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I grew up with heavy doses of Thomistic influence, which is to say a world framed in the dualistic tension between the material world and the spiritual world. In that world, we attach not just definition and characteristics to matter and spirit, but value and judgment.
The material is fleeting, earthly, and though not void of beauty – and rather quite because of that beauty – deceptively appealing because of its immediacy, knowability, touchability, and acquirability.
The spiritual is permanent, heavenly, and though of eternal worth often neglected in a world where instant gratification displaces for the impatient and the thirsty those things that come only through the disciplines of sacrifice, discernment, and delayed gratification.
Matter decays. It eventually dies.
Spirit lingers. It lives forever.
Matter is detected.
Those who settle for material gain are viewed by the more spiritually inclined as sinful, depraved, lustful, carnal, and prone to give in to the snares of the tempter.
Those who seek spiritual enlightenment are seen as noble, pious, holy, and focused on the eternal. They are willing to sacrifice the immediacy of gratification with the discipline of contemplation; the allure of acquisition with the patience of intuition; the certainty of possession with the art of cogitation.
It has taken me a while, but I don’t know that I inhabit that world anymore. I am sure that I don’t want to. In that world, the things that bring pleasure are viewed at best as acceptable if they ameliorate sorrow or pain – at worst as distractions from if not outright inhibitors of the more enlightened state of spiritual growth. Those with lower ambitions or with insufficient maturity could opt for the material if it made them happy – but they would always be seen as settling for something lower than what God offered through spiritual wholeness. One could empathize with them – but not lower oneself to become one of them.
Because of that, anything that brought me joy or gratification made me feel guilty, made me think I had bargained part of my salvation for the mere baubles of earthly gain or pleasure. I would feel good, then feel bad for feeling good.
Here’s the thing, though. My spirit can be healed by things that satisfy my body. My bodily pleasure can deepen my experience of spiritual enlightenment. A good song can settle my soul. A good meal can ease the pains that erode my spiritual health. The kiss of my beloved can erase the burdens of a long, hard, soul-sucking day at work.
I am much more of monist today that a dualist. I am learning to enjoy life without worrying about whether or not the extravagance I just afforded myself, the material things that brought me moments of pleasure, are going to distract me from spiritual growth. I experience material joy as a pathway to rather than a distraction from the sacred on this, our journey Into the Mystic.