When we discuss our psychological state, what exactly are we talking about? Better yet, who are we talking about? What’s the identity of the guy in my head? Generally such questions are not asked but they can become important in certain dissociative disorders. If I for instance have two guys in my head, there is clearly an issue. But is what I identify as my self, that is, the sum of my life experiences, memories, decisions, opinions, feelings, habits, is this what will survive the death of my body? Will my parents’ second child — the neurotic, anxiety prone, attention deficit boy — wander the halls of Heaven, worrying about what’s expected of him next? Will he enter Paradise with a running dialogue in his head (not actually in Paradise but just talking to himself about what he supposes to be Paradise)? Just whose psyche is it?
This is an apt question particularly when you consider that the word psykhe (psyche in Greek) means “soul.” Psychiatrist interestingly means “a doctor of the soul.” From a spiritual perspective much of what we experience on a moment-to-moment basis is pathological, that is to say, it’s a product of spiritual sickness. The root of this sickness in Greek is philautia, that is, the love of self. In more common parlance we would say that we are “ego-driven.” We create a thought self through our collection of experiences, memories, decisions, opinions, feelings, habits. A thought self that is anxious about its existence, and that is constantly reinventing and revising its story.
“I’m not sure I ever loved her,” a troubled husband says. And this is the same man who once thought he couldn’t live without her. But as our lives change, our memories and experiences, our opinions, are revised. They’re always extremely selective. The active life memory that we engage on a regular basis is but a tiny fraction of our experience. “I remember my fourth grade year,” we say, but we don’t remember any year. We remember a few select faces and events that we deem “fourth grade year” much like a set of yearbook photos. When they have a few select experiences or dominant feelings these are often memories that have not been successfully integrated into a general sense of well-being. They linger because they still hurt.
Indeed, the entire question of identity is problematic. Oddly in the modern world we often don’t identify with our bodies. “That’s not him,” you hear at a funeral, as people comfort themselves with Manichean sentiments. And yet the body with its DNA is the one most consistent and persistent component of our existence. So who is it that Jesus saved, and why is it so important?
“He calls us each by name.” As a comforting quote from Scripture in the modern world it’s extremely important, for the life of the individual is both exalted above everything and crushed beneath the weight of mass consumerism. We shop for our identities only to have bought what everyone else has. Jesus called me by my name. The highest example of human existence offered in Christianity is described in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. He says (this is in the second chapter):
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, (NKJ)
This act of self-emptying is known as kenosis. It is the ultimate act of love, the ultimate act of self-giving and self-forgetting, and it is the act that St. Paul here directly connects with Christ’s exalted name. For St. John this empyting on the Cross is the moment that he refers to as Christ’s glorification. It’s an act not just of sacrificing — the self-sacrifice of the God-man — but the very act which he enjoins on every one of his followers. It is the ultimate act of true human existence, so that Jesus says in Luke, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life will preserve it.” And it’s interesting that the word translated “life” in this passage is the word psykhe (soul).
Whatever it is that’s so precious about our identity is the stuff of self-offering. The ego cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Our identity is something other than what we commonly think about. 1 John says this:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (NKJV)
And also this from Revelation:
To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it. (NKJ)
This identity is not unconnected with what we now think of as our self, but it is the self resurrected, transformed. That self is constantly being born through the work of Christ within us. It’s not the improvement of our present self: a moral project, for the process is not one of improvement but of life from the dead. The old died and the new is reborn, so that the Christian life is not one of learning how to behave ourselves as Christians. The Christian life is the learning of how to put the old self to death. So Paul writes in Colossians:
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (NKJ)
And in Romans:
For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (NKJ)
What we put to death within our lives is much that we daily experience as the ego. Thus our fears, the habits that are the passions, our preciously defended opinions, so much that is formed by sinful experience within our lives, is transformed in the work of purification. We are not yet what we shall be, and the what of what we are now is often confused with the who of who we are now.
Who would I be without the fear, right now? Who would I be without the envy and the anger and jealousy that I experience? There is a self at our very core and heart. It’s the psychosomatic unity of our person. Our experience of the true self is deeply clouded by the sin that infects our existence. It is the true self that is being saved, however much that we treasure and hold dear is indeed passing away. The asceticism of the Church teaches us to let it go, to let go of that which is passing away and to hold dear to that which is being renewed. In addition, with patient endurance and watchfulness we learn to tell them apart.
The wholeness and the peace that is encountered in the presence of truly sanctified persons such as Spirit-bearing elders and the like is in fact an encounter with a true self. There is a fullness there that can almost be overwhelming. It is the same fullness that is described by Motovilov in his famous encounter with St. Seraphim in the snowy Russian winter. And it is the same for us when we discern the True Presence of Christ within ourselves. The passions are diminished, fears disappear, the traumas of life resolved, and we forgive everyone for everything. It’s in such moments that we see Paradise and gain courage to renew our struggle.
Whose psyche is it? Whose soul is it? It is my self but my self renewed according to the Image in which it was created — Christ within me, the hope of glory. Glory to God.