Ideals are a tricky thing, and yet striving towards some ideal constitutes the fundamental orientation that each person takes in their life, whether that ideal be conscious or subconscious.
The tricky part of ideals is that the images, concepts, and attributes which constitute the ideal can be somewhat hard to articulate, and oftentimes the process of maturation involves us learning to see what are the underlying motivations that are driving our actions.
Along these, lines, there are three very real dangers that we all face in regards to the ideals which drive our actions. The most obvious danger is that we chose the wrong ideal, and the second danger is that we never really understand our ideals and never make strides towards achieving them.
These two are obvious enough, but it is the third problem in regards to ideals which can really derail the spiritual life of many people who have set out to live in imitation of Christ. The third problem is that we chase an ideal, the content of which we misunderstand in some way. Thus, there are many people who profess religion who unfortunately have very serious misunderstandings when it comes to concepts such as “spiritual freedom” and “spiritual detachment.”
While I believe both concepts are actually complimentary ways of describing the same fundamental reality, I think the ways that people misunderstand these concepts are quite unique to each one. The first concept, spiritual freedom, is an important part of the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola and in contemporary Church circles is often an important part of healing and deliverance ministries. The second concept, spiritual detachment, is the wording unique to St. John of the Cross and the Carmelite tradition.
Spiritual freedom is often misunderstood along the lines of our natural tendency to prefer positive over negative emotions. Simply put, people prefer to feel good. More often than not, this tendency subconsciously comes into the spiritual life of someone. Many people tend to believe that if and when they have been properly freed from sin and its effects, they will no longer experience negative emotions nor the temptations which arise from their base instincts. While it is true that there is healing of one’s interior life that takes place under the purging work of the Holy Spirit, certain aspects of temptation always remain. But, even more profound, there are integral aspects of our human nature that can be the cause of suffering.
A better way to understand this is that grace does not destroy our human nature. God gave us hatred, anger, and the whole gamut of negative emotions for a reason. Within the psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas, there are eleven principle passions, or emotions, and their division is rather straight forward. In his thought, our positive emotions are those that correspond to our movement towards and acceptance of what we perceive to be good and our negative emotions correspond with the perception of evil.
For example, when I love something either in a sensual or spiritual way, I am moved by an attraction towards that which I perceive as good. When I hate something, I experience an aversion towards something which I perceive to be evil. We can therefore conclude as long as we live in a fallen world, there will always be a place for hatred, anger, and fear.
Spiritual maturity does not mean an absence of hatred, anger, fear, and other negative emotions, but rather their proper ordering whereby the believer loves what God loves and hates what God hates, namely sin and evil.
To arrive at the full expression of what spiritual freedom indicates, let’s hold off our discussion until we have explored the misunderstandings which arise from the idea of detachment.
The most obvious word that helps flesh out what is meant by detachment and which also contains the seeds of potential misunderstandings is it’s linguistic opposite, attachment. All of us experience attachments in one form or another. It is not uncommon in spiritual direction for me to point out to someone I am working with that they would get along much better with their spouse, father, mother, etc. if they treated the person as they would a complete stranger. I see this tendency both within myself and others, that often the extra baggage we bring to relationships severely distorts our ability to rest in the company of others. A behavior that we might find to be insignificant and pardonable in a new acquaintance soon becomes the source of great anxiety with someone with whom we have a greater affinity.
Likewise, in one form or another, we all experience our “attachments” to food, pleasure, entertainment, distractions, and we often find that indulging these attachments becomes a bitter source of frustration as they sabotage our desire to do what we feel called to do.
It seems almost common sense that the answer to this dilemma is to suppress these attachments and starve them of their emotional energy so that we never have to experience the emotional turmoil that they cause us. The real danger contained within a false reading of the concept of “detachment” is that all my suffering will go away if I just stop being emotionally involved in the world and in my immediate context.
Notice, with all false understandings of the ideals towards which we are striving, the central theme is the avoidance of suffering. This is the real ideal that is often hidden, my secret desire for spiritual comfort by which I will never have to experience psychological suffering again. A basic understanding of Christianity quickly shows that this is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught when he said to take up our cross, the problem is that we tend to believe that “our cross” is everything but the internal suffering caused by our emotions.
But there is progress right? We do grow and we all recognize that there is a radical difference between someone who feels sad at the loss of a loved one and someone who is experiencing clinical depression?
I think the answer lies within an understanding of the relationship between a) the raw sensation of our emotions b) the thoughts which arise from those emotions c) the intentional ways in which we cultivate thoughts and how our interior dialogue in turn effects our emotions.
In a beginning stage of spiritual development, these three aspects of our interior life don’t seem distinct by any means and the basic thrust is that “what I feel = what I think = what I do + the truth of things.” The idea that my thoughts are really distinct from what I feel seems impossible. In it’s most extreme cases there is even less thought and the equation becomes “what I feel = what I do.” In such people, their inability to rise above their base instincts and momentary impulses becomes a bitter form of bondage that seems impossible to break.
The key is to become more intentional.
By means of regular confession, mental prayer/ meditation, regular examinations of our conscience, and ultimately the promptings of the Holy Spirit, a real gap between our feelings, our thoughts, and our actions begins to develop. This is at the heart of what is meant by spiritual freedom and spiritual detachment.
Learning to look past our surface emotions involves learning to look inward and to recognize the various levels of our experience. If I was a professor in a seminary or college and had the time to carefully prove these distinctions, I would easily be able to provide you with multiple citations, but due to the limits of my ministry, I will provide one example from St. John of the Cross to prove my point. In his classic work, the Dark Night of the Soul, he points to the icon of Christ crucified as the hermeneutic key to understanding the layers of human experience. He discusses how at the moment of the crucifixion, Christ experienced torment and abandonment in his physical and interior existence, and yet as being the Son of God in perfect communion with the Father, he experienced this relationship at the core of who he was. This precisely lays out a three-fold distinction of the physical/ emotional, the interior/ psychological, and the “deeper self” or the “heart.”
It is by learning to look past momentary impulses and interior scripts that we learn to dwell in the heart and there to develop an intuitive sense of how God communicates to the individual believer. This does not mean that we won’t experience our emotions and the various movements of our interior life which are tied to the body. St. Thomas Aquinas identifies eleven principal passions or emotions, each of which involves a concrete reaction to either a perceived good or a perceived evil. Spiritual freedom does not mean that we will never experience these eleven passions, but rather that we will learn to understand them in relation to a deeper point of reference, namely the interior stillness of God’s presence.
As we are purged of our sins, overcoming mortal and venial sins, we begin to experience brief moments of grace in which the Holy Spirit allows us to taste the sweetness of this interior silence in our times of solitude. In time, this presence can become more or less integral to one’s life as we give ourselves to the path of spiritual maturity. As we “taste grace” and connect with this interior stillness at the core of our being, our intellect gains greater illumination and is less likely to orient our thoughts down the path of negative ruminations when the inevitable challenge causes the emotions to rise up and mount a rebellion.
In the midst of chaotic emotions and troubling times, the believer learns to stand firm on the foundation of Christ, not simply in terms of understanding, but based on an experiential knowledge of how Christ speaks to the heart.
I will leave you with this image.
Imagine the ocean, and on the surface there is a great storm. This represents the life of the emotions, the physical sense. While storms will come and go, the heart exists far below the surface which is less effected by the passing storms. In the depths of the ocean, there exists heat vents and great stillness… so it is with the human experience. In time, the emotions will always be active on the surface of our experience, and it is vital that we learn to listen and understand them, but spiritual freedom and detachment are the knowledge by which we are able to look past them and understand reality in to relation to the deeper font of inspiration, namely the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.