T. THOMAS AQUINAS TEACHES that common goods bring us together, while private goods drive us apart. Animals fight chiefly about goods that cannot be shared, namely food and sex (Summa contra gentiles III, ch. 124; Summa theologiae I, q. 81, a. 2). This is true of human beings, too, insofar as they live like animals: their concern is to get as much enjoyment, or as many bodily goods, as they can get, and since these goods are unable to be had by many at once and in the same respect, and since there is nearly always a scarcity of at least some goods at any given time and place, this can only lead to conflict, division, resentment, injustice, and ultimately destructive violence. It is, in short, the logic of raw capitalism and of Marxism alike, for in both systems men must find ways to vent their mounting frustration with the inability to gather and enjoy bodily goods in proportion to the “infinity of desire.”
The remedy for this diseased condition is twofold: negatively, a mortification of desire, by which it is restored to a healthy realism and moderation; positively, a yearning for and an increasing possession of spiritual goods, which are inherently limitless, ever available, ever abundant, and cause only charity, peace, joy, and the other fruits of the Spirit mentioned by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians. Meister Eckhart tells us: “Man can indeed offer God nothing more precious than rest. God does not heed or require fasting, praying, or any self-mortification nearly so much as rest. God wants nothing of man but a peaceful heart” (Sermon 45, on the text Eccl. 24:11). “As far as you are in God, thus far you are at peace, and as far as you are outside God, thus far you are outside peace” (Talks of Instruction, 23).
Are we looking here at a correspondence between classic Christian spirituality and the Buddhist strategy of bringing to a standstill the restless wheels of desire? The contrast between the two is far greater than the likeness. As John Paul II reminded us in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
The “enlightenment” experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality―ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world.
Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the “enlightenment” conveyed by Buddha. Buddhism is in large measure an “atheistic” system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process.
Then the late pontiff contrasts this abysmal emptiness of the Buddhist path with the fullness of light and life promised by Christ to those who deny themselves for His sake―for the sake of finding themselves anew in Him. Not surprisingly, John Paul II takes up one of his favorite spiritual writers, St. John of the Cross, on whose conception of “faith” he wrote his doctoral dissertation, and shows how utterly different Christianity is from the impersonal atheistic religion of Asia:
When Saint John of the Cross, in the Ascent of Mount Carmel and in the Dark Night of the Soul, speaks of the need for purification, for detachment from the world of the senses, he does not conceive of that detachment as an end in itself. “To arrive at what now you do not enjoy, you must go where you do not enjoy. To reach what you do not know, you must go where you do not know. To come into possession of what you do not have, you must go where now you have nothing” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, I.13.11). In Eastern Asia these classic texts of Saint John of the Cross have been, at times, interpreted as a confirmation of Eastern ascetic methods. But this Doctor of the Church does not merely propose detachment from the world. He proposes detachment from the world in order to unite oneself to that which is outside of the world―by this I do not mean nirvana, but a personal God. Union with Him comes about not only through purification, but through love.
Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end, together with his instructions for the spiritual life. In the active and passive purification of the human soul, in those specific nights of the senses and the spirit, Saint John of the Cross sees, above all, the preparation necessary for the human soul to be permeated with the living flame of love. And this is also the title of his major work―The Living Flame of Love.
Therefore, despite similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference. Christian mysticism from every period―beginning with the era of the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church, to the great theologians of Scholasticism (such as Saint Thomas Aquinas), to the northern European mystics, to the Carmelite mystics―is not born of a purely negative “enlightenment.” It is not born of an awareness of the evil which exists in man’s attachment to the world through the senses, the intellect, and the spirit. Instead, Christian mysticism is born of the Revelation of the living God. This God opens Himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues―faith, hope, and, above all, love.
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