What is the vice du jour? Gluttony. The word may have gone out of fashion, but the practice of it is alive and well in our culture, and John of the Cross shows us how it may cross over into our spiritual lives.
Many, lured by the delight and satisfaction procured in their religious practices, strive more for spiritual savor than for spiritual purity and discretion; yet it is this purity and discretion that God looks for and finds acceptable throughout a soul’s entire spiritual journey. Besides the imperfection of seeking after these delights, the sweetness these persons experience makes them go to extremes and pass beyond the mean in which virtue resides and is acquired. Some, attracted by the delight they feel in their spiritual exercises, kill themselves with penances, and others weaken themselves by fasts and, without the counsel or command of another, overtax their weaknesses; indeed, they try to hide these penances from the one to whom they owe obedience in such matters. Some even dare perform these penances contrary to obedience.
Such individuals are unreasonable and most imperfect. They subordinate submissiveness and obedience (which is a penance of reason and discretion, and consequently a sacrifice more pleasing and acceptable to God) to corporeal penance. But corporeal penance without obedience is no more than a penance of beasts….
Some reach such a point that the mere obligation of obedience to perform their spiritual exercises makes them lose all desire and devotion. Their only yearning and satisfaction is to do what they feel inclined to do….
Since they take gratification and their own will as their support and their god, they become sad, weak, and discouraged when their director takes these from them and desires that they do God’s will. They think that gratifying and satisfying themselves is serving and satisfying God.
So even physical penances and expressions of prayer can be a sign not of mortification, but of self-indulgence and willfulness. It’s a twist on that catchy hymn, This Day God Gives Me, that includes the verse “God’s way is my way.” I remember leaving the seminary chapel one time after a liturgy full of political agenda, singing to myself, “my way is God’s way,” which is what the liturgy ultimately meant in the way it was celebrated.
Indeed, anything undertaken with a willful spirit, rather than one of obedience to God and to those who have been entrusted with care of our spiritual lives, can be detrimental.
John does a nice job of exploring the implications of this gluttony for our attitude at the sacred meal of the Eucharist:
In receiving Communion they spend all their time trying to get some feeling and satisfaction rather than humbly praising and reverencing God dwelling within them. And they go about this in such a way that, if they do not procure any sensible feeling and satisfaction, they think they have accomplished nothing. As a result they judge very poorly and fail to understand that the sensory benefits are the least among those that this most blessed Sacrament bestows, for the invisible grace it gives is a greater blessing. God often withdraws sensory delight and pleasure so that souls might set the eyes of faith on this invisible grace. Not only in receiving Communion, but in other spiritual exercises as well, beginners desire to feel God and taste him as if he were comprehensible and accessible. This desire is a serious imperfection and, because it involves impurity of faith, is opposed to God’s way.
It is a sort of spiritual narcissism that aims at receiving consolation for oneself instead of receiving the Other in the darkness of faith. When we have this attitude, we tend to take detours from the narrow way that leads to life:
Those who are inclined toward these delights have also another serious imperfection, which is that they are weak and remiss in treading the rough way of the cross. A soul given up to pleasure naturally feels aversion toward the bitterness of self-denial.
I think that this is one of the reasons that The Passion of the Christ is rankling the consciences of so many; it’s a message we don’t care to receive. (As an aside, I am working on an article now about The Passion and the many hostile responses that have been expressed. My working title is: Art, The Passion and the Culture of Death: A Crisis of Receptivity.)