Saturday, July 11, 2020

Cassian and Merton Part 1: The Balance of Carnal and Spiritual Desires

Why are our thoughts so mobile?  Why can't we control them? . . . Well, yeah, it takes strength that we don't possess, [you] put it that way.  That is a tendency, there, to look at it as a strength that we do not have.  We don't have the power to control it [the distractions of our carnal desires].  I think Cassian looks at it in a slightly different way, though.  See, we think in terms of power, have I got the power to control these things?  Cassian looks at it, rather, from the point of view of balance.  He doesn't so much say that we don't have the power,  it's that we're not in the right "spot".   If we were balanced, properly, that is to say if our nature were not unbalanced, see that's the thing that we're human but we've got an unbalanced human nature.  If our nature were perfectly balanced, we would be able to control our thoughts with much less difficulty.  There would be much less distraction, there would always be some distraction but there would much less.  The explanation of that is this:  see, we say the desires of the flesh and the desires of the spirit, normally you would say that it is good to follow one of those sets of desires and bad to follow the other set of desires, what you have to do is follow the good ones and avoid the bad ones.  Which ones are the goods one and which ones are the bad ones?  . . . You shouldn't necessarily follow either, you should follow both in the proper degree.  What Cassian considers is not so much that here we are, completely passive, dragged in the direction of the "flesh" and hoping to be dragged in the direction of the spirit, it's kind of dependent on which way we get dragged.  On the contrary, in between, in the middle between flesh and spirit, see both of these are ardent natural desires.  We've got natural fleshly desires which are perfectly alright, they are good, except that they are a little bit disordered and we've got natural spiritual desires, which are also good.  In the middle, in between these two is placed our freedom and our intelligence.  What Cassian considers is that the important thing is to develop a balance and a stability of the freedom and the intelligence.  One is place in the middle and is able to choose.  Now this is pretty much the concept that the Greek Fathers have of human nature and the human struggle.  They consider the spiritual part of man, they call it the hegemonikum, that is to say the "driver", the controller, the one who is in command, the pilot.  In the depths of one's being there is this illuminated intelligence and freedom which is supposed to make choices and to choose wisely between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the spirit.  One chooses enough of the desires of the flesh to maintain the natural, for example you have to eat, but you don't eat too much, you eat enough, so forth, to keep life going. . . . At the same time, one must also not go overboard in the desires of the spirit, either.  The great thing is to preserve the balance so that one is in command of both and uses both.

Salvation does not consist simply in being carried away by desires of the spirit--that's a very important point. We'll get back to that in a minute. What the implication of this is why are our thoughts so mobile and unstable?  The answer to that is not that we are constantly giving in to the desires of the flesh when we should give in to desires of the spirit but that we are sometimes pulled in the direction of the flesh and sometimes pulled in the direction of the spirit, so that we're swinging like a pendulum from one extreme to the other and, then, therefore, we're in perpetual motion.  Now, this is a very smart way of looking at this and it is the ancient, traditional way of looking at man in the monastic setting and it is the way monks ought to look at things.  It is completely impractical to go through life imagining that we are going to be constantly having spiritual desires whipped up to a white heat and that we are constantly going to be filled with intense conceptions of divine realities.  These come occasionally but that's not what perfection consists in.  Perfection consists in this enlightened freedom which maintains balance in the middle of the two and goes in the direction of God and goes in the direction of truth and love, by means of these things, which are given to us as mean[s].

Each time that I listen to Merton saying the above I think about how one can be monastic and "Charismatic" (in the practice of the Charismatic Renewal).  I find a conflict because I have so much experience of the Charismatic Renewal as very much focused on both "spiritual desires" and on the grace of the Holy Spirit to the exclusion of what I do in the spiritual journey.  I don't think, necessarily, that the monastic is opposed to "life in the Spirit".  I do think that one of the reasons that the renewal faded in the West is that it was focused on fervor, way too much on feelings, which led people away from the Spirit--they were dragged toward "carnal desires" through their emotionalism and "feel-good"ism.

This is why I like the written basis for BSC, which includes the integration of the charismatic and the contemplative through the Cross.  Unless we pass through the suffering (the "Passion") of the Cross of Jesus, through the doorway into the "kingdom of God", we get dragged one way or another.  In the case of the Charismatic Renewal, I think the active decadence of the "West" combined with the practical emphasis on arousing "feelings" left people drifting toward the corrupted appetites of the flesh, like eating one piece of a chocolate bar for the anti-oxidative effect but then wanting and eating another and another and, then, here is gluttony in full bloom.  On the other hand, the desire for spiritual fervor also left people out of balance and, thus, more susceptible to the eight demons.

So, I think the path is through the Cross, because then as I practice the charismatic and the contemplative on that path I stay balanced, I don't attempt to appease my appetite for fervor, as all the time that I am on that path I am suffering redemptively.  JPII talks about "freeing freedom" and I think this is it, to stay on the path of the Cross as it frees me ("redeems me") to maintain this balance.  That's really what the covenant promises (and vows) help us to do, to suffer redemptively so that we can stay balanced, that we can integrate the apparent opposites, and avoid the temptation to the fervor that unbalances us and, thus in the end, enslaves us.

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