Escaping the Ego: St. John of the Cross and an Anatomy of the Self

st-john-of-the-cross1The most brilliant and illuminating discussion of the human self that I have ever read is in a a book by Denys Turner, The Darkness of God:Negativity in Christian Mysticism.* He draws from Aristotle and adds a bit of his own humor to explain St. John of the Cross on the subject. I want to share highlights of that discussion here.

We begin the spiritual life by building up our “ascetical self.” The beginner works hard at fasting, keeping vigil, works of charity, and all his various labors for Christ. This is a necessary step. He learns self-control, self-denial, and gains strength of will. But this is not the end of the journey. As the beginner builds up his ascetic self, he is still unable to conquer the ego. He creates an ever more spiritual egoism, but can not overcome pride through his ascetic labors. He is caught: trapped in a precarious selfhood defined by three moral stereotypes that Turner has (delightfully) nicknamed “Feeble”, “Shameless”, and “Prig.” (Aristotle called them akrates, akolastos, and enkrates if any readers want to refer to Nichomachean Ethics— you know, just for fun.)

Feeble is the name for a person who knows what he ought to do, but does not do it. He feels shame and guilt for his failures to resist temptation.

Shameless is a person in a state of dissipation. Shameless does not see or care whether his actions are right or wrong and feels little or no guilt. “He pursues pleasure, but without any pleasure in the pursuit, out of an empty obsessiveness… Shameless seeks ever to squeeze decreasing amounts of pleasure out of an ever depleted source. In truth he is an addict.”

Prig is the morally “good” person who has conquered his own desires by sheer force of will. Prig feels no guilt because he can successfully control his desires. (For anyone unfamiliar with the British use of the word “prig,” just picture a person who is self-righteous and condescending.)

“All three are dominated by guilt: Feeble by its presence, Prig and Shameless by their need to be rid of it…but in all three cases, the ‘self’ dominates in the form of anxiety…What all three have in common is their egoism, their self-obsession. Feeble is obsessed by the ‘I’ he has failed to be, the same ‘I’ as Prig believes he has successfully constructed, and which Shameless flees.”

“This, then, is the ascetical self. It is a self trapped within the world marked out by these stereotypes… A more or less stable equilibrium of Feeble, Shameless, and Prig represents the best achievement of self which can be obtained by our own efforts…Within this moral world there are the alternatives only of egoism or masochism, self-obsession or self-annihilation.”

And so St. John of the Cross writes, first, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel that active ascetic labors are absolutely necessary. But then, as he begins The Dark Night of the Soul, he tersely dismisses them: “No matter how much an individual does through his own efforts, he cannot actively purify himself enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love.”

Why? Active ascetics are “well disposed, generously intentioned, heavily disguised, spiritual egoists.” St. John says that they are partly Prig: their motive that God remove their imperfections is personal peace and freedom from guilt, rather than union with God. Partly Shameless: even in prayer they can’t help seeking for sensory satisfaction and consolations. And partly Feeble: they grow angry with themselves in an “unhumble impatience, for they want to become saints in a day.”

These spiritual egoists, these beginners, have achieved an important step. In Turner’s words, the ego they have constructed is a “genuine moral advance over the dissipated pre-selfhood of the pre-ascetical person.” But they must not stop here in self-congratulation, thinking they have arrived. St. John’s contemporary St. Theresa of Avila comments that with humility present, this stage is a most excellent one. But “if humility is lacking, we will remain here our whole life” in a state of arrested development.

What comes next, then? A crisis of self-knowledge that looks very much like depression. St. John calls this the passive nights of the soul. “Depression is the revolt of this self in despair at its disintegration. The passive nights, on the other hand, are the dawning of a realization that in this loss of selfhood, nothing is lost; it is the awakening of the capacity to live without the need for it.”

In depression, a person hopes to recover the lost sense of self and identity, or better yet, to construct a new self that is more stable and mature. On the other hand, the goal of the dark nights of the soul is not to recover the old, lost identity in any form. That self was always an illusion. Instead, we find that our true selfhood consists in our transformation in God, our total union with God in perfect love. Not that we are absorbed into God and cease to exist—love does not annihilate its beloved, and our loving Creator does not take away our personhood – but that we would be so filled with love that we no longer need our ego or care about having a separate identity from God.

*All quotes from Turner’s marvelous book are taken from chapter 10, pp. 226-251.

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9 Responses to Escaping the Ego: St. John of the Cross and an Anatomy of the Self

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful review. There are many aspects of this summary that I can relate to. I am at the “interesting” juncture between seeings glimpses of the the loss of the old identity and the ego wanting to cling to the past.

    There are an increasing amount of events during which I feel like I am merely an observer watching a play rather than an actor participating in the play. These experiences can be very unsettling. It is helpful to have guides such as St. John of the Cross and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing (as spiritual guides) and Carl Jung (as psychological guide) who have mapped the landscape.

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • maryeholste says:

      Dear William,
      Thank you for sharing about yourself and your journey! I don’t have anything sage to say in reply, but I certainly agree with your point: it may be true that “the land of the spirit is a land without ways,” as St. John of the Cross writes, but even so, I am really grateful to have guidance! (And he surely thought so too, since he took the time to write his books and to give advice to those who came to him for counsel.) I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, and I wish you well!

  2. josephteilhard says:

    I share your admiration for Denys Turner’s wonderful book. I was immediately struck by the apparent coincidence of first names with Denys the Carthusian and Denys the Areopagite. On a more serious note, Denys Turner makes a distinction between the goals of modern ‘mystics’ and those of the Middle Ages: the former are characterized by a search for experiences while the latter were seeking union with god with or without mystical experience. His discussion of depression and
    dark nights seems to be plowing new ground. Others have made the connection but only in passing. His treatment of depression seems of necessity to be strictly academic…I don’t think he has actually experienced clinical depression, but it is very helpful nevertheless. I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life while also seeking union with god so I cannot be certain and when I entered a dark night or was experiencing depression.
    My search really kicked in when I read St. John’s Dark Night (Book I Chapter X) and was able to identify my experience as a “night of sense”, passive contemplation as opposed to meditation and the active striving described in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. However, I am certain that I have received the unearned gift of infused contemplation. ” For contemplation is naught else than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God, which, if it be permitted, enkindles the soul with the spirit of love, according as the soul declares in the next line: Kindled in love with yearnings”

    Thanks for your post,
    Joe Egan

    • maryeholste says:

      Dear Joe,
      I am delighted to meet someone who is so thoroughly familiar with the book. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! All excellent points. And what a beautiful quote on contemplation!

      • josephteilhard says:

        Hi Mary, the pleasure is all mine. I never expected to meet anyone else who read it. The quote expresses the essence of contemplation, another one you are no doubt familiar with is “Be still and know that I am god.” Being still may seem hard to do with two kids but its not something you do, its something that happens to you if you have already received the gift of loving God. I have five children and eight grandchildren and have been ‘stilled’ in the midst of an active life. To quote Pere Teilhard, ” In accordance with his promise, God truly waits for us in things, unless indeed he advances to meet us.” (Divine Mileau, Introduction).
        Joe

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