Thursday 7 June 2012

Desire, the powerful enemy of the soul

Reflection on The Letter of James 1:13-16

13No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 
14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 
15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 
16Do not be deceived, my beloved.

There is a popular school of thought which suggests that the major world religions are basically moral codes, guides about how you should live your life, with supernatural bits more or less artificially tagged on in order to reinforce the point. Certainly history can show us examples of rulers of states or heads of families who, irreligious themselves, encourage religion in lesser mortals as a way to ensure their obedience and compliance with the rules. No doubt too there are many practitioners of religion, including religious leaders, who embrace their faith first and foremost out of a love of order, hierarchy, obedience. I think these all miss the point.

Virtue and morality are not burdens that we take upon ourselves to please a demanding and vengeful God. Vice and immorality are burdens that we shed in order to travel more easily towards a realm of perfect love and pure light. The desire for self satisfaction through possessing for oneself material objects or intense sensual experiences or other persons produce more fetters for our bodies and souls than any number of self sacrificing or self denying acts. Jealous anger, frustrated desire, contemptuous disregard for the needs of others these are the things that make of our days a torment and of our desires a prison. It is only when we leave them to one side that we can truly begin to experience a sense of freedom.

Religion, in the Christian sense, is primarily about a relationship of self giving love and the more freely and fully we can give it then the more fully, and fulfillingly, can we receive it. Each desire for selfish goods is narrow and circular, beginning and ending with ourselves, and so limits our potential to receive what is wide. It is not by taking on a moral code that we can come to know God, it is by knowing God that we can take on a moral code which aids us to know Him better and love Him more, a love primarily expressed through serving and loving our neighbours whom He also loves with a perfect love.

The mystical Theologia Germanica has this interesting passage  

If there were no self-will, there would be no proprietorship. There is no proprietorship in heaven; and this is why contentment, peace, and blessedness are there. If anyone in heaven were so bold as to call anything his own, he would immediately be cast out into hell, and become an evil spirit. But in hell everyone will have self-will, and therefore in hell is every kind of wretchedness and misery. And so it is also on earth. But if anyone in hell could rid himself of his self-will and call nothing his own, he would pass out of hell into heaven. And if a man, while here on earth, could be entirely rid of self-will and proprietorship, and stand up free and at liberty in the true light of God, and continue therein, he would be sure to inherit the kingdom of heaven. For he who has anything, or who desires to have anything of his own, is a slave; and he who has nothing of his own, nor desires to have anything, is free and at liberty, and is in bondage to no man.

This, I think, clearly makes the point that the primary cause of our spiritual sufferings is not that an unjust God forbids us to be gluttons or serial adulterers or possessors of unjustly acquired wealth. The primary cause is that we desire to possess when happiness, in truth, consists of letting go. This is the clear example that Jesus sets us, as laid out in Philippians 2 by St Paul-

 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

The image of God the Son leaving behind the glory of heaven to become not only a human but a human born into poverty is a sign that we too need to leave all to obtain all. A similar image is also, perhaps, contained in the story of  Prince Siddhartha leaving his palace and kingdom in order, eventually, to become the Buddha. The one desire that brings us happiness is the desire to love perfectly and to be perfectly loved. All other desires are lesser and will lead us not to lesser happinesses but to greater unhappinesses.

Note. The title of this piece is from a line spoken by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita 3:43 "Know Him therefore who is above reason; and let his peace give thee peace. Be a warrior and kill desire, the powerful enemy of the soul."
All scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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