Saint Syncletice also said: “If you are troubled by illness, do not be melancholy, even if you are so ill that you cannot stand to pray or use your voice to say psalms. We need these tribulations to destroy the desires of our body; in this they serve the same purpose as fasting and austerity. If your senses are dulled by illness, you do not need to fast. In the same way that a powerful medicine cures an illness, so illness itself is a medicine to cure passion.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.17
This is not an easy saying, but it is a very important one. So much so that I have reflected on it once before. The desert fathers (and mothers, as in this case) offer a different perspective on suffering than what the world teaches. St. Syncletice here teases out the implications of the saying of Christ: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24). Sickness and suffering are little tastes of death. We can have a new, resurrected life but not without dying first. If we want new creation, we must first submit to the destruction of the old.
In fact, as I have written before, the whole of the Christian life can be understood in terms of a life—death—resurrection dialectic. Recently, however, I have come to see a parallel in (of all things) economics: the concept of creative destruction.
The term “creative destruction” was first coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter. As a caveat, I will note that one need not agree with him about the good of the economic concept for the metaphor to work. For those adverse to the idea, I would only point out that Jesus often employed examples for metaphors that ought not to be literally imitated—an unjust judge, a thief in the night, and so on.
That said, we can examine the subject dispassionately. Schumpeter wrote,
[T]he contents of the laborer’s budget, say from 1760 to 1940, did not simply grow on unchanging lines but they underwent a process of qualitative change. Similarly, the history of the productive apparatus of a typical farm, from the beginnings of the rationalization of crop rotation, plowing and fattening to the mechanized thing of today—linking up with elevators and railroads—is a history of revolutions.
As the process happens new industries displace old ones. For example, the automotive industry displaced the blacksmith; the telephone displaced the telegraph; air travel displaced sea travel; online news is displacing print; and so on.
Temporarily, this process is painful. People lose jobs. Other people struggle to adjust to new technology. But the net societal gain is astronomical. The average person in the developed world today enjoys conveniences—indoor plumbing, heating and cooling, electric light, microwave ovens, dishwashers, washers and dryers for clothes, and so on—that no common person could ever have afforded, used, or even imagined at other periods of time.
On the one hand, this is not without negative consequences: people can feel entitled to these things; some of them can be abused and present great temptation (television, for example); abundance undermines simplicity; and so on. On the other hand, proper sanitation, heating and cooling, and many others do not simply make people more comfortable, they improve people’s health by preventing some really terrible diseases.
Ah—but that brings me back to Amma Syncletice. Bodily health, just like economic health, is only a relative good. The health of the soul takes primacy, for the soul gives the body life and determines the true quality of that life.
No technology will ever make human beings immortal. We are mortal by nature. Such everlasting life can only be received as a gift through a transformation of what we are. As a Christian, of course, I believe this to come by communion with God through Jesus Christ. Thus, just as in economic destruction through innovation, we must look beyond the moment to the greater gain, so much more so ought we to understand that “illness itself is a medicine to cure passion.”
This brings me to another point about creative destruction: it causes people to fear the destruction of their enterprise and sometimes motivates harmful behavior, rent seeking in particular. Rent seeking is when businesses, fearing the competition of future innovation, seek and acquire government privilege. They lobby for mandates that require specifications for a product that only their company provides, even if it is less efficient or demanded than others. They push out the competition not through their own ingenuity and production, but through the power of state regulations, all because of their fear of death.
According to St. Paul, it is through the fear of death that the devil keeps our souls in bondage (Hebrews 2:14-15). However, in Christ we can without fear face death (and every little death of this life, whether illness or hardship or most often the denial of our own wills). The ascetic life is a sort of creative destruction of the soul. We can respond like a greedy company who fears the loss of profits, or we can see each loss as the opportunity for self-improvement, like a fair company.
Fr. Robert Sirico recently reflected on this connection, this spiritual creative destruction of asceticism:
We humans benefit from “creative destruction” as well, although we don’t call it that. From a Christian perspective, we talk about sin, forgiveness and redemption. If we remain in sin, of course, nothing new grows. When we recognize the destruction of sin in our lives, and we desire change, the creative force that God has blessed us with allows us to recreate ourselves.
In our sin we seek to preserve our own will, rather than suffer the destruction of our desires. “Whoever desires to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his own soul?” asks Christ (Matthew 16:25-26).
I have amended this translation to reflect the Greek better. The first sentence typically says “life” instead of soul, but Greek has two words for life and the word used here is not one of them. Most translators seek to avoid what appears to be a contradiction, and that is fine so far as it goes, but I think that something is lost as well.
Another change is that the word “forfeit” is often translated as “lose,” despite the fact that a different word is used in the previous sentence. Indeed, in the first sentence “lose” carries the connotation of perishing or being destroyed.
There is something paradoxical here: when we try to preserve our own soul, it is lost. When we accept its destruction through “fasting and austerity,” it is gained. Seeking the world instead, for the sake of preserving our self, forfeits the highest part of ourselves, our soul.
Thus, as scandalous as it may sound, one essential calling of the Christian life is to welcome the destruction and loss of one’s soul.
This reminds me of a Hebrew concept, found in the Old Testament, called charem. Charem is when something is dedicated to God by being destroyed. All my thoughts, conceptions, feelings, prejudices—all of these need to go. All of them must be charem. Like St. Paul, I must “die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31) in order to daily live the life of the resurrection.
When we welcome this inner charem, it transforms all those things that were given over to destruction. By losing them, they are truly gained. Lust can be transformed into mystical affection. Greed can be transformed into zeal for heavenly treasures. Seeking the esteem of others can be transformed into seeking the esteem of God.
When we allow these things to be destroyed, what was corruptible about them, sin, is purged from our souls.
Perhaps the best medicine for all that can go wrong in economic creative destruction is that more people would embrace this spiritual creative destruction. Then when others fall on hard times, we would not hesitate to help them in whatever way we can. Then when we face hardship, we would welcome it like St. Syncletice welcomes illness. And we would then sow the seeds of the destruction of our grief: hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.