Appetites and Intellects

By Tom Brown

The late Trappist Father Louis, born Thomas Merton, while living a lifestyle reserved and removed from the world, was a prolific writer.  His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, became a bestseller shortly after its publication in 1948, and is still widely in print today.  In it Merton describes his spiritual coming of age, his movement from self-absorbed naturalist to disciple of Christ.

One portion of his narrative resonates with my own experience in conversion from the Reformed faith to Catholicism, specifically, my experience wrestling over intellect, and over the intellect’s relationship with emotions and with the heart:

I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: that the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility.  The desires of the flesh–and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgement, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire.

And therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions.  There are ways that seem to men to be good, the end whereof is in the depths of hell.

The only answer to the problem is grace, grace, docility to grace.  [At that point in my life] I was still in the precarious position of being my own guide and my own interpreter of grace.  It is a wonder I ever got to the harbor at all!1

And then follows a marvelous narrative of Merton’s first time attending a Catholic mass. (He didn’t genuflect his first time either!)  From the homily, by God’s grace, he heard the gospel clearly expounded.  ”What was [the priest] saying?  That Christ was the Son of God.  That, in Him, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God, had assumed a Human Nature, a Human Body and Soul, and had taken Flesh and dwelt amongst us, full of grace and truth,” etc. 2  Following this description, Merton says of the operation of grace in conversion:

And how did we know [these preached truths]?  Because it was revealed to us in the Scriptures and confirmed by the teaching of the Church and of the powerful unanimity of Catholic Tradition from the First Apostles, from the first Popes and the early Fathers, on down through the Doctors of the Church and the great scholastics, to our own day.  De Fide Divina.  If you believed it, you would receive light to grasp it, to understand it in some measure.  If you did not believe it, you would never understand: it would never be anything but scandal or folly.

And no one can believe these things merely by wanting to, of his own volition.  Unless he receive grace, an actual light and impulsion of the mind and will from God, he cannot even make an act of living faith.  It is God Who gives us faith, and no one cometh to Christ unless the Father draweth him. 3

Merton’s reservations about human intellect must be read bearing in mind the high Catholic reverence for the power and freedom of human intellect.   Note his parenthetical: our intellects, “if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw.”  Our intellects allow us, unlike the beasts, to attain to knowledge of God.  But they can be clouded by appetites and desires.  Because of this they are not alone a sufficient cause in attaining truth, but rather depend on God’s grace to draw the intellect up to Him.

When I began to wrestle with the claims of the Catholic Church, and when I realized that by my intellect I was not capable of putting the Catholic position to rest, I had a sort of faith crisis.  My emotions were dead opposed to the Catholic claim, and something like half of my intellect told me it couldn’t be true.  On many occasions I wanted (and even tried) to ignore the whole affair and to seek contentment in my former ecclesial paradigm.  I tried to resign myself to a belief that the truth was too complex, too shrouded to be found.  But when the Catholic side of my intellect reminded me of its presence, I did not at all know which of my thoughts were trustworthy.

For me the solution came from a few things: prayer, time, study (for the further formation of intellect), time, more prayer.   Maybe you wrestle in a similar way with competing claims of truth, and maybe your intellect feels divided.  Do not feel guilty or ashamed before God of what you contemplate, for he knows ahead of you what you contemplate.  Instead ask Him to clear your intellect, to align your emotions and thoughts.  In this way you might attain the grace necessary to avoid “tremendous material harm” and ‘contradiction of all your good intentions’ that the appetite-colored, desire-swayed intellect might otherwise cause.

  1. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith (Harvest, 1998), p. 224-225. []
  2. Id., p. 228-229. []
  3. Id., p. 229. []