Dear James (B)–Medieval Wisdom and Lust

Dear James,

I’m pretty sure I understand your concerns about the lurking Catholicism and implicit medievalism in the practice of fasting and the language of Gluttony. There is, of course, nothing wrong with things that are specifically medieval. For whatever their liabilities, theirs was also an age which seemed to know a great deal more about the interaction of the body and soul. And I hope we’re both sufficiently self-aware to evaluate beliefs on their intrinsic merit, and not on their association with a specific time period. Where the medievals were right we ought to agree with them, learn from them, and utilize their thoughts as a corrective to our own, distorted age. It’s the same with things we might consider more “Catholic” than others. Whatever the liabilities or merits of Roman Catholicism, we would be foolhardy to assume that all Catholics throughout all of history are to be dismissed because of the errors of some Catholics at some points.

In this, it seems to me that our Medieval Catholic friends showed extreme wisdom in highlighting what today we know as the Seven Deadly Sins. Not because there are only seven sins, nor because we ought to rank sins as a way to measure how good we think we are. No, what the medieval mind shows is a kind of comprehensive awareness of those things which have power to keep us from the fullness of life in God—Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Greed, and Pride. Ignorance of the means by which these things can keep us from God is not a strength on our part. Similarly, medievals had a robust conception of the body and the need to mortify it for the sake of our enriched life with God. Just this morning I read in Walter Hilton that “The flesh must be chastised, with discretion, to atone for past sins, and to restrain sinful inclinations, and to make the body obedient and compliant to the soul.” Note the strength of his claim—the body must be chastised. Your faith will remain infantile until some sort of physical mortification has taken shape in your spiritual life. But note the immediate appeal to discretion—we mustn’t go too far, or exceed our body’s capacity to benefit from the activity. And note the ultimate purpose—that we are striving to make our bodies “obedient and compliant to the soul” That, with concision, seems to me precisely what this season of fasting is really about, and illustrates nicely why it is at such places that we must study at the feet of our medieval, Catholic masters.

You are right to observe that by identifying sexual indiscretion as a sin of Gluttony I must therefore mean something much more nuanced by Lust. I still hold the first assertion to be true, if only because a significant part of our growth in faith and awareness of sin is the business of disambiguating the motivations of the heart. Many people who have committed sexual indiscretions may think they’ve committed a sin of Lust, when really they’re in the grip of Gluttony, sinning against both pleasure and time. They would sin less, not by denying their sexuality, but by both building up their temperance and striving to savor those pleasures which are appropriate for the given time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something intrinsically sexual about Lust, but I think the heart of the sin is placed somewhere different.

For me, the essence of Lust is in the privilege it gives to our animal nature. In Lust, my desires (and, specifically in focus, my most animal, instinctual desire—the desire to procreate) are granted decision-making power over my will. The result is that by privileging my animal nature over my spiritual I begin to deny my humanity. Lust, by fixating on desire, reduces me to nothing more than my desires. Sub-human, then, I am crippled in my capacity for relationships. By privileging personal desire above all else, Lust makes me supremely selfish.

I think it’s interesting that when we look at the creation of human persons in early Genesis we see a kind of recipe for the human creature—dirt, plus the Spirit of God. We are material (earth), and spiritual (God’s breath), at the same time. This is the central thing that sets us apart from the rest of creation. When as human creatures we are operating rightly, then the spiritual is in a position of governance over the material. But when we begin to privilege our animal desires and give them precedence over our spiritual ones, then we break the human creature and death is a necessary consequence. In this very specific sense, the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin of Lust—of the privileging of animal desire (for fruit, for knowledge) over our spiritual selves (in submission to our maker). In this, it seems of especial note that our Lord’s first temptation centers on food, and that his answer to the devil was that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fasting, it would appear, is about getting our humanity back in the right place—it’s like a scheduled tune-up for the human machine.

Fasting is therefore extremely useful in addressing Lust. However, we must be careful not to turn it into a kind of cure for Lust—or indeed for any sin. There are two things to say about this. First, we mustn’t think that by engaging in spiritual activity we can merit specific spiritual merits. What I mean is that we can’t bargain with God by saying, “I’ll fast in this way if You’ll fix me with regard to sex.” That’s not the point of fasting, and that’s not how things work with God. (And yet I wonder how often these attitudes creep quietly into our thoughts when we’re fasting!) To be fair, there will always be some spiritual benefit for all intentional acts of spiritual self-discipline, but we don’t get to determine what those will be. The best thing that can happen—especially during a time of fasting from food—is that I might gain a new sense of quiet patience before the Lord, a submissiveness, a prayerfulness. From that quietude, perhaps He will work in me something unexpected, like a desire for greater kindness, or a conviction of a certain unkindness. It can be anything! But better attention to the Word of God seems to me the sole and pure motive of fasting—I starve my belly so that I can open my ears.

Second, while fasting is useful against Lust, when we use fasting to try to “defeat” sin then we open the door to self-pity. Think of it this way. When we make our fasting penance for sin, then in addition to turning it into a bargaining chip with God, we also interrupt the central process of quietude and attentiveness to God. Our focus is upon our selves and upon self-evaluation when we ought instead to have been listening to God. And so long as our attention is self-focused in fasting, the snake of self-pity writhes in our subconscious. Hunger becomes quiet self-acclamation. Sin generates a need for further self-focus. The simple truth is that fasting in itself cannot defeat sin. Fasting opens us to God, and it is God alone who defeats sin. And so long as we are seeking some other thing through fasting, then we are interrupting the very process which might actually change us.

I wonder if the positive virtue which best aligns against Lust isn’t contingency. If, in Lust, there is a temptation to depend upon my own desires as determinative of my identity, then wouldn’t it be answered by an awareness of my true, deeper dependency upon God and God alone? “Man does not live by bread alone.” Fasting seems to me one of the best ways to go about getting that relationship sorted out. Additionally, if this disordering of my desires in Lust creates selfishness, then the other positive area of focus would be intentional relationships and acts of sacrificial service. Anything, in short, that can get me out of the echo-chamber of my own desires.

Please lay aside any concerns about our correspondence. I’ve always looked forward to your letters, and it seems to me that this Lenten season has given us a perfect opportunity for just this kind of discussion about sin, fasting, and goodness. As always, I hope it will continue to be mutually beneficial!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Discussion

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