AN ENSLAVED HEART – The worship of false gods

December 24, 2007

AN ENSLAVED HEART – The worship of false gods

Settling down with idols

A second perennial theme in Carmel’s spirituality is the need to decide which God to follow. Our tradition was born on Mount Carmel, the scene of the struggle between the followers of Yahweh and the followers of Baal. Elijah encouraged the people to be clear about their choice of the one, true God. The Carmelite community as well as individual Carmelites have had to continually wrestle with the forces of disintegration and fragmentation brought about by the pursuit of idols.

Nicholas the Frenchman in his Fiery Arrow letter to the Order accused members of losing their way as they migrated from the desert to the city and its allurements. He accused them of following their own disordered desires under the guise of necessary ministry. The reforms of Albi, Mantua, John Soreth, Teresa of Avila, and Touraine continually reminded Carmelites to have one God, and to serve that God with all their heart.

The saints in our tradition knew how hard it is to find and follow the true God, among the many gods offered us. This Presence deep within our lives is met in the world around us. In his Spiritual Canticle poem John of the Cross observes that “All who are free tell me a thousand graceful things of You…”(5) Teresa of Avila counselled, “Let creatures speak to you of their maker”.

In our exuberance however, we continually ask of God’s creation more than it can be. We regularly pour our heart’s desires into some part of God’s creation and ask it to be the fulfilment we seek. We ask some part of God’s creation to be uncreated. We take a good and ask it to be a god.

The heart, weary from its continual pilgrimage, seeks to settle down and make camp, refusing to go on. It settles down with lesser gods, finding some joy, peace, identity, security or other alleviations of its desires. This short term relief masks a spiritual problem and also a problem in human development. John of the Cross was convinced that when the individual centres on something or someone other than God, the personality eventually becomes dysfunctional.

Such “attachments” create a situation of death. Whatever or whomever I am asking to be my god, my desires’ deepest fulfilment, cannot bear the expectation. The idol will begin to crumble under such pressure as I ask it to be my “all”. And because we cannot grow past our gods, a lesser god means a lesser human being. Consequently, that to which I am “attached” is dying under my need, and I am dying because my deepest desires can find nothing and no one to match their intensity.

The self-transcending dynamism within our humanity will not allow us to declare that we have “arrived” at journey’s end. By declaring a premature victory as we cling to idols, we are engaging in inauthentic self-transcendence. In other words, the heart is no longer free to hear and follow the invitation of the Beloved. This slavery of the heart is the result of disordered desire. The solution, the liberation of the heart, is not accomplished by annihilation of desire but by its reorientation.

Disordered relationship

When our tradition talks about attachments, it does not mean that relationship with the world is a problem. Certainly, sometimes the world is a problem. But we have to relate to the one world we have. Relating to the world is not the basic problem in attachment; it is how we are relating that becomes the problem. Our saints are talking to adults whose heart has been enslaved by someone or something in place of God. It is not necessarily the person or thing that is the problem, but the way we are relating to them, the disordered way our desire or longing is being expressed.

It is immaterial whether the idol is valuable or not. The relationship is the critical factor. An incident in the life of John of the Cross is illustrative. One of John’s friars had a simple cross made of palm. John took it from him. The friar had little else, and the cross was certainly not valuable, but John discerned that the friar was clinging to his crude cross in a disordered way. It apparently had become a non-negotiable indicating that the friar’s relationship to it was skewed.

John observed that whether the bird is tied by a cord or a thin thread, it is still tied. The heart is enslaved by its idols and no longer free to hear the invitation of the Beloved. John identifies a craving in attachments which makes the person poorly attuned to God. John was convinced that a person becomes like that which she loves. This false god will encourage a false self.

It is important to emphasize that the Carmelite tradition does not advocate withdrawal from the world. It is advocating a right relationship with God’s world. Without interpretation Carmel could be understood to be saying that involvement with the world is a hindrance to relationship with God. On the contrary, it is in God’s world that God is met.

The Carmelite tradition is addressing those whose hearts have gone out to the world seeking fulfilment and have become scattered and fragmented in their search. Pouring their heart’s desires into possessions and relationships s which cannot meet the intensity of these desires, the Christian begins to experience an impasse in life. It is a deteriorating situation. The world the Christian is clutching so frantically is having life squeezed out of it by the expectations. And the Christian is being conformed to idols, not transformed into God.

A contemporary theme related to our traditional theme of attachment is addiction. We are coming to realize that we are all addicted in one way or another, and that only God’s grace can free us from our addictions. One can be addicted to obviously destructive things, but one can also be addicted to the church, addicted to the Pope, addicted to religious practices, even addicted to Carmel, and addicted to God as we create God to be.

In other words, we can ask part of God’s creation to be uncreated, to be the nourishment for the deepest hungers within us as individuals and as a people. We are asking from God’s creation what only God can give. And our tradition insists that nada (nothing), no part of God’s creation, can be substituted for God. Only the one who is nada (no thing, yet everything) can be sufficient food for our hunger.

When John of the Cross drew a stylised mountain to picture the journey of transformation he drew three paths up the mountain. The two outside paths, one of worldly goods, the other of spiritual goods, did not reach the top. Only the middle path of the nadas attained the summit of Carmel. He amplified his teaching in the picture with several lines of text at the bottom. The lines of the text were variations of the theme, “to possess all, possess nothing”.

The text at the bottom of the picture gives insight into John’s basic understanding of the spiritual journey. He agrees that we are made to possess all, know all, be all, etc. But he also understands that we will never have all if we ask any part of God’s creation to be sufficient for these hungers. His counsel to possess nothing in order to possess all is a cryptic encouragement to never ask some thing (some part of God’s creation) to be all. Only the one who is no-thing can be our All.

Such asceticism sounds difficult unless one understands that John is addressing men and women who have tried the other paths in life for fulfilment. Their hearts have gone out in search of the one who loved them and they have become enmeshed in life with hearts broken and scattered. John’s counsels are words of life for people dying for lack of proper nourishment. He is pointing out the path of life for pilgrims who have lost their way.

A prophetic role

One writer suggested that the Carmelite vocation is to be suspended between heaven and earth, finding no support in either place. That is a rather dramatic way of saying that ultimately our faith, our confidence and trust in God may have to be its own support, and God leads us beyond all of our earthly and spiritual constructs. At the end of her life, Thérèse of Lisieux found her life-long hope for heaven mocking her. John of the Cross reminded us of St. Paul’s observations: if we already have what we hope for, it is not hope; hope is in what we do not possess. The spirituality of John of the Cross has been described as a continual hermeneutic on the nature of God.

Does this suspicion of human intentions and constructs make Carmelites eternally curmudgeons? Or does it allow us to bring a sharp critique regarding the human heart and its idol-making propensity? Is it not actually a ministry of liberation, freeing us from all the ways we enslave ourselves and give ourselves away to idols? Is not the Carmelite critique a challenge to not cling to anything, to not make anything centre in one’s life, other than the Mystery who haunts our lives. And in that purity of heart, really only achieved by God’s spirit, are we able to love others well and live in this world wisely. The Carmelite challenge is to cooperate with God’s love, often dark, which is enlivening and healing us.

This continual listening for the approach of God, in the middle of all the words and structures we have constructed, is a prophetic task for Carmel. Which God are we to follow? The gods of our addictions? The gods of ideologies and limited theologies? The gods of oppressive economic and political systems? The gods of all the “isms” of our time? Or is our God the God who transforms, heals, liberates, enlivens?

Archbishop Oscar Romero was a traditional, careful, studious cleric. He was a good man, reserved, pious, prayerful. But his conversion came when he saw another face of Christ, a face somewhat different from the Christ of his piety and prayer, a face somewhat different from his theology, a face different from the Christ familiar to the hierarchy of El Salvador. It was the face of Christ in the face of the people of El Salvador; it was the face of Christ truly incarnated in history and finding its outlines in the struggles of his people. Romero said,

“We learn to see the face of Christ – the face of Christ that also is the face of a suffering human being, the face of the crucified, the face of the poor, the face of a saint, and the face of every person and we love each one with the criteria with which we will be judged: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat”. (6)


The idols of our times are not just personal loves and possessions, but are especially the idols of power, prestige, control, and dominance which leave most of humankind looking in at the banquet of life. Romero commented:


“The poor person is the one who has been converted to God and puts all his faith in him, and the rich person is one who has not been converted to God and puts his confidence in idols: money, power, material things … Our work should be directed toward converting ourselves and all people to this authentic meaning of poverty.” (7)


Many of our provinces have participated in confronting the idols of our times through liberation movements in many areas of the world, including the Philippines, Latin America, North America, Africa, Indonesia, and eastern Europe. Today, the inequities between north and south often point to idols of “isms” which keep a majority of the world in a emarginated condition.


The hungers of our heart send us into the world seeking nourishment. In many ways we ask the world, “Have you seen the one who did this to my heart, causing it to ache?” Our heart finds itself scattered over the landscape as we ask each person and each possession and each activity to tell us more about the Mystery at the core of our lives.

So enamoured by the messengers of God, the soul mistakes them for God. We take the good things of God and ask that they be god. The heart, tired of its pilgrimage, seeks to settle down and make a home. It pours its deepest desires into relationships, possessions, plans, activities, goals, and asks that they bring fulfilment to our deepest hungers. We ask too much from them and they begin to crumble under our expectations. Over and over the Carmelite saints remind us that only God is sufficient food for the hungers of the heart.

Questions for reflection:

What are the idols, the non-negotiables, that have become part of my life?

What are those things without which I cannot go on?

Am I hurting them by clinging so tightly to them?

Where and how have I become unfree in life ?

Am I unfree to follow my deepest desires?

Am I unfree to hear God’s call into God’s future, which is dark to me?

Am I unfree to hear my community’s needs?

Have I, unconsciously, been building my kingdom rather than watching for the reign of God?

Have I, without being aware of it, removed God from the centre of my life and placed in that centre my noble goals, my prophetic work, my understanding of the demands of the kingdom?

Have I slowly over the years forgotten to ask, “What does God want?”

Have the passions which brought me to Carmel been domesticated and left to wither? Have I become compulsively active, perhaps becoming more a functionary of an institution rather than a disciple of the Lord?