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!


Jeremy Rios

Jogging and Spirituality: Three Ironies

For the record, I run with New Balance shoes.

For the past several years, my spirituality has been profoundly shaped by jogging.

There is nothing novel about this connection between exercise and spirituality—it stretches back to the New Testament where Paul likens the training of the body to the training of the soul (1 Cor 9:24-27). In this, it stands within the tradition of asceticism in the Church—to benefit the soul by denying the desires of the body. Exercise, as the self-denial of comfort, is today the most widely accepted asceticism in our world—praised for its benefits to body and mind (although most often, given our widespread vanity, to body).

When I jog I give a dedicated time, two to three times a week, to silent, solitary activity. I don’t listen to music, and I don’t run on a treadmill in front of a television. Free, thus, from distractions, I find this to be among the most rewarding times of thought/prayer in my life. I do my best thinking while I jog, I find that I write better sermons when I’ve jogged during the week, and now, when I need to work through an idea, I think to myself, “I need to go for a jog about this.” My thought, spiritual, and prayer lives are shaped by this regular exercise.

Sometimes my thoughts are more reflexive than others, and on several occasions I have found myself ruminating on the direct connections between spirituality and jogging. I find there to be a number of jogging truths that are also spiritual truths, poignant in part because each of them stands opposed to our natural human habits; each is a lesson that must be learned, and is not intuitive. Hence, I would like to share the following ironic truths about both jogging and spirituality.

Note: I look nothing like this man when I run.

1) Run hard uphill, run gently downhill. Our natural inclination is to run slowly up a hill, and to run quickly down one—to allow gravity to have its way whether going up or down. But an irony of running is that it is better to press yourself going uphill, and rest yourself going downhill. If you run slowly up the hills, you will grow quickly weary, often discouraged, and the hills will seem to be unending. If you run quickly downhill, you will give yourself the impression of speed without the reality of training, and you risk the danger of injury because of the loss of control that comes with downhill running. Instead, the runner needs to learn, against the grain of his instinct, to push through the hills, and to slow down, resting, on the downhills. When this practice becomes our new instinct, replacing the old one, we will have even, successful runs.

The spiritual application is direct. There are uphill periods of our faith, when prayer, devotion, and church are a painful slog, and downhill periods in our faith, when these practices are a joy. Out of instinct we retreat from spirituality when it is difficult, and wait for it to be easy to do its duties. But this is a disastrous spiritual path, because it is precisely when your spiritual journey is most difficult that you most require your spiritual disciplines—prayer is most important when most difficult. And it is a deception to believe that we are spiritually ‘fit’ when, in reality, we are only enjoying the ease of a spiritually ‘downhill’ period of life. And the ironic truth is that the most rewarding times of our faith are not when our faith is easy, but rather when faith is difficult and we remain obedient. Hence, each period of difficulty in our faith is a time to press ourselves, and each time of ease is a time to rest ourselves.

2) Control your breathing all the time. Human instinct tells us to breathe heavily when we are out of breath, and to breathe normally when we are not. But jogging effectively means breathing regularly throughout the duration of the jog. In other words, don’t wait until you’re out of breath to breathe. When we wait to be out of breath, our breathing is shallow and quick—we gasp, rather than breathe deeply, and don’t get the most out of our oxygen. A marked and controlled breathing pattern evens the heart rate and keeps the mind alert during a jog.

Once again, the spiritual correlation is direct: we must not wait to be out of ‘spiritual breath’ to breathe. If we wait until we are spiritually worn out, tired, and beaten to seek the necessities of our faith we will not get the most out of them. We will have shallow devotions because hurried and desperate, rather than anchored devotions. Our devotions, in other words, will be shaped by our anxieties, rather than the other way round. We spiritually breathe during peaceful times, so that we can breathe effectively during trying times. Regularity and evenness in our devotional and Church lives is essential for our faith.

Quitting, of course, has little to do with one’s best.

3) Resist the temptation to quit. This principle composes a significant part of every jog. The first five to ten minutes are miserable, and every part of you aches to quit. The middle is usually when a jog is enjoyable, although some days—in heat or cold or rain—they are terrible as well. And when nearing the end, closing in on whatever finish line you have established, a small voice creeps in to say, “You can quit sooner, you’ve done this much, after all!” Resisting the urge to quit, then, is what jogging—and asceticism in general—is really about. In fact, I find myself, despite all the good I get from jogging, coming up with excuses to put it off—being tired, other things to do, the weather, etc. The decision to jog, then to keep jogging, then to keep on jogging, then to jog to the set finish line, is a continuous war against the quitting, inertial self. Laziness is the state my body enjoys the most, and jogging is a matter of putting that laziness to death.

Once again the spiritual connection is one-to-one. And the rule is this: that bodies physical as well as spiritual are subject to inertia—the temptation to give up—and that this is a temptation that must be staunchly resisted. Before each soul stands duty and the beckoning call of obedience, but within each soul is an inertia that cries out to quit and be left alone. Choosing God, like choosing to jog, sometimes means choosing against your judgment, against your feelings, and against your will. But it is here that, in fact, we train the will, because obedience is only obedience when it is chosen, and not when it is accidental. And therefore we must learn to choose God before we start for the day, during the first five minutes, then when our day is easy, and especially when the day is at its difficult end.

Of this ‘end’ I have a regular line of thought that runs through my head at the close of every jog. I see my finish line—a certain tree or driveway up ahead—and immediately think of the end of my life. I am tired, my breathing is difficult, I want to quit, but the question that prods me forward is, “Will you quit your faith at the end of your life? Will you give up on your devotions when you are aged and decrepit? Will you stop praying when thought becomes difficult?” And in response to these proddings I press myself to run faithfully to the finish of my course, living, through each jog, a small parable of my future spiritual life, with the will to remain faithful to the end of my life.

Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life

Portraiture, as an art form, seeks to encapsulate the character, rather than merely the likeness, of the subject in question. For some subjects this is more difficult than others—in some cases the public charisma of the individual hangs like a cloud between the artist and the subject. In other cases, the subject shiftingly squirms in the chair. Such a subject, on both counts, is Martin Luther King Jr., but Marshall Frady presses through these difficulties in his admirable 2005 biography of King, succeeding in painting a difficult, compelling, literary portrait of one of the best recognized figures of the 20th century.

King’s likeness is difficult to capture for both of the above reasons. In the first place, King has been elevated to the level of a cultural icon; he has been sanctified by culture, and now the clouds of devotional incense that mark his sanctification obscure the original man. Nothing, after all, serves to cover a man’s faults quite like his becoming a hero. Consequentially, his iconic face has been largely ripped from its historical moorings. As a cultural symbol King’s face now represents ‘hope’ in much the same fashion that Che Guevara’s represents ‘freedom’—both faces divorced from the men who lived behind them; both figures elevated to supra-human stature; both figures become masks that movements wear to ascribe to themselves meaning and significance, the original personalities remaining only in silhouette. Such stature, and the hopes and dreams that are attached to the man, cast an obscuring veil between him and his memory.

But the second reason why King’s likeness is difficult to capture is because the man himself, without any help from history or the culture that followed him, wore obscuring masks of his own making throughout his life. King’s public image was of a minister of the gospel, a moral figurehead, a family man, and a brilliant thinker and rhetorician. But King’s private life was vastly different—we discover, through Frady, concerns about King’s ministerial call; was it genuine, or merely inherited from his father? We discover that he drank and swore in private, committed serial infidelity, and even plagiarized portions of his dissertation. This duality in King’s life is so severe that one comes to feel that even his famed and exalted rhetoric was itself a veil obscuring the man. In the end, we discover that King’s public face was a projection of what he wanted us to see, an edited persona for public consumption. And these twin factors—King’s elevated status and his own self-editing—make the innerworkings of King’s heart almost inscrutable.

Nevertheless, Frady navigates these difficulties with skill, and succeeds in giving us a picture of a man who was both great and terrible; who led a nation through a time of crisis, and whose private life was a shambles. And yet the most rewarding outcome, perhaps, from reading Frady’s account was the manner in which the arc of King’s life becomes instructive, as a negative example, for any life of leadership, and especially of leadership in the Church. From that life I want to make the two following observations.

1) As a minister, your life is rhetoric. The simple principle here is that if your character does not accord with the content of your message, then your message is invalidated. One does not lead by position alone, but chiefly by example. King, while he was living, was mostly able to hide his indiscretions and infidelities, and yet discovery of these things would have meant the discrediting not, primarily, of King, but rather of the Civil Rights Movement itself. As a leader, King’s life was rhetoric. And so the discovery that the great preacher drank and swore in private, that he slept around and liked to talk about it with his inner circle, that discovery revealed would have been deadly to the man’s image and his goals, not to mention the people he represented. As it stood, King lived in genuine fear of these discoveries—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (out of pure malice, I should add) spied upon and threatened both King and his family with the information he had gathered. The result for King was added fear—not only did he have enemies who hated him for his work in the Civil Rights Movement, but he needed also to fear the enemy of the double-life that he had created himself. This fear, sadly, was not enough to motivate King to change his ways.

The tensions and stresses of life as a minister/leader are manifold, and one of the key ways to manage these stresses is to commit oneself to a life that is harmonious—consonant between outer and inner personae. Such a life is not subject to the consequent fear of self, and as a result is better able to manage the stresses of the work of ministry.

2) Power does not create, but rather magnifies, temptation. This is also a simple, but often overlooked principle. You cannot wait until you are in a position of power to deal with the temptations in your life, because the position will only magnify your preexistent temptations. James 1:13-15 says that no one should lay temptation at the feet of God, but rather recognize that it is our own evil desire within us that is enflamed and leads us toward death. Temptations, then, are like fault lines in the human soul—they are there, and when the stresses increase we discover that we are tempted along those deeply embedded fractures in our personalities. The stress fractures are small enough when we are not leading, but become great rifts as we are drawn into the pressure of public life.

King was subject to the trebly intense pressures of leadership, public expectations, and the figurehead-ism that accompanied the civil rights movement. Additionally, he was under the added pressure of his own hidden life. It is also clear that King mismanaged the elation of success—the powerful, drug-like euphoria that accompanies public successes and adulation. Hence, as the pressure in King’s life increased, his recourse to sinful activities also increased, such that on the night before his assassination, after a successful evening meeting, he embarked on what Frady calls “a final, all-night release into carnal carousal,” directing the energy of success into sleeping with two, and possibly a third, of his mistresses consecutively until dawn (203).

There is an urge to lay these temptations, and King’s submission to them, at the feet of the pressures he was under, and yet no one is to blame for how King acted other than King. He himself had managed his inner life poorly. He himself had surrounded himself with people who accommodated, rather than challenged, his private choices. And the lesson for ministers and leaders today remains the same: if you do not learn to manage the small temptations, you will certainly be unable to manage them when the pressure of being a public figure mounts. And furthermore, if you do not establish channels of accountability in your life, no one will help to keep you accountable.

King’s life leaves us with a troubling rumination—is the so-called ‘great life’ that flashes on our television screens of real lasting value when the actual man, the private individual, is so inwardly tortured and personally destructive? There may never be a satisfactory answer, and yet, as it stands, King’s life is like the buoy that alerts a sailor to a hidden reef, a flashing light to the danger that lies below the surface of ministry, and especially of ministry with power.