The 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.