Remembering Restraint

BEWARE It’s not the prettiest of the spiritual disciplines, and at this point in history, it’s not the most fashionable. Of course, restraint has had its heyday—there was once a time when becoming a saint meant taking on all kinds of ascetic practices, moving out into the desert, living as a hermit on a few crumbs a day.

But those days are gone. Now the pendulum has swung in another direction, and that’s brought important facets of faith back into play—we’re more inclined to think about the world as full of God’s presence, and to perceive the created world as important to God—as we should. We tend to think of the things we receive as blessings from God, and if we think about our appetites at all, we generally just try to regard the things we use to satisfy them with gratitude. Only in their most extreme distortions do we regard the appetites as dangerous.

John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, has been relentlessly reminding me off the cost of allowing our appetites to run free. At Randy Harris’s suggestion, I’ve been digesting John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel a few pages at time, and I didn’t have to wade very far into it before it got challenging. John considers one of the first steps in the spiritual journey to be the mortification of the sensual appetites (think broadly about what these are, by the way). He allows no quarter for prisoners on this matter:

“As the tilling of soil is necessary for its fruitfulness—untilled soil produces only weeds—mortification of the appetites is necessary for one’s spiritual fruitfulness. I venture to say that without this mortification all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground. Accordingly , darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished. The appetites are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision.” (1.8.4)

and later on he pushes even further:

“Manifestly, then, the appetites do not bring any good to person, Rather they rob one of what one already has. And if one does not mortify them, they will not cease until they accomplish what the offspring of vipers are said to do within the mother: While growing within her that eat away at her entrails and finally kill her, remaining alive at her expense. So the unmortified appetites result in killing the soul in its relationship with God, and thus, because it did not put them to death first, they alone live in it.” (1.10.3)

John doesn’t mince words here: in his view the appetites serve no good in person’s spiritual journey, and to progress we simply have to be done with them. That may sound harsh, and it probably serves a good bit of nuancing, but I’m not so sure that it isn’t closer to the truth than our naive way of approaching our appetites. Don’t you share the same suspicion that I do; that our progress in the spiritual life stalls out at precisely that point where drive for satisfaction overtakes our desire to pursue the Lord?

I’m not sure that John’s way should be taken as absolute…but I am absolutely convinced that he points us in the right direction, because it’s a way that resonates with the story of Jesus. Jesus didn’t abandon the world or scorn creation, and neither was he a man without appetites…but in the end, he mastered them. Jesus enjoyed creation and community, but never worshipped any object of his appetites. In the end, Jesus was a man of full self-control, a man full of the dignity of restraint, even in the shame of the cross.

Perhaps it’s time that we follow him by remembering restraint, and learning again the discipline of dissatisfaction.