Saturday 6 May 2017

The Quest for Moral Purity

This is a question about a rather unusual action but I think it's worth including here because it points to a certain type of behaviour which might be perceived as highly moral yet which could actually be motivated either by spiritual pride or even caused by a personality defect.

Q. I read recently about a person who every month gives virtually all her salary to charity leaving only a small fraction for basic living expenses. Do you think the world would be a better place if we all did this?

A. Maybe. As always, though, with matters of this kind one must look for the true motive. Is this a concern for moral purity which is actually a quest for moral superiority, and the action, forgive me, of a self-righteous prig, or even someone who is slightly mentally ill and wishes to attain to a kind of personal sanctity by appearing (to herself as well as others) much better than anyone else? Sometimes the spiritual seeker (whether a religious believer or not) mistakenly seeks a kind of perfection of the separate self, and this sort of behaviour could indicate that. It's rather like a person who refuses to kill a mosquito under any circumstances or a fruitarian who won't eat anything that harms anything in any way. Over-zealous people of this type forget that these external attitudes do not constitute true spiritual understanding. Rather they imply a self-absorbed over-concern with personal purity and righteousness. The desire to go one step further than anyone else and thereby prove moral superiority.

We have probably all met people a bit like that, people motivated by a puritanical obsession to be morally superior but who have little real love in their hearts, either for God or for their fellow men and women, though they may claim to love humanity in a vague general sense. However as the prophet Isaiah said (albeit in a different context) when all is said and done, 'all our righteousness is as filthy rags'. In other words, the ego remains the ego whatever it does. The fallen self can never be good in itself however hard it tries. Only through humility and grace can we really find God and the true uncorrupted self.

There is a name for this kind of behaviour which is pathological altruism meaning an altruism that springs from a personality defect rather than genuine kindness of heart. This is not meant to judge any one individual but to provide a general principle about spiritual excess and melodramatic gesture. The middle way is usually the best way and, as always with anything to do with spirituality, it is the motive behind thoughts and actions that counts. I don't say external behaviour is irrelevant. Of course it isn't but it is secondary. What we do is always less significant than what we think in our hearts and how much we love. Personal sacrifice is good, no doubt, but the only real sacrifice is of the self. This sounds more like a sacrifice ultimately intended for the advancement of the self because of its excessive nature rather like some of the austerities performed by Indian yogis and fakirs.

It is an unfortunate fact that many people take to various forms of spiritual practice to extend the domain of their own ego. The modern liberal often does the same thing with his disfigured version of morality. Indeed, the tendency to seek a personal moral perfection is a temptation we should all be on the lookout for. Morality is not something we should seek for its own sake or our sake or even for humanity's sake. It is something that can only really grow out of the love for God. Apart from that love it is not much more than nothing. In this respect these words from The Cloud of Unknowing, the 14th century book of mysticism by an anonymous Englishman, are worth thinking about.

"I tell you truly that the devil has his contemplatives as God has his.

So beware of behaving wildly like some animal, and learn to love God with quiet, eager joy, at rest in body as in soul. Remember your manners, and wait humbly upon our Lord’s will.

They are more anxious to seem holy in the sight of men than in the sight of God and his angels. Why, these people will worry and grieve more over unorthodox ritual, or the speaking of an unseemly or unsuitable word, than they will for a thousand vain thoughts or nauseating and sinful impulses, which they have deliberately gathered to themselves, or recklessly indulged in in the sight of God, and the saints and angels in heaven. Ah, Lord God! where there are so many humble bleats without, there must be pride within.

The fiend will deceive some men in this way; in a most remarkable fashion he will set them on fire to maintain the law of God and to destroy sin in all other men. He will never tempt them with anything that is openly evil. He makes them like those busy ecclesiastics who watch over every condition of our Christian life, as an abbot does over his monks. For they do not hesitate to reprove us all for our faults, just as if they had the cure of souls. For the sake of God they think they dare not do otherwise than declare the faults they see. They say they have been moved to do so by fervent charity, and by the love of God that is in their hearts. But they lie. It is the fire of hell which is welling up in their minds and imaginations."

These are strong words which might seem a bit over the top nowadays. But a spiritual director must be ruthless in rooting out all falseness from disciples and, heaven knows, in all of us there is a good deal of falseness and treading the spiritual path will always bring it to the surface.


Aaron said...

An excellent post, William.

The ego, or the "separate self", is indeed extremely subtle and devious in his efforts to strengthen himself.

This reminds me of giving charity "with the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing". The Buddhists also say that we must be good without "cherishing a thought" that we are being good, and Lao Tzu says that when we consciously seek to be good, it is already an ethical and spiritual decline.

Perhaps this is why so many classical spiritual writers recommend "mere" passivity. Jacob Boheme says that by suspending our will, we grow closer to God, and William Law says that any action of will whatsoever takes us further from God. Meister Eckhardt recommends that we spend many hours a day in "mere" passivity", as one of the best spiritual exercises.

It seems almost needless to mention the parable of Marth and Mary in this connection. Jesus's attitude seems clear.

Of course, "mere" passivity is one of the most difficult things a restless and self-willed human being can be called upon to do. Willessness is in one sense a supreme act of will and a triumph of the transcendent human spirit over the "separate self".

William Wildblood said...

While not disagreeing with the general tenor of your comment, Aaron, isn't it true that Jesus himself was not'merely passive'? So I think that perhaps we need a combination of passivity to God, or receptivity to him, with an active expression of his will through our own. After all Mary is better than Martha but Jesus is better than both! And he is our ideal exemplar.

Aaron said...

That makes sense, William. You are surely correct. Passivity is not idleness, after all. Monks, who are devoted to a life of passive contemplation more than others, are very active.

Passivity surely refers to our own self-will.

But in today's climate, where activity and busyness are celebrated, it strikes me as important to ring the contrary note, and emphasize passivity and even, perhaps, idleness. Our self-willed times can use a dose of simple quietism, even, it seems to me.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, I would agree. The values of stillness, silence and effortlessness are badly needed in today's world of endlessly busy pointless activity.