“It is just as much a sin to deprive the body without discernment of what it really needs as it is to indulge in gluttony.”
These were wise words of Francis of Assisi to his band of brothers in the 1220’s. This is the Francis of Assisi who embraced radical poverty, including fasting and prayer vigils that most today would consider austere. He often meditated on the sufferings of Christ, and desired to be one with Jesus on the Cross. But Francis was known above all else for his radiant joy – a heart bursting with praise and gratitude. He surrounded himself with beauty and delight, but never grasped at it. He freely gave it all back to God.
The daily invitation of Jesus was imprinted in Francis’ heart: to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow him (Luke 9:23). How, then, can we make sense of his caution about not depriving ourselves of what we really need?
Francis of Assisi, with his marvelous grasp of the human heart, understood intuitively what contemporary research proves consistently: there is a connection between unmet human needs and unwanted behavior. Whenever we human beings are chronically deprived of play, rest, connection, community, understanding, safety, nurture, or meaningful purpose in life, it is only a matter of time before we start acting out with entitled behaviors.
Deprivation feeds entitlement. Entitlement then seizes. Our grasping attitude may not be that far from that of Sméogol in Lord of the Rings: “We wants it, we needs it! Must have the precious! They stole it from us!” If you are not a Tolkien fan, then I imagine you can resonate with the words of the apostle Paul, “The good I desire I do not do, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19).
The immediate instinct in these cases is to assume that it is a problem of laziness or lack of discipline – often with no small amount of self-contempt and shame. We then punish ourselves by deprivation, telling ourselves we are doing penance and following Jesus. But in many cases, these penances embraced without discernment also begin to cut us off from what we truly need – from the things our hearts (and limbic brains) were looking for in the first place.
As a priest, I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years who struggle repeatedly with the same patterns of behavior. Any time I have curiously explored, I have always found a significant deprivation of one or more authentic needs. Deprivation is not the primary reason why people get stuck in unwanted behaviors, but it is almost always there as a driving force!
I’ve learned much from contemporary Christian authors like Mark Laaser or Jay Stringer. Mark (now deceased) helped thousands to find freedom from their addiction to pornography or worse, not to mention helping to restore many marriages. Jay conducted research with 3,800 men and women struggling with unwanted sexual behaviors. His book (entitled Unwanted) explores the causes and contributing factors that need to be addressed if a struggling individual desires to live differently. Both make a convincing case for the importance of paying attention to our human needs, whatever our unwanted behaviors might be. Mark and his wife Debbie (in the book Seven Desires) describe how every human needs to be heard and understood, affirmed, blessed, safe, touched in a meaningful way, chosen, and included. Jay discusses the importance of delight, rest, play, creativity, meaning, and purpose. If we have a serious lack in any of these areas, we are likely to find ourselves unfree in our decision making.
Today’s authors give more precise language to these needs, they are by no means the first to notice them! I think of the Rule of Saint Benedict (he lived from 480-547). Most of us today would find their monastic lifestyle quite penitential. But it is moderate compared with the desert monks that Benedict had learned from. His Rule seeks balance and adaptability. He frequently acknowledges the importance of a wise abbot offering accommodations to monks regarding their prayer or eating or sleep, based on what is truly best for them and the community.
And then there is the quotation from Francis. Here is the fuller story from his companion and biographer, Thomas of Celano:
“One night while all were sleeping, one of his followers cried out, ‘Brothers! I’m dying! I’m dying of hunger!’ At once [Francis] got up and hurried to treat the sick lamb with the right medicine. He ordered them to set the table … Francis started eating first. Then he invited the brothers to do the same, for charity’s sake, so their brother would not be embarrassed.”
Francis concludes with the important lesson: it is just as much a sin to deprive the body without discernment of what it really needs as it is to indulge in gluttony. And then he reminds them of the supreme rule of charity (Christ-like love of God and neighbor). Our freedom in receiving and giving love is the ultimate test in discerning the wisdom of any self-denial.
Finally, let us not forget the example of Jesus himself. His human needs mattered. As a human being, he definitely received understanding, safety, nurture, delight, care, connection, rest, and play – not all the time or from everyone, but in ways that left a lasting impact. Throughout his childhood, he received from Mary and Joseph, not to mention his heavenly Father. He spent less than 10% of his life giving in public ministry – and even then he received care from friends like Lazarus or Mary or Martha. Even in Holy Week, Jesus rested in Bethany with those friends – receiving hospitality and love. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he entered his Passion, Jesus reached out to his other friends (Peter, James, and John), asking them for connection and care.
Sometimes we don’t get what we need. Sometimes God even asks us to sacrifice things that we truly need – but usually he doesn’t. Over time, as deprivation of authentic human needs intensifies, our freedom tends to diminish, and with it our ability to receive and give freely in love. Our “sacrifice” will become joyless; our resentment will increase – and with it a Gollum-like grasping of entitled behaviors.
Discernment is the key. Jesus tells us to test a tree by its fruits. If self-denial is leading to growth in freedom, growth in faith, growth in hope, and growth in love, then we know it is being led by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, our greatest calling is to make a total gift of self and become the grain of wheat that dies so as to bear abundant fruit. That self-gift is only possible if (like Jesus) we humbly allow ourselves to receive, again and again, all that we need. Francis of Assisi and many other Saints understood. Their humble acknowledgement of their depth of human need allowed them to receive. Their receptivity opened them to the amazing joy of self-gift. May we learn from their example!