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The Dysfunctional Stages of the Interior Life

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | Jun 17, 2015

The PBS American Experience series is fascinating. From Teddy Roosevelt to Vietnam and beyond, the producers report events from various points of view with an admirable attention to historical facts. One such production, “The Summer of Love,” is the story of hippies converging on the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco during the summer of 1967. It recounts the countercultural sexual revolution in the service of anti-Vietnam War politics (or perhaps vice versa).

To my eye, the “Summer of Love” is an excellent example of a dysfunctional inversion of the traditional “Three Ages of the Interior Life.”

The Three Ages of the Interior Life (as presented by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.) is foundational to Catholic spiritual theology. The first “age” (or “stage”) is the Purgative Way. With God’s grace, sins and sinful inclinations are identified and renounced. The next age is the Illuminative Way. With God’s grace we begin to penetrate the mysteries of our faith in prayer with greater clarity and understanding. The final Unitive Way is the mystical union of the soul with Christ anticipating everlasting life. The natural progression links good morality with faith and prayer.

It’s not hard to see how an interior life formed in this way is the personal version of the development of the culture of a healthy society: Godly communities establishing just laws and enforcing reasonable cultural taboos for the promotion of happiness as well as communal self-defense.

Apparently without an explicit awareness, the “Summer of Love” documentary provides a useful template for the interior life of Godlessness. With Catholic eyes we might call the template The Three Ages of the Godless Life: 1) the Party Stage; 2) the Pervert Stage; and, 3) the Pathetic Stage. And with every Age it becomes increasingly difficult to change course with repentance.

The “Party Stage” is a total lack of sexual and social inhibition. The gathering in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 was unprecedented. The “free love,” promiscuous sex, mind-altering drugs and rock-n-roll were truly revolutionary and drew large numbers of young folks from all parts of the country. Yet the beginning of the “Summer of Love” is instructive because variations on the theme are experienced by many in every generation, inclined as we are to sin.

The Party Stage thrives today on most college campuses. It is rowdy, promiscuous and can be terribly destructive. Nevertheless, many pass through this stage relatively unscathed, “dodging a bullet” as it were. Others, temporarily sucked into the maelstrom of debauchery, may emerge as “damaged goods” (mostly psychologically and spiritually), but recover in a functional way. Family upbringing and the sting of a working conscience often play a part. In addition a good culture with its own rules—involving social disapproval or the long arm of the law– can compensate for a defective conscience. Thus for the most part, the Party Stage is soon exhausted and, with sobriety, the erstwhile “party animal” moves on with a modicum of respectability. In short we “grow up” according to prevailing cultural conventions.

As with the return of the Prodigal Son there should be cause for celebration when the Party Stage is renounced. However some—“cursed by the memory” by their sins—feel compromised and disqualified to weigh in against the party lifestyle they themselves once led. But the fact of repentance should include a Catholic sense of “reparation,” the need to repair past wrongs, usually requiring some vocal opposition among family and friends—and morally expressed in the voting booth. There is the need for prudence, of course with respect to mortal sins. The “seal of Confession” is hard-wired to protect reputations. Those who have obtained or participated in an abortion, for example, need not be self-revelatory in opposition going forward, but they should at least steel themselves against discouragement or resentment when reminded of their pro-life responsibilities.

The participants in the “Summer of Love” in 1967 however, didn’t grow up. They quickly moved on to the next stage. Attributing the “free” food, the “free” clothing, the sharing of drugs and illusion of “community” as the “good fruits” of the Party Stage, their raucous, promiscuous and drug-induced behavior became normative and prescriptive, emotionally sustained by acid-rock quasi-liturgical music. The Party Stage debauchery was not thought of as a “fling” or temporary. The “wild” behavior really was thought to be part of a sustainable revolution in human consciousness. Conscience or cultural taboos were not allowed to disrupt the process. Even the laws of human nature could and should be suspended. This, the “Pervert Stage,” not only includes sexual perversion, but all that comes with living a life that calls the abnormal, “normal” or evil behavior, “good.” Of course, the party animals hope the party lasts forever, if the parties are carefully managed: the TGIF party mentality; the functional alcoholic; the discreet adulterer. But it’s more likely the fast track perversion is replaced by a “long march,” spiritual desolation and a hardening of hearts.

The Pervert Stage can also be found in varying versions in every generation. It is the stuff of pronounced selfishness and a narcissism that comes with a pathological inability to see ourselves for who we are.The man-child who never grows up, spending more time at the corner bar than with his family, is living the unnatural Pervert Stage (even if there is no sexual misbehavior). The guy using porn is similar to the guy on the stool of the corner bar; he’s quiet and easy not to notice, but he’s in deep trouble and so his family. Then there is the “dirty old man”—not necessarily of the underclass, but frequently of the upper middle class: After a life of chasing women, he is still leering at young women (who despise him, unless he’s wealthy); or his counterpart, the wealthy woman whose features are virtually paralyzed after a dozen facelifts. Others, usually with the renunciation of religion, are able to live reasonably functional lives while engaging in serial adultery and other forms of promiscuity.

There is something to the cliché that the eyes are the windows to the soul: lust-ridden eyes; the piercing greedy eyes of the habitual “on the make” Wall Street hustler; the lifeless eyes of the dangerous psychotic. (In a frightening account of the genocide in Rwanda, a reporter described the lifeless eyes of the killers as “shark-like.”) But the eyes of those in the Pervert Stage may suggest a flicker of awareness of a need for a change of life—the eyes of a deep sadness or even desperation. Nevertheless conversion is increasingly difficult for those in the Pervert Stage.

The trajectory of the “Summer of Love” of 1967 sheds light on the destiny of the Godless life. The Party Stage morphs into the Pervert Stage but—without repentance—it quickly devolves into true horror. The final stage for the hippies became filth, disease, homelessness, hunger, and drug addiction: relentless human degradation. In this final stage only the intervention of civil authorities and charity groups would prevent an absolute collapse, destitution and death. This describes the “Pathetic Stage” of the “Summer of Love,” the logical outcome of the Pervert Stage. (It is fascinating that, despite the evidence of degradation, many aging hippies today express genuine nostalgia for the era and consider it a model for human love and freedom. Their influence continues to be felt in academe, government, and even in our churches, and seems to demonstrate the difficulty in conversion after a life of perversion.)

The natural aging process for those in the Pervert Stage is harsh. Years ago a repentant homosexual wrote that aged homosexuals are not at all welcome in gay bars because their presence is a depressing reminder of a pathetic destiny. In recent years, at age 90, a female comedian who had been very funny in her prime changed her humor to include obscenities and once again became the “life of the party” among Hollywood types. But they left a clear impression they were laughing at her, not at her jokes, because her obscene preoccupations were pathetic at her age. She became an old pervert.

Ironically consumer and high-tech society often have the effect of prolonging the Pervert Stage. Advances in medical science and technology can enable the behavior by providing a temporary safety net, whether it involves the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases or drugs for behavior-related chronic depression. Accumulated wealth has a similar effect. The wealthy—such as Hollywood celebrities—often have the financial means to prolong their debauchery (large alimony payments; child support; treatment centers; etc.) But, due to their celebrity status, their behavior becomes widely accepted as normative. When it trickles down to the underclass it is ruinous: broken and destitute families; jails; overcrowded psychological wards. Hollywood scandal (for that matter, the evil behavior of the cultural elites) is a significant factor in the extensive breadth and misery of the Pathetic Stage.

In truth, the “Three Ages of the Godless Life” could always be found in individuals or certain social groups as a Godless phenomenon and process. Dumping grounds of family wreckage, the prisons and drug-treatment centers are not only perduring evidence of the final Pathetic Stage; they are outward signs of chronic and habitual sins so ingrained in the soul that the possibility of repentance seems remote. (Some suggest calling evil “good” may be the mysterious and dread “sin against the Holy Spirit.”) But in our time, entire cultures and nations are following the same self-destructive path blazed by the aging proponents of the 60s sexual revolution. Ireland has become the first nation to approve by democratic vote “gay marriage” and has formally moved from the Party Stage to the Pervert Stage. Ireland’s laws will no longer provide a cultural firewall to evil behavior of this type– and, eventually, all the degrading sexual behavior that derives from the “right” to “gay marriage.” And prominent churchmen—apparently not even a rudimentary prophet among them—have clearly surrendered their moral authority to the demands of “Godless democracy.”

Of course, the Pervert and Pathetic stages cannot be sustained in the long run, whether economically or from the point of view of the pleasure principle itself (with suicide as the only Godless means to deal with the pain). All that remains is envisioning the shape of the Pathetic Stage. The “Summer of Love” with its final destitution and degradation provides us with the clues—but with Western economies on the brink of a monetary collapse, governments may be unable to come to the rescue.

We are not without hope. The door to the Purgative Way, as always, remains open.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. Father Pokorsky also serves as a director and treasurer of Human Life International.
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  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 18, 2015 9:18 AM ET USA

    An excellent developmental psychology of sin. Keep up the great work.