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Virtue as Revolution: Reforming Emotional Chastity

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Way back in the day, my mother taught my siblings and me Catholic doctrine through the mode most appealing to small Roden children: competition. Every morning, from a small Tupperware that lived by our prayer books, we would draw a number that corresponded to a question from a well-worn copy of the mid-century Baltimore Catechism. We would then have to recite the answer to said question from memory. If you were lucky (or a strategic number-picker), you would get Question 15:

Where is God?

Its answer?

God is everywhere.

If your luck had deserted you, you’d receive a stumper like Question 58:

What are the effects of venial sin?

And woe unto you if you omitted even one dependent clause of its answer:

The effects of venial sin are the lessening of the love of God in our heart, the making us less worthy of His help, and the weakening of the power to resist mortal sin.

One question and answer couplet that branded itself onto my brain was Question 53.

Question:

What other gifts were bestowed on Adam and Eve by God?

Answer:

The other gifts bestowed on Adam and Eve by God were happiness in the Garden of Paradise, great knowledge, control of the passions by reason, and freedom from suffering and death.

My interior Romantic silently protested the gift of “control of the passions by reason.” What fun would that sort of blessing be?

In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy describes the modern human as a creature both fundamentally isolated and confused, living “in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”[1] Underneath the advancements of the twentieth century, Percy diagnoses humanity’s crisis of identity, manifest in the discomforting, persistent sense that the modern human has that she or he is “not alright.” The modern person wants to find a cure for this interior schism, but often finds this task too frightening. Indeed, what if the person were to start upon a cure, only to find that the malaise that plagues her identity is, in fact, incurable? Thus, what most persons settle for, according to Anthony de Mello, is “reform, when what is needed is revolt.”[2]

In a posthumous publication of his final meditations, The Way to Love, Anthony de Mello warns his readers that the cure they seek demands something deeper than refurbishing the environments of their imprisonment. A Jesuit priest and writer, who died suddenly at age 55, de Mello was and is widely praised for his insightful probing into the modern human condition: the peculiar evolutions of society that have crippled humanity’s ability to be at peace in the midst of clamoring passions and conflicting anxieties, and have stymied the human’s ability to love.

De Mello begins his meditations with distinguishing between “soul feelings” which arise in us when experiencing intimacy and companionship, absorption in meaningful work, or beauty, and “world feelings” which stem from applause and accolades, competitive success, popularity and power. The ultimate root of our worldly feelings is self-glorification. By pursuing the expansion of self we experience the thrills of self-promotion but never find fulfillment or peace. Discipleship, according to de Mello, begins by renouncing these worldly feelings, and pursuing soul feelings, which lead to freedom, true happiness and peace.

This revolution of healing demands that the disciple severs herself from all attachments. Attachments, defined by de Mello, are those worldly feelings, identity markers, and achievements which we have been trained to crave: their absence creates anxiety, their attainment an ephemeral flash of pleasure. Our primary weapon against them is awareness; it is “awareness alone” says de Mello that “heals and changes and makes one grow.”[3] Our social programming, which has ordered us toward dependence on others’ affirmation, has crippled our ability to be content. Our anxious desires draw us into comparisons with others, never allowing us to be at peace with what we are, but piquing our craving to be what we are not. Cultivating an awareness of the worldly feelings within ourselves is the first step outside the prison of their grasp.

Sight, de Mello says, cures us of these anxieties. With the eyes of radical honesty and attentiveness, we no longer see others as a “means to satisfy one’s addiction,”[4] but as unique others whom we can truly learn to love with freedom. We learn to love freely not by changing our environment, or the people around us, but by transforming our own self and our vision of the world.

De Mello’s meditations invite not just a modification of our passions, but a complete revolt against the enslaving attachments that our culture places on us and our own weaknesses reinforce. His words invite us into a vision of love that is radically unselfish, and frees us from viewing others as tools to satisfy one’s own cravings for acceptance.

In the contemporary Catholic youth ministry, the control of the passions by reason often goes by the epithet “emotional chastity” or “emotional virtue.” Articles about emotional virtue often feature posses of perfectly coiffed teens with Hollywood smiles taking selfies on a beach, or silhouettes of couples touching noses as the sun sets behind them. While the articles’ content offers virtuous new discipline for our emotions, the mode in which the discipline is presented undercuts the message by appealing to the very attachments that thwart our pursuit of freedom and self-giving love.

One of the vows of St. Benedict’s Rule is conversatio mora—total conversion of life. The Gospel demands an entire re-ordering of our lives; self-help is not enough: revolution must take place. We cannot be who we are meant to be without renouncing the values and desires that our selfish, anxious culture drills into us

De Mello’s meditations seem to get at precisely the blessing of which Baltimore Catechism Question 53 spoke. The prelapsarian harmony of our emotions, passions, and our reason is not a natural gift to us fallen human beings, but we can work toward it with grace. Grace is de Mello’s healing revolution. Grace, if we let it, rips us out of our addictions, attachments, and our self-absorption. Grace demands an altogether fresh view of the world, inverted and re-ordered from the startling perspective of love of others. Grace brings us the terrifying cure we were hoping against hope for: it forces us to admit the inescapable divisions within our self, yet offers us—in return for our honesty—a taste of that gift of interior harmony our first parents enjoyed.

For the goal of all this self-denial is so that our eyes—blinded by attachments, by self, by so many anxious distractions—might learn to see clearly. And that clear vision will reveal one thing: the Savior. Once we behold him clearly, in the words of Anthony de Mello, “nothing else will matter anymore,”[5] and simultaneously all will be equally full of delight. We will be truly free.

Featured Photo: Carolyn A. Pirtle.  Used with permission.

[1] Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: the Last Self-Help Book (Picador: New York, 2000), 75.

[2] Anthony De Mello, The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello (Doubleday: New York, 1992), 125.

[3] Ibid., 145.

[4] Ibid., 105.

[5] Ibid., 147.

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.