The order of hungers
6 March 2017 § 1 Comment
5 March 2017
I just returned from vespers, which settled the tea leaves of my mind so much that a teapot worth of limpid liquid now sits in my mind, just being a jewelly clear space of contemplation and focus. The priest was talking about how Lent is not a time of restriction, of resisting temptation but is rather a time of reordering our hungers. That necessitates resisting temptation, but the point of Lent is not to resist—it is to open, to open the heart to grace. If the point of dying is to advance (being pushed, being pulled, walking oneself, no matter how it happens) towards an everlasting pool of love, then the point of living is to open always to the life of grace. The only way discipline is helpful is when it is a tool. Seeking or enacting or even desiring discipline is not always healthy, just as efficiency is not virtuous; it simply is, an neutral thing, that can help or not.
She used doughnuts as an example of temptation. She set a box of them in front of the altar and for the first ten minutes of talking, she did not mention them; when she did, she asked if they had distracted anyone. I had forgotten about them, because I was focused on listening and sometimes getting distracted by the beautiful watercolour lights on the wall, which the sun casts as it streams through the stained glass, in the high ceilinged airy minimalist chapel.
The point, though, was well-taken, and I remembered her homily from the early morning service on Ash Wednesday a few days ago, which was this: distraction can be sinful. This cuts to my heart, probably because I think of distraction almost as a friend: I never grow bored of thinking new things in my mind and letting my imagination wander, and this sometimes occurs at the expense of distancing myself from the present moment. Other people getting distracted by concrete things annoys me, and yet if my mind wanders off, I feel no twinge of guilt.
This is not exactly the distraction she was discussing, although my usual way of pondering it is a good starting point. On a larger scale, distraction leads us away from the essentials of life. It lures us to wanting and seeking things that offer us nothing but, eventually, emptiness. What distracts us tells us much about how exactly we are unhappy. Craving a certain experience tells us, perhaps, that we have not examined our present experience of life and weighed its value. Craving a thing illuminates a sense that gaining material novelty will assuage the deep longing we have for meaning. Craving certain people or the lack of certain people points to our conception of how we value people and their needs.
Craving is the more obvious side of distraction, though, as wanting something is often obvious, even if we do not grant to ourselves the true reason for our desire (and sometimes this is even obscured from us despite searching for reasons). Allowing things is more insidious and, in many ways, more telling, of how we wander astray from goodness. Allowing the mind to drift into patterns of thought often leads to patterns of thought; this is good when the patterns are good, and bad when the patterns are bad. Allowing the mind to think of what needs to be done is good when it happens in a confined period of time and bad when our default way of thinking is to plan and chop the time in the day so much that we are left holding a pulverised mass of minutes and tasks in our hands, wondering where the meaning went.
Allowing the mind to dream is a double-edged sword, temperance in dreaming both grounds us and murders our visions of the future; it can make us falsely hopeful and despairing at the same time. Allowing the mind to wish for something gives us direction and clear goals, but it can also cause us to forget what is around us at this time—both our blessings and our hardships, both the beauty around us and the struggles of others. Allowing the mind to block out distractions can give us a straight path and easy boundaries that help us to accomplish things, but this solitude can cut us off from others, causing isolation and loneliness. Allowing, then, is also neutral but can lead us wrong when we give it freedom over us.
Is it right, then to seek balance, another quality that is elevated to a virtue yet which is also, in fact, a neutral thing?—or is it better to focus on sorting out our hungers and desires, sorting through what is good, and what brings joy, and how we can love others? I am choosing to focus on reordering, taking stock, settling my mind, and then inspecting what has emerged from the order. Setting boundaries, quieting the mind, and then focusing with care on one thing at a time has given me more space in my mind over the past month, and that space, I think, is essential for the careful reordering that so fits in the season of Lent.