Thursday, 16 November 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 12 — St John of Sinai

There are two psychologists in the Orthodox Church: Dostoevsky and St John of the Ladder. Everything else is a footnote to one of these two thinkers on the human condition.

Shakespeare holds ‘a mirror up to nature’. We are astonished at the accuracy of the image in the mirror of his blank verse.

Tolstoy is the better artist than his contemporary, Dostoevsky. What novel is more perfect than Anna Karenina?

But which of Shakespeare or Tolstoy has plumbed the depths of depravity, love and redemption?

Dostoevsky is a psychologist with a microscope analyzing the smallest chambers of depravity, the smallest inklings of love in the heart, the smallest touch of the divine love.

We know ourselves in Dostoevsky; we know others in Shakespeare. In Tolstoy we know Art.

When Tolstoy was dying an excommunicated Orthodox, he went around the walls of the Monastery of Optina without going in. He then went on to the train station and died.

One of the Startsy of Optina, we forget whether it was Ambrose or Makarios—both are now saints—after speaking with Dostoevsky said of him: ‘There is a man who repents’.

A very spiritual monk of our acquaintance said of King Lear: ‘Yes, there is much tenderness in that work, but not a trace of God.’

But who were they reading at Optina when Tolstoy was circumambulating the walls? When Dostoevsky the repentant sinner was visiting?

St Isaac the Syrian undoubtedly was being read by some of the Hesychasts. But the spiritual food of monks during Lent is St John of Sinai: the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Everyone who reads the Ladder is astonished. Who is this man who wields a scalpel to dissect the spirit of man? Where did this man get that ‘astonishing psychological insight’ that we have seen a Benedictine Abbess remark on?

St John of Sinai is the pre-eminent member of the School of Sinai, a scholarly designation for four authors, three of whom are represented in the first volume of the Philokalia, while the fourth, St John of Sinai, was far too popular for the compilers of the various editions of the Philokalia to bother to include him. Most editions of his work, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, also contain his Life. His Life doesn’t tell us all that much about him. He spent forty years as a Hesychast and then became the Abbot of the Monastery of Sinai, the one we know as St Catherine’s. He writes in a very learned language, but in a sui generis aphoristic style: translating him would be difficult because of his many layers of meaning. He has a great sense of humour, very subtle, as befits a man of his native genius.

How do we become good psychologists? There is the first way: go to University and learn a school of psychology. Get a job and help people.

The second way is to ‘know thyself’. The best psychologists are people who understand themselves. This appears to be how Dostoevsky learned his psychology: he understood himself. No illusions. Brutal honesty with himself about who he was.

The third way is the most difficult: discernment. This is a charism of the Holy Spirit, and not for everyone. We don’t have it, although we have seen it in operation when we have ourselves approached charismatic Elders who have cut through the crust to the core and told us the truth. This is what St John of Sinai had: a very strong charism of discernment in its highest degree, which he himself describes as the light of the Holy Spirit illuminating the dark parts of the soul of the other. The truth of the matter is that in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John of Sinai is merely recording what he had seen in other people with whom he had conversed or whom he had confessed. In our own day, Joseph the Hesychast (1959) manifests the same sort of discernment in his letters.

But something more is required: Many Elders even today have this gift of discernment, but few are capable of writing such a gem as St John of Sinai. St John was clearly educated, and probably before he came to the monastery. He was also gifted literarily. The Ladder is a well-crafted book.

Now let us look at what St John is teaching. It would help to know something about Evagrius before reading the Ladder. All of the School of Sinai is heavily dependent on the works of Evagrius although none of its members are ‘Origenists’ in the sense understood by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. But the basic structure of the passion, the temptation of the man by the demon to put the passion into practice—that was defined by Evagrius. St John of Sinai adopts this schema but is more subtle even than Evagrius in his psychological analysis of the temptation and how the monk responds to it. This is what astonishes us.

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