Asceticism of the Mind

Forms of Attention and Self-Transformation in Late Antique Monasticism

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Inbar Graiver
Studies and Texts 213
  • Toronto, ON: 
    Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies
    , September
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $80.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780888442130.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Asceticism of the Mind: Forms of Attention and Self-Transformation in Late Antique Monasticism by Inbar Graiver is a brilliant study dedicated to the theme of self-formation in late antique monasticism. Although it deals with demonology, the monastic self,and spiritual exercises as elements implicit to the ascetic discipline, at the book’s core is the mental exercise of attention as a prerequisite to achieving a purified mind. Moreover, this mental training correlates to the ideaof cognitive research of attention. Asceticism of the Mind attempts to establish a relationship between cognitive psychology and late antique monasticism and, from this perspective, marks a valuable and original contribution to theological studies.

The book opens with an extensive introduction providing background on the chapters that follow. By doing so, Graiver establishes his methodology for examining therole of attention in late antique monasticismas well as hiscentral argument: the ascetic discipline of attention can be better understood if we look to the cognitive research and psychological practice. From this perspective, Asceticism of the Mind illustrates the practical relevance of neuropsychological and cognitive neuroscience for understanding the way in which “the mind and its operations were understood and articulated within the explanatory model of monastic anthropology” (24). Graiver’s introduction is persuasive and full of insight.

With the addition of an introduction and conclusion, the core of Graiver’s book is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, “The Ascetic Self,” provides the historical background of the ascetic self in the late ascetic tradition, especially in Alexandrian and Evagrian anthropology. Briefly, the mind is created in the image of God, and therefore capable of union with God. In pursuing this end, the mind of the monk must be transformed through a set of spiritual exercises, especially the mental training of attention. So Graiver suggests that “monastic asceticism assumed that humans can be improved by ascetic practice and become masters of their own mind and experience, in order to align themselves with God” (59).

Chapter 2, “Control of the Self,” is devoted to examining self-control in the antique monastic discipline. A core premise of this chapter isthat self-control—or the practice of directing attention inward—developed along with spiritual progress. Therefore, this mental control is a good starting point for better understanding of the ascetic demonology using the tools of neuroscience.

Chapter 3, “The Challenges of Attentiveness,” examines the challenges involved in achieving ascetic inner transformationand emphasizes that the thoughts (logismoi) played a fundamental role in antique monastic tradtion. Therefore, the key to mental training and ascetic behaviour is the capacity to control one’s thoughts. The author suggests that ancient spiritual exercise of attentiveness can be retrieved in the forms of modern cognitive.

Chapter 4, “The Besieged Mind” surveys the theme of the besieged (lat. obsidere—“obsession”) mind and its significance in late monastic antiquity. In this chapter, Graiver explains the peculiar terminology and essential features of the demonic siege (obssesion) in the ascetic practice of self-formation. The author points out that ascetics were permanently besigeged by demons. By juxtaposing modern psychology with ascetic demonology, this chapter seeks to contribute “to formulations of the cognitive mechanisms involved in attention regulation” (129). 

Chapter 5, “Removing the Blockage”, covers the topic of self-disclosure as a therapeutic device, designed to remove the blockage of thoughts (logismoi)—especially the obsession. In this context Graiver draws on cognitive research, and her conclusion highlights that neuroscience underscores the complexity of ascetic psychology. Specifically, she asserts that brain neuroplasticity is a good place to begin understanding the complex process of the ascetic mental training. From this perspective, the book is very welcome given that this relationship between neuroscientific research and monasticism is almost absent in modern scholarship.

Finally, the author concludes that “neuroscientific research lends support to the hypothesis that the strategies of focused attention employed by late antique monks, could serve as powerful tools for healing dysfunctional thinking patterns” (182).

A detailed bibliography and index complete this competent and innovative volume.

In my opinion, this is an excellentand visionary work, remarkable in its insight. Indeed, the implications of the study presented in these pages are extensive and will be of interest to scholars across a wide range of interests and disciplines.

Undoubtedly, Graiver’s provocative reflection on the relationship between neuroscience and asceticism will provide the impetus for further investigations. Written by an eminent scholar, Asceticism of the Mind is equally valuable for research and education and will be an indispensable reference for theologians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Lemeni is Associate Professor in Eastern Spirituality at West University of Timisoara, Romania.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Inbar Graiver is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Faculty of Theology at Humboldt University, studied philosophy, comparative literature, grammar, and general history before she completed her doctorate in medieval and late antique history at Tel Aviv University. Her current research is devoted to the ancient, late antique, and early Byzantine history of psychological knowledge and the processes related to its production, dissemination, and application. Her articles have appeared in The Journal of Early Christian StudiesThe Journal of Religion, and The Journal of Cognitive Historiography.

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