Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos
The Enemy Within
(an interview with Archimandrite Dionysios taken from the Enlighten Magazine)
Elder Dionysois spent many years in Simonopetra Monastery of Mt. Athos and is now a much loved Elder and the Archimandrite of an Orthodox Monastery in Greece – northern Athens
[…] 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.” […]
WIE: Father, what is the ego?
Archimandrite Dionysios: When Satan, who was the first and highest angel, looked away from God and turned his attention to himself, there we had the first seed of ego. He took his spiritual eyes from the view of the Holy Trinity, the view of the Lord, and he looked at himself and started to think about himself. And he said, “I want to put my throne in the highest place, and to be like Him.” That moment started the history, the reality and the existence of ego—which is not in fact a reality, but the refusal of reality. Ego is the flower that comes out from the death of love. When we kill love, the result is the ego.
WIE: What is the character of the ego? How does it manifest within a human being?
Dionysios: When we don’t trust. Ego is born when we don’t trust others. When we’re afraid of others, when we need guns against others, then we need to have an ego because we are in the wrong way of life. We think only of ourselves, and we see only our ego. But when we see each other, when we trust each other, there is no need for ego, no reason for ego, no possibility for ego.
WIE: So in the way you’re speaking about it then, ego is the insistence on our separation, our independence?
Dionysios: Yes, on our solitude. Our need to be alone, to have our own way of thinking that satisfies us and preserves our personality in the wrong way.
WIE: Putting ourselves first and foremost?
Dionysios: Yes. And Christ said, “The last is the first.” Because when you want to be the last and you choose the last seat, only then may you call the others friends of yours.
WIE: The ego, this sense of self-importance you’ve been speaking about, is often described in The Philokalia and other writings of the Christian mystics as the primary enemy with which the spiritual aspirant must wrestle in their quest for union with God. Why is the ego considered to be such a formidable adversary on the path?
Dionysios: It is such a powerful enemy because it is the enemy within us. We are enemies to ourselves, like Adam and Eve in paradise. Of course, the snake talked to Eve. But she could have avoided him. The snake said to her, “The Lord lied to you,” but if she would have trusted the Lord, she would not have started to talk to the snake. And Adam, too, lost his communication with the Lord and stayed with his ego. And the two egos worked together, Adam and Eve.
The real enemy is the ego. It is the enemy because it is against love. When I look at myself, I don’t love others. When I want to occupy for myself what is yours, I become the killer of my brother, like Cain killed Abel. When I want to satisfy myself, this satisfaction is gained through sacrificing the freedom of the other. Then my ego becomes my lord, my god, and there is no stronger temptation than this. Because to us, 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.
WIE: It has been said by some of the greatest spiritual luminaries that when one takes up the spiritual path in earnest, one often comes face-to-face with the ego in a way that one never could have imagined previously. In describing their encounters with the ego, many saints have characterized it as an almost diabolical force within that does not want the spiritual life, that does not want God, but that wants to do everything it can to obstruct our illumination, to undermine our firm resolve to stay on the path.
Dionysios: Saint Paul writes beautifully about this event, this struggle inside the human heart. He says, “There is another law inside me telling me to refuse the will of God, to do things against Him, to refuse the grace. It tries to keep me in my past, in my old life, to take me far away from the Lord, to prevent me from following the Lord.” This is why I said that the biggest problem in mankind is in each person, not outside of him. For this we need spiritual fathers. For this we need spiritual doctors. We need surgery; we need an operation; we need something to be cut in our heart.
We don’t understand that this enemy that we have inside us is not our self; it’s not our personality. It’s only a temptation. This is the seed of the problem of the ego. We unite our personality, which is a priceless event, with our faults. We confuse our personality with our sin; we marry these two things, and we have a wrong impression of what we are. We don’t know what we are, and we need someone to show us who we are; we need someone to open our eyes so that we can at least see our darkness.
There’s a mystic, the greatest of the mystics, Saint Gregory Palamas. For thirty years, he was praying only this prayer: “Enlighten my darkness. Enlighten my darkness.” He did not name the Lord because he did not feel worthy to name him. He did not address it to anyone, but he said this prayer day and night, more than he was breathing. Because all he knew in himself was his darkness. And he was talking to someone—to whom else?—to Christ, who said, “I am the Light.” But he said only, “Enlighten my darkness.”
WIE: Show me my faults?
Dionysios: Or come to my darkness and burn it. Make fire in it and make light in it. The greatest thing we can do in our lives is to discover that by ourselves we are nothing. We are darkness. We are dust.
WIE: The ego is often characterized in the spiritual literature as a cunning and opportunistic adversary, capable of turning any situation to its advantage in its attempt to obstruct our spiritual progress. What do you feel is the most important quality within the individual that can help us to win the fight against the clever and ever-changing ego?
Dionysios: Repentance. Recognizing our mistakes and our sins, this is the highest thing that we can do. And not to recognize our sins in order to succeed at something else, but just to see the truth about ourselves. Saint Isaac, the great mystic of the Church, says that one who accepts, who understands, who recognizes his sin in front of the Lord, in reality, he is the highest. He is greater than one who has gained all the world, who feeds all the people, who makes miracles, who resurrects the dead. This man, the first one, is bigger because he can never fall down. He has a stability, a level, a place where he can talk to the Lord. He has a place where he can invite the Lord with his tears, with his repentance, with the understanding that he has done wrong. And straightaway he becomes clear. The light comes from him. He becomes a spiritual doctor, a teacher or father, because he’s not afraid to recognize sins. It is not a problem for him to say, “Excuse me, it was my fault.” This is the key to escape from all the drops of the devil.
WIE: Would it be accurate to characterize this quality you’re describing—this willingness to face oneself honestly—as humility?
Dionysios: Not humility. Humility is the result. It would be better to say “wisdom.” We press ourselves to be humble. But to recognize my faults—what does that have to do with humility? I have to be humble in order to recognize my faults? No. I have to see them. It’s an emergency. It’s my way to exist for the next second. How can I exist with my faults for one second? In front of whom? In front of myself—how can I be with my faults, with my sins? I have to say, “I did it!”
Dostoyevsky expresses this so beautifully in Crime and Punishment. The main character, Raskolnikov, kills someone, and almost immediately he understands what he did. He doesn’t recognize it by himself, but with the help of the strict hard words of a prostitute, Sonya, who says to him, “Look what you did.” She guides him to go into the middle of the plaza, in front of all the people, to say what he did. And he does it. He confesses. He says that otherwise he could not exist, that he would have to commit more and more and more crimes. And he accepts the sentence of the court to go for at least twenty years to the hardest prison. And he goes, and there he feels the medicine of his heart. And he takes this medicine. We have problems in life because we don’t want to accept or recognize our sins. And this is the key. What else do we have to offer to each other? Gold, money, lust, food? Long life? No. Only to recognize our sins and straightaway we have a new world.
WIE: You seem to be speaking about a kind of deep conscience that stirs when we face ourselves.
Dionysios: It’s love. Love is more than conscience. Conscience is something that says to you, “You do this, you do this, you do this.” It’s like we’re under our own personal court. But love is something much more. Love makes us ready to pay for the sins of others. It’s a much higher step. Not only to recognize our sins but also to be able to pay for sins for which we are not responsible, as Christ did. This is love.
WIE: The writings of the Christian fathers speak of the goal of the spiritual journey as a transfiguration of the human being into an entirely different order of human existence—one in which the ego is killed and we are, in a sense, reborn. What does it mean for the ego to die? And in what sense are we reborn?
Dionysios: The Lord calls us to transform. He wants to give us our reality, our real self, which we have lost. And in spiritual life, especially in the monastic life, this ego really can transform, just as when the disciples, having followed Christ to the top of Mount Tabor, witnessed his body transformed into light. Many fathers used to explain that the transfiguration didn’t actually happen to the body of Christ but to the eyes of his students. Because at that moment, their eyes transformed and they could see what Christ had always been—shining, full of light. Through their humility, through following Christ, they were brought to the top of this mountain to enjoy this reality. And every one of us can receive this blessing. Our nature can be transformed.
This transfiguration is our real progress, our real growth. It’s not a matter of using our spiritual life in Christ to become better, to become more clever, to know more things, to have more friends, to influence others, to have authority and power, to have money, good health, a good name, and a good face. It’s only a matter of what’s inside our heart. The important thing is that in daily practice there cannot be any seed of ego in the field of our heart. Because when temptation comes, it can destroy the quality of life and of the relationships between people. The Lord taught us to be awake all the time and to pray to him, to say, “Protect us and don’t let us enter into temptation.” Through this protection from temptation, we can come to see very clearly into our hearts. And by following the simplest, normal life, we can purify ourselves, our spirit and our mind. It’s very easy after that for the Holy Spirit to come. It’s like in the Eucharist, we are ready all together in the church with the bread and the wine. We pray, and the Holy Spirit comes and makes the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. In the same way, we can purify ourselves, and the Holy Spirit comes and transforms us in all the ways we have read about in books and brings us many more experiences that all the books of the world cannot contain.
WIE: In the Orthodox tradition there has been a long-standing lineage of illumined spiritual fathers, great individuals who have demonstrated with their own lives the possibility of destroying the ego and discovering a new life in God. What are the marks of one who has won the spiritual battle? How does the expression of the personality change in one who has truly gone beyond the ego?
Dionysios: He’s ready for everything always. He never is or says or feels that he’s tired. He has joy. He’s always ready to give. He exists only for others. He’s ready to serve everybody. He does not judge anybody, including the deepest sinner. He’s there as a child, but as a child of a king. Who can touch the son of a king? Who can touch a newborn lion knowing that the mother lion is nearby? Being this way, you’re like a small lamb among the wolves, but you’re not afraid. You’re there offering, receiving everybody, loving, serving, praying for everybody and being ready to die in each moment, and in that, you’re totally and completely free. All these are fruits of love because we become the source of love. So is a man without ego. This is the transformation. It’s like we are a wild old tree and we need something to come into us and transform this tree into a good fruitful tree. A man without ego is a man with God, is a man with the Holy Spirit.
When you are ready to die for everybody in each moment, when you love, when you respect, when you prostrate to the other, it’s like you prepare him to be ready for an operation; but it’s not that you judge the other or feel that he needs something from you. When you are perfect before Him—and we can be perfect; in fact, we have to be perfect; it’s the principal need—then right away people need it, know it, understand it. Very quickly everybody comes to take a seat in front of such a person, in front of a spiritual son or a spiritual father.
WIE: Is it also your experience that a spiritual father who has truly gone beyond the ego not only inspires people to reach for their highest potential but also presents the ultimate challenge to the ego of those who come to see him?
Dionysios: Absolutely. In fact, in the presence of such a person, the devil comes out straightaway. And you can see very clearly how the devil makes people crazy or angry or disrespectful when you haven’t even said anything. Just because you are there, they explode. And you can see terrible things in people where otherwise you would see only kind people with ties and gold jewelry. When someone appears who embodies the spirit of God, there you can see what you could see when Jesus was walking in the streets. The devils who were in the people said, “Whoa, who are you? You came here to put us in trouble.” Some were scandalized by him, others were thinking about how to kill him, and still others were thinking things against him. He was speaking not to what they said but to what they were thinking. And the same Holy Spirit exists in the spiritual fathers, and it can also create this kind of confrontation. This happens because the other person understands that he cannot play with this man. He cannot hide from this man.
WIE: In Christian writings, the enemy of the spiritual path is often referred to in dramatic terms as Satan, Lucifer, the devil. Is Satan simply a metaphor for the human ego? Or is it something independent of us?
Dionysios: Satan is the teacher. And the ego is the means by which we fulfill his theory. Living from our ego is like burning incense to him. When he smells it, he comes. It is familiar to him; it’s his relative, his tongue, his dialect. He likes it. So he comes, and then he starts to open company with our ego. Then he starts to be related to us.
WIE: So would you say that Satan exists in this sense as an impersonal force of evil that operates within each of us as the ego? Or would it be more accurate to say that the ego is already there in us and Satan is the voice of temptation to which the ego listens?
Dionysios: The second. He doesn’t have the authority to work through our ego. We’re free all the time to decide.
WIE: There are many spiritual authorities in the modern West who are attempting to bring the ideas of Western psychology to bear on the spiritual path. In fact, it is now commonly held that in order to withstand the difficulties of the spiritual path, one has to first develop a strong ego, a strong sense of self. One statement that has become almost a credo in many spiritual circles is: “You have to become somebody before you can be nobody.” What do you think of this idea?
Dionysios: That’s like saying, “We first have to be the head of the Mafia and then we can become president.” Or, “I will first work together with the devil; I shall make common company with him so that he will give me whatever I need, but because I am more clever than he is, I will then use my power for good.”
It’s good to send children out to study, to learn to sing, to learn athletics, to be well educated, to have an economic basis from which to start their life. But how often do we see that the dreams of all the rich men and their children are broken? The Bible says that “if the builders are working very hard to build a tower that the Lord does not bless, they have worked for nothing.”
This ego is the modern god of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. And the idea you referred to in your question is the modern religion. But we know this temptation. Ego means, “I don’t believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit does not exist.” But this is a lie. The Holy Spirit guides the world and blessed are they who want it, who see it, who breathe in it, who move in it, who inspire through it, who love it, who are uniting with it.
WIE: There are also many spiritual authorities today who insist that the ego is an inherent and irreversible fact of our humanity and that any attempt to give up the ego, to transcend our lower nature in pursuit of perfection, is itself an expression of the greatest hubris. Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman goes so far as to say that the very notion of perfection “rapes the soul.” How would you respond to those who assert that we are, by nature, flawed and incapable of reaching perfection?
Dionysios: Christ said, “Be perfect. Become perfect. And when you will be and you will do everything perfectly, saying within yourself and believing that you are miserable, terrible lost sinners, servants, there you will find humility and glory.” It’s possible to be perfect because He is perfect, because He received our nature. So if He did this, we can do it; we can be with Him. It’s possible to be perfect because of this gift. And it’s possible to not be perfect because we have the authority to refuse the gift, to refuse the love. And when we refuse it, then we need theology, then we need philosophy, then we need to create new books and new theories that say that the ego cannot be transcended.
It is possible to be free of the ego. It has to be. It’s necessary. It’s only because people don’t know of this possibility, don’t want this possibility, and don’t permit this possibility to exist that they need to create all these ideas. But they know that they are speaking lies. This is the craziest thing we can hear. What doctor says to a sick man, “Look, sickness is a part of our nature. We have to be with it. So we don’t have to cut our nails. We don’t need to wash our face, because we shall be dead tomorrow anyway”? What kind of teaching is this? Yes, it is possible to be free of the ego, but it’s a mystery.
WIE: The ascetic practices of Orthodoxy place a strong emphasis on the need to suppress our instinctual drives. Impulses like lust, hunger, thirst, and even the desire for sleep are often held at bay for long periods in extreme acts of renunciation. What is the role of ascetic practice in attaining freedom from the ego?
Dionysios: Asceticism is a means to get where we want to go. It is a railway on which the train can run. Many people feel that asceticism means following a set of rules, but it’s not a law that is imposed on us. In football, for example, it’s not that the rules of the game are hard, but that they help the game to come out perfectly. And so it is with ascetic life. The special periods and rules of fasting, vigil, and prayer serve as mystical ways or means. We follow these mystery ways, these divine commitments, these divine orders. And outside of the general rules, there are also personal rules that are given in the communication between spiritual father and son, special vocations for each individual. We see saints who spend much time in the caves or in the forest or in the desert. And they don’t go there with plans to come back; when they go there, they go forever. And the Lord guides them then.
When Christ went to the desert after his baptism, he went to face the devil. He didn’t think in his mind, “After forty days I will return.” He just went there. He came out of the Jordan River, baptized by Saint John the Baptist, and he went to the desert. From one point of view, he lost time being alone there. He didn’t go to his people to give them food, to bless them, to guide them, to give the Holy Spirit to them. No. He went to the desert. And he said to the devil, “My friend, look, until now you were playing with the people. You started with Eve in paradise, and now you are finishing with me. I am here alone. I’m not eating. I’m not drinking. And the cold in my bones in the night in the desert is terrible. I suffer. But I don’t play games. I’m here. Alone. And you come to me and you tell me to turn stones into bread. You tell me to prostrate to you. You? To give you the authority of my people? Go now. We have seen each other. I know who you are and you know who I am.” And in that moment the devil gave up everything.
So the ascetic life is necessary. To be ready in each moment to die, in front of everybody for everything—this is the desert, this is the ascetic life. And it brings the Holy Spirit. And if we go, the Lord will guide us.
–An Interview by Craig Hamilton
Prayer for the Enemies
by St. Nikolai Velimirovic
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world. Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal found its safe shelter, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.
Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.
Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.
Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, the enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Your garment.
Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me: so that my fleeing to You may have no return; so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger; so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;
Ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.
My enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.
Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.
A slave curses his enemies, for he does not understand.
But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.
Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.
Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
(St. Nikolai Velimirovic, was a Twentieth Century Serbian Orthodox bishop who opposed Nazism and was eventually taken to Dachau. In this prayer he no doubt has in mind personal enemies, rather than national ones; the prayer is not intended as a guide for political and military decisions. But in thinking through such words we may be more able to act justly rather than rashly and in hatred or bloodlust).