“For what brings more delight than to achieve dispassion, and no longer to be under the sway of anger or the desire for worldly things?”*
Again and again, I must admit to feeling a little contention with this statement. My sense of discord has a great deal more to do with, yes my verbosity is about to slip through my lips, the saint’s locutionary tactics! In his time and even in the translators time and context these words, phrases and dense paragraphs seated around this sentence made easier sense then, than those do today. How does anyone go about conveying the essence of his “dispassion” in some fashion that might get a, “Well, duh!”
To begin expressing my thoughts, imagine my experience of coming out from under anesthesia after having most of my left temporal lobe extracted. Something I had been made aware of by my neurologist, neurosurgeon right along with my professional knowledge base dumbfounded me in the days that followed. For the next several months I struggled with surgically inflicted constant anxiety. It took months for that to abate. For the next several years this problem waxed at night and waned during the day. I was lucky to have slept six, let alone seven hours any night for over five years.
That whole time, I kept engaged in various fashions of the Jesus Prayer. What I had begun in the Western Centering Prayer fashion I later tried to meld with Eastern Orthodox strategies. That effort seemed to make little difference. Only after a couple more years of effort in this fashion did I see my work was lacking an essential intent! From early on I had intellectually anticipated, yet intuitively didn’t see this unexplored trail.
Somewhere after moving my attention into the Orthodox worship pattern it dawned on me that my overt behaviors had little to do with the problem. My efforts at quieting down those obvious passions, while grossly incomplete, were good early attempts. Yet, those efforts brought in little more spare change. Fortunately, I didn’t quit the adventure. Only as, I hope, the Spirit of God caught my attention from within my domicile of personhood^ did I begin realizing my misreading of dispassion. Quieting my obvious passions was only a first step.
Our our real spiritual struggle is with “self”. Back when I began reading the Philokalia I caught sight of a different take on something my past professional ‘self’ centered on. Self-esteem is a fair share of what my business was about. No matter what I was seeing a man, woman or a child about an essential question was about their self-esteem. Even though I was told about a host of problems, I also focused in on how much a part of the problem that client’s sense of self was in the picture. Reading Philokalia seemed to violate all of that theme.
Early on my struggle with this dissonance between the Philokalia and my work was met with a shrug of the shoulders. I knew then that our passions are each expressions of that multifaceted thing we each call self. Using that, I just assumed the issue was about the egotism we all know. We do tend sell our attention to those passions. So then, each passion is the result and not causes of this struggle. As I finally began to picked up on the Church Father’s view of self-esteem, I saw this dissonance resolving in a direction I had not expected.
From within the Eastern Orthodox monastic perspective, our “selves” are two dimensional things. If you’ve heard that framing before you might then recognize my fondness of Edwin Abbot’s “Flatland: a romance of many dimensions“. Interestingly, he wrote this short story back in 1884, over a century before my neurosurgeries. As my dissonance congealed I realized that like Abbot’s square, I had no idea of what it is like to be a cube.
Dispassion coming from my desire to be ‘ok’ in God’s eyes misshaped my resolve to deal with passions. I was being the square. Realizing that my real need was to become like a little boy crawling up into dad or mom’s lap to just be held has been more than disruptive. Too fancy a word, right? Alright, I was kind of freaked out. Being decidedly intellectual, high iq and all I can’t put dispassion on the front end because of a natural need to figure things out. Only by crawling up into my Father’s lap and probably sucking my thumb for years will I then have much of a likelihood of knowing what John Climacus, or Gregory Palamas told us about.
* St Peter of Damaskos Book 1 A Treasury of Divine Knowledge The Fourth Stage of Contemplation, Philokalia, Vol. 3, pg. 125.
^ If this phrase makes little sense I suggest that you read the the Philokalia. In particular, search through for all the references to ‘self’.