lust

Wow. Provocative title, huh? Must be blog “sweeps week” or something.

Actually, it’s just the next of the vices Saint John of the Cross discusses in The Dark Night. (The online translation of this book refers to the vice as “luxury,” which is an interesting twist. The passages I quote on my blog are from the text available from ICS Publications.)

Spiritual persons have numerous imperfections, many of which can be called spiritual lust, not because the lust is spiritual but because it proceeds from spiritual things.

According to John, spiritual lust can have its origin in three things: the pleasure human nature finds in spiritual exercises, the devil, and the soul’s fear of impure feelings.

So just how can lust be experienced in the midst of spiritual experiences? John explains it this way:

Since both the spiritual and sensory part of the soul receive gratification from that refreshment [in spiritual exercises], each part experiences delight according to its own nature and properties. The spirit, the superior part of the soul, experiences renewal and satisfaction in God; and the sense, the lower part, feels sensory gratification and delight because it is ignorant of how to get anything else, and hence takes whatever is nearest, which is the impure sensory satisfaction…

This frequently happens at the time of Communion. Since the soul receives joy and gladness in this act of love — for the Lord grants the grace and gives himself for this reason — the sensory part also takes its share, as we said, according to its mode. Since, after all, these two parts form one suppositum, each one usually shares according to its mode in what the other receives. As the Philosopher says: Whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the receiver (cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.79.6). Because in the initial stages of the spiritual life, and even more advanced ones, the sensory part of the soul is imperfect, God’s spirit is frequently received in this sensory part with the same imperfection. Once the sensory part is reformed through the purgation of the dark night, it no longer has these infirmities.

So the idea seems to be that until the senses are purified by the dark night, one receives spiritual consolation in an imperfect way, since the senses are still disordered in some way. One of the more interesting consequences of this teaching has to do with human relationships:

Some spiritually acquire a liking for other individuals that often arises from lust rather than from the spirit. This lustful origin will be recognized if, on recalling that affection, there is remorse of conscience, not an increase in the remembrance and love of God. The affection is purely spiritual if the love of God grows when it grows, or if the love of God is remembered as often as the affection is remembered, or if the affection gives the soul a desire for God — if by growing in one the soul grows also in the other. For this is a trait of God’s spirit: The good increases with the good since there is likeness and conformity between them.

John seems to make plenty of room for friendship in the spiritual life. I’m making a mental note of all of this, as one of my writing projects is a book on friendship as a means to holiness. I notice in particular the even-tempered way in which he talks about the vice of lust. The tone of John’s writing is very different from that of Saint Augustine, who, when speaking about the body and human friendship, at times seemed to suffer from the residue of his prior association with the Manichean dualists of his own day (I’m referring to some passages in The Confessions). This is not to say that Augustine didn’t experience freedom from the errors of his past. He certainly did, as evidenced in passages such as this:

Blessed are those who love you, O God, and love their friends in you and their enemies for your sake. They alone will never lose those who are dear to them, for they love them in one who is never lost, in God (Confessions, IV, 9).

At any rate, John does not spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling on the vice of lust. Before you know it, he’s discussing the next vice: anger.

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