Descartes said, famously, “I think therefore I am.” But 400 years later we make distinctions between thinking, feeling and experiencing. So, is thinking the quintessential human act? This is a very deep and perplexing philosophical question — and philosophers use thinking to analyze thinking, an obvious tautology.
I went on a retreat this weekend, led by Father Greg Homeming OCD, a Carmelite priest. He cast some new (and old) light on this perplexing question. In the 16th century a Spanish priest, John of the Cross, used a different approach to describe what it means to be human. He used appetites and desires to explain different human experiences, including thinking but also others. An appetite is just what it sounds like — for example, the capacity to recognise and respond to the desire for food. We have many appetites, which lead to different desires: The appetite of curiosity, which leads to the desire to know, and thus to thinking. The appetite to love others, which leads to the desire to care for someone. And so on.
All appetites are good because they are built into us as human beings. But the desires that arise from these natural appetites, says John of the Cross, can be ‘disordered.’ A good example is the desire for food, which can become obsessive, leading to various disorders like obesity and anorexia. The question is, how do we give ‘order’ to our desires? John’s view is that desires must be ordered to serve God’s purposes for us, as a human and as a unique person. In other words, John has a view of what a human being is — we are enfleshed spirits ‘made in the image and likeness of God.’ As such John sees God as establishing the principles we ought to follow in giving order to our desires.
In practical terms this means discerning when one of our desires blocks our freedom to make good choices. When the desire for food becomes disordered we can no longer make good choices about eating. Worse, the compulsion to eat begins to interfere with the rest of our desires and all the choices we make in our life. We live to eat and everything else in our life begins to be dominated by this ‘addiction.’ This includes our higher spiritual appetites as well, like the desire to know God and follow His purposes for us. This is why John says that we need to do some work on our dis-ordered desires in order to be able to have more freedom to pursue the spiritual appetites and desires that are also in our hearts.
If you are still with me, you are probably saying, “OK. Makes sense. But how do I know if my desires are ‘disordered’ — I’m not an addict — and how do I change my desires if they are disordered?” Father Greg said something pretty simple but also profound. “Just assume that you are like every other human being and that some of your appetites and desires are disordered and keeping you from being free to relate more closely to God.” That made a lot of sense to me. I have often thought that I’d like to relate to God more closely, and even started down some path of increased prayer and spiritual practices — only to find that my usual life kept interfering and ultimately snuffed out this higher desire. Something is obviously going wrong. As St Paul said, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do, and not do the things I want?” The answer lies in these disordered desires that take away from my freedom to know and follow God!
So how can we change this? Again Father Greg had a simple yet powerful answer. “Be aware when you desire something. What you desire may be perfectly OK, like a cup of coffee. But, just to strenghten your general control over your desires, say no or defer that particular cup of coffee.” Simple practices like this — not doing things that you want, or doing things that you don’t want to do — will begin to give you more freedom in all your choices, especially the freedom to relate to and follow God. That, of course is the age-old wisdom of self-denial, stated in down-to-earth, practical terms.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Mark 8:34] And Jesus also said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:30] The hope that Father Greg gave me was that, by simple, incremental steps of saying “no” to or deferring something I desire, I can increase my strength and freedom to follow Jesus.
I also recognized this weekend that one of my disordered desires is the desire to know — constantly feeding my appetite of curiosity, rather than actually experiencing the life that God is putting in front of me daily. God sends grace to us so that we can live more abundantly. But because I am living so much in my head, I am not living abundantly, particularly when it comes to relating to and serving others. I need to remember what the Zen Buddhist Master said, when asked by his pupil how to follow the right way, “Chop wood; carry water.” Do what is in front of me. Discipline my desires, especially my desire to know more and more. Be aware of God’s constant presence and pray. “Be still, and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10]
As St Paul said,