I’ve been meaning to blog about this old Commonweal essay about Orthodox spirituality, by the late Orthodox priest Father John Garvey. It occurred to me that it might be a good follow-up to yesterday’s Christianity & psychedelics piece, because it touches on concerns I have about psychedelic experience. Father John writes:
The monasticism of the desert fathers is a major influence in Orthodoxy, and the Apophthegmata Patrum—the sayings of the fathers (and mothers) of the desert—range from remarkably practical advice to a startling sense of participation in the divine. Take these two selections, from Benedicta Ward’s translation in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications):
Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”
Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Note the words, “the old man.” The idea is preserved in the Greek word for “an elder”—geron—still used of wise monks and spiritual directors, the idea being that it takes time and patience to get there.
It seems to me that “getting there” by virtue of ingesting a drug is cheating — not in a moral sense, but in a spiritual sense that could leave one spiritually vulnerable. This is just an intuition. As I said in yesterday’s post, the man who has $10 million because he labored for 30 years, and the man who has it in an instant because he won the lottery, both have $10 million, but only the man who has labored for it for many years understands the meaning of that richness, and is prepared to live with it. My suspicion is that same principle is at work with psychedelics.
At the heart of the spiritual journey is the belief that we are all called to theosis, or deification. St. Athanasius wrote, “The Word became man so that man might become God.” The boldness of this sounds blasphemous to some, but it squares with Jesus’ words, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Christian mysticism is grounded in what is called apophatic theology, the belief that God’s nature is so radically unknowable that ordinary language and concepts fail utterly to get at it—so it may even be said that God does not exist, as we ordinarily use the word “exist” to describe the being of an object among other objects. But God has made himself known, and by his gift we may share his being, as he shared ours. We are capable of receiving this gift because we have seen Christ’s willingness to empty himself and assume our nature. As he became one of us, we can share the divine nature to the extent that with God’s help we can empty ourselves.
The idea that one could experience theosis in this life was at the heart of what became known as the hesychast controversy, from the Greek hesychia, or “stillness.” The anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim speaks of The Philokalia, a multivolume collection of writings on prayer, compiled in the eighteenth century. (The title means “love of the good.”) The many contributors include St. John Cassian (c. 346–c. 435), St. Maximos the Confessor (c. 580–662), and St. Gregory Palamas (c. 1296–1359), whose response to a challenge to hesychasm in the fourteenth century synthesized Orthodox ideas about grace and our participation in the divine life.
Gregory Palamas defended the belief that one could genuinely experience the presence of God. Grace is not a created gift but the divine energies of God. Barlaam the Calabrian (1290–1348) had taken the idea of apophaticism to an extreme, and argued against those monks who believed that it was possible to experience “the uncreated light of Tabor,” the light seen by Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. Gregory defended the monks, arguing that although God was in his nature unknowable, his energies were divine and could be shared with those who were capable of receiving them. Although it is possible to delude oneself, it is also possible to share in divinity, even in this life, just as Jesus shared our humanity.
It has to be said, however, that the point of prayer is not any particular experience, but rather turning one’s life over into God’s hands.
Hesychios says that “all this happens naturally” and can be learned from experience. The naturalness and experiential aspects of the life of prayer assume an intermingling of the divine and the human that is revealed in the Incarnation. All of us are called to realize this, and to the extent that we are made capable of doing so, it involves our cooperation with the one who emptied himself to bring us into the fullness of his own being. A prayer sung during the liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration says, “You were transformed on the Mount, O Christ God, / Revealing your glory to your disciples as far as they could bear it.”
The idea that this glory draws us toward God is part of the vision of eternity of St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395): “Every desire for the Beautiful which draws us on in this ascent is intensified by the soul’s very progress toward it. And this is the real meaning of seeing God: never to have this desire satisfied.” It is echoed in Pascal’s “The Mystery of Jesus,” a part of his Pensées: there Jesus says, “If you are seeking me, you have found me.”
It seems to me — notice that I’m writing “seems” when I talk about all this — that the Orthodox tradition wouldn’t necessarily deny the psychedelic experience outright, but it would say that it is dangerous to tread in that strange land, where the veil to some extent has been lifted, without great spiritual preparation. If God wants to show you those things, then you should get there via the long way. If not, not. What the psychonauts seek is in some sense real, but absent the kind of preparation that comes from many years of prayer, worship, and askesis, one could be badly misled by this knowledge. We may say that it is forbidden to access it through chemical means not because it is necessarily entirely untrue, but because we cannot make proper sense of it, and therefore could open ourselves to the demonic.
That’s a theory. Thoughts welcome.
By the way, some of you got the idea that I’m promoting Christians using psychedelics. Not at all! I’m trying to figure out how to think of those compounds in a Christian way, even if we reject their use.