Ascent of Mount Carmel I,13


In Ascent 1.13, what I find difficult in everyday life is discerning whether a sense pleasure is being enjoyed purely for the honour and glory of God as St. John counsels. I understand that St. John is talking about the will. We cannot help enjoying sense pleasures – good food for example. But we are not to cling to them with the will, making them attachments that divert us from loving God with all our heart.

But practically speaking, how does one proceed? If I like a food, would it be correct to say that enjoying it gratefully, moderately and with the freedom to forgo it would be the course to follow?

And in one’s heart to almost say, “Jesus, I am enjoying this food more for you than for me. You enjoy it through me. It gives me more pleasure to please you than to simply enjoy the food on my own.”

I rather like this strategy, but to keep it honest in the midst of a delicious meal would not always be easy!

I can clearly see how purified of attachments one must be in order to enjoy sense pleasures without clinging to them.

I clearly see the impossibility of doing this on our own (though we must do our part).

I think this is a crucial question and of course I am anticipating the course. Would you confirm that I am understanding correctly?


Dear N.,

Thank you very much for your email and for all that you say. Yes, may God help you help the School, and your greatest help is to learn and practise spiritual life and spiritual theology to the point that you can take the responsibility/burden/mission, wherever God places you, to Teach Spiritual Life.

In your answer and explanation of your question, I feel you are absolutely going in the right direction and certainly discerning well. Also, toward the end, you have summarised well two points: 1- the existence of the notion of attachment and 2- the fact that God plays a big part (without neglecting ours) in the process of purification/detachment. Indeed, the grace of God works intensively, especially when He sees our determination and our desire to commit seriously to our spiritual life.

I would like to shed some lights on your question, lights that come from different authors and masters:

You will see, when I will comment on Ascent I,13, I will do my best to underline how central Christ and the love of Christ (our loving Him) are the focal points. The act of detachment, or any other ascetical act, should be moved by our love for Christ and not by applying a piece of advice from others, even if they are the best. It is our relationship with Christ that determines everything. Our growing love for Him. Our gaze and his gaze, when they cross, this is what is at stake. Falling in love with Him is what is at stake.

Now, what does detachment mean? It can be understood in different ways. True. All of them may be good.

Thérèse says: I don’t understand spiritual people who say that we shouldn’t love our parents. [God knows that St. John of the Cross gives very harsh advice on the blood relations (parents, brothers, etc). God knows how in the Gospel the Lord himself seems very harsh in this department.] Thérèse adds by saying: on the contrary, I find that the more I love Jesus the more I love my family. Certainly, this is a free heart talking here. Her heart has been purified. She, too, like us had to undergo a very tough purification, especially in her relationship with her dad.

Can we love things and creatures (persons) as God loves them? Of course, we can if we want to go there (and God will help). Does it mean that our love for them as individuals is less? I don’t think so. We love them “in Christ”, as Christ would like them to be: we are patient with them as the Lord has been patient with us.

I would like to suggest also an additional dimension: the contemplative effort or trying to gaze deeply into creatures, into our relationship with them: who they are, what they are, how God sees them. Paradoxically, we need to love them, in a purer way, in a deeper way, and not to fear them, or escape from them.

We need to ask ourselves these questions: What is food? What is sexual pleasure? And so on… I think a contemplative dimension should be introduced into our relationship with these “pleasures” in order not to stay only at the “pleasure” layer and be troubled by it. Otherwise, fear and blindness can start to control us. We should address and face these creatures, these pleasures, these events (eating, pleasure…) in a more conscious way and not by escaping from them. What is food? Isn’t it to support our body and our health and strength? It is also a matter of balancing choices. And yes, you are right, if I like it, I say thank you Lord, and I do appreciate your gift. This way we reach the core of what is at stake.

Greater consciousness and perception, facing what causes the perception of pleasure is important, but we cannot do this on our own: we need to do this “introspection” with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, using, in addition, our mind, and by reflecting. The grace of God invites us to this exploration and sheds light and peace.

The same Thérèse who said that she loved her parents or family more and more, is the same Thérèse who, while climbing the stairs in her monastery, had to make a huge effort not to go and knock at the door of the cell of her sister who now was prioress, because she would be then searching for her own pleasure or consolation. She held the rail so tightly and continued to the upper floor. She is aware. She perceives Jesus in her heart and feels that this is what the Lord is asking from her. She did it for his sake out of love for Him… she did it for the salvation of souls…

The more we are sensitive to these “pleasures” the greater the sacrifice. If made out of love for Jesus, under his gaze, it has greater spiritual value and effect.

It is in our heart, under His gaze that we feel it, that He talks to us and asks of us. It is not a rule that we are applying, rather it is a direct perception in our conscience. The new law says St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas, is the Holy Spirit in our heart. It is the Holy Spirit, very much alive and acting in our conscience, who helps us react as Jesus wants us, or expects us to react. Checking from time to time with a Spiritual Director is of value.

Do we need to make huge efforts? Yes, and no! I like the important daily notion of “needles martyrdom”, an expression coined by St. Thérèse, meaning that if martyrdom is our goal and aim, we need to get ready by undergoing the daily little needles that prick us, pain us. Not huge things, not hugely painful things, just needle pricking.

The power we receive from the time spent, heart to heart, with the Lord, increases our passion for Him. Entrusting ourselves to Mary, helps the Holy Spirit work better in us.

Talking about food, I very much like a prayer a French Carmelite used to say before eating: “… and may this food we are about to eat glorify you”. Food enters us, becomes part of us, and helps us to glorify the Lord, helps us get energy, strength to serve the Lord.

When we fast, we appreciate food better. But the Lord changed our understanding of Fasting (Regarding fasting please see the following two articles: here and here). Fasting is essentially the effort of searching for him, the Groom.

So, on an ascetical level, we do fast, but on a Christian level, the real meaning of fasting is something totally different. Aligning ourselves with the correct motivation of Christian fasting should be done beforehand. (See articles: here and here)

I can stop at the pleasure I get, but pleasure is only a tiny aspect of the act. Why not stare at, gaze at, reflect, meditate, contemplate on all the other aspects: eating, food, health, serving, being healthy, sober, loving my body? By giving pleasure, loving, seeing sexuality as something really sacred, as St. Paul VI said, we become God’s partners in the act of Creation! What a sublime act! Of course, it can very easily be reduced to almost a mere pleasure. But we are not alone. In sexuality, the true one, there are three of us. This ideal is not always achievable, but the point is: there is a contemplative dimension in it. One can definitely go deeper. There are two ways to achieve detachment: by escaping and by going deeper. We go deeper in a contemplative way, with the Lord and with the Holy Spirit. Out of love.

I would prefer to worry about the core of what we are doing, and not just to stop at the pleasure we are getting from it. Pleasure is there. Yes. But the reality we are dealing with is bigger and more important than the pleasure.

A spiritual joke used to circulate at the Carmelites in the south of France, which I would like to share with you. It goes this way: how would both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila react in front of some chocolate? Chocolate, it must be said, is very much present in daily life in France!

He would say: no, I won’t eat it and I offer this sacrifice to you Lord.

She would say: (as you said), I will eat it, enjoy it in the Lord and give praise to the Him for it.

We don’t have direct facts to support this, but you get the gist….