“God really does give you your heart’s desire,” Mother Agnes was saying, Madre Inez I mean. She was the last person you would have expected to end up in Puerto Maldonado, one of the poorer sections of Peru, surrounded by jungle on every side. Twenty hours by bus from Cuzco and most of those on dirt roads, jungle on every side. I think she grew up on a farm in Iowa.
She’s birdlike, frail-looking, pointy-chinned. I had been there for two months before I started to suspect either her great tenderness or her great strength, because everything about her is so ordinary and small.
I went to Peru for discernment and healing, but also, let’s face it, looking for excitement and adventure and really wild things.1 Mother Agnes wasn’t what I had in mind.
The order had just moved from to this place from a suburb of Lima, and they were looking for somewhere to build their new home. The “heart’s desire” she was talking about was all around us: everything green, rainforest-green, the wind bending the trees but somehow making everything seem more still. She said living in a place like this was what she had always wanted.
In terms of vocation, she seemed like a contradiction. When I think of someone who’s meant to leave their home country to confront poverty and disease of body and soul, I don’t think of Mother Agnes. If vocation is God fitting you for a certain life, wouldn’t he have made her strong, brazen, robust? Maybe even a little swarthy? Maybe he could have given her a better ear for languages, too — her Spanish, after five years in the country, was worse than mine.
But there she was in Peru, talking about her heart’s desire, smiling bigger than you would believe.
Vocation has everything to do with desire, but not always how you’d think. A priest’s vocation to the celibate life doesn’t consist in not fancying marriage. Rather the opposite. I suspect that every true vocation means giving up something you care deeply about.2
But there’s desire, and then there’s Desire. I think so often about what I want — companionship, intimacy, pleasure — and those things are true and good, those things are worth wanting, but it’s not the deepest kind of desire.
Here’s another contradiction: desire takes work.
There’s a beautiful Buddhist3 story that my mother once told me. A young man goes to a Zen master and says he wants to see God. The Master takes him to a lake and says, Okay, kneel down. So they both kneel down by the lake. Then the Master grabs the young man’s head and shoves it under the water.
He’s pretty strong for an old man! He holds him there, notwithstanding the poor guy’s increasingly desperate struggles. Finally, after a good minute or so, he lets him up. When he does — the guy is gasping and spluttering, can’t believe that a great sage would do something like that — the Master says: “You want to see God? When you want to see him as badly as you wanted to breathe ten seconds ago — that’s when you’ll see him.”
Desire takes strength. Desire takes patience. Desire isn’t what you want at the moment. It’s what your whole heart wants. If only you can bear to cut away all the dead wood, or let it be cut away. If only you will listen.