Monday, March 19, 2012

Way Out West: No Mortification

Practices such as "the Discipline" and other voluntary, premeditated physical mortifications, as that employed by Pope John Paul II who wrote the Theology of the Body, do not focus on the chastisement of a particular vice. Though, if one had to pick a single vice which the physical mortification chastises, it would be pride. For such mortifications are bodily reminders in a very acute sense.

Physical mortifications as those which are not premeditated, those which are spontaneous, and in response to a particular temptation, such as St. Benedict hurling himself into thorn bushes, likewise have the vice of pride (if one were to pick a single vice) as its immediate, specific recipient - not lust. In a case as with Benedict, lust was the temptation, or its near occasion, to which the saint responded; but he did not do anything with lust or to it. The one thing he did was humble himself radically.

This kind of mortification has a twofold nature: the denial of the vice (not the denial of the vice's "existence" but the self-denial of choosing it), and the denial of engagement or rapport with the temptation, in the manner of response to the temptation. That is, the self-denial, being vehement with love for Christ, permeates also the manner of the denial, so that in the response to the temptation, or near occasion of sin, there is an intense, radical modesty that denies attribution of power to the prompted vice by immediate self-effacement: it does not dignify the temptation by answering like with like. It is as the answer of mockery, first through self-mockery. And the proud cannot stand before it.

Thus we also read that St. Francis of Assisi made a family of snowmen, when tempted in his calling to solitude and continence with thoughts of marriage, and took mock pride and joy in this "family" which he just made.

The image of St. Benedict diving into thorn bushes has in it, in a certain sense, the same manner of response which Christ had for Satan in the desert: He did not cede ground by answering with engagement. He appealed upwards, denying the temptation to abuse His own authority, and did so in a manner that denied, in His authoritative answers, making a display of that authority.

Contrast the foregoing with the practice that Christopher West suggests along with prayers of his own composition that make one's sexuality the mediation and focus of communication with God (and Mary) and as a response to your lusting: having his disciple lay on the floor in cruciform, thereby initiating an imitation of Jesus which is, to put it shortly, far from what Thomas à Kempis meant by the word:

"When lust tempts you, or even overwhelms you, you might say a prayer like this: Lord, I thank you for the gift of my sexual desires. I surrender this lustful desire to you and I ask you please, by the power of your death and resurrection, to "untwist" in me what sin has twisted so that I might experience the transformation of sexual desire as you intend--as the desire to love in your image.

To reinforce your decision to "die" to lust, you may also want to place yourself in the shape of a cross--hands outstretched--while repeating the above prayer." (Theology of the Body for beginners, pgs. 47-48)

" "untwist" in me what sin has twisted..."

I note the rather abstract way of referring to one's sins or sinfulness - or rather, of not referring to one's sinfulness. But seriously, what if the "lust that is tempting you" is more just the heat of concupiscence? "Untwist in me what sin has twisted"? While lying on the floor in cruciform? Is that what the normal teenager, or anyone, is supposed to do? Not go outside and play soccer with his friends or some such at that moment? He's supposed to lie down in cruciform and pray "Untwist in me what sin has twisted"? When one hasn't given in to the temptation?

Isn't that rather...twisted?

Yes, one is to give over everything - mind, that's everything - to Christ. But in West's prayer together with its practice (which, frankly, stinks of spiritual pride), it's as if one is to regard one's own "lust" as something worthy of Him. And to surrender this sexual-desire-as-the-flipside-of-lust, apart from everything else about you, as though it was just such a precious offering - the singular lamb of your being.

Your lusts are the sacrificial lamb and you - on the floor in cruciform - are the priest making the offering? Aren't you a holy priest then, to make such a sacrifice; not the blood of mere animals, but your own lusts! Surely only you are a worthy enough priest to enter into the sanctuary of your own flesh and there sacrifice the lamb of your lusts! And there you are on the floor with your arms outstretched. Truly, these lusts were the sons of your immanent holy desires! Those holy desires became sin for you so that you could be redeemed!

What if you're Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs? All that twistedness must mean one heck of a lot of holy desire. Man, what an offering!

This should not really be astonishing, as though it were off the mark, since in his latest book At the Heart of the Gospel, Christopher West tells one of those corny, forward-this-story-to-twelve-other-people-if-you-love-the-Lord-and-if-you-don't-love-Him-then-feel-free-to-delete-it lame, make-believe stories of his that he likes to claim are true:

He tells the story of a child with his mother in church and the child asks his mother who that man is up there on the cross and the mother tells him it is Jesus. And the child in horror says “Mommy, don’t say that, we’re in a church!”

Meaning that the child only ever heard the word Jesus spoken as a bad word (His name taken in vain) and thus attributes any time the name is spoken to the name itself being bad.

Yeah: big eyeroll.

Then after telling that story, West goes on to say how the same thing has happened with the words, "sex" and "sexuality".

Yes, and then we understand what he's doing.


Enbrethiliel said...


That's a wonderful story about St. Francis's snow family! =D

And you make a great point about not wallowing in the temptation, but taking away its power by ignoring it for something else. What W*** recommends borders on masturbation.

Terry Nelson said...

I agree with Enbrethiliel.