Concerning desire (Greek epithumia) as integral to devotion, I have been studying what Aquinas has to say, and finding amazingly clear support. He speaks to the theme in his commentary on the "thorn in the flesh" which Paul reports in 2 Corinthians 12:
"...to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh (σκόλοψ τῇ σαρκί /skolos in the sarx, latin stimulus carnis), a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."
Aquinas understands this "stimulus carnis" following Augustine, as a "motus concupiscentiae" a movement of sensual arousal. Unlike Augustine, he does not see such a movement as inherently bad. Indeed he sees it as a medicine of the soul. Thus he writes the following: (sorry for the length of the quotation)
"…Christ, as the supreme physician of souls, in order to cure greater sins, permits them to fall into lesser… the gravest is pride, for just as charity is the root and beginning of the virtues…. Charity is called the root of all the virtues, because it unites one to God, who is the ultimate end. Hence, just as the end is the beginning of all actions to be performed, so charity is the beginning of all the virtues. But pride turns away from God, for pride is an inordinate desire for one’s own excellence.
….in his knowledge of God’s secrets, because he says that he was caught up into the third heaven where he heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter….and in his virginal integrity, because “I wish that all were as I myself am” (1 Cor. 7:7), and especially in the outstanding knowledge with which he shone and which especially puffs one up: for these reasons the Lord applied a remedy, lest he be lifted up with pride. ….there was given, I say, to me a thorn tormenting my body with bodily weakness, that the soul might be healed. For it is said that he literally suffered a great deal from pain (vehementer afflictus dolore) in the ileum [pelvis]... a thorn in the flesh, i.e., of concupiscence arising from my flesh….Hence, Augustine says that there existed in him movements of concupiscence....
...Now the Apostle was anxious to have this thorn removed and...he asked him expressly and earnestly three times, or three times, namely, many times. For three is a perfect number.
...Then he states the Lord’s answer: but he, i.e., the Lord, said to me: My grace is sufficient for you….
As if to say: it is not necessary that this bodily weakness leave you, because it is not dangerous, for you will not be led into impatience, since my grace strengthens you; or that this weakness of concupiscence depart, because it will not lead you to sin…
…a thorn in the flesh (stimulus carnis) according to itself is to be avoided as troublesome, but inasmuch as it is a means to virtue and an exercise of virtue, it should be desired. But because that secret of divine providence, namely, that it would turn out to his advantage, had not been revealed to him yet, the Apostle considered that in itself it was bad for him. But God who had ordained this to the good of his humility ... hence he says: because my virtue is made perfect in infirmity, I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses…"
Post-reformation western Christianity has largely forgotten or covered up this teaching on the benefits of sensual desire in the path of devotion. I feel the wisdom needs to be revived.
Are contemporary Thomists aware of this aspect of Aquinas's teaching?
Ryan, you might check out the link below for a somewhat technical discussion of the topic.
I suppose in all this it depends what one means by desire. The Thomist approach to appetites recognized healthy and unhealthy aspects.
- see http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/sensappt.html
The old Thomist maxim was that grace builds on nature.
I'm sure contemporary Thomists are aware of these teachings. It would be contrary to Thomism in general to consider anything natural as evil or needing to be squelched.
You sound pretty excited about this. How did that come about?
Thanks for the links. I got interested in this topic through my interest in interpreting Paul's account of his heavenly journey on one hand, and on the other hand, my own ecstatic experiences. For years, I kept the nature of "thorn in the flesh" a kind of open question, meanwhile, I learned to deal with sexual desire turned inward and upward in dialog with yoga and kundalini wisdom. But as I reflected on it recently, I found that the movement from ecstasy to sensual arousal makes most sense to me as an explanation of Paul's movement from Paradise to the "Thorn." Modern biblical scholars will note that the common medieval view was that the "thorn" was a "sexual temptation." They then proceed to discount that view. Since I was drawn to that view (or a version of it that deals with sexual arousal in a more neutral way than the word "temptation" suggests), I checked out St. Thomas, and sure enough, he had it right IMHO. So it is a case where my biblical interpretation is more in tune with Aquinas than with the modern biblical scholars. And this looks like a place to find a biblical and philosophical basis for becoming "complacent" with erotic arousal in contemplative practice, the desire for the good. I recalled that you are a Thomist, thus I came back here for a visit.
Got it, Ryan. Thanks for sharing.
By "'complacent' with erotic desire in contemplative practice," I'm thinking you mean that we should not get involved with it one way or another . . . just let it be. Is that right? Makes sense to me.
I've had directees who felt that sexual desire was overwhelming at times, especially during their prayer times. This is where it can be helpful to use the chakra system as a way to suggest a way out (and it's not even necessary to use that kind of language with them). Energy can get "stuck" in a particular chakra (or body/mind center, if one prefers), and the more one attends to it there, the more intense it can become. By taking note of it in an accepting and loving manner, however, one can then invite the energy to move to other areas -- the heart, the throat, the top of the head, the soles of the feet -- and even envision it doing so. After awhile, this diffusion of energy does indeed happen, for energy follows attention . . . eventually. This kind of meditation can be done in a spiritual of prayer, as one opens/surrenders oneself to God in these different centers/places of the body/mind.
I like that definition of "complacent." In Paul's story, the effort to resist is represented by calling it an "angel of satan" and by asking the Lord to "take it away." Acceptance or welcome is represented in the revelation, "grace is sufficient... power is perfected in weakness..." and in his subsequent attitude expressed here: "now I take good pleasure in weakness... necessity..."
That is the climax of the "fool's speech" and I suspect that way of framing it is an acknowledgement that "boasting" about how one processes sexual arousal makes a person lose some dignity.
Then, in Paul's mysticism more broadly, and perhaps parallel to the chakras, I see the integration expressed in terms of "glory": inner illumination, from one level to another interiorly.
Also, the skolos/stake can be understood as an impaling stake, and this an instrument of co-crucifixion with Christ-- the path to "Paradise."... the path to direction of "passions and desires" inward and upward. Now this makes me sound like a fool, but hopefully a holy fool in the grand tradition of public naked honesty for Christ. But for me when my skolos in the sarx comes up (aka an erection) during contemplative prayer, it is an occasion to "glory" with the Lord of Glory. Thus, indeed, "In Christ we have crucified the flesh with it's passions and desires."
|Powered by Social Strata|