Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE REDUCTION OF DESIRE

MONSIGNOR LORENZO ALBACETE
In God at the Ritz, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, priest, theologian, and physicist, shares a personal story about the spiritual peril that he calls “the reduction of desire:”

A student was driving him to a university building, a residence for priests, where he was to spend the night. They arrived and he spotted a parking space in front of the residence with a sign “Reserved for Residents,” which to his mind meant priest residents, however temporary. “Ah, parking right up front,” he observed. But to his surprise and consternation, she drove right by and proceeded to a public parking lot that seemed to a person of his bulk to be several miles away!

Clearly the distance was not a problem for her—she was thin and small and could easily cover that distance—but it was for me.

I said, “Look, did you see that parking place back there?” She replied, “Yes, but that’s for priest residents.” And I said, “Wait a minute! Number one, we’re just dropping off the luggage. Number two, I am a priest resident of this building tonight, so I have a right to it as a priest resident.” I continued, “So I think we have a right to park there.”

Monsignor Albacete acknowledged that his argument might have stretched the point.

“But what shocked me was that she wasn’t even attracted by it! She had no desire to park nearby. I told her, “You suffer from the reduction of desire.” Now my desire to park up front would be so great that I would look for the smallest justification in order to be able to do that. But she didn’t even struggle with this. She didn’t mind going miles away to park in the student lot.

My driver’s response to the parking situation is emblematic to me of the problem of the reduction of desire. She didn’t park up front because the educational system, with its laws and punishments for breaking the law, had drilled into her that she should accept her spot as a student and not have ambition that might be beyond her rightful place in society. That is how power remains in power—by reducing our desire.”
           
I find this story fascinating, not least of all because I so related to that rule-following driver. My Pharisee desire to get good spiritual marks would have led me to follow the parking sign to the letter. My Calvinistic streak would have primly thought: Well you should just exercise more, Father. [Disclaimer: I have had the great honor of meeting Msgr. Albacete and, like probably just everyone else who comes in contact with this holy, very funny man, instantly warmed to him].

In many ways I have thrown off my chains but part of me is also still in third grade: afraid of “getting yelled at, wanting to stay in good graces with the powers-that-be. To want to stay in people’s good graces isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing if we’re led to do violence to our convictions, ourselves, and others. It becomes a bad thing if we’re thereby led to reduce Christ to a social worker or a cop or a politician.

As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes in Love’s Sacred Order: “Contemporary Church life threatens to fragment into extremes of “liberal” and “conservative” precisely because often we lose sight of this deepest mystical Center and spend ourselves in fruitless debates that are unworthy of the Church because they are really political and not mystical in method, content or intent.”

In a period of intense emotional pain, I once asked a friend to go to Mass with me at the cathedral in downtown L.A. She refused, as a matter of conscience, because she felt the money should have been spent on “the poor” instead of on a fancy church. Now I realize no-one is obligated to do anything they don’t darn well please, and that my friend had every right to say no. But I wanted to say: You think I’m not one of poor? You think you’re not one of the poor? You don’t burn for the Eucharist, for Mass? Who cares how much or how little the church cost?

Of course I’m always in danger of the reduction of my own desire. I’m ever more aware of the myriad times, every day, that I’m a terrible Pharisee. But more and more I also see that my greatest grace is that for someone of my demographic and education, I am, and have always been, and am poised to pretty much always be “poor.” Poor in spirit as a perpetually restless, irritable, discontent alcoholic (and that’s sober!), poor in worldly goods, poor in companionship. But to be poor is to burn with love for Christ. To be poor is to be ever more well situated to “will the one thing,” which Kierkegaard observed is the mark of the saint. 

Human beings always trump ideals, ideas, theories, and abstractions. Friendship always trumps politics. The spirit of the law always trumps the letter of the law.

And the Eucharist always, always, always, trumps everything. 

THE LAMENTATION
GIOTTO DI BONDONE, 1305-06

12 comments:

  1. I actually think the girl was right. I applauded her. She could let the fellow out close to the door, but she did the right thing. That fellow was a priest, but he was not a 'resident'...and he was selfish. Sorry, can't follow your analogy. Shouldn't he offer his discomfort up? What if we all decided we could bend the rules, just a little bit?

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  2. far more than 'reduction of desire' which seems a flimsy premise, the sadder aspect to this story is about a person who is so unconscious she gives no thought to the welfare of her older passenger. This says far more about the girl's lack of thinking of others, forget her self. Still, the whole anecdote doesnt seem to match the rest of the commentary which seems to be about oneself again, rather than charity toward others. One might wonder where the woman's mind was. Jesus, Mary, Joseph were first and foremost hospitable to others. Anyway, just a two cents worth. Moving on. Thanks.

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  3. What would happen if we all decided to bend the rules just a little? Well, let's see, I guess it depends on what rules you mean. The rule that in Christ's time said you couldn't heal people on Sundays, for instance? Because that was the rule that Christ "bent." The rule that says if you catch a woman in adultery, you gather in a circle and heave stones at her until she's a dead, bloody pulp? That was one of the rules Christ bent. The rules that say shine up your eating vessels on the outside? Because that was the rule Christ bent when he told the Pharisees you are clean on the outside but inside you are full of corruption and hatred and unkindness. The rule that says hate your enemies and do everything in your power to do violence to them? Because that was the rule Christ blew to smithereens.

    We don't bend the rules in order to abolish the law but to fulfill it. We don’t bend the rules for the sake of bending the rules but in order to love one another as Christ loved us. The “rule” of Christ is the expansive, resilient rule of love, not the cramped, rigid letter of the law that would have deprived an elderly priest, in frail health from giving his life to others, a little help in getting to his room.

    And one way we know we’re onto it, it seems, is when, as Msgr. Albacete does in this anecdote, we have a sense of humor about it…

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  4. Well, I'm not so sure Msgr. Albacete was in the right. I don't know about his health, but the only thing this account mentioned was that his bulk made it somewhat of a burden to walk a ways. We don't know about the health of any of the priest-residents who might have needed the space at the time the student's car would have been parked there. Frankly, I don't think the student had a problem in regard to "reduction of desire," as Msgr. Albacete put it. Reduction of many of our earthly desires is a good thing, and physical comfort is one. I also would suggest Msgr. Albacete was jumping to conclusions to think the student was just "following the rules" out of blindness. Maybe she knew more about who usually used that space that he did and just did not want to argue with him about it. The problem, it seems to me, was Msgr. Albacete's, not the student's. Perhaps he was justified to complain about walking a ways because of his health, but that is not how he put it, and it's far from clear in the little anecdote here. Not everything is about "power," which is where he places the moral of his story.

    There is certainly a place for bending the rules for human needs, as the Lord showed. Equity in the law was developed for that purpose, also. But this story is not a good one to use to illustrate the point.

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  5. Thanks, Jim, food for thought at any rate!

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  6. I tend to be too much of a rule follower as well.

    A few years ago, a fellow pilot and friend departed Birmingham Alabama for Atlanta Georgia one night.

    But an odd thing happened. Not only did thick heavy fog develop at his destination airport, but it developed everywhere within 400 miles, which included the airport he departed from. The regulations say that the pilot should descend on the instrument approach to an altitude of 200 ft, and if a normal landing can not be made, to then go around and try it again. To do otherwise is considered reckless and a grievous violation of the regulations.

    With no alternative places to land within his fuel range, he perished on the fourth attempt at futility. Had he bent the rules and followed the approach to the ground he would likely have survived. Ever since that night, I have added the 'breaking' of this rule to my flight training.

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  7. Wow, Dr. F., that is an incredible story, the parking space writ large, and just the kind of thing that, to me, Msgr. Albacete was trying to get at. This is an example of the fact that we will put OURSELVES in danger by rigidly following the letter of the law in situations where a more creative solution might be called for. If we're overly intent upon getting "good marks" in the eyes of our fellows, etc. we maybe become incapable of thinking outside the box, even when our lives are in danger.

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  8. It's possible she would have had to parallel park to get into that spot, and didn't want to admit her lack of skill at this.

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  9. Oh that is brilliant! That is so something I would do, be embarrassed about my lack of parking skills and mortified to say anything about it and then drive the poor Monsignor a mile away and on top of it have him inform me I suffered from a reduction of desire. And then burn with DOUBLE shame for about a month! Wouldn't it be great if the driver actually surfaced and gave her own account!?...

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