“Father Maxime,” I asked as I switched off the engine outside the gate of the monastery and turned towards him, “you keep talking about the heart frequently. What is really meant by this term within the Athonite spiritual tradition? I have some confusion about the meaning of ’heart’ and ’nous.’ ”
“The word ’nous’ sometimes has two meanings. ’Nous’ is often equated with the heart, and by heart we mean the center and totality of the mental and psychological powers of the individual. This is what Christ meant when He said, ’Blessed be the pure at heart for they shall see God.’ At other times, however, mind is simply identified with what is now understood as the intellect, or logic. These distinctions are important for several reasons. What we notice often is that the mind or logic of people can be clean but their hearts may be impure. It means that persons in certain situations may have good judgment or think clearly. The very same individuals, however, can commit acts that they clearly know to be reprehensible because their heart is impure. The heart, the center of their psychonoetic existence, is a hostage to their logismoi.”
“I have one last question,” I said while entering the monastery as evening vespers were about to begin. “Can we say that the heart is what is commonly understood as the subconscious where people store their unfulfilled desires? Is the heart the depository where what Freud called ’repression’ takes place?”
Father Maximos shrugged. “The holy elders were not using such terms. So I cannot really say much about it. But as I understand it, the subconscious is a storage space into which human beings pile up, so to speak, those memories and experiences they don’t want to be aware of. You may call it whatever name you wish, but one thing is clear to me. From the point of view of the true spiritual life we must eradicate the subconscious.”
“Eradicate the subconscious?” I exclaimed as a group of curious monks surrounded us, listening with great interest to our exchange.
“What you called ’repression’ is totally unacceptable in real spiritual medicine,” Father Maximos replied. “In the spiritual arena of the logismoi, we aim at the transmutation or metamorphosis of our passions, not the actual storing of them into the so-called subconscious.
“Now let us take sexuality, for example,” Father Maximos continued. I was taken by surprise. I had assumed that sex was a sensitive if not taboo subject with ascetics. “We monks do not try to repress our sexual passions by storing them in our subconscious. I remember reading an interview given by a married priest who stated that the central problem of the monks is sexual. That, in order not to think about sex, we work all day long in the fields, clean the yard, wash the floors, and so on.” Father Maximos scoffed and shook his head as the monks that surrounded us burst into laughter. “This is sheer nonsense. So what do we do at night? Continue to wash the floors and dig ditches in the fields, or gobble up pills to overcome our insomnia?
“Woe to those monks and nuns,” Father Maximos went on after we stopped laughing, “who shovel into their subconscious their sexual passions. In such a state they would tremble and sweat in the presence of the opposite sex. There is no spirituality in that. What happens, and what we aim at, is the transmutation of erotic energy from earthly attractions to God, the way human beings were in their primordial natural state.”
“Eros turns into agape,” I muttered.
“Right. Such persons love all human beings without distinction to their sex. Such persons do not have much to do with what belongs to the after-the-Fall state of humanity. Do you understand? The love of God totally transforms human beings through Grace. Therefore, we monks as a rule, and ideally of course, do not repress our desires in our subconscious. What we attempt to do is to force ourselves to bring everything out from the subconscious and clean it up.”
He paused for a second and, looking around at the faces of his monks, he continued. “When someone is professed a monk, his spiritual elder warns him: ’Look! The moment you decide to join the monastery, you accept withstanding hunger, thirst, humiliation, and injustices.’ The spiritual elder will sometimes subject the novice to some difficult exercises. He may set up certain conditions and circumstances in order to provoke and aggravate him. He is like the physician who gives us a medicine to cause us to vomit in order to get rid of the poisons that we have swallowed. It is the same with the medicine offered us by our spiritual elder. You have to vomit the old ways of thinking and feeling. This will not happen unless you touch some sensitive chords. That is how you acquire real humility.”
“I have not witnessed such harsh exercises in this monastery,” I remarked, and nodded at Fathers Arsenios and Nikodemos, who were among the monks listening to our discussion. In fact, I was impressed with the gentle way in which Father Maximos and other elders I met dealt with apprentices.
Father Maximos laughed. “With the help of the Holy Spirit each person will be given the type of exercises appropriate for their situation.”
“Is that true also for the laypeople and nuns for whom you act as a spiritual guide?”
“Naturally,” Father Maximos nodded. “We have learned to employ certain methods that allow us to get to the depths of our being, that which you called the subconscious, and to help others explore the depths of theirs. According to the spirituality of the holy elders, the subconscious must never remain dark. The aim is to purify it, distill it, and make it transparent. We must never repress our weaknesses and passions. The aim of the Ecclesia as a method of healing is to sanctify the human individual, the whole person.”
“So,” I murmured, “if the work you do here led to the repression of desires. . . .”
“We would all be psychopaths, neurotics, and schizophrenics, Kyriaco! For how long can you repress your passions? Lunacy, that’s what is going to be the inevitable outcome, and that’s why the saints are truly liberated in their very being. They are the freest people on earth. Once they reach that state they can never be affected by the sins of the world. They are not terrified by them. They are not human beings fortified behind their prejudices and repressions. You may go meet saints and tell them the most horrendous sins. They will not be touched in their innermost core. Persons who have repressed their passions will get angry, will get into the punishing mood. If you tell them that you committed some sinful act, they will become very upset and judgmental. They will become intolerant without a trace of compassion. Do you know why? Because they themselves are suffering. They have a lot of repressed emotions and anger inside them, a lot of repressed logismoi. Such persons are moralistic and pious, but they are no saints. Their hallmark is not utter humility.” With that last remark we heard the rhythmic sound of the symandron calling us for vespers.
The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality - Kyriacos C. Markides