St. Paul often distinguishes between desires of the flesh and desires of the spirit, between those desires that entangle us with sin and those that draw us to God. These are at war within us, such that often we feel like St. Paul, who says “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:19). Despite our repeated failures to do the good, our felt need to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps 34:14) spurs us to look for some sort of resolution.
John Cassian, whose Conferences were among St. Dominic’s favorite reading, writes that we can pursue this interior peace by becoming spiritually ambidextrous. What does he mean? He writes in the sixth conference that “our inner man consists in two parts, or as I might say, two hands.” The right hand refers to “his spiritual achievements.” His left hand refers to “when he is involved in the turmoil of trials; when the desires of his flesh are inflamed by seething emotions and impulses.” (Sorry, lefties!)
While it might seem that the right hand has to overpower the left hand in order for us to be at peace, Cassian argues that we have to learn how to use the left hand as a right hand—we have to become spiritually ambidextrous.
No holy person can be without what we call the left hand, but perfect virtue is discerned in the fact that by proper use he turns both into a right hand … He seizes the arms of patience from adversity for the sake of exercising his virtue, uses both hands as right hands, and, having triumphed in both respects, snatches the palm of victory from the left as much as from the right.
We cannot help but experience temptation. Cassian suggests, however, that moments of temptation can be as beneficial to our movement towards God as moments of consolation and obvious grace. God allows temptation and offers consolation for the same reason—that we may be saved.
Our many temptations to sin can become opportunities for victory in the ongoing spiritual battle by which we participate in God’s redemption of us. If we rest in our spiritual achievements alone—in the gifts and virtues we have received—then we will soon grow complacent and slack. If we focus exclusively on our sin and weakness, we will soon despair of change. But wielding both hands, right and left, in the practice of patience and desire for God, we grow stronger and more resolute in our pursuit of him.
Image: Erik Wannee, Ambidextrous (CC0 1.0)