A glance at TV, magazines, newspapers and the deluge of junk mail that we receive everyday, tells us that we live in a pleasure-seeking society. Our everyday recipe for life in the fast lane of this hi-tech century is hedonism, an ancient philosophy that considers pleasure to be the ultimate good and which modern man has adopted as his philosophy for success. A webpage on the Internet confidently proclaims that pleasure is a wonderful reward. According to this webpage, true pleasure comes as the result of achieving some purpose or goal.
We rate pleasure as the highest and most desirable achievement of mankind. Here I am not referring to pleasure merely in terms of entertainment or recreation, but pleasure as an inner drive for self-gratification and to some degree as a driving force for self-satisfaction. In many aspects and spheres of life, pleasure is the motivation behind politics, academic achievement, science, technology and financial success.
Although modern man views pleasure as the achievement of his desires, as a reward for his ingenuity, his ambition and proof of control over his affairs, pleasure is in fact an attribute of his fallen human nature. You and I, do not exist without it! What appears to be a positive quest for gratification and satisfaction turns out to be in reality, an expression of an inner (and ontological) negation of our true humanity. Although modern man may see pleasure as an achievement or an end result of his genius, it is in essence a strong driving force that controls his everyday actions. For indeed man is a prisoner of pleasure. He is enslaved by it and through pleasure becomes acquainted with its companion – pain.
Pleasure is inherent in modern man. This negative attribute of modern man is not simply psychological or social but has its roots in original sin. Under the exciting facade of enjoyment, pleasure is an evil and hideous sacculina* of the soul, which eats away at our divine nature and eventually causes death.
*Sacculina is a jelly-like parasite that feeds on crabs.
Who is modern man?
Who is modern man and how does he differ from previous generations? Modern man is a pleasure-seeking being who measures himself and the world around him by himself. The Holy Apostle Paul writes: “But they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” 2 Cor 10:12. Modern man seeks to replace life according to Christ with a life according to man.
This is not always obvious and is often hidden beneath a veneer of Christian piety. For many who call themselves Christian, and this includes some Orthodox Christians too, life in Christ is an individual event. It is determined by my personal feelings and opinions about the meaning of Christianity.
Such a notion suggests that salvation depends on one’s individual understanding and preferences. God becomes the object of a personal subjectivity. We hear terms such as – my personal saviour or my personal spirituality -, implying that Christ is the personal friend of the believer, a kind of cosmic buddy and that one’s spirituality depends on your personal feelings.
This individualistic understanding of Christianity is centered not on Christ but on man.
Man’s salvation becomes dependent on his individual moral efforts. Known as pietism, this individualistic brand of belief in Christ is basically humanism with a religious coating. Pietism, for an Orthodox Christian is a contradiction, for it substitutes a personal, individualistic praxis for the corporate mystical Body of Christ.
The devolution of man
Modern man is also the product of evolutionary thinking. Evolution is equated with progress and therefore presupposes some kind of growth towards a better future. We measure this progress in terms of social, political and religious growth or achievement with the result that evolution has become part of our everyday vocabulary. It has become an integral part of how we act and think.
It has now become part of our everyday thinking and behaviour. All aspects of life are modeled on evolution. Apart from the Darwinian concept of biological evolution, we are also confronted by social and political evolution that measure progress and human development in terms of the intellect and the amazing achievements of technology.
And finally there is religious evolution: religion that is evolving towards the “Omega Point” envisioned by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or towards the “Age of the Spirit” anticipated in the works of Nikolai Berdyayev. Upon this foundation of apparent progress, modern man has been encouraged to believe in his own superiority over nature, technology and social interaction. According to such secular thinkers as Theodosious Dobzhansky and John Dewey, evolution is no longer a destiny imposed from without, but a destiny that can be controlled by man, in accordance with his wisdom and his values. The result of this is the belief in a new kind of man.
Our hi-tech society has transformed Homo sapiens into Homo technicus. However in the light of Orthodoxy, Homo technicus instead of being a demi-god as proclaimed by the champions of evolutionary humanism, is in actual fact subhuman. Homo technicus is man made in the image of God, but without Christ.
The Rule of Pleasure and Pain
Man was created without the sense of pleasure and pain. St Maximos the Confessor tells us that pleasure and pain were not created at the same time as the body. Before the Fall, Adam possessed a noetic faculty, that is, a spiritual mind by which he could enjoy God. Pleasure for Adam was thus a spiritual pleasure. But Adam misused this noetic faculty and turned his spiritual mind towards sensual things and began to experience pleasure contrary to his God-given nature.
St Gregory of Nyssa writes that pleasure and pain together with the desire and fear that follow, were introduced only after our being had lost its natural God-like nature. Before the Fall, Adam lived without fear and illness. He suffered from neither the heat nor from the cold. Water could not drown him. Nothing could harm him or cause him pain.
Although he had not yet reached perfection or deification, he was able to see and enjoy God through his spiritual (noetic) mind. To understand what took place in Adam, it is necessary to look at Adam’s spiritual and physical characteristics.
When God created Adam he gave him a body, soul and spirit. The soul of Adam was divided into three parts, comprising the noetic faculty, the intellect or reason and the sensible power of the soul. Through the noetic faculty, which I will call the spiritual mind, Adam was able to communicate with God. Through this faculty we too can see and experience God just like we can things with our physical eyes.
For this reason the Fathers call the spiritual mind the eye of the soul. Through his reason Adam could make sense of this divine communication. In other words Adam used his reason to intrepret this encounter with his Maker. By means of the sensible powers, Adam experienced feelings.
A word of warning is necessary here. These terms are not to be understood literally and our verbal definition of them is a feeble attempt to try and understand Adam’s being and to understand the great change that took place. The Fathers such as St Gregory Palamas or St John of Damascus use this kind of terminology to explain a mystery. Their explanations are a simplification for our limited understanding. Their own understanding on the other hand is on a noetic level, that is on a spiritual level. Such Fathers speak from spiritual experience. They speak from personal experience with their encounter with God. .
Prompted by the devil, Adam turned his attention to sensual delights with the result that his spiritual mind became darkened. Adam’s intellect or reason while it remained pure, was able to interprete his spiritual mind’s communication with God. But after the Fall, his spiritual mind no longer governed his reason but became subject to it, so that Man began to try and understand and communicate God through his reason.
The spiritual mind no longer functioned according to its original nature. The result of this was the deification of reason upon which Western civilization is founded. The Holy Apostle Paul condemns this deification of reason when he says: “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world.”(1 Cor 1:20).
Yet modern man prefers to ignore this, considering his reason to be his greatest asset. The great change in Adam’s nature and the birth of sensual pleasure resulted in the law of death. As an antidote to man’s insatiable appetite for pleasure, God introduced pain. Thus pleasure is always followed by pain.
The sin of Adam
Being the descendants of Adam we are also inheritors of original sin, that is, of pleasure and pain. “In iniquity did my mother conceive me”.(Ps 50) writes the psalmist. We are conceived through the pleasure of sex and women produce children through the pain of childbirth. We read in Genesis how God said to the woman “..in pain shalt thou bring forth children..”
And He said to Adam “..cursed is the ground in thy labours, in pain shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” Man is also subject to death. We are caught up in a vicious circle of pleasure and pain. Immediately after birth we are nurtured by physical pleasure. It is our body that is nourished in the infant years, not the mind.
For Orthodox Christians it important for a pregnant mother to receive the Holy Mysteries (or Holy Communion) since her blood feeds the foetus. The yet unborn child already partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ. It is also customary for infants to receive the Holy Mysteries immediately after Baptism.
In the young child the physical senses become complete and strong, while the mind develops much later. This order of development in the child explains why it is difficult for us to acquire an understanding of good, for we perceive chiefly through our physical senses, basing good on what is easy and pleasing. For fifteen years we have been thoroughly schooled and trained in bodily habits. It is not surprising that we are the slave of our appetites and that it takes discipline to subject our physical senses to our reason.
Since we are conceived in inquity, sensual pleasure and pain are inherent in us. The more we seek to avoid pain by indulging in pleasure, the more we encounter pain. And of course sin is often pleasurable, but the end result is pain and the sting of death. “The wages of sin are death”. (Rom 6:23). Many people try to escape from pain by indulging in sexual gratification, drugs and alcohol. In some cases too their career or recreation may provide an escape. But even this new pleasure produces new pain.
Is it possible therefore to escape this cycle of pleasure and pain? It is possible but only through Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is possible to escape only through kenosis, by accepting pain and suffering and following the Lord.
The New Adam
Christ is able to set us free not only from the cycle of pleasure and pain but also from death. For He “trampled down death by death”. (Paschal Troparion). Only Christ was born without sensual pleasure, being conceived by the Holy Spirit. Only He was born outside of human generation, being subject to a virgin birth. And only Christ can free us from pain and death since He voluntarily took on suffering and death on the Cross.
The Holy Prophet Isaiah declares: “He was a man in suffering and acquainted with the bearing of sickness; he was dishonoured and not esteemed. He bears our sins and is pained for us; He was bruised because of our iniquities…by his bruises we were healed.” (Isaiah 53:3).
Christ suffered thirst, hunger and fatigue. He felt anguish in the garden of Gethsemene. He felt the pain of the scourging, the nails and asphyxiation on the cross. All this was real because he was a real man. But what can we do? We too can take up our cross. We can take on a life of suffering, deprivation and labour.
Christ offers us the path to eternal life by means of pain. This spiritual path is called asceticism. Christianity is asceticism. To regain our fallen status, we are given the opportunity by God, through fasting and prayer to return to our true nature in Christ. Asceticism in the Orthodox Church is not mortification in the mediaeval sense, but a process of purification of the body and soul.
It is distinct from other kinds of asceticism to be found in pagan religions because it is not controlled by human endeavour but by the power of God’s grace. The soul is reached via the body and Christ Himself showed us the way when He fasted and prayed for forty days in the wilderness.
If you search the OT scriptures you will find that most of the encounters with God were preceded by fasting. It must be remembered that it was the soul that drew the body into acts contrary to its nature. However it is through the body that we purify the soul and eventually the spiritual mind.