In St. John of the Cross' classical spiritual treatise, The Dark Night of the Soul (I, vi), the author describes an odd sin he called “spiritual gluttony.”

He describes it as an insatiable, even pathological, desire for spiritual experiences, whether they're real or not, either in prayer or as part of religious acts and rituals. He described spiritual gluttons as those who “will feel and taste God, as if He were palpable and accessible to them not only in Communion but in all their other acts of devotion.” This is basically a sin and can easily generate a great number of other sins in oneself and in others.

This is the essentially the opposite of acedia―spiritual apathy.

Aside from those Christians who are thusly confused, we often see this form of “gluttony” in those who practice New Ageism, paganism and other magic practices. I would also add those Christians who are overly and unduly impressed with such practices as the enneagram or pseudoscientific personality tests. St. Teresa of Ávila, among many other legitimate mystics, warn us to watch out for charlatans and tartuffes but also people who truly believe themselves to be “spiritually enlightened” and have successfully fooled those around them into agreeing with them. Abraham Lincoln warned us that those who represent themselves in court have a fool for a client and a jackass for an attorney. The same holds true for those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” and who act as their own guru.

But this is not free license to simply take on any spiritual teacher who puts out a shingle. There are a great number of charlatans and tartuffes among New Agers, pagans and gnostics these days. Here is a short list of clues you're dealing with a fake:

  1. They're charging you money for "spiritual enlightenment." Even if it were possible to “pay” for spiritual enlightenment, that would mean that only the rich had any chance at attaining it and that the poor were merely “wasting space.” Further, it's decidedly unkind to refuse help to those who can't afford to help themselves.
  2. They claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” This is a slick, but unfortunately all too common, way of pretending to be spiritual. When pressed for answers, these people inevitably have none. All they have is “feelings.”
  3. They insult legitimate religions and claiming themselves to be morally superior but offer no proof of any of these claims.
  4. Your “guru” possesses “secret knowledge” without which no one can attain enlightenment. You must, of course, pay for access to this knowledge. Mormons offer a “secret password” to enter Heaven's gates, without which the Christian is out of luck and out on the streets. This is preposterous and not in keeping with what we know about God.
  5. They use “cold reading" stage techniques to simulate psychic ability or prophecy.
  6. They claim extraordinary, personal experiences, academic achievement, psychic abilities and odd religious experiences but offer no proof of any of these claims. Further, they amend their lives in the aftermath of such “realities.”
  7. They exhibit a distasteful lack of humility and instead brag about their extraordinary “spiritual experiences.”
  8. They make claims to having helped police originations, important political leaders and “Catholic priests and nuns” but offer no proof of any of these claims.
  9. They display a remarkable ignorance of religion and spirituality, painting everything and everyone with broad strokes and in physicalist terms.*
  10. They claim to have had a poor, abusive or underprivileged background but balk when pressed for proof of their claims.
  11. They make great claims at having read and understood the world's classic religious and spiritual texts but demonstrate remarkable ignorance of them.
  12. They live remarkably profligate and materialistic lives.
  13. They claim to be using all monies collected to serve the poor and underprivileged but balk when pressed for proof.
  14. They're building a cult of personality in which the “guru” is to be worshiped and whose word can never be questioned.
  15. You're required to give up all emotional and personal control to the “guru” and his representatives.
  16. They base their pseudomysticism on emotionalism, alternative and nonexistent histories, conspiracy theories, racism and pseudoscience. They often claim that “scientists” have proven their teachings but offer no proof of it. The Uranians are a classic example of this.
  17. They rely upon dubious spiritual beliefs such as reincarnation, space alien visitations/abductions, astrology, talismans, witchcraft, polygraphs, energy healings, the “law of attraction,” labyrinths, tarot cards, etc. These “beliefs” might cause wonder but none of them make their believers more compassionate, wise, kind or generous.
  18. They claim that everything they do is exactly the same as the Catholic Church has been doing. It never is.
  19. They count themselves as the spiritually, intellectually, morally better than “non-believers.”
  20. They claim an ancient “spiritual” lineage.
  21. They limit their adherents' interactions with “non-believers.”
  22. They inevitably base their pseudomysticism on some aspect of bizarre sexuality. The Raelians are a classic example of this as are the group known as “WomenPriests.”
  23. They base their pseudomysticism on misunderstood practices gleaned from other spiritual traditions which are often wielded in a dangerous manner because they're taken out of context. Gnosticism is a classic example of this.
  24. They use ridiculous and dangerous pseudomystical practices such a reincarnation regression which could never offer any real wisdom or spiritual enlightenment let alone a change in one's morality and ethics. (In fact, I can't think of anything more spiritually useless than exploring supposed “past lives.” These sessions which amount to little more than self-hypnosis and self-deception produce nothing in terms of spirituality or even wisdom but rather a fabricated recounting of professions and “past loves.” None of this serves the spiritual needs of the individual. At best, they titillate and enflame egos.)
  25. They confuse “mystical medicine” such as “energetic healing” with spirituality.
  26. Their leaders are shown to have lied, have extensive and serious arrest records, and talk about virtue but show no example of virtue in their personal lives. Sylvia Browne and Jim Jones are classic examples of this kind of behavior.
  27. The “guru” and his associates are secretive and paranoid and giving off a creepy vibe.
  28. Your friends are showing you proof your “guru” and his associates are evil but you refuse to accept this proof.

First, one can't be one's own guru. If you knew enough to teach yourself, why are you bothering “learning from yourself?” This is either cognitive dissonance or a bizarre form of schizophrenia.

Second, how can a person ignorant of spiritual practices suddenly understand their worth and validity? Very few of the legitimate methods of prayer are immediately successful and none of them are perpetually successful. When the dark night of the soul descends upon the individual, will he persist in his exercises or will he, as per usual, abandon what he's doing thus destroying all prospect for a profound spirituality and relationship with God?

Third, there's a great deal of danger in avoiding tried and true spiritual exercises for things that are popular, new, exotic and “cool.” The old methods have brought countless millions of people to a state of sanctity. Staring at a common crystal that someone bought for $35 in a New Age store and “meditating” over a Milton Bradley brand Ouija board while contemplating one's previous “incarnations” has never produced a single philanthropist, a legitimate mystic or even someone who leads an authentically virtuous life. If I'm incorrect, I'm happy to consider any evidence to prove I've misjudged these methods and the people who are fond of them one moment and then abandon them the next.

Remedies Against Acedia

  • Blessed Teresa of Calcutta reminds us to “pray always without becoming weary.”
  • You can't do this on your own. If you think you can, you're completely wrong. Submit yourself to a good spiritual director and to God's grace.
  • Praying the Rosary daily is an excellent way to guard against acedia.
  • Remember how Blessed Ludovico of Casoria described faith: “Light in the darkness, help in sickness, blessing in tribulations, Paradise in the Crucifixion and life amid death.”

Remedies against Spiritual Gluttony

  • There is no way to “earn” one's way into Heaven but there are countless millions of ways to earn one's way into Hell. Ask for Christ's help in navigating the confusing waters of spiritual growth.
  • Avoid anyone who claims that spiritual development must be paid for.
  • Avoid anyone who confuses magic with spiritual development. This also includes promises to develop your innate “magic or psychic powers.”
  • Avoid anyone and everyone who claims to be “enlightened.” It's a sure giveaway of his insanity, criminality and/or moral turpitude.
  • During his April 1, 2008 McGinley lecture, Avery Cardinal Dulles said, “Very few new ideas, I suspect, are true. If I conceived a theological idea that had never occurred to anyone in the past, I would have every reason to think myself mistaken.” This holy man also reminds us that he “willingly adheres to the testimony of Scripture and perennial Catholic tradition.” Keep this in mind when someone tries to tell you about a “spiritual secret,” ancient or “newly-discovered.”
  • Keep your wallet close to you. Charlatans want your money and your self-respect. If someone wants to take either from you, run, do not walk, away from this criminal.
  • Charlatans will often confuse religion and science. Avoid these people and their ideas.
  • Some might think that they're “willing to listen” to new ideas because they're “open-minded.” There's no need to open-mindedly listen to a dangerous fraud.

* Sylvia Browne, for example, insists that Heaven has football stadiums and monster truck rallies and that when souls arrive there, they must stand on electronic pads on the ground which "read" the soul displaying the results on overhead television screens. It's both odd and depressing to think that God is using old, second-hand technology. We've had projector screens attached to our high-end computers for nearly 20 years which means we, unlike God apparently, don't need to rely upon bulky, outdated, old-fashioned monitors. Incidentally, this soul-reading technology is plagiarized from the 1966 Lost in Space episode entitled "A Visit to Hades" where Dr. Zachary Smith. (Jonathan Harris) is fooled into thinking he is being judged in the afterlife using the exact same technology Sylvia describes in her books and lectures. ("A Visit to Hades." Lost in Space. Director: Don Richardson. Creator: Irwin Allen. Writer: Carey Wilber. Original Air Date: December 7, 1966.)