Lusty Thoughts (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 1)

I’m two weeks behind on my church homework, at least for the written portion.  Last Sunday Alex Riegel, minister of  the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington, began a series of sermons on the seven deadly sins and their corresponding virtues.  While this may be usual fare for many Christian churches, it’s a bit unusual in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  With no threat of hell and no reward of heaven, why should a Unitarian Universalist spend even one Sunday morning contemplating vices and virtues from the Christian faith?

The answer lies, quite literally, in the cave of the heart.  As I blogged recently, the cave of the heart is the place that is our center, according to Hindu belief — the place we dwell when we leave our mind, feelings, and body behind.  The place within us where the kingdom of Heaven is present, if only we still ourselves enough to find it.

Whoa, I hear you saying.  Am I reading the right blog?  I thought Sarah was a Unitarian Universalist with an eastern bent.  What’s this kingdom of heaven stuff?  No, I’ve not reverted to the Christianity of my youth, but the idea of peace, balance, and love in my lifetime, even in this very moment, is pretty tantalizing.  I have no idea what happens after death, and right now, I don’t care.  I’m here now, in relationships with others and with myself.  I’d like to make the most of this life, of this moment.  Cave of the heart, kingdom of heaven, whatever you care to call it, if I can touch a place that alleviates suffering and increases love and peace, I’m in.

Back to lust.  Last Sunday, the series started with lust.  Lust was defined as the desire for superfluous sensations and wants, such as sex, power, money, and the like.  None of these desires are bad in themselves, but in excessive amounts (wanting far more money than needed, for example) or in inappropriate ways (sex without a loving, complete connection with the beloved), these desires are lusts, and the act of lust removes us from the cave of the heart and places us wholly in the body, emotional center, and head.

Connecting lust to more than sexual desire is a bit of a reach initially.  I’ve had to play with this in my mind, since simply desiring something seems harmless, at least superficially.  After all, wanting doesn’t have to lead to having.  Like many, I’ve wanted things that aren’t going to improve my way of being in the world or may actively damage relationships with others.  A G-rated example may clarify my thinking.  During the end of my marriage, I wanted to be truly understood.  We all do.  It’s a normal desire, and being understood by those closest to us is a generally reasonable desire.  But as my panic about my crashing marriage escalated, my desire to be understood became frantic.  I lusted to be known, to have my emotions validated as right, and went to any end to have that happen.  I yelled, pleaded, berated, nagged, and so on.  All to be understood and seen as right.  My desire to have this understanding woke me at night, preoccupied my days, and grossly interfered with the rest of my life.  Sure, my marriage was crumbling.  I had reason to despair.  But the desire to be truly heard ate at me as much as the sorrow of loss did.  I was unable to maintain equanimity or even basic politeness when I felt misunderstood.  Simply put, I lusted to be understood and put all that energy into that end.  Lust got me nowhere and worked to further damage my relationship.

Now, I’m not blaming my divorce on my lust to be understood.  But had I been able to leave my mind and emotions, churning away, day and night, and related with love, I might have felt more peace during that time.  The sorrow would have stayed, but I’d have left less of a trail of emotional dross for myself and for him.  I could have alleviated some suffering.  That’s touching the kingdom of heaven.

Misplaced, out-of proportion desire.  That seems to be the key to lust.   And not really the desire itself, but the way it takes over the well-grounded self.  When I wanted to be understood by my ex-husband, that desire supplanted my desire to be compassionate, accepting, and patient.    That’s where wanting, desiring, becomes lust:  the want takes over reason and loving kindness.  Whether for sex, power, money, or recognition, lust takes one away from a right relationship with another.  Lust’s corresponding virtue, chastity, is a bit harder to reconcile for me, outside of its generally understood meaning relating to sex.   Even when defined as innocence (as Alex does in his sermon), it seems a reach.  Perhaps balance or right relations works better for the non-sexual lusts.  Temperance might fit here, but that’s a musing left for the second deadly sin, gluttony.  Stay tuned.