Saturday, March 08, 2008

Grief & the Gnomic Will

Stepping back and with the advantage of age and spiritual maturity, Augustine comes to the self-realization that his sorrow, for all its unique features, was not his alone. Augustine's grief is the grief of the Old Adam. "I was miserable, and miserable too is everyone whose mind is chained by friendship with mortal things, and is torn apart by their loss, and then becomes aware of the misery that it was in even before it lost them" (Bk IV.6.11). It is for Augustine this chaining of the will through our attachment to the created rather than the Uncreated, that is the true human misery: "Woe to the madness," he writes, "which thinks to cherish human beings as though more than human!" (Bk IV.6.11) Possessed by this madness, we find ourselves in a place of inconsolable grief and sorrow. And in this state we can make Augustine's words our own:

Within in me I was carrying a tattered, bleeding soul that did not want me to carry it, yet I could find no place to lay it down. Not in pleasant countryside did it find rest, nor in shows and songs, nor in sweet-scented gardens, nor in elaborate feasts, nor in the pleasures of the couch or bed, nor even in books or incantations. . . . [E]verything that was not what he was seemed to me offensive and hateful (Bk IV.7.12)

We are now in a position to say that what Horney identifies as neurosis is really something much more profound then we might have at first imagined. The grief, frustration, anxiety, and aggression that Horney describes as symptomatic of the neurotic, is the psychological manifestation of a life that has lost its transcendent focus. To be human is to be a self-transcendent being. This self-transcendence is not part of human nature, as is for example, the will. We are not by nature transcend. It is rather that the human person is called by God to a transcendent way of life.

Yes, the transcendent, or the spiritual dimension, I would hold, is the distinctive quality of the human person. But we, I, am only a spiritual being, a self-transcendent being, in response to a call that comes to me from outside the created dimension. To lose sight of this, is not simply to misunderstand the spiritual aspirations of the human person. It is rather is to reduce our highest aspirations to merely a subjective choice, a fleeting desire (and all desires are fleeting) and rob the person of the very gift of a transcendent life that we would foster.

Again, Augustine is remarkably helpful here. In Book VIII he addresses the question of the human will. Contrary to what we sometimes imagine, Augustine's besetting sin is not sex, but ambition. On the one hand he wants to pursue Truth—he wants to devote himself to the contemplation of God. On the other hand, he has worldly ambitions. In a moment of blinding clarity about himself (and the human condition) he says that

[It] was no iron chain imposed by anyone else that fettered me, but the iron of my own will. The enemy had my power of willing in his clutches, and from it had forged a chain to bind me. The truth is that disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion. These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress. . . . And so the two wills fought it out—the old and the new, the one carnal, the other spiritual—and in their struggle tore my soul apart (Bk VIII.5.10).

Augustine would agree with Horney that there is something wrong in human willing. But where Horney tends to see the will as damage, like a broken bone, Augustine sees the will more as misdirected. Our frustration comes from a will that is not damaged, but misused, turned to things in addition to God.

In the next installment, we will look more fully at the effects our turning will to things other than God.