tradition, by its very nature, is handed down in a living manner – from person to person. The life of the Church in the fullness of her Tradition, preserves a model of the inner life – we fast, we pray, we confess our sins, we do penance, etc., and the Tradition knows no Orthodoxy apart from such a praxis. It is possible to be a member of the Orthodox Church and ignore such things – but only to one’s self-detriment. More than this is the living practice of the ascetic tradition in the monasteries of the Orthodox across the world. These remain a vital part of the Church’s life (their number world-wide has been rapidly increasing). America, which had less than 5 monasteries a generation or so ago, now has over 50.
The inner life of the Tradition is not inimical to modern psychology. In their own time, the early fathers adopted the popular language of the inner life, found in Platonic (neo-Platonic and Stoic as well) philosophy. However, they refined its terminology, conforming it to Christian understandings of grace as well as the Christian understanding the human.
Modern psychological language is equally useful (should a writer or thinker so choose). Words would need refinement just as the language of Hellenic culture itself once required.
“How do you feel about that?” remains a good question. Responsible spiritual growth requires that Christians slow down and look within. It is not enough to hold opinions. In the teaching of the fathers, opinions are generally worthless: they are manifestations of an unruly will and disordered passions. “Why do I value my opinions so strongly?” is a good question. “Why do the opinions of others make me angry?” is at least as good. Both questions require that we look at our “feelings,” for both of them have to do with the energy we invest in certain forms of thought. To leave such things unattended is to hand ourselves over to spiritual slavery.
O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, desire, lust of power and idle talk.
Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions,
And not to judge my brother.
For Thou art blessed, always now and forever. Amen.
The Prayer of St. Ephrem