We Ought Not To Grab the Gift

Psychoanalytic theory brings to our attention not only the importance of the human will, but also (and contrary to the unreasonable anthropological optimism of the Enlightenment) out “loss of capacity to wish for anything wholeheartedly.” But what psychoanalysis terms “neurosis” is by no means an undiscovered country. Rather Horney points out something long recognized both by the biblical revelation and classical Christian spirituality has recognized as the symptom of a life lived separate from God. Neurosis is simply the gnomic will turned inward; the neurotic is so because he picks and chooses among which aspects of himself are to be valued.

More fundamentally, the neurotic is such because he has not only turned inward, but also against, himself. Rather than receive his life as a gift from God, the neurotic makes life a project to be completed. And rather than seeing his or her limitations and inconsistencies an invitation to transcendence, the neurotic instead organize them according to an artificial and ever more restrictive hierarchy. As Christos Yannaras says in his Elements of Faith, this is a reduction of the spiritual life to the merely “ethical.” That the neurotic’s ethics are false not because the irrational, but precisely because they are rational—they are deduced with great clarity from rigidly held first principles about his personal identity and value (p. 57).

But, as we will see I hope in a moment, in this you or I, the religious systems we cling to, are no different from the neurotic. Like the neurotic I too forget that “life and the expression of life is an event of communion.” (p. 57) In The Confessions, St Augustine, that master psychologist of the spiritual life, looks inward and explores his (and our) own double mindedness (see James 4.8), his own propensity to live life according to his own artificial and ever more restrictive views of how life “ought” to be.

In Book IV the mature Augustine looks back on his youth and reflects on the unexpected death of a dear and unnamed friend. His words capture the anguish he suffered at the loss of his boyhood friend:

Black grief closed over my heart and wherever I looked I saw only death. My native land was a torment to me and my father’s house unbelievable misery. . . . I hated all things because they held him not, and could no more say to me “Look, here he comes!” as they had been wont to do in his lifetime when he had been away.

Reminiscent of Horney’s description of the self-estrangement of neurotic from his own conflicting desires, Augustine says that in his grief he became “a great enigma” to himself. And when, as he says, “I questioned my soul, demanding why it became sorrowful and why it so disquieted me, . . . it had no answer.” (Bk IV.4.9)

While we might be tempted to ascribe the depth of Augustine’s feelings to the immaturity of the adolescent, Augustine quickly rejects this explanation. His words and the feelings they embody are not simply the result of the melodrama of a callow youth. No, he sees in the depth of his grief over the loss of his friend the more general suffering of the sinful human will who attachment to God is no longer singular. And so, as Augustine writes,

If I bade [my soul], “Trust in God,” it rightly disobeyed me, for the man it held so dear and lost was more real and more lovable than the fantasy in which it was bidden to trust. Weeping alone brought me solace, and took my friend’s place as the only comfort of my soul (Bk IV.4.9).

I will, in the next installment, examine the symptom of this lack of trust in God and subsequent estrangement from self: Grief.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory




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