Understanding Concupiscence

I do what I know I should not, and I fail to do what I know that I should. I am tempted to sin, even though I know it to be sin, and thus both wrong in itself and so also bad for me. Why?

Such is concupiscence: the inclination to sin, indeed literally the strong desire to sin.

If we – even we who have been washed by the waters of Baptism and the Blood of the Lamb from all taint of our Original Sin – know that sin is sinful, why would we desire to sin? Why should there be such a thing as temptation, at all?

In a word, sehnsucht: our deep inveterate inchoate nostalgia for our true homeland, which we have never ourselves visited, wherein all things are right and good, and there is for us at last complete peace, and rest; so, then, completely free action and joyous adventure. All our untoward desires – all our desires that are not toward that homeland and its fulfillment of our true nature – are temptations to some thing or other radically different, nice enough to be sure in its own right but, as inordinate to our proper nature, therefore incompatible with our true blessedness – with our sanctity, with our righteousness, and so with our admission to that Land which is the font of all our insatiable longing toward any subsidiary goods.

We long for that homeland, but it is nowhere on Earth to be found. That does not stop our searching for it, and trying for it, relentlessly: in sex, food, drugs, power, sleep, stupidity, sloth, even hopelessness; in, precisely, “whatever.” Any lesser good might stand for it awhile in our psychic economy, to our eventual dissatisfaction and restlessness. But, the magnetic pull toward the True North of our homeland being obscured by our confusion – which, in turn, is due to the corruption of our nature by sin – we wander aimlessly; so that everything boils down at last to “whatever;” so, at last, to “no.” And, so, at last, to nothingness: to death.

For, not only is it true that not to decide is to decide, but also, not to decide is to decide not. Not to decide is to decide “no.” It is to decide for Hell.

We wander, searching for that homeland, and mistaking her in this or that worldly entertainment. She is in them all somehow a bit present, to be sure; so our mistake is not wholly ill – for, otherwise, none of us would be foolish enough to take it. Nevertheless we stray from the true path, in casting for signs of her, and not for our true quarry: the Pearl herself.

The Hindus then are correct that all human suffering stems from desire. But they err in concluding that suffering arises from desire as such. Rather, it comes from desire misdirected; from desire for the wrong thing; from desire mistaken. An example is not far to seek: we hunger, and rather than preparing a hearty meal, we grab a candy bar.

We do the same thing, all the time, with life as such. Life is for and toward the enjoyment and glorification of God. All other goods are properly subsidiary to that purpose, and as meet thereto so contribute to its fulfillment. But we repeatedly err, mistaking some subsidiary good for the Good himself, its origin and reason, and indeed its very goodness. So we glorify – we worship, and serve – some subsidiary good, rather than that Reason of all good. So we stray, and err, and fall eventually over some precipice into abyssal darkness.

So, here’s the thing: to the extent that you are muddling about with this or that proximal purpose here below as if it were important at the last, you are cheating your basic, ultimate, and highest purpose, which is to get yourself back Home.

Turn your nose toward your Father’s House. All the stench of your other, former objects of desire shall then trail behind you, no longer binding you, but slowly, bit by bit, washing off under the relentless pressure of the wild weathersome trail you pursue to the sublime High Place you have always sought, where you might encounter the Most Real, and so enter his kingdom, which is to you as his liegeman and vassal your own and personal royal realm.

Get on homeward, then, and never mind all this other stuff. Indeed, kick the dust of it off thy sandals, and get thee up into the High Mountain.

7 thoughts on “Understanding Concupiscence

  1. Pingback: Understanding Concupiscence | Reaction Times

  2. Point of clarification, as I have not been Catholic so long that I am free from misunderstanding. My understanding of Baptism is that it doesn’t “wash from all taint of original sin” but that it, for lack of a better phrase, opts us in to the redeeming covenant of Christ. Original sin remains, but now we have an out. Such was my understanding, at any rate. If Baptism freed us from original sin, would not that be an epochal metaphysical event equal and opposite to that of our First Parents?

    James Chastek (whom I have gratefully followed since you mentioned him some time ago) had an interesting piece in recent memory which described Hell as perhaps the pinnacle of Sehnsucht: The perfect awareness of God, the perfect separation from Him, the perfect longing for Him. Like the Rich Man from the parable with Lazarus. I was thinking on this just this morning, actually. It seems to me that there are levels of torment, and the kind Chastek describes in this would almost be the lightest one, like a psychological torture, tormented by knowledge which it is too late to act upon. The other varieties would involve those who acknowledge God but who hate, rather than love him; or perhaps those who actively worship false gods (the Golden Bull comes to mind). This is just a thesis I’ve been thinking about, I don’t have any support for it. It’s entirely possible that revealing the dazzling Truth to damned souls would be all the torment they need. Can a soul faced with particular judgement retain any of their earthly animosity towards God? The game is up, the court is adjourned, it doesn’t seem possible to retain any unbelief in the Judge when you’re being escorted out by the bailiff.

    • I doubt that any of us will ever be Catholic long enough to be free of misunderstanding, Scoot! I know I won’t.

      Re your point of clarification, it depends on what is meant by “taint.” Baptism washes away every last bit of Original Sin itself, so that with the helping grace of the Holy Spirit it then becomes possible to us to grow in holiness enough to be worthy of entry to Heaven. After Baptism, there is in us no jot of Original Sin. In that sense, Baptism washes away every taint of Original Sin. What it does not wash away is the deformation of our nature caused by Original Sin, that continues to incline us to sin even after Baptism. That inclination is experienced by us as concupiscence. If we take “taint” to include any such effects of Original Sin, then Baptism does not wash away all such taints.

      … revealing the dazzling Truth to damned souls would be all the torment they need.

      Yes. The general sense of the saints I have read is that Hellfire is the way that the damned experience the uncreate Light of the Beatific Vision. The Fires of Purgatory, too, are said to be the coruscating Light of the Divine Presence. He is not present or efficacious only in his Heavens, after all.

      Can a soul faced with particular judgement retain any of their earthly animosity towards God?

      I guess we’ll find out.

      • Your clarification is helpful. I was conflating Original Sin, the act, with the consequences of that act. The penalty due by original sin is wiped out by baptism, thus opening Heaven to us. The consequences of original sin are retained simply because actions have consequences and causes have effects. Doing penance for a crime doesn’t undo the crime.

      • From the Catechism:

        1263 By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.

        1264 Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, “the tinder for sin” (fomes peccati); since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”

  3. I’m not sure your second-to-last paragraph is really helpful to someone in the grip of sinful desire. It’s rather like what I thought you were going to say about baptism in your opening paragraphs, and what I have often heard others say: that baptism will greatly curtail, perhaps even extinguish, sinful desire. These are cheering notions, and for all I know may describe the experience of some people, but they do not describe the human heart.

    It is certainly true that to refrain from a sin today makes it easier to refrain from that sin tomorrow, but refraining today does not generally mean that there will be no need to refrain tomorrow because there will be no desire. The choleric or libidinous man has a chronic “heart condition” that can be managed but not altogether cured this side of the grave.

    • The road of holiness is indeed narrow, and steep. If the saints are to be believed, it gets ever steeper and narrower as you go along; and the fall on either side of the trail is greater and greater as you climb.

      The point though is to start climbing, and to keep climbing. The decision to get on with it must be made again and again, every day. Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows this decision.

      My own experience is that following the advice of the first sentence of my penultimate paragraph is the key thing: just turn your attention to God. If you don’t do that, you have not taken the first step up the trail to him, but are rather headed in some other direction – either down the trail, or over the edge and into the abyss. But, once you do turn your attention to God, and the more often you do so, the less inclined will you be to decline his invitation to ascend. When I pray, or confess my sins, or attend services, my awareness of the sinfulness of my sin sharpens, and my interest in sinning wanes.

      It’s all a matter of intention; and intention is directed by attention.

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