As I prepare an Ash Wednesday address for next week in Salisbury I am drawn once again to the counsel of St John of the Cross (surprise surprise!). In particular the distinction he makes between the ‘natural’ and ‘voluntary’ appetites. I include below some of my address which I am presently editing for ‘Picturing the Soul’ that Dharmaram will publish in the summer. I still find this the best way to approach the mortifications and process of Lent… really the ‘redirection of the appetites’ to that which is life-giving and sustaining.
Following earlier postings these last few weeks have seen an increase in light and warmth as spring starts to take hold. George Mackay Brown, as I stated a few weeks ago, saw 1st March as the beginning of Spring. So I wish you all a very Happy Spring and a very Happy Lent. May it be a time of great renewal and wonder as we return to the sources of life.
‘Chapters 3 – 13 of The Ascent of Mount Carmel present John’s deepest account of what he terms los apetitos – ‘the appetites’. At first sight his definition of them seems largely negative:
For the sake of a clearer and fuller understanding of our assertions, it will be beneficial to explain here how these appetites cause harm in two principal ways within those in whom they dwell: They deprive them of God's Spirit; and they weary, torment, darken, defile, and weaken them. (A 1.6.1)
The appetites are wearisome and tiring because they agitate and disturb one just as wind disturbs water. And they so upset the soul that they do not let it rest in any place or thing. (A 1.6.6)
Yet to see John’s anthropology of los apetitos as largely negative, as some commentators have done, is, I would argue, to miss out on the subtlety of his approach to human nature. The first distinction to draw is the difference John makes between what he terms ‘natural’ and ‘voluntary’ appetites. The former, he informs us ‘are little or no hindrance at all to the attainment of union’ (A 1.11.2) for ‘to eradicate the natural appetites, that is, to mortify them entirely, is impossible in this life’. Thus, as with the anthropology of the desert fathers and mothers, to which we have seen John is heir, there is a basic substratum to our human nature that cannot be eradicated. These passions are there and are to be seen as part of what makes us human. John, never talks about eradicating the appetites, but always redirecting them, John is not, as some commentators suggest, advocating destruction of the self, but transformation of the self. So, just as the natural appetites will remain and cannot do harm, the voluntary appetites, the consent to the natural appetites, will have to be redirected.
To help clarify this we could translate what John is attempting to describe here into contemporary psychological language. Here I am helped by a letter written in the 1960s by the British Benedictine Bede Griffiths. Writing to a friend of his, Dr Mary Allen a Jungian analyst, Bede Griffiths makes some startling analogies between the psychological insights of the twentieth century and the ancient Christian ascetic traditions of the desert fathers and mothers. For Bede the life of prayer is essentially a ‘reordering’ of the unconscious through the reflection of God’s love: ‘The point is that though these sins (Pride, Lust etc) are largely unconscious: our will has consented to them. This is the mystery of original sin’. Much of the life of prayer then, becomes for Bede, a purification of the unconscious on this radical level:
We are all by nature under the power of these forces of the unconscious… these forces may be kept down, to some extent a kind of balance established, and that is the normal human condition, but it is very inadequate. (Griffiths 2005:4)
Struggling with the forces of the unconscious we have two choices – to repress them or to give way to them in an undiscriminating fashion – ‘becoming slaves to passion’. The first option, so common in the West, represses these forces so much that we become slaves to them, in which case we are controlled by the all-controlling, all-powerful, all-knowing ego. ‘The average Christian’ says Bede, ‘simply represses the unconscious like everyone else and lives from their will and reason’. However, in baptism in Christ we have entered the deepest depths of the unconscious to allow their purification:
It is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious. Baptism is a descent beneath the waters, a conflict with Satan (in which the soul is mystically identified with Christ) in which the daemonic powers are defeated and the healing powers of the unconscious are realised to give birth to new life. (Griffiths 2005:6)
This, for Bede, is what should happen in our Christian life – ‘The Holy Spirit should penetrate to the depth of the unconscious to the ultimate root of being, and transform us.’
As a practising psychotherapist I can attest to the truth of Bede’s words in my daily dealings with clients. So many of us, especially in the West, lock up the forces of the unconscious and are terrified of opening up their contents (often with good reason), alternatively we see around us total unconscious ‘acting out’ of the destructive unconscious forces of the psyche. The Life of Christ penetrating into the darkest depths of the unconscious can bring liberation and healing in a most unexpected and profound way. The goal, following Bede, is to bring about a marriage of the conscious and unconscious, the male and female, animus and anima in which each is preserved and reintegrated in Christ.
In contemporary terms, then, we can see John’s ‘natural appetites’ as equivalent to the Freudian or Jungian ‘unconscious’ (which we shall return to in the following chapter), whereas the ‘voluntary appetites’ are equivalent to conscious choices arising out of deeper unconscious motivations.
Yet, over and above his seemingly harsh counsel, is John’s gentle exhortation that the end to which we strive, the redirection of the appetites, will only be achieved through ‘the other stronger love’ that comes from God:
A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better love (otra inflamación mayor de otro amor major), (love of the soul's Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure. By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites. The love of its Bridegroom is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with urgent longings of love is also necessary. For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other, more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor to enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them. (A 1.14.2)
John recognises a profound insight here that only by this otra inflamación mayor can we be moved to tackle the steep and rough ascent of Mount Carmel which is the redirection of the appetites. We do not fight the will or the ‘love of pleasure’ (Freud’s ‘pleasure principle’) rather we strive to cultivate the ‘other, better love’ which will ultimately lead our appetites back to their true home in God.
To conclude, contrary to many popular misconceptions of John’s doctrine, he does not disparage the things of the world but rather our attitude to them. In as much as we are ensnared and enslaved (like a bird, he says, with its leg held by a thin wire, unable to fly) we will never be able to find the freedom we desire. A brush of the wing, he says, is necessary to remove these disordered appetites.
John’s counsel of non-attachment is a counsel for redirection of the will, and by so doing, a working on the deepest levels of unconscious desire and attachment. A reordering of self away from a centre of gravity based on the hungry ego and its insatiable demand but towards the eternal freedom and love that is life in peace with Christ. For John, negation is no end in itself but rather it is a negation which arises from the ‘other stronger love’ of God. This, for John, and Ignatius, is the only process that will ultimately lead us to the ‘place we know not’: the place of the theological virtue of faith.’