I have been going through the Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross and very early on in his book he talks about appetites, which are defined as unhealthy desires towards a creature or a created thing. These appetites prevent the soul from journeying forward towards God. I thought I would share my 2017 Lenten experience that my wife and I went through last Lent in order to identify some of these appetites.
Without a doubt, all of us enjoy some sort of creature comfort. For some it’s TV, others food, some love to socialize and some just love to rest. Now, in and of itself, these things are not inherently evil for the Lord did not create anything evil. We are allowed to enjoy food, to take some rest and perhaps watch a TV show here and there. The issue that can arise is when we start to develop an unhealthy attachment to these appetites. These unhealthy attachments can, in time, become more important to us than God. Instead of our love being first for God, our love is given to our appetites. This is why St. John of the Cross speaks extensively on this issue. Once we start to put a greater emphasis on these appetites, our love for God slowly diminishes. This passage from scripture sums up this thought well:
No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other… – Matthew 6:24
When it comes to the Lord we cannot multitask our affection. In other words, you cannot hope to love your appetites AND the Lord at the same time. It’s impossible. In this case, when we have two masters, we will instinctively chose to love the appetite and not the Lord. This is the reason of why appetites must be tempered. There is nothing wrong with liking a medium rare Wagyu steak with a baked potato but are we able to be content with bowl of plain rice, some unseasoned chicken and boiled vegetables? This is how our appetites ought to be ordered, no unhealthy desire for either, yet 99% of us will always opt for the juicy steak!
My wife and I decided last Lent to work hard for our preparation for Easter. My intent was really to see if we had developed some unhealthy appetites overtime and I wanted these to be revealed. Perhaps we went a bit too extreme but it was interesting nevertheless! We decided to do the following:
- No TV, music, video games, etc. and replace this with spiritual reading, prayer and religious videos/TV
- Eat plain food, drink water and no alcohol. By plain I mean unseasoned food with very little preparation. We still made sure to have a healthy variety of food because we had a newborn baby but we gave up stuff like junk food, processed food, etc.. A typical meal would be something like boiled chicken breast with plain rice and boiled veggies.
For some of you perhaps this is not daunting, and I applaud your detachment but this one was really challenging for us. Where previous years we may have just give up one or two things, in 2017 we went all out. This proved very challenging and overtime we had to tweak it due to lack of sleep and exhaustion from being new parents.
We decided after two weeks that we would have a small treat on Sunday to make this more manageable. I remember biting into an All Dressed chip and man, we could not fathom the flavor that we were experiencing. It was just absolutely mind-boggling how overly flavorful this chip was compared to the plain food we were eating! After awhile, our taste buds adjusted and it tasted just as usual but it dawned on me how our prepared food is seasoned to the point of over stimulating the senses and I believe this is a real problem. Our society that we live in today is so over stimulated, that if we were to slightly withdraw from such items as food, TV, and social media, we would feel the greatest anguish because we have perhaps, unknowingly, over indulged in this appetite and are hooked! Is society doing this intentionally? Hard to say…but intentional or not it really hit me how in our society today, everything is geared to over stimulate our sensible appetites. The consequence of this? As we allow the body to rule the spirit, the love for our God begins to dwindle. If we do not mortify these appetites early on, they will be a barrier to our sanctification. Here is a powerful quote from Father Jordan Aumman on this issue:
A disciplined human body is an excellent instrument for sanctification, but in the present state of fallen nature it has an almost irresistible tendency to anything that can give pleasure to the senses. If it is not subjected, it becomes indomitable, and its demands become more and more excessive until it constitutes an obstacle incompatible with the spiritual perfection of the soul. St. Paul speaks of the necessity of mortifying the body in order to be liberated from its tyranny and to assure one’s own salvation: “I treat my body hard and make it obey me, for, having been an announcer myself, I should not want to be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27) – Spiritual Theology by Father Jordan Aumann, O.P.
I found this experience eye-opening and beneficial to identify some of my own unhealthy appetites but the sacrafice may have been too demanding so we had to adjust. My challenge for those that are seeking a greater interior holiness is to try a version of this out for themselves next Lent. See what appetites float to the surface, you may be surprised! We sometimes kid ourselves and give up things that are easy to give up, like chocolate, but a blitz approach like this may help you to quickly identify TRUE unhealthy desires that are hidden from you. It may motivate you to remove something from your life so that the Lord will be the only one you have affection for. Discuss this with a spiritual director first because unnecessary mortification may be more deterimental than beneficial.
If we love the Lord above all things, St. John of the Cross says that all of our appetites will be ordered and we won’t crave any of them above the Lord. Pray for assistance in identifying these appetites so that you can remove them from your life and build a stronger relationship with the Lord.
Blessed Mother, pray for us!