The Asceticism of the Desert Fathers and the Unconscious

The Asceticism of the Desert Fathers and the Unconscious: the projection of the enemy within and the cleansing of the heart

An interesting and inspiring blog on Desert Asceticism is written by Fr David Abernethy CO , a Roman Catholic Priest at the Pittsburgh Oratory, and a psychoanalyst.
“I have always thought of the desert Fathers as the first depth psychologists. From experience, they came to know and understand the dark underground of the human heart and the obscure workings of the unconscious. As one who has had the opportunity to study psychoanalysis, I have become even more convinced of the Fathers great psychotherapeutic shrewdness and their ability to see and understand what lies beneath.

Paul Evdokimov in his work “The Struggle with God” captures beautifully not only this shrewdness but what the Fathers struggle has brought and continues to bring to us today. He writes:

“The ascesis of the desert is a vast psychoanalysis followed by a psychosynthesis of the universal human soul. Origen, the brilliant commentator, compares the desert to Plato’s cave. The desert with all its arsenal of phantasmagoria was a theater of shadows, a spectacle for men and angels; only the shadows did not reflect the reality outside the cave. They were the projection of the world inside man……
The therapeutic effect formed by ‘the desert’ in the profoundest depths of the human spirit is universal. It represents the collective vomit, the objectification and the projection on the outside of the original and the accumulated impurity. This is perhaps the meaning of the words of St. Paul, ‘to add to the suffering of Christ’, something that the innocent Christ could not do in the place of man; only the sinner, the man of the desert, could do it in the place of all and with a universal significance. From a positive point of view, it was the formation of the ascetic archetype of man. It pre-formed ‘the violent’ in order to fight evil and the evil one inside and outside of man.’ (pp. 103-104)”


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