Sunday, February 1, 2015

Internal Semiosis, Resonance, and the Interior Life

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange compared the interior life to the internal conversation that occurs in a man. If this interior life is natural, the conversation occurs simply with oneself, making oneself the ultimate referent of all experience: "As soon as a man ceases to be outwardly occupied, to talk with his fellow men, as soon as he is alone, even in the noisy streets of a great city, he begins to carry on a conversation with himself [....] If a man is fundamentally egotistical, his intimate conversation with himself is inspired by sensuality or pride." (Three Ages of the Interior Life, trans. M. Timothea Doyle, ch. 2,

At the moment that a man seeks the good in honesty, the nature of this conversation changes: "He converses with himself, for example, about what is necessary to live becomingly and to support his family. This at times preoccupies him greatly; he feels his weakness and the need of placing his confidence no longer in himself alone, but in God" (ibid.). Even in the state of grace, egoism confuses and mangles this interior conversation, pushing God out as much as possible despite the soul's clearer vision of its inadequacy and dependence on God. In fact, Garrigou-Lagrange suggests that this interior conversation cannot end and implicitly points to man's need for God as well as man's final fulfillment in God, who alone can finally satisfy this interior dialogue: "The soul must converse with someone other than itself. Why? Because it is not its own last end; because its end is the living God, and it cannot rest entirely except in Him" (ibid.).

Modern psychology at its best provides scientific precision to analytical explanations of the interior, psychological processes of the intellect and soul. Often, however, where psychology gets something correct, we find such points already explicated in the writings and experiences of the Saints, at least in nascent or unscientific form. St. Paul famously experienced the interior struggle between what he saw was good and what he hated as evil:
For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do. If then I do that which I will not, I consent to the law, that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that there dwelleth not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will, is present with me; but to accomplish that which is good, I find not. For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 
I find then a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me. For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man: But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God, by Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh, the law of sin. (Romans 7:15–25; DR trans.)
And Psalm 19 says, "Who can understand sins? from my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord" (v. 12). These verses posit that there exists a dimension of the broken personality, caught up in sin, in conflict with the conscious striving towards virtue. There is a contrast in Paul between flesh and mind yet almost as if the flesh had a mind and will of its own. Modern psychology would distinguish these dimensions as the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious. The exact nature of these different aspects can lead to serious error in a philosophy of human nature, and it's clear that much of modern psychology has tended towards a mechanistic reductionism of the human psyche, where the unconscious takes on some kind of overwhelming force. Without going to these extremes, it seems reasonable that we often act out of a plurality of motives, some of which we do not discern until we reflect later on our actions with deeper insight. The increase of self-knowledge is not merely quantitative—I know more and more truths about my personality—but also qualitative—I know my personality more deeply than before, its patterns, tendencies, weaknesses, and also very importantly, its strengths, some of which due to my God-given temperament.

Perhaps a semiotic analysis of human psychology would provide some helpful insights for spiritual growth. We know from experience that when a man works on growing in self-knowledge and discernment, the unconscious aspects of his moral actions eventually come to light. We also know from the experience of the Saints that where sinful tendencies reside in these unconscious dimensions, grace and asceticism eventually purify and heal the psyche of these tendencies. Here is a simple refutation of the omnipotence of the unconscious. Transformation in Christ is where the Saint may say truly, "And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20).

This internal dialogue, often the source of many self-destructive tendencies, especially to despair in various forms, is nothing other than a process of "private semiosis," the internal activity of signs in the human mind as it processes its environment and itself in some unified way. Conversation is speech, and speech consists of signs; human language is nothing other than that form of sign use unique to humans: anthroposemiosis. This semiosis is private insofar as it occurs immanently in the mind, seen in its immediate, raw form only by the individual and God although it may be expressed in a mediated way to others—mediated because only we can experience the fullness of what we experience.

But sign activity, or semiosis, for humans occurs in multiple dimensions since the human alone of all animals can distinguish between signs as such and all other forms of reality, between subject and object, between actual and ideal. Much of the activity that informs our conscious semiosis is subconscious. For example, when we read a novel, we subconsciously take on the role of a reader who understands that we are entering into a fictional world. Did we make the conscious, private semiosic choice to take on this interpretive stance? No (although we could if we so chose). We switch between interpretive modes for all genres of text, and we do something similar when we enter different social settings and engage with different people. Even where there is the conscious awareness of making certain switches, for example, "I must not use vulgarity when I'm around grandma," we might tell ourselves privately, there are other aspects of this switch that we often are not aware of; for example, what is the prior condition that prompts us to tell ourselves that we ought not to use vulgarity around our elders? This prompting is a semiosic process that we might become aware of, just like we might become aware of our breathing at any moment if we so chose to pay attention and knew what to look for, but just like our breathing, these processes often remain on the subconscious level.

Perhaps we can see the distinction between conscious and subconscious precisely in terms of relation, a relation to intentional awareness or the lack thereof. Following a Lacanian line of thinking regarding the unconscious, the unconscious is precisely everything other than the conscious remaining in human experience, encompassing the aspects of the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic; this residue or overflow occurs because conscious processing of our experience always leaves something to be desired, something missing; language is often insufficient—we find ourselves at a loss for words as the saying goes. Hence analogously, just as God is precisely everything other than created, finite beings (and by extension, the concept of God is precisely a concept consisting of an amalgamation of relations by which we conceive that God is not this, nor that, nor that), so too our unconscious is everything other than consciously filtered experience through our private semiosis.

Hence the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious all converge simultaneously to create the presently processed experience of our environments. Deepening our self-knowledge allows us to identify these different strands and how they are functioning at any given moment. Perhaps this lack of self-knowledge or despair of possibly attaining to it in atheistic psychologies has led to the idea that the unconscious inescapably dominates all our behavior. There is truth to the experience that often we seem to lose control of ourselves, that our emotions seem to be out of our control, our thoughts run on endlessly, often laboriously (even St. Teresa of Avila complained about this on multiple occasions). Much of this lack of control for the average person certainly stems from a lack of self-knowledge and the tools to deal with and integrate the different dimensions of our experience. (We might also postulate that this lack of control may be the result of a sensitive temperament that is more attuned to the multiple effects of one's surrounding and/or the result of a sensitivity that comes from ascetic and mystical purification by which one is keenly aware of the different spirits affecting our behaviors, thoughts, etc.; maybe some combination of the above was the case with St. Teresa, whose almost constant contemplation bombarded her soul with new infusions of grace, overwhelming her and overflowing into the bodily dimension of her being, sometimes painfully.) With self-knowledge and discipline, these different dimension can be identified, organized, and trained even on the natural plane.

But first, we need to understand why the process of the constant bombardment of shifting emotions and internal dialogue occurs. To begin metaphysically, all being contains positive and negative dimensions, positive perfections and negative lacks due to its finite structure and the circumstances that may have vitiated its due development towards its final end. Being is simultaneously communicative and receptive, sharing its proper perfections around it and receiving the perfections of other beings, hopefully in ways complementary to its own teleological needs—e.g. rain is necessary for plant growth, but too much rain may drown the plant. Hence we may say there is complementary communication and non-complementary communication (where complementary is understood in relation to aiding a being's fulfillment of its final end).

Our relation to reality encompasses these perfections in an intentional form, and our semiosis communicates these intentional realities and perfections, which in turn constantly are those elements that bombard us. So much of this communication is occurring all the time that it seems impossible for any individual to process all of it, and we know from neuroscience just how much processing our brain does behind the scenes in order to maintain our practical functionality at any given moment. Within this bombardment is the opportunity for help or hurt. It is a common experience that we find ourselves in pain or ambient anxiety, and it seemingly arises from nowhere. Demonic influence and psychological disorder momentarily set aside for theoretical reasons in this analysis, it may very well be that a steady bombardment of non-complementary being has slowly accumulated within our souls, leading to affective experiences of pain, anxiety, etc. It may also be that this accumulation resonates in a certain way with already present stores of past accumulations of pain, going back even into early childhood or gestation. Psychology has been able to show just how influential these formative years are and how devastating they may be if a child is not given a properly nurturing upbringing.

The old children's rhyme about sticks, stones, and words never hurting us is simply a child's denial of a very painful reality, its attempt to gain control over what feels beyond its control, the overwhelming overflow of communicated being (or perhaps non-being in the sense of moral evil) leading to pain. The rhyme then seeks to contain the pain through the use of words, but this misses the point because the child clearly does not have the experience or psychological maturity or discernment in order to properly face such pain.

As different webs and spirals of semiosis accumulate in the soul by forming qualities in the manner of habits—and here I am being more speculative than before—perhaps it is precisely in this way that the soul informs the body in a secondary manner—the primary manner being that the soul provides the basic constitutive framework of this kind of living animal—, in the manner of how quality is respect to form as quantity is respect to matter. Habits, while being qualities in the soul, clearly have physical effects in the body; neural networks are formed in habits, for example. As the soul is informed by semiosic processes, so too the body responds accordingly. And perhaps the movement is reciprocal: as the body is affected by external forces beyond the soul's control, the soul is affected, or at least its full and proper expression through the body. Hence, physical and mental disabilities that impede the proper development and expression of normative human intellectual activity.

Regardless of how the above process works, the accumulations of semiotic webs within the soul, both conscious and unconscious, then lead to qualities that affect bodily development and render certain patterns of behavior easier, swifter, and accompanied by a certain spiritual and bodily delight. The quality of a soul informed by a habit and its subsequent informing of the body renders a person apt for the actualization of these habits, creating what we might call a "resonance."

Just as in acoustics, room resonance depends on the wall matter, sound, and location all interacting simultaneously to create a booming effect, or just as pitch resonances may create sympathetic vibrations when certain conditions are met, when certain semiosic processes converge in a human informed with this habitual quality, a resonance may occur, rendering the actualization of the habit immediate, facile, and delightful, perhaps even overwhelming in a certain sense.

Thus the pain of a person trapped in vice—the convergence of these semiosic processes is nothing other than what is called a temptation. At the moment of this convergence, the communication of intentional non-complementary being creates a certain resonance, striving to activate the soul, whose vicious quality renders it apt for reacting in this vicious way. Thus the psychological experience of the temptation may feel overwhelming.

Similarly, for a person formed in a virtuous habit, when the proper semiosic conditions converge, the virtue is activated, the morally good action executed with delight, sometimes with a deep relish at having accomplished the good, even simple goods.

And just as conditions may create resonance based on the qualitative predisposition of a soul formed in this habit, so too opposite conditions may resonate very poorly if at all in people with the opposite qualities respectively. Hence what used to be a temptation to a soul now is hardly a blip in its habitual, qualitative orientation towards the good; likewise, a stimulus to good may be experienced for a soul trapped in sin as painful, dissonant, and hardly moving. The semiosic communication is jarring with the quality of the soul; the being that is being communicated is not converging properly with the soul informed or disformed by these qualities. We see analogous clashes in the realm of physical organisms all the time, where external conditions and the subjective constitution of an organism or seed do not converge to lead to the flourishing of the organism.

But lest this process seem to be another form of omnipotence, shifting from the unconscious to these semiosic processes, it must be remembered that conscious semiosis in the human is the discursive reason, guiding and directing the will, creating the conditions for freedom. Clearly the freedom of a soul trapped in sin is encumbered but can never be totally destroyed without destroying discursive reason itself. Hence these semiosic processes are both the condition for freedom as well as the possibility for either its hindrance or development, just as water is a necessary condition for the growth of plant life, but too little, too much, or contaminated water will kill the plant. The will must still choose, and the will can direct the intentionality of these semiosic processes, guiding them in certain limited ways, depending on the various conditions, both external and internal. Qualities are supposed to aid the soul in the proper guidance of these processes, in the proper flourishing of the rational aspect of human nature.

Grace enters. We say that grace perfects nature. Grace is a communication in the divine life, a participation, or in other words, a relation. This is precisely semiosis on the divine level, entering through an analogous, accidental, created, physical mode into the soul. Without grace, the private semiosis of an individual would begin at conception and crash into oblivion at death. Grace thus creates a relation between the soul and God and creates an elevation of those dimensions that exist in the soul, giving them an orientation to the divine or at least the conditions that make possible the development of this orientation. Hence the accumulated semioses remain, but grace now offers and provides a "defrag" program for the soul. There is certainly an extent to which the soul may do this itself—the active purifications and ascetical stages of the spiritual life constitute this extent. But the end for which God has made man goes beyond man's natural, immanent capacities, and besides which, the wounds of sin that remain render the accumulation of harmful semioses sometimes overwhelming, something experienced sometimes as loss of total control, addiction.

The conversation, the private semiosis, may now turn to God. God's semiosis enters into the soul; the Trinity makes its dwelling in the heart. The Logos communicates the fullness of the divinity. The Holy Ghost consumes and transforms. The Father guides the soul lovingly, teaching, listening, aiding, assuring.

We also believe there is a Communion of Saints. Communion involves communication, reception, relation, a sharing, a participation. The semiosis of grace extends not only to the Deity but to those who are linked by grace to God.

These are the helps that the soul needs. Nevertheless, those resonances remain, the resonances of already formed habits. The struggle is arduous, but the soul is assured of divine assistance, a true omnipotence, the omnipotence of God and the shared, participated omnipotence of the Blessed Mother, who obtains for us all that we need. The theological virtues create wellsprings, new qualities in the soul, by which the old resonances may be combatted not only on the natural plane but also the supernatural.

Here it must be remarked one particular difficulty people have in allowing grace to establish a new, supernatural quality. Faith is the virtue by which we attain to God as revealed and revealing Truth. St. John of the Cross interestingly argues that living faith alone is the proximate and proportionate means of union with God. What does this mean semiotically? Simply that the semiosis of faith is experienced psychologically as pure emptiness, darkness, nothing except the will's constant clinging to God despite all other competing strands of semiosis in the psyche.

Here we can see why so many people get lost in secondary matters of faith and, although they intellectually adhere or profess to the matters of faith and their extensions to different aspects of the Church and Christian life, this faith doesn't seem to transform them as it ought. For example, focusing on issues, such as the pro-life movement, personal devotions, political topics, like women priests, sexual morality, marriage, or issues of liturgy, tradition, and doctrine—these are all secondary to faith. Faith primarily attains to God and secondarily applies to all else insofar as it stands in relation to God revealing. Hence faith is meant to unite us perfectly to God and not to these secondary matters. St. John of the Cross insists that a person who places importance on these secondary issues is, despite these issues being related to faith, hindering their union with God through faith. The following quotation focuses only on devotions and the Mass, for example:
These people attribute so much efficacy to methods of carrying out their devotions and prayers [....] They put more trust in these methods than they do in the living prayer [....] For example, they demand that the Mass be said with a certain number of candles, no more nor less; or that it be celebrated at a particular hour, no sooner nor later; or that it be said after a certain day, not before; [...] And regarding other ceremonies in vocal prayers and other devotions, one should not become attached to any ceremonies or modes of prayer other than those Christ taught us." (Ascent of Mount Carmel, 3.43.2, 44.4)
St. John of the Cross says the way to the top of the mountain is: nada, the emptiness of pure faith, a total clinging to God in absolute darkness of intellectual and finite semioses. The divine semiosis of faith stands in absolute difference (but not indifference) to all human semioses, and to inject human semiosis into the divine semiosis of faith is to kill faith. Meditation, as St. John of the Cross teaches, is a heuristic process, temporary, by which the soul is actively weaning itself of previous vicious habits and working towards developing virtuous qualities. Think of St. Teresa of Avila's comparison of meditation to drawing water out of a well with a bucket. Meditation simply frees up the soul to a sufficient degree so that its accumulated semioses may not get in the way of the divine semiosis of faith because it often is the case that our accumulations stifle and mute faith without our even intending it to. Perhaps more precisely we should say our accumulations stifle and mute the expression and development of faith but not faith itself; otherwise, it would be impossible to remain in a state of grace unless we were already perfect! No, God, seeing our weakness, accepts the conscious intention of our will to adhere to the faith, and this is sufficient for faith to remain in the soul. Nevertheless, this state is only the beginning, and it's easy for the individual, so accustomed to created, finite semiosic processes, to confuse the divine semiosis of faith with these other finite processes, which extend to our conceptions of the Mass, of the Pope, of what the Church really should look like, and even what our spiritual life should look like. As long as we cling to human semiosis, we hinder faith.

To repeat: meditation is not a clinging to human semiosis, but an efficient tool to redirect human semiosis to free the soul of its accumulated vicious qualities so that these accumulations don't completely stifle and freeze the flowering of faith in the soul. Meditation should be leading us to become more and more humble and detached from our private conceptions and semiosis and becoming more and more attached to God, conversing with Him, remaining recollected in Him, not ourselves, going out of ourselves as St. John of the Cross would say, forgetting ourselves.

Someday, by God's grace, we shall attain to that state where our private semiosis is directed by the Holy Ghost perfectly, so that although we experience reality with our accumulated past and individuality, it is filtered and subsumed harmoniously and without resistance by the divine semiosis of Christ: "And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20).

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