Self-Simplication, Detachment, and Mortification

Stages of Spiritual Development

Evelyn Underhill calls the journey in pursuit of stillness “the costly ordering of disordered loves.” We love so many things, and it’s fine to love many things. The taste of chocolate is good and beautiful, and a glass of wine can bring a sense of ease and joy. Sex, dancing, dressing up, participating in the carnival of life — these are all good things, and nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t need to renounce any of these things and banish them from our lives. We just need to order them correctly, to bring them into alignment with the visions of love that we participated in when we were awakened. But because we’ve fallen into the habit of giving many of these things the wrong sense of priority, and have come to think that our everyday compulsions are constitutive of who we are, the effort to put them in their proper place is going to be arduous. We will have to face the ways in which we turn good things into evil things by forcing them to serve ourselves, when they’re meant to serve everybody, and above all to serve God. And sometimes, in order to return to a proper relationship with them, we’ll need to sever them from our lives for awhile. 

To Underhill’s thinking, there are three main ways of doing this: self-simplification, detachment, and mortification. Twenty-first century American culture tends to favor the first, think of the second as good but exotic, and dismiss the third as a thing of the past. Self-help gurus teach us how to simplify our lives, clean out the clutter, discover life hacks. Meditation and mindfulness practices, drawn primarily from Buddhism, teach us how to live in the present moment and cultivate a sense of peace about the future. Mortification still exists in our world, but we are wary of it in its religious sense. We have no trouble dieting or working out or finding other ways to align our bodies to a certain goal, but when we think of mortification and its uses in the pursuit of religious goals, images of self-flagellation and hair shirts come to mind.

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