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Why do we desire what’s bad for us?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 08/06/21

We have to learn 3 lessons about our appetites.

Well, it’s August, and I find that Christmas is on my mind. Surprising? Well, I’m thinking about Christmas now because I’ve been reflecting on the role of appetite in the spiritual life.

Here’s what I mean: A family told me about their eldest daughter’s experience of Christmas as a toddler. She had no idea why her parents got her out of bed so early. They handed her a wrapped gift, and she responded with wonder: “Mine?” A few gifts later, she shifted to: “Mine!” Towards the end of the process, she was immersed in shredded wrapping paper and scarcely-acknowledged gifts demanding: “MORE MINES! MORE MINES!” She was given good things, not bad things, but her desires exceeded her appreciation. Lesson one: We can want good things in a disordered way.

Another illustration: As a new and exasperated priest, my homily on the First Sunday of Lent advised university students what to give up for Lent (and forever), namely, their enthusiasm for promiscuity, their dependence on contraception, and their tolerance of abortion as backup contraception. I told them that “Lent is a good time to find out whether anything other than God is governing your life, and I know many of you have transferred your loyalty from the living God to these lifeless and deadly idols.” Lesson two: We can have appetites for what’s harmful, and then give our reason the job of making excuses for our bad behavior and habits.

One more illustration: In John 6, Jesus describes himself as “the Bread of Life.” The people reply, “Sir, give us this bread always.” I wonder if they really knew what they were asking for. I wonder too if they wanted the promised Bread of Life on their own terms, or on the terms set by our Lord. I fear that it was the former, rather than the latter. I say that because early in the life of the Church, Saint Paul was compelled to write: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29) Lesson three: Apart from sanctifying grace, the appetites as well as reason at work in our fallen human nature can want and pursue even divine things in a way that is distorted, harmful, and even destructive.

What to do?

First, let’s consider what appetites mean. Not what they are for, but what they mean. The appetites are useful for drawing us towards what we need. For example, after my mother had a stroke, her capacity to feel hunger was diminished. She didn’t need food any less, but she had to eat on a schedule. If she waited to feel hungry, she might not eat at all.

On the other hand, what appetites mean is not quite so obvious. In brief, appetites indicate our incompleteness, and indicate that we are made for completion. Consider these words from Saint Thomas Aquinas: “In this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man’s desire. Only God satisfies, he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God.”

All our appetites indicate a restlessness, itself an indication of dissatisfaction. Note that the word “satisfaction” comes from the Latin satis facere—“to make full.” We can never really be made full in this life. Deep down, our souls know that we can’t ever honestly say, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” And yet we want better and even more, we want best. If we understand that our appetites are indicators that we are created by God and for God, then we can have a clearer understanding of how to order our lives properly.

Sometimes we want good things, but we want them badly. Sometimes we want bad things and we want them wrongly.

Our purpose in this life is to learn how to rightly value what is rightly valuable so that we can rightly desire what is rightly desirable.

Our purpose in this life is to learn how to rightly value what is rightly valuable so that we can rightly desire what is rightly desirable. Anything that we might rightly enjoy of what is true, what is good, what is beautiful—all these are foreshadowings of what we are created for, namely, Truth, Beauty, Goodness. These ultimate, perfect, and perfecting realities, the only lasting satisfaction of human nature, can be rested in only in the happiness of Heaven. Let’s learn to live accordingly, and let’s teach our children and our congregations to do the same.

When I write next, I will discuss an aspect of the spiritual life that is frequently misunderstood. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Spiritual Life
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