Question and Answer Session Following Dr. William’s Lecture
Transcribed by Lydia Berzonsky
Q: You mentioned the term “Eros”. How did the writers of the Philokalia understand or define “Eros”?
A: Well, you might be surprised to hear me say ‘not in the way a lot of people would...’ What is extremely interesting in some of the later sections is to see, for example in Gregory Palamas, “Eros” applied to the internal life of God, which is astonishingly bold. But I think what’s understood by “Eros” is not just yearning for completion and certainly not yearning to possess, but a sort of unceasing energy of pouring yourself into the other and receiving the life of the other. Its got a slightly stronger emotional term than “Agape in that context. Not that (inaudible) sees this in opposition. But its that, I suppose, that intensity of longing to be in the other. And that’s why Saint Gregory Palamas says we could even ascribe it analogically to the Father and the Son and the Spirit. And the life of the Spirit in us is what takes us up into the divine “Eros”. The divine, utter outpouring of self into other and other into self. So I think that’s how it’s understood. And of course that gives the basis on which you construct a proper anthropology of human sexuality. Not in terms of possessive desire. Not in terms even of, um, felt happiness or satisfaction, but the absolute committed longing “to be in the other” That’s, again, that’s another story.
Q: “Reading the world” and “Seeing people symbolically” as they are in relation to God, how is this different from loving humanity in general? Isn’t this impersonal?
A: I touched on that far too briefly in the lecture, noting that that impersonal danger was around. The answer I think is this: What really makes our relations impersonal is precisely when we, if you like, drag things into ourselves we don’t see the reality of the other. We see them as mirroring our own needs or concerns. A really personal love is love for what the other actually is. And love for the image of God in another human being is quite the opposite of impersonal or general love because, of course, being the image of God is just being unique. So I think there are ways of handling that language that don’t land us in the danger which I do recognize in that sort of talk.
Q: Could you comment ....on the influences there are by Greek dualist anthropologies in a context where human beings are understood as a holistic unity - in which mind or soul or spirit doesn’t function or even exist apart from the flesh?
A: Well, absolutely. I think that one of the points I was seeking to draw out. One of the remarkable things of the Philokalia is that it does not just sit down passively with dualist Hellenistic pictures of the human. It, if you like, it looks at and resists that temptation to drive a wedge between the soul and the body. And (it) says actually, primitively, soul spirit and body are inseparable. All of them responding to reality; to truth. What we have to get back to is that integrity and (an) integral quality of response once again. I think read properly, (and that’s a bold claim) but read properly, I don’t think that the Philokalic tradition overall really lets you just sit down with crude oppositions. Its got much more to say to a “holistic” cultural setting.
Q. Can you say a bit more about inner spiritual warfare not being the battle of two forces within us?
A: A very good question. What the early writers are resisting, I think, is the idea that we are almost in cartoon fashion - you know - the battleground of two little men battling it out in our heads. One of them colored white the other red, or something like that. There are not two forces or lives within us. There’s us, made in the image of God, there’s the grace of the Holy Spirit, seeking to vivify, to bring alive what we ought to be. And there is a habit of destructiveness, which we have got ingrained in us as a result of generations of original sin. And that is a weakness which the spiritual forces of evil are very, very happy to exploit. Evagrius was very clear on that. He doesn’t say it quite like this, but something like this, “Don’t go banging demons. You left the door open.” So the spiritual battle is not that, um, you know that picture of balanced forces inside wrestling. It’s an integral self which God is seeking to integrate still further. And we are giving our best energies it sometimes seems to disintegrating. In the universe, as is it though, there a lots of spiritual forces very happy to cooperate with that. So the battle is real, (but) it is not quite that battle.
Q: How widespread is the tradition of spiritual direction in the church today? Please describe.
A: Certainly not as widespread as it should be in the lives of a lot of lay people. It’s a question which I, and I think a lot of my fellow bishops, routinely ask of any candidate for ordination. Do you have a spiritual companion or director? It’s a question which I always ask of newly-nominated bishops. And if the answer is “No” or possibly, “Um...”, I will tell them to do something about it. There are, as I say, there are probably not enough people in congregations in general who are fully aware of what’s possible of what can be done and what can be offered. But I guess that’s not unique to the Church of England! It’s there. People do use our religious houses and retreat houses quite a lot, And again I suspect this isn’t unique to the Church of England. More people use them than want to join them. I spent my New Year retreat this year in a tiny women’s monastery on the Welsh border which is now down to four professed sisters. But the number of associates, retreatants, pilgrims and so forth, who flood in week after week, is extraordinary. We all have, I think, a little bit of connecting up to do. To say: “Well, if you like it so much maybe there’s a case for investigating a little bit more”, I think. So it is there, and alive, and could be better.
Q: How does one discern the very fine line between pure awareness and sobriety as in the Philokalia vision - and a vision that is not sin, but a genuinely distorted one, by genuine psychological problems?
A: Very good question. And I think the answer (just flying a little bit by the seat of my cassock here) I think the answer would be that someone standing in the Philokalaic tradition would say: “A psychological problem, a sort of clinical psychological problem, is not of itself a willed evil, and therefore it’s not of itself equivalent to the root of distortions.” What were talking about in the distortion of the natural in the Philokalaic world is, I think, that conscious or half-conscious collusion with and slippage towards the destructive and the unreal. The will is involved somewhere. And that’s why I think the spiritual director does need a great deal of discernment to disentangle it all. And there are no easy generalities that I can share with you there. But just to say that that is the issue. And, I think, if you look at the lives of many of the saints, you might want to say quite a few of them have what we like to call “psychological problems”. And it doesn’t mean they’re any less holy. That’s not the issue. The lack of holiness, or the refusal of holiness, is the conscious or half-conscious refusal of something. And a disease or disorder of the psyche is like a disease or disorder of the body. It’s a problem - but it’s not that kind of problem. I think that’s, that’s where I’m beginning, in responding to that. Which of course raises all sorts of difficult questions about the point at which the spiritual director hands on to the therapist.... And its very important I think for the spiritual director to know when he or she must not try to act as a therapist. That’s again a long discussion to have.
Q: Please contrast passionate perception with the role of love in knowledge; love as a form of knowledge?
A: Wonderful question. Passionate perception is perception where my instincts, my selfish instincts, my perception, my needs, and my agenda are just twisting out of shape what’s there in front of me. A knowledge rooted in love is, of course, a love of what’s real. And I think everything that the fathers of the Philokalia are saying assumes that knowledge and love do indeed belong together. Knowing the truth is opening yourself to the life that is in the truth. Opening yourself to the life that is in the truth is living in love. Living in truth. I think that’s, you know, that’s where the connections are made. It’s a very good point to make here. And I think, (again, putting my neck on the block) it’s one of those areas where perhaps more than we might have expected Saint Augustine and the fathers of the Philokalia might have had a conversation. Its nice to see that recent book on Augustine and the Eastern Christian tradition, I might add, because there’s lots more work to do there.
Q: What’s the role of the “other,” lower case, in the recovery of the natural self?
A: I think its very much what I was trying to say in terms of knowing. The self, it never exists in a vacuum, but, to understand who I am is always to understand who I am in relation with: first and foremost, my Creator and Redeemer, the Triune God. And then, for us all, those created media by which the life of the Triune God is given to me. ...
Q: Do you consider reception of mercy a form of sharing in God’s energy by participation? A sharing in God’s energy by participation for which takes “two to tango”? Do you think that scholastic theology’s very method precludes exploration of this aspect of the spiritual life?
A: Well, first of all I think the notion that receiving God’s mercy is sharing God’s energy is a brilliant way of putting it. It’s absolutely wonderful, and I’m really grateful for it put like that. I’ve often thought that in the Orthodox Liturgy when you say, (I believe, quite a few times) ‘Lord have mercy‘ (you are) fundamentally saying, “Be here in me. I let go of myself, my sin, my, my issues. You live here. You be here. The doors are open.” Have mercy - not in the sense ‘just forgive’, “I’m sorry”, “Let me off”, but show yourself to be the God of Grace. And show it here.
And so when I hear that again and again, and again, in the Liturgy, and in our Liturgy, too, in the West,that’s my first thought. “Show yourself here to be the God of Grace”. And when that Grace comes alive and mercy lives, and my, my death is turned into life, then yes, of course, it’s the Divine Energy. It’s the Divine Life that’s living here. And I think it’s, it’s just a beautiful phrase: receiving mercy and sharing God’s energy.
Does scholastic theology preclude exploration of this aspect of the spiritual life? So long as when you’ve written your paragraph and read your book, you say, ‘Lord have mercy‘, um, there’s hope. I don’t simply want to write off the work of the intellect here. It’s a tempting shortcut. The life of the intellect has something in it of itself that can be yet another way of twisting the world out of shape, so as to suit what interests me. The real life of the intellect is the life of the intelligence, again, open to reality; “the spirituality of the intellectual life”, if there is such a thing. And ‘Lord have mercy’ there can mean, “Lord, overcome my laziness. Overcome my unwillingness to see what’s in front of my nose. Overcome my selfish desire to be interested all the time. Overcome my selfish desire to be on top of the subjects that I know more than anybody else does.” ‘Lord have mercy’: You can say it as an intellectual just as you can say it in any human context.
Q. About the controversy and unity of the Anglican community?
A. I think I’m going to leave those rather unsettled questions there (i.e unanswered.) Not at least about the Anglican communion, which I think I better just ask your prayers about. Because I’m somehow fairly convinced that I’m not going to be able to answer all those questions in the remaining twenty seconds. So, please pray for the Anglican communion, in all it’s familial parts, and pray for our unity, peace, and truth for the Glory of God and his Kingdom.