Tag Archives: desire

“I was not in love as yet, but I was in love with love; and, from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for not feeling more intensely a sense of hunger. I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving, and I hated security and a smooth way, free from snares.”1

Not in love, but in love with loving! Not desiring, but desiring to desire! People are not simple.2

It’s been said that the only thing necessary to become a saint is to want to be one. But there’s the trick: how many people want to be saints? Wanting to be a saint is simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy. And the little steps along the way to sainthood require desire, too. St. Augustine famously prayed: Lord, give me chastity — but not yet.

Do we want chastity, do we want sanctity, do we want God? Honestly: probably not.

We assume that we have no control over what we desire, only over what we do. Is this true? In any given moment, it is true. But of our lives as a whole, it is not.

How else could the church at Ephesus be chastised for “forsaking the love [they] had at first,” or the church at Laodicea for being lukewarm?3 They are not rebuked for what they have done or failed to do — “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance” — but, it seems, for what they have desired and not desired.

Desire is one of the things we most admire in others. Haven’t you ever met someone who seems filled with it — desire for joy, for experience, for life? Is there anything more beautiful? And is there anything sadder than someone who has lost all of his desires?

If desire is really beyond our control, then it makes no sense to admire someone who is a “man of desires”;4 it only makes sense to envy him, the way we envy someone who is born stronger or more beautiful than we are. And if it’s beyond our control, it makes no sense to blame ourselves if we experience a lack of desire.

But we do admire such men, and we do blame ourselves. And we are right to do so.

We are right to blame ourselves because, even though desire itself is beyond our control, the desire for desire is not. We may desire the wrong things, we may lack desire for the right things, but it is always in our power to desire to desire.5

Desire is a chain. The desire we feel consciously is only the very last link. The first link lies in the roots of our will. The first link is under our control; the rest follow from it.

Do you find desires in yourself that are beneath you, that are not worthy of you (you, the child of a King)? You may not have the strength to stop desiring them — but you can desire to stop desiring them, and bring this desire to God. Bring it repeatedly and earnestly; bring it to Confession and the Eucharist. God will dry up your evil desires like a poisoned well.

Or do you lack desire? Maybe you know with your mind that purity is good, but you can’t find anything in yourself that doesn’t want to go out and sin. Maybe you know that sainthood is your destiny, but every part of you wants only to serve yourself. Maybe you lament your lack of adventurousness, but can only find in yourself a desire for comfort.

Then, if you can’t desire these things, desire to desire them, and bring this lack to God. Bring it over and over again, bring it to the Mass, put it on the altar with the bread and chalice. He will fill you with his living water, which not only quenches thirst but awakes it. Whenever he gives us himself, we want more of him. Our desire grows with every drink.

Desire may be beyond our control, but the secret root of desire is always ours. It is our hand at that rudder — not the hand of chance, or passion, or chemistry, or fate. If our hand is not strong enough to turn that rudder, the Lord’s hand will cover ours, if we ask Him daily and persistently. And slowly, slowly, the ship will begin to turn.

Happy, happy Gaudete Sunday. May the Lord make us men and women of great desire. May we be forever restless, until we rest in Him.

1 The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 3, Chapter 1.
2 Litotes!
3 See Revelation 2:4 and 2:16, respectively.
4 See Daniel 10:11.
5 Not a typo. And while I am footnoting: To the reader whose email inspired this post, thank you! God bless you!

Following my strange little wee-hours rant on apes and desire last night, reader Jamie added a quotation from C. S. Lewis, which of course is where I got the idea in the first place — thanks, Jamie:

If you find in yourself a desire which no earthly thing can satisfy, the logical conclusion must be that you are made for another world. That other world—heaven—echoes in you.

And reader Peter asks an excellent question:

Now I’m dying to have you elaborate on the obvious – what about your SSA? Does that desire lie, or is that, too, a reflection of something heavenly?

The answer is yes, to both, in different ways.

I’ve always been in love with a kind of beauty that is specifically masculine. I don’t mean this only, or even primarily, in a sexual way. Masculinity and femininity aren’t limited to humans, or even to animals in general. They’re archetypes, and they’re everywhere. Oops, I’m paraphrasing Lewis again, so I’ll let him speak for himself:

Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings…Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. (Perelandra, p. 172)

I’ll stop before I quote the whole book, but you can see a bit more here.

So my love for the masculine has sexual ramifications, but the root of that love is not sexual, or is only partly sexual. Part of what I love about men is the same thing I love about climbing mountains, or playing in the waves when they’re ten feet tall. This isn’t, obviously, a phenomenon limited to men with SSA.

All archetypes meet in God, the author of both men and mountains. I’ve stood on a mountaintop in New Hampshire, or under a terrifyingly starry sky in Colorado, and thought my heart would burst. I think it would, if I felt those things in their entirety; there’s only so much beauty you can take.1 But to increase in holiness is to increase in your capacity for the perception of beauty. The closer we get to Heaven, the more beauty the heart can stand.

So part of my desire for men is traceable to my love for the masculine, and that love has its proper fulfillment — partially now, in my fellow men and in nature; but fully later, in God.2

But nobody wants to go to bed with a mountain.3 That’s the part of my SSA that isn’t traceable to love of the masculine per se, that is sexual and emotional as well as aesthetic, and that is more problematic. But I think this post is long enough already, don’t you? Stay tuned for part two.

1 Which must be one reason why the ancient Hebrews, who knew stars and mountains so much better than we do, believed that looking on the face of God would mean instant death. Probably death by spontaneous explosion. The Greeks must have had the same instinct, which is why Semele dies when she asks — understandably, but foolishly — to see Zeus in his full glory.
2 Incidentally, I the same can be said for love of the feminine.
3 I take it back. Some people do.

Call me a sap if you want, and you’ll be right, but I found the new Planet of the Apes moving. It wasn’t the friendship between the James Franco character and the ape, although that was pretty nicely done. It wasn’t the Noble Savage thing, which is not only tired but silly — it’s not civilization that makes man cruel, it’s sin.1

Nope, it was all the jumping through the trees that did it. I swear I was born to be roaming a veldt somewhere, which is funny because (a) I stare at glowing rectangles for a living, and (b) I’m not even sure what a veldt is.2 But Andy Serkis and the animators did a tremendous job of capturing the physicality of the apes: their simultaneous grace and heaviness, their total physical joy. Like Hopkins’ windhover: the fire that breaks from thee then!

I can’t see that kind of thing without thinking of Heaven. When I go for a hike3 and come to a clearing, somewhere where you can see the earth spread out below you for miles and miles, I always want to jump, because I’m almost certain that if I did, I would just glide. It seems like the thing to do: food is for eating, people are for loving, and mountain views are for leaping into.

Except you can’t, because you’ll go splat. Which is the difference between here and Heaven. Another good thing about being a Christian: knowing that desire doesn’t lie. If I want something that’s impossible on earth — and I do, so often — it’s because earth is just the shadow of the real thing, put here to remind us of what real life is.

1 A fact that is entirely missed by people who think that “civilization” means the same thing as “technology.”
2 But it’s a great word, isn’t it? How many English words have silent d’s?
3 And it’s been much, much too long since I have.

“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.

1 Ten points if you know who I’m quoting, and how many heads he has.
2 See Eliot’s Little Gidding: “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)”.
3 Okay, so I don’t know whether this is actually a Buddhist story, or makes any kind of sense in a Buddhist context. Whaddaya want, I don’t know from Buddhism. But stet, because it’s a hell of a story.