We are born with deeply greedy hearts, hardwired so that, spontaneously and insatiably, we are driven to possess what we love and find beautiful. 

Etty Hillesum once described this in the following way: “And here I hit upon something essential. When I saw a beautiful flower, what I longed to do with it was press it to my heart, or eat it all up. It was more difficult with a piece of beautiful scenery, but the feeling was the same. I was too sensual, I might almost write too greedy. I yearned physically for all I thought was beautiful, wanted to own it.Hence that painful longing that could never be satisfied, the pining for something I thought unattainable, which I called my creative urge. I believe it was this powerful emotion that made me think that I was born to produce great works. It all suddenly changed. God alone knows by what inner process, but it is different now. I realized it only this morning, when I recalled my short walk round the Skating Club a few nights ago. It was dusk, soft hues in the sky, mysterious silhouettes of houses, trees alive with light through the tracery of their branches, in short, enchanting. And then I knew precisely how I would have felt in the past. Then all that beauty would have gone like a stab to my heart and I would not have known what to do with the pain. Then I would have felt the need to write, to compose verses, but the words would have refused to come. I would have felt utterly miserable, wallowed in the pain and exhausted myself as a result. The experience would have sapped all my energy. Now, I know it for what it was: mental masturbation. (An Interrupted Life, p.13)

This greediness of spirit that Hillesum describes is part of our natural make-up as human beings and is, as she too so well describes, the deep source of much restlessness and inchoate pain. Beauty and love should bring joy and invigorate us with energy. Instead, too often they go “like a stab to the heart … and we do not know what to do with the pain.” 

Why this happens is more clear than is its resolution. Our spontaneous greed and possessiveness, especially within relationships, is the reason why beauty and love often bring more pain, jealousy, frustration, and restlessness than they do joy, peace, admiration, and delight. Beauty causes us pain because we want to possess it, and possess it in a certain exclusivity. To use just one example, we notice that so often when someone turns to us in vulnerability, in need, and in exclusivity, our hearts soar and we become gracious, grateful, and loving (often to the extreme).How generous and noble we become when someone makes us his or her sole god! Conversely, and more revealing, whenever someone radiates a beauty, love, security,and a strength that is neither drawn from a relationship to us nor can be captured in a certain exclusivity, we get insecure, jealous, petty, and fill with suspicion and pain. Then beauty goes, precisely, “like a stab to the heart”. In short, whenever we cannot press someone or something to our hearts like a flower that we can own exclusively, then their beauty comes to us not as a source of delight, but of pain.  How horrible … when one sees it so clearly! 

So central is this problem that the great mystics suggest that one of the fundamental tasks of the spiritual life is to move from this natural urge “to press the flower to one’s heart” to “the sheer gaze of admiration”. John of the Cross calls this movement the dark night of the spirit and submits that the achievement of “the sheer gaze of admiration” is the highest degree of spiritual and psychological maturity attainable in life. He also, very realistically, outlines how painful and difficult it is to do. Attaining it, he asserts, is nothing less than purgatory.

My intent here is not to outline his praxis for attaining this. Rather it is to alert us to its need since as another mystic, Therese of Lisieux, puts it, “in following our possessive instincts we seek  ourselves and we end up getting a broken heart that way.” 

The movement towards the ‘sheer gaze of admiration’, the breaking of our instinct urge to possess what we love, is the experience of purgatory, but its achievement brings with an unique peace. When, as Hillesum puts it, she was able to admire rather than possess … “beauty now filled me with joy. I was just as deeply moved by that mysterious, still landscape in the dusk as I might have been before, but somehow I no longer wanted to own it. I went home invigorated and got back to work. And the scenery stayed with me, in the background, as a cloak about my soul, to put it poetically for once, but it no longer held me back: I no longer ‘masturbated’ with it.’