On Sober Intoxication by Fr. Dr. K M George

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Presentation at the International ConferenceSudarshanam 2014

Building Bridges between Spirituality and the Science of Mind

Santhula Trust Hospital, Muvattupuzha, November 2014

by Fr. Dr. K M George

 On Sober Intoxication

The paradoxical expression “sober intoxication”(nephalios methe in Greek) was probably coined by the great Jewish Diaspora scholar Philo of Alexandria who wrote in Greek in the 1st century AD, and then adopted by some of the early Christian theologians. This phrase is obviously an oxymoron because sobriety and intoxication normally do not go together. In this connection,  the ancient Christian theologians refer to the unusual experience of the first disciples of Christ gathered in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Christ waiting for the coming of the Holy spirit. As the Book of Acts describes it:

” When the day of the Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”(2:1-4)

The crowd gathered there was astonished  about those amazing  things happening to the disciples of Jesus, who had been crucified as a criminal. Some sneered and said they were filled with new wine.

Then Peter  the leader of the apostles stood up and made a speech. He said that they were  not drunk as some supposed for it was only 9 o’clock in the morning (Acts 2:15). Then he quoted prophet Joel, who had prophesied  that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh and that  their sons and daughters would prophesy ….

The pouring out of the Spirit of God creates an ecstatic experience which could be misinterpreted as  the result of drunkenness. Some Christians even today misuse this gift  it for fraudulent purposes. Therefore the Church has evolved principles for discernment. Although the genuine work of the Spirit may sometimes seem to be  out of the normal and  even  eccentric,  it produces  a very high degree of sobriety, good sense, wholesomeness of personality and  human relations. It  is always edifying and not  confusing or destructive. Hence the expression sober intoxication.

Let me give two patristic testimonies from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) and St. Ambrose of Milan(340-397 ) who explained the Scripture passage regarding the Pentecost experience of the Apostles who were gathered together with the holy Virgin Mary and other faithful in Jerusalem. St. Cyril told the group of Catechumens:

“They are not drunk in the way you might think. They are indeed drunk, but with the sober intoxication which kills sin and gives life to the heart,  and which is the opposite of physical drunkenness. Drunkenness makes a person forget what he knows; this kind, instead, brings understanding of things that were not formerly known. They are drunk in so far as they  have drunk the wine of that mystical vine which affirms: ‘I am the vine , you are the branches’( John 15:5).

( Lecture 17, Catechetical Lectures).

St. Ambrose exhorted the newly baptised Christians to be intoxicated with the Holy Spirit:

Every time you drink, you receive the remission of sins and you become intoxicated with the Spirit. It is in this sense that the Apostle said,” Do not get drunk with wine… but be filled with the Spirit. He who becomes intoxicated with wine staggers, but he who becomes intoxicated with Holy Spirit is rooted in Christ. How truly excellent is this intoxication which produces the sobriety of the soul”. (Hymn 1.7.23-24 Splendor Paternae Gloriae).

Let me highlight a few points from the patristic  reflections on the theme:

  1. Human beings are created in God’s image and likeness according to the Genesis account in the Bible. Human destiny is to be like God, to participate in God’s nature and be divinized. Human nature as created by God is underscored by this glorious beginning and final divine destiny. Historical existence of human beings is meant to realize this magnificent vocation. Image of God is at the same time a gift and a task.

Some of the Fathers of the Church interpret the scriptural word ‘image’ as the gift granted at birth to human beings, and ‘likeness’ as the task of accomplishing this gift through their life on the earth. Though the learned Fathers knew that, in the book of Genesis this phrase appeared as a Hebrew parallelism, their theological point of view and interpretation generate a very rich meaning, particularly  in line with the  Eastern Orthodox understanding of humanity, its nature and vocation. Here is a very positive approach to the infinite potential granted to human beings in all freedom and the enormous responsibility placed on them for their ethical and spiritual efforts in this world. Human beings should strive for the realisation of God’s image and likeness in them. So it is never a question of either or, this-worldly or  other-worldly, as it is usually thought. In the Orthodox tradition the historical and the transcendent dimensions are integral to each other. The body and the soul are not opposed to each other but, as St Gregory of Nazianzus says, they are ” fellow servants” ( homodouloi) in the search for transfiguring this world and attaining ‘theosis‘ or deification.

  1. All human struggles in the world to reach this ideal are befuddled with many temptations. We run the risk of sidetracking and losing all ground because we are free human beings. God has endowed us with freedom which in an absolute sense qualifies God’s own nature. So we need to choose between good and evil, between life and death, between being and non being. To some people freedom is a burden because it involves a very heavy responsibility. As the 20th century existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once said: ‘We are condemned to be free’. But for the Christian tradition particularly in the Eastern patristic legacy of the Cappadocian Fathers and others, freedom is the greatest blessing given to us human beings.

The danger involved in our struggles consists precisely in seeking short cuts and alternatives to realize the image and likeness of God. Drugs, alcohol and similar sources of pleasure are resorted to by many people as easy and immediate means to reach the transcendent experience. It is known that drugs and alcohol produce immediate and apparently  supra-normal experience which gives some  high degree of pleasure and delight. But it is also known to us that this is a passing, momentary experience which can instantly degenerate into impropriety , bitterness, animosity, violence, depression suicide and so on…

This is the consequence of the ordinary experience of intoxication. There is probably a search for transcendence in a spiritual sense in the case of some, but it can easily be misdirected and miscarried. One may remember the sensational exodus of many western youth in the turbulent 1960s and 70s to India and to the East in general  in search of gurus who, they thought, would initiate them instantly to spiritual intoxication through certain yoga practices, tantric techniques, transcendental meditation etc. Most seekers were disillusioned. The   genuineness of their search cannot, however, be questioned though they often resorted unawares to unwholesome means. It is the same with certain art forms, literature and aesthetic trends. One needs to exercise discernment. That is why the Christian patristic  tradition adds the adjective ‘sober’ to intoxication. In the worldly sense of intoxication by dubious means it disregards and destroys  human reason, a fundamental gift of God to humanity. To lose reason (logos) means to become irrational (alogos). Irrational is the adjective that qualifies all creatures except human beings who alone is the rational, wise creature (homo sapiens). So to seek any form of intoxication that is not accompanied by sobriety producing the fruit of the Spirit like love, joy, peace and gifts like the power of  healing, reconciliation and discernment  is to follow the  irrational nature at the level of animals and not of human beings in God’s image. (It should be mentioned that the mention of ‘irrational nature’ or animal behaviour cannot be used to denigrate  all creatures created by God other than human beings. Although deprived of the freedom to choose and driven by instinct, these so-called irrational creatures never overstep the predetermined domain and purpose of their instinct. An animal becomes violent to human beings only for self-protection. It cannot invent or use weapons like a pistol or a nuclear missile to eliminate fellow beings or to exterminate a whole race. They remain within the intended frame of instinct). Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruit. Intoxication is judged by its fruits depending on whether it produces fruit of sobriety and virtues or loss of reason and acts of destruction.

  1. In Indian languages , it seems, one does not come across any expression equivalent to sober intoxication. I venture to translate it as ‘Subhodha Lahari’. A similar experience in the Indian tradition is ‘ananda‘. In the climax of ananda one forgets one’s self and completely transcends the consciousness of the self and world-reality as dual or multiple. So true ananda is the experience of union between the human and the divine. Its ecstatic state transcends all that is of great value at the material ‘vyvaharika‘ level. It is a radically new consciousness which is also an enlightened consciousness. So we may connect the whole idea of enlightenment with the sober intoxication of deeply spiritual human beings who intensely search for Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

In the Eastern Christian tradition the practise of vigil, literally obeying the exhortation of Christ to be wakeful at all time, is to produce  a state of mind similar to that  of  enlightened awareness in India. In the night prayer of the Orthodox Syrian Tradition, there is a petition: ‘ O Lord, who is ever wakeful and never sleepy, wake us up from our slumber of sin so that we may celebrate your wakefulness’. It might be useful to be explore  the fruitful connection between the Eastern Christian idea of sober intoxication with the Indian idea of  enlightened awareness by means of the biblical-liturgical  concept of wakefulness or vigilance as a major theme of spirituality.

All efforts on the part of secular organizations, religious institutions and  healing centres to curb and eliminate addiction and substance abuse must necessarily be accompanied by active introduction to positive religious resources for understanding and experiencing the genuine spiritual inebriation. In the Christian tradition, authentic ways of appropriating the gifts of the Spirit in the context of true worship, sound faith and committed  service to humanity without falling into the trap of merely emotional, noisy and shallow ‘fellowships and healing crusades’, need to be promoted.

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(Fr Dr K.M.George, Director, Sopana Orthodox Academy, Mar Baselios Dayara (Monastery, Njaliayakuzhy, Kottayam. Email:  frkmgeorge@hotmail.com; sopanaacademy14@gmail.com Mob +91+944 75 98 671).