There are a number of ways, I think, in which we could approach this story of Jesus’ encounter with blind Bartimaeus:
- We could see it as a miracle story, which it certainly is, and compare it with other miracle stories in the gospels, especially with other miracles that involve healing.
- Or, we could see this story as a story of faith. Jesus commends Bartimaeus for his faith, and suggests that his strong and persistent belief was the catalyst for his healing.
- But there is a third possibility, and this is the one that I would choose this morning – and that is to approach this story as a story of desire – a story of our desire for God, and God’s desire for us.
Desire, as I wish to speak of it, refers not just to our intentions or goals, something we may be interested in having or doing. I want to speak of desire as the deep longing of our heart, a longing that proceeds from the very core of our being.
It’s that kind of deep longing that I recognize in Bartimaeus. We see it first in the urgency with which he calls out to Jesus. He will not be deterred by onlookers who try to quiet him. He has a need and he is desperate to make Jesus aware of it. His shouts reach the ears of Jesus, and Jesus responds by turning towards him. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is approaching, he throws off his cloak, the garment he would have spread before him to collect alms, and springs to his feet. He is eager and ready.
Jesus has a question for him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Such an interesting question. What would you say if Jesus were to ask it of you? “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus doesn’t hesitate, even for an instant. He knows exactly what he wants: “My teacher, let me see again.” This is the deep longing of his heart, and it is a longing which Jesus chooses to grant. “Go,” he says, “your faith has made you well.”
It’s interesting to recall that just a few verses prior to this, Jesus asked this same question of James and John, who had also come seeking his favor. “What do you want me to do for you?” Their answer was quite different, wasn’t it? “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” This request Jesus could not and would not grant. It was a self-serving request, born out of a hunger for power and prestige and a complete lack of understanding of what the kingdom was all about. Not all our desires are worthy or laudable.
Bartimaeus wants to regain his sight, but his story reveals that his desire goes beyond this, because immediately upon gaining his sight, he follows Jesus on the way. His deep longing is to be with Jesus, and to walk with him “on the way” – that is, the way that is leading to Jerusalem and to the Cross. He longs to be a disciple and is willing to leave everything behind to devote himself wholeheartedly to Jesus’ cause.
What can we say, then, about our own desires? What are they and where are they taking us?
We might begin by asking ourselves three questions: First, is desire present? Second, can it be named? And third, what does it mean?
First then, is desire present in our lives? Some of us might find it difficult to answer this question. We may not be used to the idea of exploring or expressing our deepest desires. We may have been taught that to think of what we desire is wrong or selfish. We may have been conditioned to feel that we are not entitled to have desires of our own, or that it would be presumptuous or futile to investigate them or explore them.
Others of us may be wary of exploring our desires. We may be worried that, if we began to explore our deep desires, we might uncover a minefield of disappointment, frustration, resentment or jealousy. We might wonder why others seem to have their desires fulfilled and yet we have had to stifle or sacrifice so many of our desires. We may not want to risk going there, afraid that our exploration will lead only to further disappointment.
Some of us may be reluctant because of our ambivalence towards the erotic. “Desire” sounds like a sexy and dangerous word, and we might be concerned about what we might unleash if we began exploring our experience of yearning. We may have gotten used to controlling and managing this area of our lives, and we don’t want to risk unlocking Pandora’s box for fear of what we might find there.
Still others of us might have to confront the fact that we have lost our passion, that we don’t desire much of anything anymore. We may be so locked in our daily routine that we have lost touch with this part of ourselves. We may be worried that our search will uncover nothing, and that our passion is gone.
So the first question we have to ask ourselves is this: “Is desire present in my life, and am I willing to explore this area of my experience?” Only then can we take the next step, which is to say, “If desire is present, can I name it?”
If we can stay with this question long enough to reach a place of honesty, we might actually identify some of the desires that reside within us. We might recognize, for example, the desire to be loved, appreciated, even admired. Or we might see that we have a desire to be “special” to someone, chosen specifically by them to be cherished and treasured for who we are and for what we can become. How honest can we be with ourselves in recognizing and naming the desires that reside deep within us? Often our desires are hidden secrets, to which very few people have access. Can we name – to ourselves or to someone close to us — what it is that we want?
Why is this so important? It is because, whether we acknowledge them or not, whether we are even conscious of their existence, our desires influence us. They motivate us and shape us – and it’s only by honestly acknowledging their presence and naming them that we can make wise choices about them.
The great spiritual leader of India in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.”Think for a moment about what this might mean. “We become what we yearn after.” By these words Gandhi did not mean that we will achieve whatever we desire: that if we yearn after wealth, we will become wealthy; or if we yearn after popularity, we will become popular; or if we yearn after youth and beauty, we will become (or remain) young and beautiful. When he says, “We become what we yearn after,” he does not mean that we become whatever we want badly enough. Instead, he means to suggest, I think, that what we yearn after, what we set our hearts on, what we most deeply desire, will influence the type of person we will become. Our desires shape our choices, and our choices shape our character. If we yearn after wealth or popularity or beauty or any other thing, that yearning will shape the choices that we make: choices about where and how we will live, about what work we might choose to do, about whom we will choose to be our friends, about how we relate to others, about where we put our time and energy. Our desire, our yearning, will shape our choices in life, and the choices we make will determine the sort of person we become. In that sense, suggests Gandhi, “We become what we yearn after.”
But there’s more to the quote: “We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.” Prayer gives us space and opportunity to look deep within ourselves, to discover and name our deepest desires, to examine our true priorities, and to determine which choices are congruent with the person we want to become and that God wants us to become. Quieting ourselves in prayer, seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, we descend into that deep place within ourselves, that part of us that makes choices, to discover what it is that we truly yearn after. It may not be at all what we assume it is. We may be surprised at the hidden forces of desire that rule our hearts. We may even be shocked and embarrassed by what we find there. But discovering and naming the desires at work within us gives us the freedom to choose whether to cooperate with them or to reject them. It gives us the space and perspective we need to consciously make choices that are in line with the deepest and most authentic desires of our hearts, those desires that are truly from God. Prayer gives us the gift of knowing ourselves. It offers us the power to shape our lives by choosing according to the yearnings we have consciously embraced as being congruent with our truest selves. In prayer the Spirit reveals to us the ways of God, ways which often are in opposition to the ways of the world around us.
If we can identify and name these desires that are at work deep within us, then we can proceed to the third question, which is “What do they mean?” Here we discover a great mystery. As we consider our deepest desires, we begin to see that they will not be met by this or that experience, fulfilled by this or that satisfaction, but, in fact, they open out towards God. God is present in them. Suppose, for example, that we have recognized within ourselves the desire to be wanted and appreciated. As we ponder this desire, we can begin to see that it cannot be satisfied simply by a friend or partner or spouse (as much as modern-day media would try to convince us otherwise). We can recognize that it is something more, something deeper within us that longs to be satisfied. If we examine it closely we will recognize that only God can love us the way we want and need to be loved. It is God who longs for us and loves us wholeheartedly. We may be able to recognize in ourselves that our desire to be admired, loved and wanted will only be fulfilled by the only One whose admiring, loving and wanting would ultimately count. God desires us, and God is the One to be desired, the One whom we can love without holding back.
The saints and mystics of our tradition recognized this. They were aware of the depths of God’s desire for us, and of God’s yearning to arouse in us a passion to meet his passion for us. St John Climacus boldly declared, “Let physical eros be for you a model in your eros for God” (26:31), and “Happy are they who have a passion for God no less violent than that of a lover for his beloved” (30:5). The psalmist recognizes the desire for God as the ultimate desire of the human heart when he writes, “O God, you are my God; I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps.63:1). He knew something of desire, of passion, for God.
How might your relationship with God change if you were to recognize that all that you desire is rooted in a deep longing which only God can fulfill? Imagine prayer undertaken not out of a sense of duty or obligation, but as a response to the deep longing God expresses for us. How would it be to pray to God as lover rather than as Creator or Ruler?
“We become what we yearn after,” Gandhi said. What might we become if we yearned after GOD with our whole hearts, if we desired God with our whole selves – body, mind and spirit? What might we become if God’s desire for us was met by an equally passionate desire on our part for God? I dare say our world would be turned upside-down.
 Quoted in The Diary of Mahadev Desai, p. 58.
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