12 November 2017

Again! Again!


The 5th of 15 in a Series of Meditations on the 15 daily intentions offered by members of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity.

We pray for a right ordering of our sensuality. In all of these intentions, this was one of two I had to look up (the other being "Affectivity"). This one is very subtle.

The world around us, we know from Genesis, is created to be good. Something broke in the Fall however. We are in a broken world: and part of that brokenness is not only caused by our own sinfulness, but is exacerbated by it. What feels good to us... we don't know if it actually is good or only feels good because of the fallen world in which we live. We must judge things not on externals, but rather by the teachings of the faith. Take pecan pie, for example.


I love pie. Pecan pie is my favorite. I could eat a whole pie. It's so rich, unctuous, sweet, crunchy, and chewy all at the same time. Yes, "Whole pie", but really maybe 3 pieces: because after 1, the sugar rush sets in which will be followed by the sugar crash. The second slice only gives a boost to the sugar rush which only means it will be worse when the crash comes. The third slice is nearly suicide. One ounce of pecan pie is 117 calories. I make that to be about 800-1000 calories per slice.

But it tastes SO GOOD. It feels SO GOOD in the mouth. That's our disordered sensuality running amok, telling us that it feels good so we should do it again.

There's a scene in C.S.Lewis' Perelandra where the Earthling, Dr Ransom, the force for good in the plot, discovers a fruit on Venus (aka Perelandra) so filling and refreshing that he eats one or two with gusto. Then stops. It's not time to eat again. He spends several minutes meditating on the discovery that he's stopped doing things just because. On the other hand, Professor Weston, the force for evil in this book, wants to keep doing the same things over and over again because they're fun. Eat all the fruit, kill all the easy-to-slay animals, ruin everything because it will just come back again (like pulling off a starfish arm just because it will grow back again). The discussion of what is good once - but not good a second time - is a crucial plot point.

The general counter-argument is that we are Free in Christ to do whatever we want. But that is not Christianity. We are free in Christ to answer one question over and over: do I submit to the will of God? A positive answer to that question (repeatedly given) will, of a course, eliminate much that might otherwise be a "free choice". One is not free in Christ to continue to sin. Dr. Ransom realized that what was otherwise good (and what might be good again in the future) would be silly at least, wrong somehow, and maybe even damaging if repeated right there, in the moment, in the early Venusian dawn. This is the initial point to this intercession about our sensuality: feeling good is not a command, or permission to continue to do it.

Following the commands of our senses is not a sure way to determine the will of God for our lives. "Following your bliss" is a certain path to damnation.

This initial point is only an initial one. 


What we know about our brains at this point in our evolution is that there are things called "reward pathways" and that these can get misdirected rather easily by repeat actions. What you do, I once heard, for 21 days straight is a habit forever. That's not entirely true, for I quit smoking after 20 years of a pack a day and then some (and worse if I was out drinking). But I still crave a cigarette from time to time, still want to indulge. My 20 year habit, though certainly held in check, is not entirely defeated.

We know this same process of reward pathways to be part of other addictions as well, be they mental, physical, emotional, or even spiritual. There are other components to addiction, of course, although a surprising number of them get covered in the 15 Intentions (they will be noted as we meditate on each one). I think, however, this sensuality issue is root. 

Our human tendency is to run away from pain and find something that feels good - and then do it. Christ calls us to "take up our cross and follow". That doesn't sound like a pain-free option: quite the contrary, in fact. Carrying a cross is exhausting; being nailed to it more so, of course, but it's the carrying that we are commanded to do. This is not part of "follow your bliss" nor part of "do your own thing". And even though the Vatican 2 Documents are very strong in their teaching about the primacy of human conscience, they are equally strong that conscience alone is not enough: it must be a conscience formed by the Church's teachings. (Spoiler alert for Meditation 12.)

This is why we ask that our Sensuality, our desire to enjoy our senses and to relish the sensory input, be "Freed by wisdom and inflamed for what is good." This goes along with the last meditation on our five senses, of course. We see and taste and hear sensual things all day long. There is nothing quite wrong with that. In fact, to follow the Apostle's command to give thanks "in all things" we should be celebrating how wonderfully awesome everything is. But if you see beauty, and then stop to consume it rather than holding it up to God in a continual act of Eucharist, then you've gone too far. We should rejoice in the Eucharist - not in the thing. We don't celebrate the taste of Communion wafers, or of Eucharistic wine, for itself.

My favorite moment in Handel's Messiah comes in the last 4 measures of the final movement, the great Amen. There are 8 beats of silence that proceed the last two Amens. So the experience is very much:

Amen! Amen!
...
...
...
...
...
...
...
...
Amen! A--(Trumpet flourish here)----MEN! 

In that astonishing apophatic absence, I can hear all of eternity singing so loudly that I cry. Light opens, angels are there, such communion, such joy; it's beyond words, beyond silence, beyond... 

Invariably a few neophytes will start to clap in there. Sometimes the conductor will turn around with a pained look. I've heard one conductor remind everyone at the top of the show to not applaud there. 

A live performance of the entire Messiah is worth the silly sound of claps in that silence. Still, I have three or four different versions of Messiah that I can listen to. Which I do from time to time, finding that bliss right there worth the 2 hours or so of musical prep that lead up to it. Still, I've learnt from experience that it's not worth only the 8 minutes of Amens. In fact, those are rather tedious when done on their own. And certainly don't cut to minute 7 and wait for the silence. But we can do those all we want, over and over, right? Only if I want to rob those 8 beats of bliss of all their power, all their awe. You need everything from the preceding three sections to make it actually happen. Anything less is just musical onanism. Repeated often enough, it eventually, it robs the moment of all its power.

Yet done right: there is an emotional frisson when the opening notes of the Sinfony as I remember what will come later.

We do that to ourselves all the time: watch our favourite movie clips on YouTube, only eat the best parts of Thanksgiving (even it means wasting all the other parts of the meal), demanding that the silences in Mass be shorter, covered up with organ music like some old soap opera, and let me just look at naked pictures on the internet, why bother having relationships?

If our impulses (to follow the feel-good things) are freed by wisdom and inflamed for what is good, than repetition is probably not going to happen. What is good for Dr Ransom just now is not what is good a minute from now: if he follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he will be lead to a new Good, a new moment of spiritual bliss - that may be, in fact, hand to hand bloody combat with the evil presence in the story, Prof. Weston. It is the realization that such pain might be the next good thing that will make us stumble.

Again, as noted, we tend to run from pain. The curious thing is that running from pain doesn't lead to more good: it always only leads to more running. Fleeing what was very painful, trains us also to feel from what is only somewhat painful, which in turn causes us to run from what is only sorta painful. Until, at least, we flee from pain only by sitting in our addictions, aware perhaps that we are hurting ourselves somewhere, but we can't feel it yet so it's ok.

What if our sensuality exulted in the thing that God has put before us - like the brain that solves one part of the crossword and jumps instantly to the next to solve that as well. What if our sensual enjoyment was aroused by the colors of vestments, the sound of chant, the pathos of the Psalms, the romanticism of candlelight and incense? What if we let our experience run freely through the Church Fathers rejoicing in the uncovering of unexpected symbolism in the scriptures and the spiritual growth they spark?

That's the sensuous life to which we are called. If you've spent all of your life thinking that Central Park is "the wilderness", your first experience of the canyons, peaks, and silences of the Rockies can be a bit scary. But if you run back to NYC for the safety of the Sheep Meadow, you'll never see Big Horns butting on the cliffs... or a few feet away


St Ambrose calls us to remember that we share in the Kingly Vocation of Jesus:
That man is rightly called a king who makes his own body an obedient subject and, by governing himself with suitable rigor, refuses to let his passions breed rebellion in his soul, for he exercises a kind of royal power over himself. and because he knows how to rule his own person as king, so too does he sit as its judge. He will not let himself be imprisoned by sin, or thrown headlong into wickedness. (St Ambrose, quoted in the Catechism, ❡908)
What is the point, really, if your impulses rule your life? If you have no impulse control, how dependable are you? If you are not dependable to yourself how much less to others, to God?