SPIRITUAL GREED AND ATTACHMENT
Spiritual greed is the second sin described by John of the Cross in his book “The Dark Night” in which he describes hidden sins in religious persons.
As discussed in the essay entitled the active dark night of the senses the goal of self denial is not so much to remove all pleasurable activities or states as it is to not put anything, no matter how small, ahead of seeking the will of God. Therefore even a simple and plain possession, if valued more than the invisible presence of God, falls within the boundaries of greed.
Of some imperfections which some of these souls are apt to have, with respect to the second capital sin, which is avarice, in the spiritual sense.
MANY of these beginners have also at times great spiritual avarice. They will be found to be discontented with the spirituality which God gives them; and they are very disconsolate and querulous because they find not in spiritual things the consolation that they would desire. Many can never have enough of listening to counsels and learning spiritual precepts, and of possessing and reading many books which treat of this matter, and they spend their time on all these things rather than on works of mortification and the perfecting of the inward poverty of spirit which should be theirs. Furthermore, they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that, preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more curious. And others you will see adorned with agnusdeis(a wax icon) like children with trinkets. Here I condemn the attachment of the heart, and the affection which they have for the nature, multitude and curiosity of these things, inasmuch as it is quite contrary to poverty of spirit which considers only the substance of devotion, makes use only of what suffices for that end and grows weary of this other kind of multiplicity and curiosity. For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substances alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment proceeding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.
2. I knew a person who for more than ten years made use of a cross roughly formed from a palm branchthat had been blessed, fastened with a pin twisted round it; he had never ceased using it, and he always carried it about with him until I took it from him; and this was a person of no small sense and understanding. And I saw another who said his prayers using beads that were made of bones from the spine of a fish; his devotion was certainly no less precious on that account in the sight of God, for it is clear that these things carried no devotion in their workmanship or value. Those, then, who start from these beginnings and make good progress attach themselves to no visible instruments, nor do they burden themselves with such, nor desire to know more than is necessary in order that they may act well; for they set their eyes only on being right with God and on pleasing Him, and therein consists their covetousness. And thus with great generosity they give away all that they have, and delight to know that they have it not, for God’s sake and for charity to their neighbor, no matter whether these be spiritual things or temporal. For, as I say, they set their eyes only upon the reality of interior perfection, which is to give pleasure to God and in not to give pleasure to themselves.
3. But neither from these imperfections nor from those others can the soul be perfectly purified until God brings it into the passive purgation of that dark night whereof we shall speak presently. It befits the soul, however, to contrive to labor, in so far as it can, on its own account, to the end that it may purge and perfect itself, and thus may merit being taken by God into that Divine care wherein it becomes healed of all things that it was unable of itself to cure. Because, however greatly the soul itself labors, it cannot actively purify itself so as to be in the least degree prepared for the Divine union of perfection of love, if God takes not its hand and purges it not in that dark fire, in the way and manner that we have to describe.
Modern readers, and especially Protestant Evangelical readers, may have difficulty seeing the relevance of John’s teaching on greed and attachment to their own lives. Not many people today would be found using a fishbone rosary, and the idea that attachment to an object used in devotion could be damaging to spirituality is rather obscure to most of us.
The Protestant equivalent to John’s teaching is more easily seen when applied to “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge”. That is, many Christians have a tendency to believe that understanding is more important than character. Christians who belong to churches that value learning and doctrine have a tendency to neglect character and Christian virtue in favor of “head knowledge”. There are several traps that a fondness for understanding and knowledge can lead to. Pride is one. A lack of service and coldness towards the needs of others can be another. Secret sin (sin that a person is aware of but is ashamed to admit and so is hidden) is yet another characteristic of propositional Christianity. Therefore, Christians can be doctrinally correct yet lack empathy or helpfulness to people in need. Likewise the large number of Christian men who have a secret addiction to pornography is another example of how an attachment to learning can disguise the lack of relationship between the believer and the Spirit of God.
So, when John speaks of “poverty of spirit” he is referring to humility and to a recognition of the weakness within us that we tend to deny by having high thoughts. “Mortification” is the monastic term for “crucifixion of the flesh”.
Really, John is saying that contemplative prayer, at its highest, will release interactions with God that are direct and are pleasing to Him. These interactions can be missed if the person is attached to a visible object (like a rosary). The equivalent idea that theology and propositional Christianity (what we believe) can be substituted for relational Christianity (who we are towards God and others) is summed up by the statement of James 1:27 “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world”.
Next we will look at John’s discussion of the third hidden sin found in believers, the sin of spiritual lust.