You cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires. Since the Spirit is our life, let us be directed by the Spirit.
Galatians 5: 23-3
“Woe also to you lawyers! You pile loads on people that are hard to carry, and yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.”
Luke 11: 46
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul appears to be saying that the fruits of the Spirit are known and lived out by those who have dissociated from their own bodily life and its needs. Often in the Church’s history and, likely, in our own personal histories, we have come to see the desires and cravings of our own bodies as enemies of the life of the spirit in us. From this perspective we can hear the call to “crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires” as a command to somehow live as though we did not have passions and desires. Yet, is this not greatly inconsistent with our core belief in the Incarnation? We actually believe that God has come to be with us in our bodily humanity. Jesus hungered, desired, feared, and loved as an embodied human being. There may be little else, from the Church’s beginnings to the present day, that more distorts both divine revelation and human experience than our fears and resultant depreciation of the bodily dimension of human life.
Yet, the clarity of the teaching is also irrefutable. If we are to realize in ourselves and in our presence to the world the fruits of the Spirit, our lives must not be controlled by the “self-indulgent” nature of our “passions and desires.” What must be “crucified” in us are our tendencies to self-encapsulation and narcissism. This can never happen in us, however, if we deny or dissociate from the impulses of our bodily lives. It is only by allowing in ourselves all of who we are and what we crave and desire that we come to recognize the seeds of the spirit within soil of our humanity.
We, and often the Church throughout its history, mistakenly tend to believe that the fruits of the Spirit that Paul delineates (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) are attained by somehow distancing by dissociation from our bodily passions and desires. For some of us, our very attraction to the more rigid and fundamentalistic teachings of the traditions lies in our need to escape the tension and frustration of our own physical and sexual lives. It is difficult to live with the frustration, dissatisfaction, and discouragement that come with our own excessive desires and the impossibility of their ultimate fulfillment. So, we can become more and more like the lawyers whom Jesus addresses in Luke’s gospel. We not only deny the truth of our own being, but we want to punish those who remind us of our own humanity with its “desires and passions.” We cannot bear to have evoked in us by others those frustrations we have devoted so much energy to repressing.
How do the teachings of the tradition come to life in us? How do we come to uniquely appropriate our own spiritual identity through the interiorizing of the teachings bequeathed to us? We do not do it by evading and dissociating from our own life in all of its dimensions and reality. Rather, we do it by following the way and by carrying our own cross. We learn and are formed only by trial and error. We experience the limits of our own demands for gratification and tendencies toward self-indulgence by bearing with the disappointment and discouragement we feel when reality thwarts them. We learn the outlines of our call, of our true identity, in the experience of violating and failing that call. As we often hear, our truest teachers are those who frustrate, anger, and disappoint us. We find our true selves by being “put in our place.” Yet, that only happens as we strive in greed, ambition, selfishness, lust, etc. to take a place that is not ours. We often learn who we really are in relation to others, for example, when those others remind us in one way or another that they do not exist only for us.
Bumpy roads make us uncomfortable. We would like the smooth road that we mistakenly believe comes from having and owning the truth and forcing ourselves and everybody else to submit to it. That, however, is not the way and the meaning of Incarnation. All of us are learners and there is but one teacher. To paraphrase Georges Bernanos, we are all struggling and suffering members of Jesus Christ. Each of us is carrying our cross and walking our way. Knowing by experience the struggle and tentativeness of our own journey, we are then able, at least, to “lift a finger” to help another carry his or her burden. Bearing with the limits, needs and frustrations of our bodily lives is not easy. We are always tempted to create an alternative and more spiritual reality for ourselves. Yet, this is precisely the temptation that Jesus refused in the desert, as well as on the cross. “Show yourself to be a god, not a man” demanded the devil in the desert and one of the thieves on Calvary. Yet, it is only in knowing and living from our true place that we can come to realize the gifts of the Spirit within us.
Whenever we have too much, it is because there is too little of what we need; whenever we have too little it is because there is too much of what we don’t need. We are what we think of as excessively hungry when we have waited too long to eat, or when what we have eaten hasn’t satisfied us. Excess, in other words, is always linked to some kind of deprivation. So it may not be certain kinds of excessive behavior we hate, . . . it may be that we hate excessive behavior because it reminds us of our own and other people’s deprivations. That the bad news which greed brings us is not that we are the insatiable animals who need to control themselves, but that we are the frustrated animals who can’t easily identify what we need, and who are terrified of the experience of frustration. Excessive behavior is the best way we have come up with so far for dealing with frustration: or, rather, excessive behavior gives us the illusion that we have got rid of our frustration, that we have forgotten that we were ever frustrated.
Adam Phillips, On Balance, pp. 18-9