Elder Sophrony and Carl Jung

This is eventually going to be an essay about the Orthodox Christian monk, Elder Sophrony, and one of the most famous sayings he ever uttered. But before we get to him, I need to put my ideas into context by commenting on the influence of Carl Jung in the modern world.

Jung might be described as the religious man’s psychologist and such a claim might seem odd to those who know him as a thoroughly secular thinker. The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is to understand, as I have explained earlier, that Western Christianity is essentially secular. This strong tendency toward secularism is a result of the embrace of the empirical world view that grew out of the Enlightenment. It was good at breaking things into smaller and smaller pieces but not good at putting them back together into a meaningful whole. Because of this lack of integration, Western Christianity has had a profound difficulty holding on to God’s deep and dappled presence in creation, resulting in a determined drift toward secularism.

And this “breaking apart” vs. “putting together” is the key difference between Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud. Freud approached the psyche scientifically and broke it into what he hoped would be understandable parts. Jung, after immersing himself in Freud’s method, recognized that in order to understand a human one had to understand him as a complete being. But Jung did not use the old Christian categories and methods to put the human psyche back together. Using unifying categories such as “archetypes,” “the collective unconscious,” and “synchronicity,” he was able to understand the human psyche in a manner remarkably similar to ancient religious traditions without all the religious baggage (ie, morality).

But in order to unify Freud’s disassembled parts, Jung had to become what I will call an “athlete of the mind.” I use this term because Christians who are very advanced in their Christian faith and have a profound understanding of the connection between the material and immaterial, or the spiritual disciplines and physical disciplines which together reveal reality and lead to divine union, were historically called “ascetics.” Askesis, in Greek is a term that refers to an athlete. Thus, the ascetics were spiritual athletes.

And the Christian monks and ascetics were not unique. Monks in other religious traditions, most especially in India, have advanced to remarkable religious levels, apart from Jesus Christ. Their severe disciplines have led them to understand the profound and inherent relationship between mind and body and the transcendence that is possible when the power of that relationship is tapped. Unfortunately those ascetic practices, because they are accomplished apart from Christ, do not lead to salvation (which is union with God in the context of the Body of Christ), although they do lead to integration within the individual, and often integration of the individual into the community.

What has become clear following the publication of The Red Book, Jung’s most private diary of his research from 1914 to 1993 (pub. In 2009), is that Jung was an athlete of the mind in a manner not unlike the Christian and Buddhist monks are spiritual athletes. The primary difference is that his asceticism was self-consciously secular, although it sought to plumb the depths of the connection between body, mind and spirit in order that a person might become integrated with himself as well as with the community (which, for Jung, was the rather bizarre world of archetypes and the collective unconscious).

It is also true that Jung’s way of viewing the world has become pervasive. Freud’s name may be the one associated with psychiatry; Jung’s methods, on the other hand, are the ones that have entered into our modern way of thinking and doing things. (The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, for instance, which is a direct application of Jung’s typologies, has become so pervasive and authoritative that even Brenda and I were required to take it by both the Bible College we attended and our marriage counselor in order to determine our suitability for each other in marriage.)

How did Jung plumb the depths of the human psyche? How did he come to know as much as he knew? Essentially (according to his own claim in The Red Book) he became psychotic in order to understand the limits, the depths, and the shape of the mind. In one of his most remarkable metaphors, describing this process of entering into psychosis without any assurance that he could return to normalcy, he said that the journey to hell means to become hell oneself.

And when I heard this metaphor for Jung’s own process of self-discovery, Elder Sophrony immediately came to mind.  Elder Sophrony’s most famous saying (or at least the one with which the Western world is most enamored) is as follows:

A young monk came to Elder Sophrony and asked, “How will we be saved?” The elder was, at the moment, brewing some tea, and he said to the young monk, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.”

This statement caused a great deal of trouble. [At this point I leave out part of the story for brevity.] When Sophrony later clarified his statement, he told the young monk, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

The Orthodox world in the west has been all a-twitter with what Sophrony could possibly mean both in the original statement and his “clarification.” Search the internet with the words “sophrony” and “tea” and you will get dozens, possibly hundreds, of hits of people speculating on his enigmatic words. (And now, you can add my post to that list.)

The idea of dying to oneself, of the “dark night of the soul,” of the purposeful entry into our inmost being (which is where our most stubborn sins and wickedness resides) in order to root them out, confess them, and become Christ-like is as old as Christianity itself. But Elder Sophrony recast that idea into a context which spoke to the contemporary Western world. If anything in Orthodoxy could be described as “viral” it seems that this is certainly one contemporary “saying of the Fathers” that has gone viral and captured the imaginations of Orthodox Christians throughout the West.

What is it about these two statements that would lead them to go viral? I have pondered that question a lot since I first ran into the sayings five or six years ago. But then, when I heard the very secular Carl Jung (who lived at the same time and probably breathed the same intellectual air as Sophrony) offer up the nearly identical saying, I began to suspect a cultural connection.

Karl Menninger famously asked whatever became of sin. (It’s one of the most pernicious problems in pastoral counseling, by the way. Without a lively sense of sin – of which modern Americans mostly have none – no authtentic forgiveness and healing is possible.) I believe this is the very problem Carl Jung recognized a very long time ago and sought to address. Secular people may not believe in sin, but they still must journey to hell in order to become integrated. And what they will discover on that journey is that they are hell itself. Only when they (and we!) are able to make that insight can emotional and spiritual healing truly take place.

The Orthodox Church, because of its difficult contemporary history of persecution and marginalization never passed through Modernity in the same manner that the Western churches did. It remains an essentially pre-modern church. But in America a large percentage of Orthodox Christians are converts who are very much modern and post-modern people. No doubt it’s the very stability of Orthodoxy’s pre-modern perspective that is so attractive to post-modern people.

When Elder Sophrony couched a great historical truth of the spiritual life in this very modern framework (gazing into hell rather that contemplating one’s own sin), it struck a chord among converts (and contemporary Western people in general). The more traditional language didn’t have the urgency as this new way of offering up this truth.

But Sophrony’s saying, recast in the form it is, leaves me disturbed. He was speaking in a very specific context, as elder to monk. As monks, it was their goal to become Christ-like in an utterly profound way, which would involve entering into the very depths of darkness that Christ himself knew on the cross and in the grave in order to be prepared to receive the gift of Light. But that is very advanced stuff (which is probably why the young monk was so troubled by the saying).

For those of us who have not plumbed the spiritual depths as the monks of Mt. Athos have (and, as a result, are enamored and excited by the saying rather than troubled by it), it needs to be said clearly and emphatically that Christ is the one who went to hell on our behalf. He tasted death so that we could taste life; his darkness brings us to Light. If we journey to hell and back, if we “become hell” (Jung’s phrase), if we “stand at the edge of the abyss” (Sophrony’s phrase), we do it, not on our own, but only in Christ, for Christ and Christ alone is the one who took that journey so that we could be reconciled to God.

Of course that was not an option for Jung. He did not believe in Christ’s redemptive power. It was therefore incumbent on him to do it himself. His journey to hell and back in order to find emotional wholeness was ultimately an attempt at self-salvation. And this should give us, as Christians, pause. Are we enamored with Sophrony’s saying because it rings true to historic faith or are we enamored because it is a way of sneaking a bit of self-salvation into the Orthodox way? Self-salvation has always been a great temptation to Christians. It is the very nature of sin to want to rely on self and not become humble enough to accept help from others. I can’t help but wonder if gazing over the abyss before we have our “cuppa teal” is not a re-emergence of this ancient Pelagian heresy.

Don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not accusing Elder Sophrony of such a thing. But I am troubled that while the young monk was troubled by Sophrony, we are, instead, enamored with him.

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4 thoughts on “Elder Sophrony and Carl Jung

  1. I think there’re different experiences of hell.
    Elder Sophrony experienced hell out of despair and deep repentance. Where light is, is also deep repentance. The “hell” of Jung is a quite different one. Maybe even diametrically opposed. When demons attacks you, for example, you feel also a sort of hell. All the endless hate of the evil. I suppose that the feeling of hell in Jung’s case, is a effect of darkness not a effect of light like in the case of Elder Sophrony and Elder Silouan. Only through the right way of ascetism and belief in Christ you can reach such a state. Archimandrite Zacharias gives a good interpretation about this in his books.

    • I like how you said this: There are different experiences of hell. I in no way want to imply that Sophrony’s and Jung’s conception of hell is the same. They are almost certainly diametrically opposed. The point I was trying to make is very similar: I believe what Elder Sophrony was talking about then, in his specific monastic context, and how we hear him now, especially in the West, are very different. We hear his words but miss his meaning.

      You are correct that through the way of belief in Christ and practicing that belief through asceticism will lead us to the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, that’s not how we hear it. Even reading Archimandrite Zacharias’ book, “The Enlargement of the Heart,” while very illuminating, is a poor substitute for actual acetic discipline. And without that experience, I suspect we fail to appreciate the depth of Silouan’s words.

    • Why was Sophrony’s and Jung’s experience of hell different? Because Jung was a self professed secularist. Hell is an alienation from God, from others and from self. For Sophrony, the alienation from God becomes the key and defining experience, the other facets cascading out of that central experience. That doesn’t figure into Jung’s experience in quite the same way. I suppose that one could argue that existentially they both ended up in the same place, but I’m not even sure that’s true. Because Sophrony had an acute sense of the loss of God, his experience of hell would have been more profoundly alienating. Conversely, because Jung had no sense of the ecstasy of divine union, there would be a pervasive alienation, probably unconscious, even in his most acute sense of integration, and therefore a possibly more terminally shattering sense of hell during his period of “psychosis.”

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