April 27, 2015

Deafeated by pleasure

By Alice von Hildebrand *

That pleasure – that is physical satisfaction – plays an enormous role in our lives, is already strongly manifested in small children. Give a toddler – whose vocabulary is very limited – a delicious candy, he will utter the word: “More”. On the other hand, parents know but too well that if the child must be given a bitter medicine ordered by the doctor, they are heading for a fight: for he will refuse to take it; he is “shocked” and horrified that his “loving” parents should force him to take something he strongly dislikes. Even though tiny, he will defend himself against this unfair “attack” with a strength totally disproportionate with his age.  Pain is hateful; it is man’s arch enemy. Period.

It was Plato who in one of his great works, The Republic, addressed this problem. It is a well-known   fact that most of us are likely to be defeated by pain. Physical courage is, for this reason, one of the natural virtues that most attracts our admiration. In many cultures, when a boy reaches a certain age, he was exposed to a “rite of passage”, i.e. was inflicted pain by his elders watching his response to this crucial test.  His performance decided whether or not he was “worthy” to be “promoted”, and deserves to be called a “man”, a Macho. Surprisingly enough in this context, it is never mentioned that a high percentage of young women have passed this test by giving birth. When the Bible refers to severe physical sufferings, the words used are “like a woman in labor”.

That resistance to pain triggers our admiration and respect is not surprising. Let us recall the heroism of the first Christians whose blood   made   the faith blossom. Alas, martyrdom is not a horror of the past. Millions of people were murdered by Stalin and Hitler, and are being murdered today in Syria and Nigeria. Potentially it could happen in any country.

Our horror of pain is so deeply rooted in our nature that it even extends to our violent dislike of any effort or sacrifice required to overcome obstacles and   difficulties. Let us recall the story of Gideon in the Old Testament who called Jews to fight the Madianites.  Thirty two thousand immediately responded to his call, but after being tested only three hundred remained and achieved victory. Effort and pain are not welcome.  Pleasure always is. Key words for success in our society are: fast food, fast fun, and fast money. It was again Plato’s wisdom that reminded   us that we should fear to be “defeated by pleasure”. (Laws, Book I, 634)  This can be illustrated by an amazing historical story. Hannibal – this deadly enemy of Rome - with a daring that is nothing short of remarkable, decided to invade Italy from the north. This implied going over the Alps. Let us not forget that he came from Africa. He did so with an army of elephants, and once in Italy went from triumph to triumph. But Plato warned us that a victory can often be a door to defeat. (Laws, Book I) Hannibal’s solders finally landed in a beautiful city south of Rome –Capua- : sex and pleasure from which the triumphant soldiers had been deprived for so long, were now richly offered to them. As   expected they gorged themselves with the whole gamut of pleasures available, and soon were so weakened   by physical delights that the Romans easily defeated them.  Hannibal’s brilliant military feat ended in a crushing defeat.  What a lesson for us!

One of the most important tasks of a man worthy to be called an “educator” is to teach a child to arm himself against this “tempting” enemy.  When he succeeds he deserves our respect and admiration for, as Plato remarks, children are not eager to improve themselves. (Laws) For many of them, the teacher is the “enemy” and some even pride themselves of making his task as arduous as possible.

Pleasure presents   itself as a friend, but is, in fact, an enemy in disguise. That it is linked to certain bodily activities such as drinking when thirsty, or eating when hungry or resting when exhausted, is natural. A starving man will not be choosy about the menu. His main concern will be to appease his hunger but soon the craving for pleasure will make its voice heard. Water can quench our thirst better than wine, but it is not as satisfying; this noble product of nature cultivated by man, produced an exquisite liquid – wine -, which can easily become an addiction. In  his Holy Rule, (Chapter 40) St. Benedict reluctantly allows his monks to drink a limited amount of wine, remarking that it is “concession to their weakness”. Alcoholism is a curse plaguing many countries. Let us recall the tragic case of Marmeladov (“Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky) who lets his wife and children starve because his salary is spent at a bar.  All of us have witnessed their revolting language and behavior when drunk. Is wine the culprit? No, it is the lack of self-control of the drinker. To fall victim to an addiction means to lose one’s moral freedom – while keeping one’s responsibility (ontological freedom).  It dehumanizes the drinker. The same applies to food; accordingly to statistics, one third of the population of the USA is obese; this is a condemnation of “the greatest country in the world”. Overeating is a curse affecting rich countries. The same can be said of candies: both Switzerland and Belgium rival in their claim to be the best chocolatiers in the world, and they might well be. But to eat one praline the content of which is a delicious liquor, will inevitably make one crave to eat a second, and then a third – obeying the  purpose of the makers of these aristocratic candies: to make them “sinfully good”.  In fact it is much easier to turn down an offer to eat one than to overcome the temptation of eating many of them once tasted.

I will briefly allude to the “intimate sphere” which houses the most powerful of all instincts, and is, for innumerable men and also women, a “trap” that can lead to total moral degradation.  I need not be more eloquent on this tragic topic. What is particularly abominable and revolting is when some find their pleasures in inflicting pains on others: this is above all the case in rape and human trafficking – the horror of horror. In such cases, it is luminous that the Father of Darkness, Lucifer himself, is the “inventor” and the “conductor”.

Alas, I must also mention – although I will be brief – un-natural pleasures, that is those which do not derive from nature, but are artificially induced by revolting practices. I am referring to the sentence of St. Paul that “certain things should not even be mentioned among Christians”, i.e. the practice of homosexuality which, as Plato tells us, is a curse threatening society, and is triggered   by “unbridled lust”. (Laws, VIII) It is once again, a moral cancer which endangers the family – the heart of a nation.
Alas, in a world dominated by technology, these moral abominations that, for a long time, were “under the counter”, are now publicly advertised and inevitably make parents tremble for their children who, by a mishap, might be informed of their existence. Educators know but too well that children are curious and love to “experiment”.

But this is not the end of the story. Mention must also be made of artificial urges, which while having no origin in man’s body, can once become habitual, and are just as addictive as food, drink and “sex”.  I will limit myself to smoking. No one is born with a craving to smoke.  Monkeys do not smoke. He who is blessed by being born in a society where cigarettes are not available cannot possibly feel deprived for not having them. But the problem is that those living in country where they are not only available, but moreover heavily advertised,  are likely to be enticed to “try them”, because it is  either fashionable, or elegant, or because it promises to be relaxing and “bon gout”. To teenagers, to smoke is a sign of maturity: both being behind the wheel or having a cigarette in one’s mouth indicates that one is “grown up” and now freed from the tutelage of one’s parents.

There is a Pinocchio in all of us. The victims of smoking go by the millions, and has finally convinced the State to make laws ordering the big companies to indicate that it is a health hazard, and also write laws protecting the non-smokers from second hand smoking.

It makes one sad when one meets a priest so addicted to smoke that he must hastily have a cigarette in his mouth before entering the sanctuary, and rushing back to the sacristy as soon the Holy Sacrifice is over, to appease his craving. We have lost more than one outstanding thinker or leader whose death was caused by their being slaves to tobacco.  It should make the Angels cry. Alas, since original sin, our body that essentially belongs to our human personhood, should be constantly reminded to be obedient to our soul which, in turn, should be obedient to God. Now Brother Ass is a potential rebel and explains why St. Francis of Assisi treated it so severely, to the point apologizing to him on his death bed. But the same saint, gratefully accepted a Roman dainty brought him by a lady – a devoted disciple of his, dubbed Brother Jacoba.  This is typical of the “freedom” enjoyed by God’s children.

As soon as we become the victim of bodily cravings, life can become so miserable for the soul, that alas, in the majority of cases, the latter will accept defeat “for the sake of peace”. Each defeat, however, is a password for the next one.

This is why the great educator that Plato was, tells us that educator, starting with the parents, should be much concerned about arming the child with moral tools that will teach him how to keep his freedom.  Whether we think of drunkenness, gluttony or lust: all of them refer to the same threat: defeated by pleasure.

A seasoned educator (let us think of F.W. Foerster: his great book “School and Character”)  know that young people are also moved by nobility, sacrifice, courage, generosity and he can skillfully use great literature to illustrate cases in which someone deserves to be called a hero. But rare are those who are born heroes: heroism presupposes sacrifice, self-control and prayer.  It presupposes a formation of our soul and that such a formation implies domination over our lower nature: who should want to be dominated by our cats and dogs? We should beware of letting biological cravings throw nets upon our freedom, and make us servants of bodily cravings. This was most eloquently and most poignantly expressed in St. Augustine’s Confessions, Books VII and VIII - a must read for anyone grabbling with addictions and not only for them; these are gems of Catholic literature.

From his late teens, Augustine had fallen victim to his lust. He now had come to the point that he had to acknowledge defeat: he could not live without these powerful physical satisfactions. The very thought of having to live without them terrified him: he seems to hear their voices: “do you truly mean to abandon us? How can you possibly live without us”? Images tormented his mind: indeed, he was a slave. But through God’s grace, he now acknowledged it and craved for help.  How poignant to read his prayer: “Give me continence, O Lord, but not yet…”

Let us now turn to wrong responses to pleasure.  One is dictated by Stoic philosophy. Even though there is a whole scale of Stoics, I will limit myself to quoting Horace. The following words incarnate the very essence of stoicism – that is pride. He wrote: If the whole world would collapse, the stoic would contemplate the ruins totally unmoved and totally fearless (free translation). But is a Stoic worthy to be called “human”?

The other extreme is radical Puritanism which, on principle, views every type of pleasure as leading to hell.  The question that comes to mind: is it not God Himself who has linked certain activities with pleasure? He is not therefore the guilty one? This Pharisaical approach is a perfect match for Stoicism.  But today, any one going to a mall must be aware that pornography is our greatest moral foe. True as it is that all errors are first cousins, wisdom teaches one to detect the danger which is the greater one at the present moment. Today a blind man could see that it is pornography and not puritanism.

A look at fashion magazines should convince us of this fact.
What is the Christian attitude toward pleasure? The answer this question we should ask the saints, that is those of us who have succeeded with God’s grace, to become “new creatures” in taking Christ as their model.
One thing is obvious: all saints have a holy hatred for all perverse and immoral pleasures. They immediately identify them as “devilish” temptations and fight them with heroic courage. Let us recall the tempest of temptations that assailed St. Anthony living in the desert. These attacks were vicious and constant, and yet he never was conquered because he put all his trust in God who gave the graces he needed to rebut Satan with the words:  “Vade retro”.  These attacks were constant but were defeated by God’s grace and a most severe asceticism.

One thing has struck me: the word just mentioned - which I heard so often throughout my very Catholic education, has now practically disappeared from our vocabulary. Penance – that is abstaining from legitimate pleasures – is not popular in the “modern” world. Today children are no longer told to eat what has been put on their plates. They are now entitled to make their own menu and throw into the garbage can whatever is not to their taste. “I do not like it” is a sort of anathema. The day I heard that in a Jesuit College, a cocktail hour was introduced to satisfy a need for “relaxation”, I thought of the tears that their great founder would have shed had he known about this betrayal of his great legacy.

If this is true of food, what could be said about “positive” penance, such as wearing a hair shirt, of an iron belt, or taking the discipline?   I recall talking to a lovely French girl who had joined one of the very many new religious organizations of people living in the world.  I happened to mention that word the word “hair shirt” or “taking the discipline”. She looked at me in amazement and said; “what is that?” Let us recall the Little Flower obeying this practice imposed by the rule, who while taking the discipline, felt such pains that it brought tears to her eyes.

Today, this is for most Catholics either discredited or totally unknown or dubbed “sadism” inspired by Simone de Beauvoir. This talented woman – a fallen away Catholic – has alas, put her talent at the service of some very grave errors.  Her calling asceticism (taking the discipline) sadistic is a case in point. Reading the lives of the saints eloquently proves that pain and suffering have a meaning, and essentially belong to our sanctification. “He who would be my disciple, let him carry his cross and follow me.” St. Gregory the great who wrote the life of St. Benedict, relates that when this saintly man who from his youth, aimed at holiness, was one day assailed by violent sexual temptations, and threw himself into a thorny bush. The sharpness of the pain distracted him from this devilish attack and “strangled” this temptation. The very same story is related in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Both saints never forgot that “the devil like a roaring lion, is always on the look out to see whom he can devour”.  To defeat men through sexual temptations is probably the one requiring least efforts on the part of the tempter, hence is likely to be the task Screwtape (made famous by C.S. Lewis) assigns to “lazy” devils.

Which one of us would dare declare that he is “sinless”? This is why the wisest among us gladly welcome pain and suffering to be freed from a long stay in Purgatory, where our debt will have to be paid to the very last penny. To confuse sadism and asceticism strikes me as the classical punishment inflicted upon talented minds afflicted by a fearful intellectual sickness: willful blindness.

There are religious orders whose rule is extremely severe and welcomes suffering to atone for the un- repented sins of those for whom the meaning of life is self- satisfaction.

Moreover, he who loves wants to share the sufferings of the loved one: “con patire”. Who would choose to go to an exciting movie to escape from having to witness the agonizing pains of a loved one? He who loves wants to “share” the loved one’s sufferings. Let us not forget that women followed Christ to Calvary animated by their love of Christ. St. John came back, but we do not know how soon.

Not only did they want to suffer with HIM, but how gladly would they have been to suffer for Him. Mary stood at the foot of the Cross.  She – the most perfect of all creatures – was crucified with her son. Indeed,   there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends. These words alone should suffice to convince us of Christ’s divinity.

It is a fact “that the most convincing lies are those which ape truth.  In his great book, “Introduction to the Devout Life,” (Book 3) St. Francis of Sales does not hesitate to advice the society ladies under his guidance, to take the discipline twice a week. I wonder how many spiritual directors today still recommend the same “medicine”.  Leaving aside inflicting pains upon oneself, daily life offers us many opportunities to “die to ourselves.” For example, when one is invited to a restaurant during Lent, one can purposely choose a menu that one does not care for, and turning down one that appeals to one’s taste. One can choose to stop eating as soon as one’s hunger is satisfied instead of taking a second helping because it is so “sinfully good” as the expression goes. One can limit the hours of sleep to what is indispensable to function well, while refusing, to use a French expression, to flirt with one’s pillow.  In other words, with a bit of ascetic inventiveness, daily life offers us many opportunities of making sacrifices.

Yet it cannot be denied that the modern world has produced saints and continues to do so. Let us think of a Maximilian Kolbe who sacrificed himself by willingly taking the place of the father of a family condemned by the Nazis to die of starvation. He is now canonized. But I believe it would be an error to believe that this heroic act was not preceded by many small acts of renunciation and sacrifice. The same is true of St. Edith Stein: the very day she entered the Holy Ark of the Roman Catholic Church, she followed the example of the saints and led a life of prayer and sacrifice. I do not exclude the possibility that an “average” Catholic in a dramatic moment, could sacrifice himself joyfully even though up to that day, nothing in his daily life and conduct could have predicted this heroism. All things are possible with God, but the classical way leading to holiness is made up of small sacrifices which – taken by themselves seem insignificant,  but when artfully combined make a beautiful tapestry This is clearly the “little way” lived by St. Therese of Lisieux.

When a saint is offered a delicious meal, it is immediately “baptized” with gratitude – this forgotten virtue – that transforms a “merely subjectively satisfying” pleasure into an objective good for the grateful person.  It is the privilege of persons to say “thank you.” Hence the importance of prayer before and after meals.  It is related in the “Life of St. Francis of Assisi” (J. Jorgensen p.330) that when this most lovable saint was close to death, one of his most devoted spiritual children, a noble lady dubbed “Brother Jacoba”, came to his bed side and brought him a Roman dainty he liked. The saint – whose life had been so severely ascetic accepted it gratefully – in so doing not only did he glorify God, but also gave joy to the donor.

When a young woman tells one: “why should I be grateful; I paid for this meal?” the proper response is grief. Living in a culture (Dietrich von Hildebrand called it: an “anti-culture”) where the hero is the “self-made man”, is to live in a world where the word “thank you” has lost its meaning.  Yet with “forgive me” and “I love you”, it is one of the golden words in our vocabulary. May these three words be the last we utter.

The art of the saints is to relate everything to God: this is why it has been said that the most perfect of all creatures, Mary the Mother of the Savior, while sleeping, glorified God more than a saint passing his whole night in front of the Blessed Sacrament.   How blessed Catholics are, that they have been given living models of holiness. St. Augustine, speaking about them wrote: “sic illi et isti, cur non ego”. These are words we should treasure: cur non ego.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.