Common Wisdom: Manic Mortificaitons

I happened to be reading Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s excellent tour of St. Augustine’s writings shortly before the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult. Within a day or two the news reports were giving a fairly clear idea of how to classify this cult. Its founder was an ex-Christian who, tormented by homosexuality, renounced for himself and his followers not only sexual relations but sex roles and sexual identities. They dressed alike, shaved their heads, owned nothing individually, and rejected marriage and the family in favor of the hoped-for opportunity to trade in their defective, importunate bodies for more advanced alien bodies via a UFO trailing behind the comet Hale-Bopp.

Popular stereotypes label St. Augustine a gloomy, fun-hating killjoy whose writings (along with St. Paul’s) fuel much of the Christian exaltation of the celibate life over the married state, as well as the view that we are born in sin because we are the fruit of sexual pleasure. Like most intellectual stereotypes, this leaves out more of the story than it tells.

St. Augustine was a refugee from Manichaeism, a dualistic heresy he had picked up in his young adulthood which, like Zoroastrianism, pitted the sinful flesh against the aspiring spirit. His journey to orthodox Christianity involved his rejection of that explanation of the problem of evil, and his acceptance of the orthodox Catholic sacramental view.

Catholics, like Protestants, may struggle individually with questions of how far and in precisely what way the Creation fell in the Fall, but however close we may stray toward the heresies that line orthodoxy on either side, liturgically and sacramentally we have our noses rubbed into this world.

Eating and drinking are sanctified as the means by which we are united with our Savior in the Eucharist. We can never convince ourselves, as the Cathari, the elect members of the Albigensians, did, that abstaining from food will purify us spiritually. The idea that matter is innately corrupting is barred to us by the Incarnation—the Son of God taking on human flesh—as well as the Eucharist.

Oh, we undergo our modern, modified Lenten fasts, and our saints undergo their much more arduous ones, but aided by quite a different understanding. We fast because food is good; we do without it for a time to show our gratitude to the good God who gave it. We thereby remind ourselves that we are totally dependent upon him and testify to our belief that God is the greatest good, for whom lesser goods may rightly have to be sacrificed from time to time.

The Eastern religious view of fasting, as I understand it, sees it as a means of detachment from the distracting and unreal veil of the physical world obscuring ultimate reality. The Christian attempts to detach himself from inordinate dependencies on the flesh, but this struggle for a proper ordering of his loves is only necessary because of the chaotic effects of the Fall.

The poor people of Heaven’s Gate, for a variety of individual reasons, were seeking to escape from marriages and families. They were not choosing celibacy as monks and nuns do, who sacrifice good things in a special act of homage and self-giving to God, like the ancient Jews who sacrificed their finest lambs and best first fruits.

The people of Heaven’s Gate sought a way to shed the itches and irksomeness of our confinement to mortal flesh. The Christian knows he will be saved in and through this life in the flesh, as a composite being, body and soul. That is not just our destiny in this short mortal life, but our eternal destiny, after Christ comes again. He will appear in his resurrected body, and will resurrect bodies for the souls of those who are saved.

These are all distinctions which didn’t make it into the news reports or commentary I saw in the aftermath of Heaven’s Gate. “They left their families and rejected sex,” said one usually sensible columnist, as though no more need be said to establish their weirdness. Yet she did not show how we are to differentiate them from Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity, Thomas Merton and his Trappists, or the Dalai Lama.

So much depends on why we are doing something. “He who loses his life for my sake will gain it,” said Christ. As far as we know, the deluded people who gave up their lives in San Diego were not rendering the kind of sacrifice made by Thomas More, Joan of Arc, or Fr. Damien of Molokai.

Ultimately, what the San Diego suicides thought they were doing is a secret between them and God. From all we can see, they were willing to give up much that many Christian ascetics have given up—but in what a different cause, and with who knows what result?


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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