“Endeavor to be inclined always not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful.”
I think we have all encountered people who are picky about always eating the best food. In its mildest forms, it manifests in a person who bases their decisions on this particular preference; in its worst forms it turns people into tyrants who are never fully satisfied (or only seem to have been satisfied in some past memory involving a place such as France or New York City).
However, that does not mean that pleasure is intrinsically evil. There is nothing wrong with a little pleasure. In fact, I believe that we all need a little sense pleasure from time to time to help rejuvenate our bodies.
The problem comes when our desire for delight becomes the foundation for our spiritual life. I started by talking about food, but let’s translate this into our spiritual life.
Instead of desiring physical comfort, we can develop a sweet tooth for spiritual pleasure. Thus, we begin to believe that we can only be a saint when the aesthetics of worship correspond to our desires. Thinking in terms of what St. Paul calls “the flesh,” we see the spiritual world as just one form of comfort among many.
Spiritual detachment does not mean that we should try and make our food taste bad and that we should maximize our discomfort in prayer and worship (wether it be private or liturgical). Rather, spiritual detachment teaches us that our first step in becoming a saint is to learn to rest in the reality of how things are. Instead of constantly ordering our lives, both external and internal, to maximize pleasure, we must learn to first be content with reality as it is.
This does not mean that we will never seek to improve things or that we will never try to effect change. Paradoxically enough, the key to creating lasting change is this contemplative stance towards reality, a stance that helps us effect change not because of our ego, but because it is an authentic inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, St. John of the Cross is not creating a new law to supplant the law of Moses or the commands of Christ. In contrast, he is giving us a spiritual exercise to help us in our discernment.
So today, consider bringing this counsel into your meditation period. Ask yourself, are there memories, situations, or people I am avoiding because of my attachment to pleasure? If I was not so concerned with maximizing my pleasure in life, might I make different decisions? Might I spend more time in prayer and meditation?