Could you imagine living life without any sense of desire? I mean, can you imagine having every need, every hope, every longing, every question satisfied? (Can you imagine there being no such thing as “need”?) Can you imagine living in a state of perpetual completeness, wholeness, sufficiency, complacency: of being all and having all and desiring nothing more, ever? Of course, it doesn’t work that way in life.
From the earliest cry of an infant to our last gasp of life on this earth, we are full of need: not just for air and food and shelter and safety, but the deepest desire for belonging and for being cherished and for being generative and fulfilled. Life without desire is unimaginable. And I would say that this thing in life called “desire” is so strong because desire, at its deepest level, is a reflection of our being created in the image of God. We have been created out of desire, out of the desire of God. It’s God’s desire to share this thing called life, and to be in union and communion – to be “one”– with God and with all that God has created.
A week or so ago I had the experience of watching some cable TV. We almost never see television here at the monastery and so, I have to admit, I’m rather naïve these days about what’s going on over the air waves. I had the television on less than five minutes. That’s all I could bear. As it turns out, the station that came on at the outset was something called “Home Shopping Network,” I believe. I punched the remote control and discovered three of these type “marketing channels” side-by-side. As I said, I lasted less than five minutes. On the one hand to see a huge amount of earnestness about selling simulated pearls and porcelain piggy banks I found terribly comical and very boring. On the other hand I felt it almost pornographic because these marketers were trying to seduce people into believing that some of their deepest desires are going to be satisfied by these pathetic trinkets. . . and yet they will never be enough. It looks to me like so much of that stuff being marketed over the air waves, and in our Sunday newspapers, and on the subway billboards, wherever, is tapping into some innate and eternal desire which God has woven into the core of our very being: a desire for love, for hope, for protection, for newness, for wholeness, for beauty and attractiveness, for strength and power, for gentleness. Mind you, I’m not advocating our becoming curmudgeons and turning our back on the glory of God’s creation, of wearing sackcloth and ashes and eating only bread and water and living in a miserable state of denial. Not at all. Life’s to be enjoyed thoroughly and abundantly. But I am saying that we’re missing the mark if we experience desire only in terms of object and not in terms of subject. I mean, if we only externalize our desire on some object or objects of creation – things “out there” in the marketplace or on the streets – and miss the fact that our desire has been awakened because of something within us, the subject. What is it (!) that draws you, bids your attention, opens (or maybe breaks) your heart?
Saint John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, says that you may have woken up one day with the realization that you don’t have it all together. That despite everything you do have, all that you have learned or earned, all that you have gained or accomplished, it is not enough for you in life. There’s still something of a gnawing emptiness or incompleteness. And, John of the Cross says, you only realize this when something attracts you, something wounds you, something gets into you, something dislodges you from complacency, from being God to yourself. And you discover an ache, a hole in your heart, a need, a longing. So off you set to look for this to be filled or fixed or found. Saint John of the Cross says it doesn’t happen right away. You’re looking for “the real thing,” but what you first come across in this life is simply a reflection or a creation of the real thing, the one “whom [your] soul most deeply longs for and loves.” Most likely you first discover a person, you visit a place, you savor something of life… and it may be very, very good… but it won’t be enough to satisfy this deepest longing in your soul. Saint John of the Cross calls this “questioning the creatures.” You ask this experience, you ask this person, “Are you the one?” But they say to you, “No. What you are looking for is not here, but has passed by, scattering beauty as he went.” What attracts us in creatures is the reflection of God’s beauty. The creatures are honest: they tell us plainly [because they do not completely satisfy our desire] that they are not enough to fill that hole in our hearts. [i]
There is a fine line between an icon and an idol. An idol is something which is an end in itself, something which you are prone to clutch at and cling to, to say “this is mine” and “this is enough.” That’s an idol. However an icon is something much more transparent or translucent. It is something to behold, to cherish, to see into or see through, to something greater that is beyond. We claim and clutch at idols; we are conveyed through icons. And I’d like to say that life is ultimately iconic, it is revelatory and participatory. Life is pregnant with meaning because it is bursting with the presence of God, whom we will experience in the form of desire for something More, Who is God. I don’t think that all the desire that informs our life gets satisfied in this life. In this life I think we are always going to be looking, longing, hungering, panting after, thirsting for something More, Who is God. God is certainly not going to sate our desire or answer our questions to such a degree that we no longer need God. But I do believe there is God’s presence and God’s provision in our desire. For some people, maybe you, this might be rather complicated, an area where help is needed:
For some, the notion of desire may be largely a cruel tease because of a kind of poverty into which they were born. It may have been a poverty of food or love or safety or something else, and they resolved at a very young age that they would never go hungry again. Never! Never! That they would stuff or anesthetize themselves (on whatever) and never get in touch again with that abject pain of starved desire.
For some, the desire for the blessing of one’s birthright was denied them. What they saw mirrored back to us in our parents’ eyes was not love but disappointment. They were not good enough, did not meet the family standards or our parents’ hopes or needs, and so they learned in some tragically-broken way that what they desire must be wrong… maybe wrong to such a degree that they think what they desire must be the opposite of what is right. It’s a notion that can easily get transferred onto God: if I desire this, then God desires that.
For some, the gnawing sense of desire was compromised or perhaps paralyzed because a boundary of their person was violated, perhaps at a young age. Getting in touch with desire pulls a string connected with a dark chasm of vulnerability or secrecy or shame.
For some, desire, rather drawing them deeper into the ground of their being simply gets affixed to the marketplace. The longing in their life (which I think is infinite and eternal) will never be satisfied at such a superficial level. Coca Cola is a marvelous refreshment, but – despite what they say – Coca Cola is not “the real thing”!
I have this image of Jesus as a weaver, sending a shuttle of love back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between you and God, the God whom Jesus calls “Father.” Jesus sends a shuttle of love, weaving together this most beautiful tapestry called “your life” into the life of God: back-and-forth, back-and-forth, connecting you, every last part of you, even the frayed edges, your beginning and your end, with God. It’s what we’ve heard in the gospel passage I read a moment ago: Jesus’ praying, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you… have loved them even as you have loved me.” [ii] We hear these words from Jesus near the end of his life. This is what he wants, and what he wants for you, more than anything else. Jesus prays his desire for us, for you, from the bottom of his heart. He prays to the Father, “All are yours, and yours are mine…. Keep them… which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” [iii] And what about the desire you are living with just now? I would say that God is the source and end and orchestrator of all your desire. “Desire,” writes Sebastian Moore, “is not an emptiness needing to be filled but a fullness needing to be in relation. Desire is love trying to happen.” [iv] God is in our desire, behind our desire, before our desire, beyond our desire. And I would say that God is using this potent, sometimes gnawing gift of desire – which springs from God’s own heart – to lead us, like with bread crumbs, to a door which we might not have otherwise chosen or even recognized in this life. Inside that door is home.
[i] Quoted from Simon Tugwell’s Prayer: Living with God . ( Dublin : Veritas), 1974; p. 101.
[ii] John 17:23.
[iii] John 17:10-11.
[iv] Sebastian Moore, OSB, in Jesus the Liberator of Desire . ( New York : Crossroad), 1989; p. 18.
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