Appetite and desire are strange things. Like an emotion, which “moves us out” from mental stasis to activity, the appetite seeks satisfaction. A good appetite is a sign of health, but like so many other aspects of the good life, appetites must be balanced and governed by reason.
In On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine of Hippo makes the distinction between “ends” and “means” in the spiritual life. So often, he points out, sickness of the body and soul creep in when a “means” is confused for an “end.” All things in this life are given us as means to love and praise God.
Far from being high-minded, pious jibber-jabber, the idea of ends and means is a powerful way to examine our own lives. Am I enjoying something strictly for its own sake, or is there a higher purpose? What is the long-term benefit of this decision? Even in the Sacrament of Matrimony, each spouse ought to serve the other—dare I say “use each other”—as a means of grace. It’s the irony, that when God takes his proper role, we are finally free to see other things for what they are, and use them appropriately and rightly. All created things can become “sacramentals” when we understand them as “little means” to love God first and above all else. In a marriage or friendship, this frees each party to be less than perfect, because we love that person for God’s sake, not according to what he or she offers us in return. In stewardship of land, money, and stuff, this principle of ends and means frees us to appreciate things but puts them in a rational framework that keeps things in proper balance. It’s like the sun, which is blindingly bright, but whose light brings everything else into view.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto 24, we see various gluttons and drinkers, who in their earthly lifetime did not achieve this holy and healthy use of food and alcohol. Instead of using these created goods as means, they enjoyed them overmuch. They “owned” what ought to have been “rented.”
What is particularly interesting to note is the increasing urgency of prayer and penance. Various speakers in the canto rush in and out, because they wish not to delay their heavenly goal. Not only do souls in Purgatory understand that Heaven is the ultimate goal, they are making up for lost time. Because they have a small taste of Heaven and a certain hope that they will ultimately attain it, they can endure in the meantime the suffering that comes from abstinence. Souls in Purgatory know that their time there is temporary. Their perspective teaches us much about our own state.
As St. Therese of Lisieux famously wrote, “I wish to pass my heaven doing good on earth.” For Therese, heavenly life was not incompatible with earthly action. We get a glimpse of Heaven through God’s divine revelation, in the Sacraments, and in particular the Eucharist, that “foretaste of heaven.” We see now “through the glass dimly,” but we will one day see face to face. If our faith is strong, we can hold onto this vision, and put all things in proper perspective. We can use all things as means, and avoid the disease of using them as ends. We can live as kings and queens, for all things are ours… temporarily, and for good purpose!
Mr. Joel Morehouse is a musician and educator, and resides with his wife Julia Tucker in Syracuse, NY. He holds Bachelors degrees in history and music, and a Masters degree in Secondary Education, from Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, NY. He also completed further study in classical liberal arts, sciences, and languages at Augustine College in Ottawa and Thomas Aquinas College in California. He currently serves as director of music at St. Ann Church in Syracuse, NY, and is completing further graduate study in pipe organ performance and choral conducting at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music.