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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Some Guidance from the Philokalia

Back in February of this year, our Antiochian Diocese of Los Angeles hosted Fr. Maximos (Constas), a monk of Mt. Athos and professor at Holy Cross Seminary.  The recordings of his presentations are well worth listening to.
He inspired me to return to the Philokalia, which I had given up on years ago as a disjointed collection of complex and nearly-unreadable chapters, bound together with only what seemed to be the thinnest threads of topical relevance..  Fr. Maximos pointed out that the books are not meant to be read in order of appearance, but rather in a certain order which he set out.
So, I took his list, and soon discovered that the required order isn't even included in any one edition.  That meant I had to search around to find all the various chapters and compile them into a single document.  I would post them here, but that would get into copyright infringement and controversies I don't need right now.
After the Paschal stand-down from Lenten services, I began a 'Philokalia Study' in my parish, where we read the text and discuss it.  To say that it is fascinating is an understatement.  We began with the first two chapters recommended by Fr. Maximos, and so far the class has really brought to light some very profound teachings regarding the human person.
His description of the human person is, I believe, extremely important.  Of course, it is also quite ambiguous and hard to present in terms of a few pull quotes, so I recommend you read it yourself (St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, “Guarding the Mind and the Heart,” in id., A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, trans. P. Chamberas [New York, 1989], 153-172).
In it, he describes human consciousness in terms of the 'heart,' which integrates all of the thoughts and sense of the person.  He portrays this consciousness as having 'ebb and flow' not unlike the tides, passing through the entire person like a wind.  It is poetic language, sometimes hard to grasp with our modern minds so used to technical jargon.  Oh, there's plenty of that, too.  But, in this case, he is arguing for an organic wholeness to human consciousness and personhood.
What this means is that thoughts are part of consciousness, but they are not the whole thing.  They certainly don't dominate the human heart, with is much greater expanse, though they do play an integral role.
According to St. Nikodemos, we are not just our thoughts.  Our thoughts are, in fact, only one player and open to redirection.  This means that man cannot think his way out of his problems.  His thoughts are influenced by this organic whole of consciousness.
Our modern narrative is that we can control our perceptions by controlling our thoughts.  We can talk ourselves out of major perceptual problems if we just thought the right way.  Psychology tells us that talking therapies are all about replacing bad thoughts with good thoughts, which in turn change the whole person.
This is not what St. Nikodemos is saying.  In his world, the thoughts do not reign supreme over the person.  The picture is far more complex and nuanced.  It is akin to the entire natural order of the world around us.  That has a lot of moving parts.
We know that he is on to something when we look at the failure of 'talking therapy' to deal with a whole host of problems, from depression to addiction to personality disorders.  At best, therapy can only change a few thoughts in a more positive direction, but the underlying problem is left to the Russian Roulette of psychotropic medications and resignation to impairment.
I will note here for clarification that I am a believer in medications when they are properly (which means closely) supervised and are able to work.  If you are taking meds and they work, then I say praise God!  But, they are not a remedy to the problem of the distorted consciousness.
If you follow this description to its natural conclusion, then the human consciousness can only truly be changed by Divine intervention.  We have the option to change certain influences (such as ascetical labors to relieve us of the burdens of the Passions), but we cannot say that this is enough to effect a real change in our perceptions.  Only God can.
Recovery is about asking God to reign in the wild winds that blow within us and drive us into the reefs of misery and sin.  Only God is capable of exacting a million little changes to our internal 'weather' which can make us better and more peaceful.
I urge you to read these works.  They are very helpful in understanding addiction and recovery.

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