Seen from below, the spiritual life seems to be an incessant combat, an ‘invisible struggle’, where every pause becomes a regression. Seen from above, it is the acquisition of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This double movement stands out clearly in the prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit: ‘Purify us from all stain,’ but also ‘Come and dwell within us.’
This purification begins by a very realistic vision of one’s state. ‘Know thyself’ was the ascetic teaching of Socrates. ‘No one can know God unless he first knows himself’ (Philokalia). ‘The one who has seen his sin is greater than he who raises the dead. He who has seen himself is greater than he who has seen the angels’ (St. Isaac the Syrian).
A man’s vigorous penetration into the darkness of his heart of hearts, though it is a formidable undertaking, gives him the power to judge himself. He must make the descent supplied with an ascetic scaphander, the spirit of discernment, in order to explore its caverns peopled by phantoms, and to seize in action his perverted will and his anticipated death, in short, his irremediable natural deficiency.
This is the triple barrier of nature, sin, and death that the Lord passed through for us all. The vision must be brief, instantaneous, in order to avoid all pleasure in sorrow or despair. Sin is never a subject of contemplation; we must rest our glance on what obliterates it—grace. The soul can now truly utter the cry: ‘From the abyss of my iniquity I invoke the abyss of your mercy.’
Paul Evdokimov, The Struggle With God
Reflection – This was one of Catherine Doherty’s favorite books, particularly in the last twenty years of her life. It was one of several works of Russian theology and spirituality that helped her greatly to clarify her own Russian religious expression. She read these books quite often at our daily post-lunch communal spiritual reading, and read this one in particular several times. One of our somewhat less Russian-theology-inclined members refers to that period in MH as ‘The Struggle With The Struggle With God.’
It really is, though, a grand book by a great author. This excerpt tackles the thorny issue of self-knowledge in the spiritual life. A scaphander, incidentally, is an old-timey word for scuba gear (I had to look it up myself). We cannot go diving down into the dark abysses of the self without the ascetic scaphander of discernment.
I have often seen this in my priestly ministry, that people will go into themselves without that scaphander, and it is not a pretty picture. Pathological introspection, ceaseless and exhausting self-examination, scrupulosity, self-condemnation, self-hatred, despair, or the flip side of it which is a collapse into laxism and mediocrity—all of these are the result of striving for self-knowledge without the whole ascetic framework which protects us from these pitfalls.
As Evdokimov says (and he is simply representing the whole spiritual tradition of Christianity here), no one can know God unless he first knows himself, and knowledge of our sins is utterly necessary to make spiritual progress. But at the same time, to know oneself and one’s sin there is a degree of knowledge of God needed, as we cannot really look at ourselves honestly without some assurance that mercy and love is given us in that place. My understanding of scuba diving is that divers generally do not go diving alone. The same holds true in the spiritual life—we cannot and must not plunge into the abyss of self without the Spirit of God to accompany us.
The other great pitfall is what he refers to as ‘the pleasure of sorrow and despair.’ Spiritual masochism is a reality, and a perilous one indeed. We can derive great pleasure (I have seen it!) in beating ourselves up for our sins, imagined and real. There is something about the genuine vision of our own sinfulness that fascinates us, cobra-like. We can get very caught up in the precise taxonomy and endless contemplation of our wretchedness, and this does us great spiritual harm.
The knowledge of our sin is meant to be a doorway we pass through immediately into the knowledge of God’s merciful love and grace. It is a necessary doorway—no way around it!—but it is just a doorway, not a destination. ‘Sin is never a subject of contemplation’ – that is great spiritual wisdom right there, folks.
From the abyss of sin and self-knowledge we cry out to the abyss of God’s mercy and love. Deep is calling on deep in the roar of waters (Ps 42). We need to know the one deep to get to the other deep; we need to go scuba diving with Jesus, so that we know from just what kind of depth of misery Jesus has pulled us. But we can’t do any of it without him, and we must not go into those depths unaided and unguided, nor stay there one second longer than we need to, to know the merciful saving love of God.