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The Enemy Within


An interview with Archimandrite Dionysios
 

Introduction

Restless, just out of college, skipping from state to state and job to job, I fell in love with What Is Enlightenment? at first sight. Like most of my friends, I was educated but disillusioned, getting along comfortably yet sleeping with a spiritual hunger, driven toward higher answers and simultaneously baffled by where to find them. The twentieth century was coming to an end, and we were living out our late-Gen-X version of the classic story of rebellious youth, bold in our rejection of the status quo yet perhaps more uninspired than any generation before us by even the best of the known alternatives. Bold but aimless. In a world of calamities piling one on top of the other, it was easy to see that things had gotten so bad it was going to take something unthinkably heroic to turn the tide. Deep down, we wanted to be heroes if we could be, but none of us actually thought it was possible.

That was before WIE.

Championing not just the possibility but the necessity of radical change with a kind of boldness I’d scarcely considered before, WIE was to the spiritual world as Earth First! was to the Sierra Club—idealistic, uncompromising, and totally cool. Most magazines either put me to sleep or further anchored me in the safe harbors of established patterns of thought; this one was more like a cold bucket of water or a storm that tore my tethers free, leading me to seas far more turbulent and far more thrilling. For our fifteenth anniversary issue, I give you my all-time favorite case in point: the interview WIE did in 2000 with the Greek Orthodox elder Archimandrite Dionysios.

The name still gives me goose bumps. What other contemporary spiritual magazine would get anywhere near a man like this, an old-school master with a love for asceticism and a passion for ego death that are as rare in today’s feel-good spiritual marketplace as they were commonplace in the monasteries of old? Except WIE wasn’t on a religious mission, at least not a conventional one, nor was it mere journalism. This was sophisticated spiritual activism, upholding the solemn wisdom of the past not out of nostalgia for an age gone by but for the sake of a future we had yet to create, a twenty-first-century revolution that ironically depended on exactly the kind of self-transcendence represented by traditional holy men like Father Dionysios. In short, it was a call to transform, and it punctured the veils of cynicism that were a Gen-X’er’s birthright.

Of all the spiritual cannonballs that WIE lobbed at self-infatuated narcissists everywhere, none was more deadly than Father Dionysios. “We need surgery,” he proclaimed. “We need an operation; we need something to be cut in our heart.” I was hooked. For a twenty-something like me, with a vague sense that the problems in the world were not just with the world but with myself, Father Dionysios confirmed feelings that had been categorically rejected by the prevailing culture of self-acceptance and the ethos that whispers: Be gentle with yourself, you’re doing the best you can. To him, that was nonsense. Don’t coddle your sensitive self, he advised—annihilate it: “This ego may seem like a diamond. It has a shine like gold. But whatever is shining is not gold. The ego is just like a fire without light, a fire without warmth, a fire without life. It seems that it has many sides and many possibilities—but what is this possibility? What is ego? Only the means by which I protect myself as if I were in a battle, as if every other person is my enemy, and the only thing I care about is winning the victory.”

In his original introduction to the interview, editor Craig Hamilton explained that this kind of unqualified hostility toward egotism—the subtle, cunning force of pride, arrogance, and inertia that has traditionally been known as the great nemesis of spiritual life—is the hallmark of Christian Orthodoxy and the war cry of its two thousand–year lineage of illumined saints. As the fourth-century desert father St. John Cassian writes in The Philokalia, perhaps the most celebrated of all Orthodox sacred texts, “[The ego] is difficult to fight against, because it has many forms and appears in all our activities. . . . When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothes, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones. When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to endure what seems to be dishonor. When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness. . . . In short, every task, every activity, gives this malicious demon a chance for battle.” To overthrow this relentless enemy within, Hamilton went on, Orthodox monks down through the ages wielded the twin swords of prayer and renunciation with zealous enthusiasm, fasting for somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred days a year, sleeping only one or two hours per night, and even withdrawing to live alone for decades at a time in windswept caves overlooking the Aegean Sea. To these celibate renunciates, extreme self-denial was less a punishing hardship than a joyful privilege, a royal road to a supreme and kingly goal—the chance to become pure vessels through which the brilliance of God might shine on earth in human form.

Father Dionysios, it turns out, was a living exemplar of this ancient tradition, an archimandrite (superior abbot) in the Greek Orthodox Church in whom the fires of devotion had always burned with uncommon intensity. Born to a religious family in a small town in northern Greece, he left home at seventeen for the famous monastery of Great Meteoron and later made his way to the holy mountain of Athos, an isolated, steep-sided peninsula entirely dedicated to the monastic life. There, he went to war with the temptations of pride and selfishness in his own heart and returned to the world bearing the banner of victory, his mind and soul afire with divine love and tireless generosity. What would a man like this have to say about walking the spiritual path in the twenty-first century, WIE’s editors wondered. Having seen so deeply into the insidious human tendency toward self-satisfaction, what would he consider to be the most effective weapon in the fight to overcome it?

Father Dionysios answered that question with a single word: “Repentance.”

It was a haunting and unforgettable statement. Repentance? I remember thinking at first. Repentance for what? Isn’t it a wee bit extreme to drag that old moth-eaten language of shame and sin down from the musty attic of yesteryear? Seriously. We’re on the cusp of a whole new millennium, man; this is the kind of thing you aren’t supposed to say anymore. Yet here he was saying it, and here WIE was publishing it with a straight face . . . It was strangely cool. And the more I thought about it, the cooler it became. Somehow, Father Dionysios had taken a word that had always sounded like some dangerous leftover from our stifling religious past and made it seem new again—uplifting even. Dude, it suddenly occurred to me, that is awesome! I was amazed, and I feel the same way now as I sit here reflecting on the interview, delighted by the chance to dust the cobwebs off and put it out there once again.

In naming the enemy within so unequivocally, Father Dionysios names the reality of freedom as well, the real possibility of profound transformation in our own lives that means that lasting change in the world doesn’t have to be a distant fantasy. And that’s not just the hallmark of Christian Orthodoxy—it’s the hallmark of WIE. For a generation like mine that sees all too clearly the growing roster of global problems we’ve inherited yet finds itself at sea when it comes to addressing the deeper source of those problems in ourselves, that message will never go out of style. I can see now that my friends and I were rightly suspicious of old-style religious belief structures but wrongly suspicious of old-style religious heroism—the kind of heroism that comes not from the power to dominate and control others but from the power “just to see the truth about ourselves,” to use Father Dionysios’ words. “It is possible to be free of the ego,” he says. “It has to be. It’s necessary.” Thanks to WIE, a whole new audience now has the opportunity to take those words to heart—perhaps even falling in love, like I did, not just with a magazine but with their own highest potential.

» Continue to the interview



 

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This article is from
Our 15th Anniversary Issue

 

September–December 2006