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Ascesis and the Self: Spiritual Warfare and the Tri-partite Soul

March 29, 2013

Saint Paul instructed believers “to put on the armor of God”, “to fight the good fight of faith,” in order to attain the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” Elaborating on the spiritual life, the fathers would also describe the life of the Christian in terms of spiritual warfare, fought primarily on the battlefield of the heart with the deadly weapons of impassioned thoughts. The cosmic battle between good and evil, God and Satan, is also a very interior and hidden battle, quietly raging within the human breast. It is a battle between our true self that was fashioned in the image of God and is called to be adorned with every virtue and every grace on the one side and the counterfeit idol of the ego that is infested with a myriad of passionate thoughts and desires on the other. Both “selves” can appropriate the pronoun “I,” but the true self in God’s image speaks with a meek, quiet, and humble voice, while the counterfeit self cries out intrusively, loudly, and with a commanding arrogance. The two sides do not seem evenly matched, but with the armor of God, with faith in God, and with the power of God, the true self can indeed be victorious.

icon-of-st-george-by-emmanuel-tzanes-1660-80-now-housed-in-the-church-of-san-salvatore-chania-creteThe primary spiritual battle is fought with the fallen nature of the egotistical self who stubbornly believes it is the measure of all things.  The goal of this initial battle is to replace the egotistical self, which grates against everything good and true, with Christ, the archetype of the image that fits hand-in-glove with everything the true self aspires to be. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, the false self is unmasked as “someone with philautia,” meaning “someone who supposedly loves himself (philautos oun estin ho heauon dethen philon).  Whatever that person does, whether in accord or in conflict with God’s commandment, is done for himself with disregard for others.  Philautia, thus, refers to self-centered motivation and intentionality.  The word supposedly is significant.  Philautia is not what it seems to be even to the person under its influence, presumably because it ultimately fails to fulfill its intention of bringing benefit to the self.” Only by being faithful to the true self can the soul find the benefit that she truly deserves.

If the spiritual battle is with the false self, characterized by philautia, the actual hand-to-hand combat is accomplished through putting on the armor of God, which implies engaging in ascesis. St. Theophan the Recluse explains ascesis through the following concrete examples: ascesis includes “prayers in church and at home, especially mental prayer, fasting according to one’s strength and the rules of the Church, vigilance, solitude, physical labors, frequent confession of sins, Holy Communion, reading of the Word of God and the writings of the Holy Fathers, conversations with God-fearing people, frequent consultation with one’s spiritual father about all the events of one’s internal and external life…Most of all be attentive to yourself: preserve a sober mind and an untroubled heart.”  The goal of ascesis is not gloomy penance, but cheerful regeneration by gradually replacing the self-centered ego with Christ who becomes all in all. Thus in place of talking to myself about what I want and think, I converse with God, instead of eating what I want, I gratefully partake of what the Church blesses when the Church blesses it, instead of engaging in mindless idle talk, I spend time alone, instead of being lazy, I work physically, instead of examining the sins of others, I confess my own sins, instead of being inattentive, I purify the eyes of my heart. And then, the voice of the true self begins to be heard and the soul functions properly.

Ascesis is not only the means by which the Christian wages spiritual warfare, it is also the most natural way for a Christian in the image of God to live.  In ACW, I also note that “although human beings are fashioned to be behaviorally active, mentally concerned, and temperamentally loving, they are also free to choose to direct that active concerned love in the wrong direction, that is, toward self rather than toward God and neighbor”.  Ascesis directs all the powers of the soul according to the image of God and hence in a blessed direction of Christian love and compassion. Ascesis is a particular way of thinking, desiring, and struggling that leads to sanctification and enables the soul to be at peace with her true self, with God, and with neighbor.

The ancient theory of the tri-partite soul sheds some light on the nature of ascesis. This anthropology pre-dates the Christian understanding of the human person and is outlined in the works of Plato.  Plato’s Phaedrus and his later work The Republic discuss thumos (spiritedness) as one of the three constituent parts of the human psyche. In the Phaedrus, Plato depicts logos as a charioteer driving the two horses eros and thumos, meaning that passionate love and spiritedness are to be guided by rationality. “In the Republic (Book IV) soul … becomes divided into nous (“intellect”), thumos (“passion”), and epithumia (“appetite”). To its appetitive part are ascribed bodily desires; thumos is the emotional element in virtue of which we feel anger, fear, etc.; nous is (or should be) the controlling part which subjugates the appetites with the help of thumos.  The ancient fathers understand logos as the incarnate Word that brings salvation to the cosmos.  Ascesis, properly understood, is our collaboration with the salvific work of the Incarnate Logos in the cosmos of our heart. In ascesis, our true self wisely uses the teachings of Christ to harness that part of us that drives us to fight for what is good and that part of us that recognizes what is truly worth desiring in order to move in the direction of Christ’s heavenly kingdom. This movement is so different from the movement of philautia in which the wild stallions of carnal desires and prideful anger drive the mindless soul over the abyss like the Gadarene swine of old.

The spiritual life indeed involves spiritual warfare, but it is a warfare that ultimately brings peace, direction, and harmony to the soul. Ascesis at the heart of spiritual warfare may seem to be hard to those used to being dragged hither and yon by their inner wild stallions, but eventually an ascetic life becomes much easier and much happier than its opposite. And this is in keeping with our Savior’s own words: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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