Inordinate Attachments – Moral Flaw or Struggle with Divine Energy?


The renowned spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, made no secret about the fact that he was emotionally over-sensitive and that he suffered, sometimes to the point of clinical depression, from emotional obsessions. At times, he, a vowed celibate, was simply overpowered by the feeling of being in love with someone who was hopelessly unavailable that he became psychologically paralyzed and needed professional help.

Yet, given Nouwen’s moral honesty and the transparency of his life, one would hardly ascribe this to him as a moral flaw, however emotionally-crippling it was at times. He simply could not help himself sometimes, such was his emotional sensitivity.

Almost all sensitive people suffer something similar, though perhaps not as acute as what afflicted Henri Nouwen. Moreover these kinds of emotional obsessions affect our whole lives, including our moral and religious lives. What we do in the pain and paralysis of obsession rarely does us proud and is often far from a free act. In the grip of an emotional obsession we cannot think freely, pray freely, decide things freely, and we are prone to act out compulsively in ways that are not moral. What is the morality of our actions then?

Classical spiritual writers speak of something they term “inordinate attachments”, and, for them, these “inordinate attachments” are a moral fault, something we need to control by willpower. However what they mean by “inordinate attachments” covers a wide range of things. In their view, we can be inordinately attached to our pride, to our appearance, to money, to power, to pleasure, to comfort, to possessions, to sex, and to an endless list of other things. They saw this as the opposite of the virtue of detachment.  And, since its opposite is a virtue, “inordinate attachment” is, for classical spirituality, a vice, a moral and spiritual flaw.

There is a lot to be said positively for this view. Normally, lack of detachment is a moral flaw. But, perhaps there is an exception. An inordinate attachment can also be an emotional obsession with another person and this muddies the moral issue. Obsessions, generally, are not freely-chosen, nor are they often within the power of the will to control, at least inside the emotions. As our old catechisms and moral theology books used to correctly teach: We are responsible for our actions but we are not responsible for how we feel. Our emotions are like wild horses; they roam where they will and are not easily domesticated and harnessed.

Hence, I believe, the notion of “inordinate attachments”, as expressed in classical spirituality, needs to be nuanced by series of other concepts which, while still carrying the same warning labels, carry something more. For example, today we speak of “obsessions”, and we all know how powerful and crippling these can be. You cannot simply wish or will your way free of an obsession. But is that a moral flaw?

Sometimes too we speak of “being possessed by demons” and that also has a variety of meanings.  We can be possessed by a power beyond us that overpowers our will, be that the devil himself or some overpowering addiction such as alcohol or drugs. Most of us are not overpowered, but each of us battles with his or her own demons and the line between obsession and possession is sometimes thin.

Moreover, today archetypal psychologists speak of something they call “daimons”, that is, they believe that what explains our actions are not just nature and nurture, but also powerful “angels” and “demons” inside us, that relentlessly haunt our bodies and minds and leave us chronically obsessed and driven. But these “daimons”  are also very often at the root of our creativity and that is why we often see (in the phraseology of Michael Higgins) “tortured genius” in many high-achievers, romantics, people with artistic temperaments, and people like Van Gogh and Nouwen, who, under the pressure of an obsession, cut off an ear or check themselves into a clinic.

What is the point of highlighting this?  A deeper understanding of ourselves and others, is the point. We should not be so mystified by what happens sometimes in our world and inside us.  We are wild, obsessed, complex creatures, and that complexity does not take its root, first of all, in what is evil inside us. Rather it is rooted in what is deepest inside us, namely, the image and likeness of God. We are infinite spirits journeying in a finite world. Obsessions come with the territory. In ancient myths, gods and goddesses often fell helplessly in love with human beings, but the ancients believed that this was a place where the divine and human met. And that still happens: The divine in us sometimes too falls hopelessly in love with another human being. This, of course, does not give us an excuse to act out as we would like on those feelings, but it does tell us that this is more an encounter between the divine and the human than it is a moral flaw.


Contemporary Writers in Spirituality


Among those who write in the area of spirituality today, who’s being read? Here’s my list of spiritual writers who are highly influential today in the English-speaking world:

·         Henri Nouwen- Dutch/American, Roman Catholic, priest. Perhaps the most widely-read and most-influential among all contemporary authors in spirituality.

·         Thomas Merton – Roman Catholic, monk, one of the most influential spiritual writers in the past 100 years.

·          C.S. Lewis – British, layman, Anglican. Well-known across both religious and secular circles. Brought a literary genius to his articulation of the Christian faith.

·         Jim Wallis – American, Evangelical, layman, popular-evangelist, social activist, social organizer. The closest our age has to a “Dorothy Day”.  Widely read and respected across all denominational lines.

·         Thomas Halik – Roman Catholic, priest, Czechoslovakian, recent winner of the prestigious Templeton award.

·         Parker Palmer – Quaker, layman, American, much-respected across all denominational lines. Has written brilliantly on the spirituality of education and on achieving a Christian balance in life.

·         Alan Jones – Episcopalian, priest, American.  Wisdom drawn from the deep wells of Christian tradition. Practical spirituality with depth.

·         Carlo Carretto – Roman Catholic, hermit/monk, Italian.  Carretto spend many years living as a hermit in the Sahara desert and writes out of that experience.

·         Ruth Burrows – British, Carmelite, nun. Deep insights into mysticism, faith, and contemplative prayer. Eminent common sense, blended with a deep knowledge of the mystical tradition.

·         Richard Rohr – American, Franciscan, priest, popular evangelist. Numerous books on prayer, masculine spirituality, addictions, overcoming dualism, overcoming sectarianism, finding balance in your life, scriptural commentary.

·         Wendy Wright – American, lay woman, Roman Catholic. A specialist regarding Francis de Sales and Jane Chantel, but with wider writings, especially about the place of devotions within our spiritual lives.

·         Peter Tyler – British, Roman Catholic, layman. A specialist in Carmelite spirituality. An emerging young voice.

·         Thomas Keating – American, Roman Catholic, monk. The widely-accepted “canon” on contemplative prayer.

·          John Main – British/Canadian, monk, a popular, trustworthy guide on Contemplative prayer.

·          Laurence Freeman – British, monk, another trustworthy guide on Contemplative prayer

·         Kathleen Norris – American, Presbyterian, lay, Oblate of St. Benedict. Deeply immersed in the tradition of the Desert Fathers and equally attuned to our spiritual struggles within contemporary culture.

·         Trevor Herriot – Canadian, layman, Roman Catholic. A powerful apologia for protecting nature, but his more explicit spiritual writing are highly reflective essays apposite the place and role of our sexual energies in either protecting or despoiling nature.

·         Barbara Brown Taylor – American, Episcopalian, priest, popular-evangelist. Strong literary writer with an audience within secular circles. A unique blend of insight, scripture, tradition, and balance. Always a worthwhile read.

·         David Steindl-Rast – American, Roman Catholic, monk, had the distinction of being Henri Nouwen’s spiritual director. Writes with depth, drawing many of his insights from the richness of monasticism.

·         Anthony de Mello – Indian, Roman Catholic, Jesuit. Brings the insights of Buddhism and Eastern spiritualities into his articulation of Christian spirituality.

·         James Martin – American, Roman Catholic, Jesuit. A key, young voice within spirituality today. Widely popular, and deservedly so.

·          Anne Lamott – American, Episcopalian, lay woman. A unique blend of insight, Christian commitment, and blistering iconoclasm.

·         Marilynne Robinson – American, novelist, Congregationalist. Not a spirituality writer per se, but an exceptional novelist whose characters express her spirituality. An exceptionally bright apologetic voice.

·         Simone Weil – French, Jewish, lay woman. Her writings manifest a spiritual sensitivity and depth that includes her in most discussions about contemporary spirituality.

·         Etty Hillesum – Dutch, Jewish, lay woman. Her writings exhibit an extraordinary insight into spirituality. And she backed them up with martyrdom.

·         Scott Hahn – American, Roman Catholic, layman. Very popular, catechetical and instructional.

·         Rabbi Abraham Heschel – American, Jewish, Rabbi. Exceptional spiritual commentaries on the Jewish scriptures. Widely read and respected.

·         Rob Bell – American, Evangelical, popular-evangelist. A brilliant young voice. Good balance, good insights, and an exceptional capacity to speak to a contemporary audience.

·         Rick Warren – American, Evangelist. Stunningly popular across denominational lines. His book, The Purpose-Driven Life, has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and is worth the read.

·         John Allen – American, Roman Catholic, layman, journalist. Most everyone’s ear-to-the ground vis-à-vis what’s happening ecclesially around the world.

·         Joyce Rupp – American, Roman Catholic, nun. Good, insightful, particularly popular with women.

·         Michael Higgins – Canadian, layman, Roman Catholic. Does a lot of highly insightful journalistic commentary on contemporary spirituality. The official biographer of Nouwen.

·         Joan Chittister – American, Roman Catholic, nun. Powerful social justice and feminist voice. Knows the tradition of monasticism very well and draws key insights out of its deep wells.

·         Paula D’Arcy – American, Roman Catholic, lay woman. Inspires a near-cult following among devotees particularly apposite her spirituality of healing.

·         Annie Dillard – American, Roman Catholic (convert), lay. Her writings invariably articulate an aesthetic and moral insight that is a natural friend of religion.

·         Elizabeth Johnson – American, Roman Catholic, nun. An exceptional mentor for those who searching for a better intellectual apologia for their faith.

·         Bill Plotkin – American, “Naturalist”, layman. Challenging writings vis-à-vis the place of nature in shaping our souls.

·          Belden Lane – American, Layman, “Naturalist”, akin to Plotkin.

My apologies to those whom I didn’t name, particularly those young, emerging voices such as Kerry Weber, David Wells, and Bill McGarvey, among others. Who should be more widely read.


Artificial Light


What’s the use of an old-fashioned, hand-held lantern? Well, its light can be quite useful when it’s pitch-dark, but it becomes superfluous and unnoticeable in the noonday sun. Still, this doesn’t mean its light is bad, only that it’s weak.

If we hold that image in our minds, we will see both a huge irony and a profound lesson in the Gospels when they describe the arrest of Jesus. Gospel of John, for example, describes his arrest this way: “Judas brought the cohort to this place together with guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, all carrying lanterns and torches.”  John wants us to see the irony in this, that is, the forces of this world have come to arrest and put on trial, Jesus, the Light of the world, carrying weak, artificial light, a lantern in the face of the Light of the world, puny light in the full face of the noonday sun. As well, in naming this irony, the Gospels are offering a second lesson: when we no longer walk in the light of Christ, we will invariably turn to artificial light.

This image, I believe, can serve as a penetrating metaphor for how the criticism that the Enlightenment has made of our Christian belief in God stands before what it is criticizing.  That criticism has two prongs.

The first prong is this: The Enlightenment (Modernist Thought) submits that the God that is generally presented by our Christian churches has no credibility because that God is simply a projection of human desire, a god made in our own image and likeness, and a god that we can forever manipulate to serve self-interest. Belief in such a god, they say, is adolescent in that it is predicated on a certain naiveté, on an intellectual blindness that can be flushed out and remedied by a hard look at reality. An enlightened mind, it is asserted, sees belief in God as self-interest and as intellectual blindness.

There is much to be said, positively, for this criticism, given that much, much of atheism is a parasite off of bad theism. Atheism feeds off bad religion and, no doubt, many of the things we do in the name of religion are done out of self-interest and intellectual blindness. How many times, for instance, has politics used religion for its own ends? The first prong of the criticism that the Enlightenment makes of Christian belief is a healthy challenge to us as believers.

But it’s the second prong of this criticism that, I believe, stands like a lantern, a weak light, dwarfed in the noonday sun.  Central to the Enlightenment’s criticism of belief in God is their assertion (perhaps better called prejudice) that faith is a naiveté, something like belief in Santa and the Easter Bunny, that we outgrow as we mature and open our minds more and more to knowledge and what’s empirically evident in the world.  What we see through science and honest observation, they believe, eventually puts to death our belief in God, exposing it as a naiveté. In essence, the assertion is that if you face up to the hard empirical facts of reality without blinking, with honesty and courage, you will cease to believe in God. Indeed, the very phrase “the Enlightenment” implies this. It’s only the unenlightened, pre-modernist mind that still can believe in God.  Moving beyond belief in God is enlightenment.

Sadly, Christianity has often internalized this prejudice and expressed it (and continues to express it) in the many forms of fear and anti-intellectualism within our churches. Too often we unwittingly agree with our critics that faith is a naiveté. We do it by believing the very thing our critics assert, namely, that if we studied and looked at things hard enough we would eventually lose our faith. We betray this in our fear of the intellectual academy, in our paranoia about secular wisdom, in some of our fears about scientific knowledge, and by forever warning people to protect themselves against certain inconvenient truths within scientific and secular knowledge. In doing this, we, in fact, concede that the criticism made against us is true and, worse still, we betray that fact that we do not think that the truth of Christ will stand up to the world.

But, given the penetrating metaphor highlighted in Jesus’ arrest, there’s another way of seeing this: After we have conceded the truth of the legitimate findings of science and secular wisdom and affirmed that they need to be embraced and not defended against, then, in the light of John’s metaphor (worldly forces, carrying lanterns and torches, as they to arrest the Light of world to put it on trial), we should also see how dim are the lights of our world, not least, the criticism of the Enlightenment.

Lanterns and torches are helpful when the sun is down, but they’re utterly eclipsed by the light of the sun. Worldly knowledge too is helpful in its own way, but it is more-than dwarfed by the light of the Son.