Monday, November 16, 2009

the enemy within

EnlightenNext | From the beginning of our research for this issue, the idea of speaking with an Orthodox elder about the ego had been an intriguing one. For although it is a tradition in which none of us could claim expertise, we were aware that when it comes to defining the enemy of the spiritual path, the Orthodox Christians are perhaps in a class by themselves. To this ancient mystical branch of Christianity, which split from the Catholic Church in 1054, the total purification of the human personality from egotism, selfishness and anything else that obstructs its capacity to reflect the light of God is and always has been the first and final aim of spiritual life. In sacred books with names like The Ladder of Divine Ascent and The Philokalia (literally "love of the beautiful and good"), Orthodox elders from as early as the third century write with passion and precision about the fullblooded "spiritual combat" the sincere aspirant must be willing to engage in if he or she is to have any hope of defeating the "demons" within that relentlessly attack with ever new and creative tactics. In one of countless such passages in The Philokalia, the fourth-century desert monk St. John Cassian writes, "[The ego] is difficult to fight against, because it has many forms and appears in all our activities . . . When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothes, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones. When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to endure what seems to be dishonor. When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness. . . . In short, every task, every activity, gives this malicious demon a chance for battle."

While the word "ego" itself only appears in more contemporary translations and commentaries, throughout even the most ancient Orthodox texts, there are countless references to the hazards of self-love, self-esteem and the "most sinister of demons"—pride. Considered by Christians to be the sin that not only brought Lucifer, God's highest angel, tumbling to a fiery fate but that also led Adam and Eve to be exiled from paradise on earth, pride is referred to variously as "the mother of all woes" and "the first offspring of the devil." It is also universally regarded as the most destructive and powerful adversary on the spiritual path. As St. John Cassian writes, "Just as a deadly plague destroys not just one member of the body, but the whole of it, so pride corrupts the whole soul, not just part of it. . . . when the vice of pride has become master of our wretched soul, it acts like some harsh tyrant who has gained control of a great city, and destroys it completely, razing it to its foundations."