Why do we desire what is bad for us?
We need to learn 3 lessons about our appetites.
Well, it’s August, and I find Christmas is on my mind. Surprising? Well I am thinking of Christmas now because I have reflected on the role of appetite in spiritual life.
Here’s what I mean: A family told me about their eldest daughter’s Christmas experience when she was a child. She had no idea why her parents got her out of bed so early. They gave her a wrapped gift and she replied in wonder, “Mine? A few gifts later, she moved on to: “Mine!” Towards the end of the process, she was immersed in shredded wrapping paper and barely recognized gifts demanding, “NO MORE MINES!” NO MORE MINES! He was given good things, not bad things, but his desires were beyond his appreciation. Lesson One: We can want good things in a messy way.
Another illustration: As an exasperated new priest, my homily on the First Sunday of Lent advised college students what to give up for Lent (and forever), namely their enthusiasm for promiscuity, their dependence on contraception, and their tolerance for Lent. abortion as a back-up contraception. I told them that “Lent is a good time to find out if anything other than God is ruling your life, and I know that many of you have transferred your loyalty from the living God to these lifeless and deadly idols. Lesson Two: We can have an appetite for what is harmful, and then let our sanity do the job of making excuses for our bad behavior and bad habits.
Another illustration: in John 6, Jesus describes himself as “the bread of life”. People say, “Sir, always give us this bread. I wonder if they really knew what they were asking for. I also wonder if they wanted the promised Bread of Life on their own terms, or on terms set by our Lord. I’m afraid this is the first rather than the last. I say this because very early in the life of the Church, Saint Paul was compelled to write:. Let a man examine himself, and so eat bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. “(1 Corinthians 11: 27-29) Lesson Three: Apart from sanctifying grace, appetites as well as reason at work in our fallen human nature can will and pursue even divine things in a way that is distorted, harmful, and even destructive.
What has to be done?
Let’s first see what appetites mean. Not what they are for, but what they mean. Appetites are useful in attracting us to what we need. For example, after my mother had a stroke, her ability to feel hungry decreased. She did not need less food, but she had to eat on a schedule. If she waited until she was hungry, she might not eat at all.
On the other hand, what appetites mean is not so obvious. In short, appetites indicate our incompleteness, and indicate that we are made for completion. Consider these words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “In this life no one can satisfy his desire, nor can any creature satisfy the desire of man. Only God satisfied, he infinitely surpasses all other pleasures. This is why man can only rely on God.
All of our appetites indicate restlessness, itself an indication of dissatisfaction. Note that the word “satisfaction” comes from the Latin satisfied face– “fill up.” We can never really be full in this life. Deep down, our souls know that we can never honestly say, “It doesn’t get better than this! And yet we want better and even more, we want better. If we understand that our appetites are indicators that we are created by God and for God, then we can have a clearer understanding of how to properly order our lives.
Sometimes we want good things, but we want them badly. Sometimes we want bad things and we want them wrongly.
Our purpose in this life is to learn how to properly assess what is of value so that we may rightly desire what is rightly desirable. All that we can rightly benefit from what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, all of this is a foreshadowing of what we were created for, namely Truth, Beauty, Goodness. These ultimate, perfect and perfecting realities, the only lasting satisfaction of human nature, can only rest in the happiness of Heaven. Let us learn to live accordingly and teach our children and our congregations to do the same.
When I write next, I will be discussing an aspect of the spiritual life that is often misunderstood. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.