THE MONK INSIDE
Traditional monasticism organizes a spiritual community in space and time in order to stabilize and control the psyche, using different activities to direct the activity of the psyche. Behind this is a tradition of practices which make that experience more readily accessible to people: a tradition of interior ascesis or practice. This is what they do on Mount Athos, the forgotten mystical heart of Christendom, and in what way is it so different from what goes on in the rest of the world? In what books can you even read about this different way of life?
This question is not easily answered. There are many books about Athos. Some of them at least touch on the underlying principles of this ancient form of monastic life. There are books of theology that touch on it in other ways. There are the writings of earlier monks in the same tradition, particularly those of the Philokalia and the Gerontikon, the one devoted to the teachings of the fathers, the other to stories about these same ancient monks. After a long silence, there are new books now beginning to emerge from Athonite tradition - and some of them are being translated into English.
But the problem is that the way followed by these monks is to a great extent wordless. Because they do not learn by verbal instruction, but as one might say 'through their fingertips', anything the average monk can put into words is partial, incomplete. Those who could do better either have no time to do it, or at least have no time to do so in a foreign language.
Therefore the sincere student in Athos must learn to be taught as the monks are taught; through prayer and practice.
This method of study - this 'learning by heart' is in a sense very different from rote learning. It is much slower. It demands more of the student. But it is also more sure. What you learn in words is easily lost or forgotten. What you learn fully in this more direct way is yours 'for good'. But it is also difficult to write about, impossible immediately to quote source and authority for what one says; one has to search for confirmations or ask the monks themselves to check the veracity of one's statements.
Eventually, one has to search inside oneself. It is then, when one asks for such things of these monks that give so much, that one makes a remarkable discovery. They have very little time for such things. Their lives are far from the 'escape into idleness' which is Western man's most common view of monasticism. Invisible to all but the most attentive pilgrim is the most fundamental fact of their way of life. Not only their lives, but almost every moment of their time, all is given to God.
It is given in church - six to eight hours a day - sometimes more. It is given in prayer in the solitude of their cells. The duration varies but is typically about five hours a day. Then they give time to 'obedience'. This varies from the many tasks necessary for the survival of the monastery: gardening, fishing, cooking, cleaning, maintenance, office work, caring for the many guests ... to additional tasks undertaken by the monks. For example, one monk, a young man who has from time to time given much of his little 'free' time to me when I was visiting his monastery, recently translated whole massive sections of the Orthodox liturgy into Swahili for use in the Monastery mission in Zaire.
There is a joke about this that plays on the Victorian English statement that divides life into: 'Eight hours to work, eight hours to sleep, eight hours to play.' The monk on Athos speaks instead about: 'Eight hours to work, eight hours to sleep, eight hours to pray.' Only these monks don't often sleep as long as that.
Palamas makes the following statements about the nature of the psyche:
"If you purify and strip away the bad habits and evil doctrines from your psyche, you will gain the wisdom of God."
"This fear of God will not live in the psyche alongside other feelings."
He speaks of "the passionate part of the psyche.!"
He quotes: "when grace possesses the heart, it rules over all the thoughts and all the members; for the nous is there, with all the thoughts of the psyche."
He speaks of men of attainment who: "... strip the powers of the psyche of every changing, mobile, and diversified cognition, of all sense perceptions, and, in general, of all corporeal activity that is under their control."
He speaks of an outer light which is: "perceived by senses even without the power of a reasoning psyche."
Today, as I said, people who cannot give long periods of time to prayer are able to learn to use this method, but it is not easy. In this way parts of the 'psychological method' are taught in today's 'Fourth Way' groups to 'householders' whose everyday responsibilities are so demanding that they lack enough time to follow the detailed pattern of monastic life, with its long periods of silence and prayer. Since the responsibilities of people living a normal working life and having family responsibilities do not allow them time for long periods of prayer and chanting, and they can only with effort find time and strength for effective struggles against self-concern and all the uncontrolled habits of mind built up in their early lives.
In Palamas Triads, Vol 1, there are statements about the relation of nous and psyche, and to 'penetrate to the meaning' of these words can only lead to the development of more exact meanings for both words. For instance, understanding the knowledge revealed in this way makes it possible to understand better certain techniques which are needed to remove the acquired obstacles to spirituality that are found in the unpurified psyche, which is in the habit of picking up things that aren't understood.
But not only must it apply the knowledge of the psyche described in the paragraphs above. It must also remain true to those parts of its Christian tradition that are concerned with discovering the spiritual reality previously hidden from it. This is achieved by prayer and sacrament, without which the necessary energies are difficult to acquire.
This method is far more personal and variable in its nature - and therefore more risky in many ways. It needs to have something that actually works for ordinary life, something has to happen, and something you can't generate yourself, and you have to turn your life so that it does, and you must keep experimenting to find a door that will open.