With you, I’d like to spend a little time reflecting on a book, [God’s] Path to Sanity, by Dee Pennock. It’s quite an interesting book. To be candid, Fr. Tom Hopko had been trying to get me to read the book for a number of years, and I would pick up the book and flip through the pages and read a few and just decide that I would read it later and never really did get it back to it. But I was invited to lead a book study of a group here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on the book, so I read it with notes and prepared to do a book study on it. Now I would like to share some of my thoughts. I’ll begin with my own… I’m going to weave in my own thoughts into the book and simply say I am very indebted to the book for the thrust of these thoughts.
For me, an idea that I got from someone else is that sanity, path to sanity, sanity equals sanctity. Real holiness in Jesus Christ is equal to the real balance, sanity, stability of Jesus Christ. So the path to sanity is all about Christ, and, sort of going backwards, but forward, it all begins with repentance. Repentance, there are many definitions of repentance. According to Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), it is looking at the light, making a change of attitude, a metanoia, looking up, looking at him, not dwelling on my shoelaces, not looking backwards, not obsessing about myself, but rather being exposed, wanting to be exposed, to his light.
The basic structure of the book is about how we peel away and deal with our basic passions. The passion of pride is prominent. It’s fueled by our thinking: thinking things through, thinking things prior to thinking things through without reference to God. “I will figure this out myself, thank you.” And often crash and burn. Pride fueled by thinking; self-love fueled by fleshly appetites: “I want what I want when I want it,” so to speak, almost with a growl; and vainglory, which is fueled by willpower or desiring: “I really want that.”
For our purposes, I’ll begin with vainglory, which is kind of in the middle, but makes sense from another point of view, because the question is: What do I really desire? That’s a question I can ask and answer. What changes my heartbeat? What do I turn to in my time of stress? Vainglory can be the window through which I look into my pride or my thought processes. I can see, I can almost diagnose or analyze myself through this prison, through this window. For me in this podcast, I will simply admit right up front, I am filled with vainglory. My whole body and soul is contaminated with vainglory, and all I can do is ask: Lord, have mercy. We need to know specifically how deep and how vile that vainglory goes, but I know in my own case I often desire to please people. That’s part of my knee-jerk reflex reaction. Often I will wonder what I think other people are thinking of me. That’s vainglory. That’s putting me at the center of my own thoughts as I spin a new configuration.
Another example from my own life of vainglory is when I look at group photos, especially if they’re on the internet, if I have gone someplace, given a retreat or something. They take a large group photo, post it, and the first thing I look for is myself. That’s vainglory. I’m interested in me. I am not interested in all of the lovely people I met and all of the wonderful interactions that I had and all of the dialogue that I had. I must admit that’s true even when I give these wonderful retreats to high school students, wonderful students, and sometimes I have conversations with them one-on-one. When the group photos come up, I don’t look for that student first that I had the one-on-one conversation with. I’m simply saying that’s part of my primary repentance at this point.
One of the things that Dee Pennock in the book, [God’s] Path to Sanity text, she talks about the Adam complex, and she likens it to the Oedipus complex. We’re familiar with the Oedipus complex, as was made famous by Freud, that Oedipus killed his father and became king of Thebes. Adam rejected God and decided to take God’s place by doing primarily what Adam wanted. So, too, with us. That is to say, we displace God in our own mind. Often we think we know what’s best without considering God’s plans through prayer or spiritual advice. That’s pride. Pride is the basic fuel for our present plight, the basic way we are, the thoughts.
There’s a lovely sentence I want to quote from the book, [God’s] Path to Sanity. It says: You can’t think your way out of the conviction of self-importance, these false thoughts. You can’t think your way through it because we’re in the middle of it. We can’t medicate our way out of it. You can only pray your way out of it. That is to say, we have to surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ who will do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, because when we’re in these thoughts, they really are delusions, prelest, as they’re called. We’re stuck in this little cave of our own creation, and we need God to bring us out.
In terms of thoughts—and that’s all from the Desert Fathers—our thoughts, normal thoughts of humans, virtually all people, as studied in psychology experiments, are negative. The thoughts we think from morn till night are basically dark. That’s the way we fallen human beings are, and the way out, as St. Theophan says, the essence of the Christian life is to keep the mind in the heart before God. We’re either thinking of God, repenting, trying to turn toward the light, or we’re on our own dark analysis. “Be still and know that I am God.” We are to pray the name of God.
Another line from the book is: “By accepting adversity, we conquer it. We render it incapable of hurting us.” That’s the way it is. We have a choice: we can either accept adversity, or we can improperly fight it. That is to say, of course there is some adversity that we are to fight on God’s terms because something might be wrong that we need to correct, but generally speaking the kinds of adversities, especially sicknesses and such after we’ve taken our medication, it’s a question of attitude. We do have much more control over our attitude than we often give ourselves credit for.
On page 89 from the book, she says, “Our circumstances are connected with our calling. God has you and me exactly where he wants us, and he wants us within this moment to turn to him and allow him to be present in our lives.” When we ask the question, “What is sanity?” there are many different answers, and at the book discussion study that I led at St. Vladimir’s, we went around and had very different and strong definitions of sanity. In the book, Dee Pennock, following the Fathers, says that “sanity equals truth. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ ” That is to say, truth is central to what Jesus said. So when we’re living in the truth as best we can, then we’re approaching sanity. I would add that, for the purposes of finding truth, we really do need other people to help us, and I know that in my own case I had asked my wife and my children to please help me become a more honest man. The more I exaggerated and even lied, I asked them to please correct me. That still goes on today in my life. I ask others to please help me be rigorously honest.
Sanity equals truth. The accent through the book on pride, self-love, and vainglory struck me as I was preparing for this little book study by an email on a blog. A friend of mine wrote the following sentence: “I am so caught up in me, so full of me, that I can hardly stand it.” That’s what he wrote, and it certainly applies to me, and probably to many of you who are listening. That’s why you’re listening: we’re trying to get over that central idea of me, ego. Pride, self-love, and vainglory in one sense can be reduced to ego: God or mammon—sometimes defined as ego.
The book is summarized with this following quote:
Remember, the stronger the conviction is in your mind, that is, thoughts, the more fuel it adds to the desiring power, your will. The more it turns on the “fuel spigot” is the excitable part of your soul, and this “fuel spigot” then pours energy into your will, giving it power to accomplish whatever your desires are, the way fuel, gasoline, gives engine power to run.
So it begins with thought, and that’s where we can truly begin to change our thoughts, ask God to help us change our thoughts.
Throughout the book are a number of beautiful prayers that all begin with the three words, “Lord Jesus Christ.” I’d like to read some of them now.
Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from pride and give me self-knowledge.
Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from self-justification and show me my sin.
Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from self-love and vainglory.
Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from believing and obeying idols.
Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from self-importance and willfulness.
And we might add, make our own prayers, in my own case: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, deliver me from despondency. All those we can ask specifically throughout our day, that the Lord Jesus Christ is very close to us and intimate with us, who wants to help us rid ourselves of these obstacles. He wants us to be close to him.