Written By Father Alexis Trader
One of the characteristic trademarks of compulsive behavior is the rapidity with which the behavior is performed. In the case of compulsive buying, a voracious urge to buy overwhelms the calmer, rational mind and overpowers the higher, wiser will. In my last post on this subject, I mentioned the important role of mindfulness in counteracting the powerful desires that arise from past engagement in compulsive behavior. Equally important in dealing with the compulsion is physically slowing down and mentally thinking about the consequences of one’s present actions. Saint Ireaneus of Lyons notes that the mind’s desires are naturally impeded by the body’s slowness (Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 33). By slowing down even further, by walking slowly and calmly with a measured step, we can give ourselves some time and some space to hear the compulsion’s demands, but also that still small voice suggesting another course of action. In trying to slow down, we recognize that the body doesn’t necessarily have to follow the mind’s lead and race ahead to purchase an item that is not needed.
Clement of Alexandria once wrote, “Women and men are to go to church decently attired, with a natural step, embracing silence, possessing unfeigned love, pure in body, pure in heart, fit to pray to God…. Those who are thus consecrated to Christ should also appear and frame themselves in their whole life as they fashion themselves in the church for the sake of gravity; and to be, not to seem such — so meek, so pious, so loving” (The Instructor, Book III, Chapter 11). In Church, our movements are to be calm, peaceful, modest, and with the fear of God, so that we might pray more easily, hear the word of God more clearly, and be united with Him more deeply. Clement of Alexandria suggests that this way of being in Church should be extended to our lives outside of Church, so that there too we can hear God, but also our neighbor who may need our compassion and our love. For the compulsive shopper who is a Christian, slowing down can also be a way of making oneself available to God and neighbor, so that one might worship God and love one’s neighbor as oneself in every time and every place.
The body can indeed play an important role in slowing down the racing, automatic thoughts that compel us to act like lemmings racing off the edge of a cliff. Once the body is slowed, we can ask ourselves important question such as “why am I doing this” and “how am I going to feel about myself if I make this purchase?” In chapter 5 of Ancient Christian Wisdom, “Saint Neilus the Ascetic suggests that the tempted individual make use of ‘the short period of time available for careful reflection, so that he can examine and discern what is harmful and what is beneficial as well as how sorrowful he will feel after engaging in illicit pleasure and how much satisfaction and joy he will have when good thoughts blossom forth.’ Likewise Saint John Climacus proposes that a person who has yielded to carnal pleasures reflect on his lost purity as a way of preventing further descent into the pit of sensuality. In other words, when a similar situation arises, the good abbot of Sinai advises recalling a past fall in order to prevent its reoccurrence.” There is a general principle at work here that Saint John Chrysostom expresses in this way: “It is a great good to acknowledge our sins, and to bear them in mind continually. Nothing so effectually cures a fault as a continual remembrance of it. Nothing makes a man so slow to wickedness” (Homily 31 on Epistle to the Hebrews).
Although at the moment of compulsion, it seems as though the urge will last for an eternity, the fact of the matter is that it will pass if the mind and body are slowed down. The ascetic practices of silence and stillness are recommended in this regard, for if one has learned to find that place of stillness and quiet in the soul, one can return there in times of need. In the same chapter of Ancient Christian Wisdom, I write, “The other setting in which the fathers engage in ‘thought about thought’ is solitary hesychastic prayer. In particular, monks remain in their cells in order to concentrate and to make their inner vision clearer. They also benefit from the serenity of the night that lends itself to vigilance. With this restriction of audial and visual stimuli, the mind becomes calmer and more capable of self-examination. An ascetic way of life is consequently more helpful for examining the thoughts. Calm conditions are so important that Kallistos Tilikoudis writes, ‘repentance is not possible without stillness (hesychia). The ancient ascetics often liken this hesychastic self-examination to the fisherman’s art. ‘When the sea is calm, fishermen can scan its depths and therefore hardly any creature moving in the water escapes their notice.’ According to this evocative metaphor, a person separates himself so thoroughly from his thoughts that they become like fish swimming in the sea and he comes to resemble a fisherman looking into its depths.” The thoughts calling out to satisfy this compulsion can likewise be observed as fish in the sea, but need not be obeyed, much less caught by the careful fisherman.
Of course, these ascetical practices intended to calm the body and the mind must have as their ultimate goal union with Christ if they are to bear fruit of any lasting value. In the final analysis, it is our willingness to cooperate (synergeia) with the Divine Physician in a process that defines our entire lives that will lead us not only to freedom from compulsion, but freedom to do the will of God, and instead of buying needless items that fill us with shame, purchasing the pearl of great price, the very Kingdom of Heaven, that will fill us with unspeakable joy.