An American success story: A college graduate gets a good job and marries. The couple drives a beautiful car, a consolation for their terrible commute. Work pays well but requires callous decisions. Expensive vacations and a lovely home recompense for the sacrifice not only of time, but also of ideals. Contentment, however, remains elusive; an underlying anger burns. The additional cocktail flames the anger into vindicating rage. Marriage lapses into emptiness; children become strangers; affairs end unpleasantly.
This is a pattern of addiction, but addiction to what? Each candidate seems as much a symptom as a cause: wealth, possessions, pleasure, rage, alcohol.
According to Augustine, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” In the Christian tradition, the soul is eros: a desire for luminous and uncreated Good. What marks this desire are interior peace (apatheia) and unconditional love (agape). The deeper into divine union one sinks, the more one is able to feel love, compassion, and joy.
But in the course of life, we can turn from this ultimate desire and ultimate Good and become entangled in their more evanescent versions that do not satisfy longing. It is this attempt to satisfy spiritual longing with material objects that opens us to the “fall” into egocentric existence.
We humans are tyrannized by our own experience. From the contemplative point of view, the ego has taken over the whole “interior castle.” We may, for example, be concerned upon hearing that a town was destroyed by a tornado, but if we prick our finger we become so absorbed in our pain that the grief of others recedes almost into nonbeing.
Inside that castle, every satisfaction is fleeting, a merciless goad that struggles for pleasure and respite from anxiety. Desire is no different. It is like poison ivy. It itches terribly, but when you scratch it, a brief moment of relief is followed by increased discomfort. As discomfort intensifies, we are ever more desperate to relieve our pain, and so a cycle of anguish begins.
Addiction is a good example of this metaphor. In a state of severe disrepair, we may become literally addicted to drugs or alcohol, craving ersatz pleasures that dull our spirits and ruin our lives. Addiction to failed pleasures or toxic attachments suggests we are oriented toward the normal things in life as if they are capable of granting us perfect happiness. We become frustrated and angry when, inevitably, they do not.
Divine desire is the opposite of desire for things in the world—not because such desire has a different object but because it has a different structure. Spirit does not long for possession of good things but to be liberated from egocentric craving. The infinite good within us longs to be united with the infinite Good, and through this union, united in love with all creation. Our divine eros is like an arrow arcing away from our egocentric selves toward infinite love. When this spiritual longing is redirected toward finite goods, we try to fill the abyss of Good with a series of finite objects. It becomes like trying to drink the sea or own the stars.
Throughout human history, Christian contemplatives—Evagrius Ponticus, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and so many others—had a radical sense of divine love and mystery. They believed that contemplative practice reordered the mind so that it could tolerate the non-possessive abyss of divine love. From this repose in divinity, love and compassion naturally flowed. In our own time, techniques like centering prayer or compassion meditation, even without religious framing, awaken the heart for love. Paradoxically (from the ego’s point of view), contentment arises as one awakens to the beauty and suffering of the world. The human heart is not happy when it is bent in on itself, ceaselessly pursuing phantom pleasures.
Science is beginning to provide evidence of the benefits of “old” ideas like meditation and compassion. Christian contemplatives might nod contently, happy to know that another language is now available to lure us toward healthier emotional habits.
Wendy Farley teaches religion and ethics in the college and graduate school of Emory University, where she is also chair of theological studies. She is the author of several books in the area of philosophical and contemplative theology, with a particular interest in women contemplatives of the Middle Ages.