Disordered Affection: Finding God in all the wrong places?

The phrase “disordered affections” captured my attention while I was reading James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. St. Ignatius of Loyola first described disordered affections in his Spiritual Exercises as whatever keeps us from being free. It is an “affection” because we find it appealing. We are drawn to it. It satisfies a hunger – a need within us, and, after a while, it becomes an “attachment.” We think we cannot live without it. Thus, it is “disordered” because it is not “life giving.”

As I chased down its meaning, I uncovered how I use disordered affections in my life to distract myself from my path and growing closer to God. In pastoral counseling, it is easy to identify the disordered affections and attachments that are obviously not “life giving” and cause harm: substance abuse, alcoholism, hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what about those disordered affections that are seemingly harmless like watching television, the Internet, reading, exercise, work, and, um, chocolate?

So, I did a little research and found a definition on This Ignatian Life :

 “Disordered attachments are those things (objects, experiences, activities, even other people) who become the focus of our desires and, consequently our time on this earth, rather than seeking the will and companionship of God.”

Hmmm. This might mean that my job qualifies as a disordered affection . . . but we’ll deal with that later. Here are some questions This Ignatian Life recommends we ask to identify disordered affections:

  • Does the object of your affection distract you from your focus to be closer to God? (Only after lunch and only when it involves chocolate.)
  • Is more of your time spent attending to these affections rather than the work you need to be doing? (No, I can eat chocolate and answer e-mail at the same time.)
  • Do you have a fear of feeling empty if you do not attend to your affections? (Darn it . . . yes! Only chocolate will fill that emptiness!)
  • Is your time spent trying to accumulate more time with or material objects surrounding your affections? (Hmm. I purchased the party-size bag of M&M’s® and carry it with me. At first, I thought I would just carry a serving size but what if it was not enough and I want more? It doesn’t make sense to BUY more when I already have $11.99 worth at home.)

Interestingly, St. Ignatius offers a way to overcome disordered attachments that might sound a little familiar to pastoral counselors:

  • Begin by naming the disorder. (Chocoholism.)
  • Admit that the disorder impacts your life and relationships. (Sigh . . . see the 3 out of 4 “yes” answers above.)
  • Remember your desire to move closer to God and your commitment to serve others. (St. Ignatius also reminded me that my desire is also God’s desire to be closer to me, and I never share my M&M’s® with anyone.)
  • Seek the grace to be strong and committed to your path. Rather than completely deny the object of your attachment, seek only to hold it openly, in ways that free your soul from fear. (I was inspired to purchase an M&M® dispenser and place it on the desk in my office. Now, people trickle in for a handful of candy and stay and chat for a minute or two.)

Ignatian spirituality calls for us to find God in all things. Even within a disordered affection, if I seek to find God and His grace, I will find my freedom and perhaps a few other souls along the way.

7 thoughts on “Disordered Affection: Finding God in all the wrong places?

  1. Yes, I think sharing the chocolate is the answer. And if they are peanut M&M’s, then I trust you will bring them to the site also. ;) I lost my guilt about little bits of chocolate here and there, when I learned that dark chocolate is actually good for you. And it does move me closer to God (not kidding) because I am calmer, more relaxed, grounded and open to spirit afterwards, as opposed to stressed, clenched and grumpy pre-chocolate!

    • Hi, Stacy– yes, I hear they make dark chocolate M&Ms now . . . I hear them calling me . . . I will bring a deep and abiding peace to our clinical site with the sprinkle of a few M&Ms . . . Ommmm . . . Ommmm. In all seriousness, reading Father Martin’s book has really opened my eyes on daily living with God in many ways, and chocolate is definitely on the list.

    • Hi, Laurie! As soon as we figure out how to hand out subscriptions, you will be the first to know! Thanks for paying us a visit. I will be tweeting Speaking from the Heart on one of these blogs very soon :-)

  2. Great article Barbara! And one thing especially you said resonated with me. It is also along the same lines as something I heard in a sermon at my Church a few months back. You both said “Rather than completely deny the object of your attachment, seek only to hold it openly, in ways that free your soul from fear” The priest was speaking of it in the context of the Gospel where it talks about whoever loves his life with lose it… I believe we are not of this world, we are made ultimately for the next life and if we don’t begin to detach to our worldly affections and seek the Other, we may never make it there. Thanks for your article. Great “food” (in this case chocolate) for thought.

    • thanks, JoAnn – I like the idea of holding one’s attachment openly — letting me and others see it, know it for what it is, and owning back my power. Secrecy has its own power over us and honesty gives it back to us.

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