Words have power. As Christians, we believe that we are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Yet, even in human language words have a power to build up or destroy. As a Carmelite Friar, we are taught by our rule, to uses words carefully, to the point of preferring silence rather than to fall into a sin with the tongue. The letter of Saint James makes it clear the destructive fire that arises from a tongue that is given too many liberties (James 1:26; 3:5-8).
One of our Carmelite saints who expressed amazing caution with his words yet at the same time wrote copiously was St. John of the Cross. An important focus word in his works is appetite. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel he spends seven chapters (6-12) addressing the harm that comes from our voluntary indulgence of our appetites. Then, in The Sayings of Light and Love, he offers an amazing summary on the negative impact our appetites can have on us. That work is a collection of sayings, like the book of Proverbs, conveying his different insights about the spiritual life to aid the reader along the path of union with God. Point 113 of his text reads, “Any appetite causes five kinds of harm in the soul: first, disquiet; second, turbidity; third, defilement; fourth, weakness; fifth, obscurity.” These five points lead to the destruction of a soul’s relationship to God, community, nature, and itself. Since a Carmelite’s focus is allegiance to God, which St. John of the Cross described as a union, it is important for us to wrestle with our appetites, to keep our focus on God, making union possible. Thus, this call to wrestle means we must know and understand our enemies, so we can act in accord with the gift of wisdom that the Holy Spirit as given to us.
What is an appetite?
The word “appetite” comes from the Latin appetitus that means an inner striving or a desire for something or someone. An appetite is not an end in itself. Appetites always have a focus (a terminus): a thing, person, or experience that will fulfill it. When the focus of an appetite is positive (something it wants), the appetite is described as concupiscible. “Concupiscible” simply means that the desire of the appetite is of the highest intensity.
When an appetite has a negative focus (something it must avoid) the response is called irascible. “Irascible” implies the extreme anger that comes from this encounter. To St. John of the Cross, an appetite, especially when it is voluntary (meaning a person willful engages it), is an affective desire that has an inordinate end not focused on a moral or spiritual good. Thus, an appetite compels a person to move and work against his very being in order to satisfy the appetite. With this definition in mind and based upon St. John of the Cross’ “five kinds of harm,” let us look at the fallout that results from an unfettered appetite.
The first impact that occurs within the person is a sense of disquiet, meaning that the heart of a person becomes anxious and worried. In this period of unrest, the soul begins to look outside itself to the object the appetite hungers for with a false hope of finding satisfaction. During this state, moments of rest and peace are limited or even non-existent, and the absence of these leads to an underlying feeling of fear that comes from the whispering voice of the appetite.
If the appetite is not appeased, its reaction is what St. John of the Cross calls “turbidity”. Turbidity is a scientific term that explains how a seemingly transparent liquid scatters light as it passes through the liquid. Another, more traditional, way of understanding this moment of conflict with an appetite is confusion. An appetite’s hunger for fulfillment will drive a person into a state of confusion. Why? Because the intellect of the person is impacted, and it becomes harder for the mind to differentiate between bad and good means, making it bit easier for the appetite to guide the will of the person down the quickest and easiest path for its own satisfaction, no matter how immoral an action or intention may be.
If turbidity is unsuccessful, then the appetite shows its true viral aspect with its willingness to entice defilement. I use the word viral, because this appetite, especially when is it flirted with, resides within a person leading the person to self-harm. In way it is a part of a person, and yet foreign to it at the same time; it acts similar to the way a virus seeks its own reproduction, even to the point of causing the death of its host. An appetite can and will try to entice and arouse the heart of a person to consider and embrace an action that will defile his being. An act of defilement (whether singular or habitual) could even cause eradicable harm to the person, ending the source of life for the appetite itself. The irrational appetite does not care about its own life, only its hunger for fulfillment and satisfaction toward its end. An example of this would be the person who only eats rich, unhealthy food to satisfy an appetite; this habit could result in serious physical health problems that may lead to death.
The next tool in the repertoire of an appetite is weakness. A zeal that previously existed within a soul is now the primary target of the appetite, because zeal is an enemy. For a Christian, zeal is gift of God’s love that focuses on the good, the true, and the beautiful that manifest the presence of God. Zealousness strengthens our heart to act toward these ends. At this moment, that appetite becomes like a flood that weighs down the person with agitations, hunger, fear, castigation and isolation in an attempt to damper or extinguish the embers of zealousness. If these embers go out, the heart loses warmth and courage, necessary virtues that offer the heart vitality and strength to continue its struggle. In this time of victory, the embers of zealousness being extinguished, the appetite weakened the will enough gaining the essential moment to take control of the will. The appetite will now steer the will by controlling the eyes of the human heart. Thus, it will now focus the heart of the person on its end, the object of the appetite.
Once the appetite has gained the ability to control the heart’s gaze, the person experiences what St. John of the Cross calls obscurity. Why does he use this term? He means that the very “I” of the person, his identity, is obscured to the point that he is lost. During this time the person’s voice no longer speaks in or with its “I” but instead “We” because now the person has entered a legion-like condition. This obscurity is not to be confused with an image in The Living Flame of Love. In that text, St. John of the Cross uses a log burning in a fire, symbolizing a person as he is enthralled in the fire of God’s love. St. John of the Cross seems not to differentiate the two because the union is so profound. In that image of the burning log, the log is fully illuminated, purified, and is in full union with the fire. St. John of the Cross is attempting to link his image with that of the fiery bush of Moses, a bush consumed but not destroyed. The obscurity that the appetite produces is different, however; the saint considers it like a stagnant pond. Life is fleeting as the pond is overtaken by scum because of the lack of fresh moving water. However, for the briefest of moments an area of its water will shine through showing the beauty of what it once was, before it was over taken.
What are we to do in our struggles against our appetites? St. John of the Cross offers us an insight into the solution. In The Sayings of Light and Love, he comments, “What we need most to make progress is to be silent before this great God …” (#132). Noise is the foundation upon which all the tools and actions of the appetite are cultivated. Noise is a bitter vine that seeks to sap the life from the heart, thus keeping the fruits of the Holy Spirit from growing. Noise can never be defeated by more noise, it is only defeated by silence. In silence a soul learns to be with God, and in the presence of God our appetite is cast out. When it is cast out, the appetite begins to deafen itself with noise to numb itself to the frustration of being left unsatisfied. It is crying out not to be instead of existing in a state of utter frustration. This life of frustration is the true face of the appetite now exposed, because the lie it whispered was the promise to stop its harassment once it would be satisfied. But an appetite is never satisfied. It will always want more of whatever it desires. Once the person begins to flirt with it, the insatiable hunger grows and becomes rooted in the heart of the person. Those roots begin to infect the person with the appetite’s hunger. Silence allows the heart to hear a different voice, however soft it may appear at first. This other voice, heard in silence, brings with it a breeze that carries with it new life. The ability to hear that whispering voice makes it possible for the person to begin to turn towards that voice. St. John of the Cross reminds us:
The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul. (The Sayings of Light and Love, #100)