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Befriending Our Desires by Philip Sheldrake

May 26, 2016

BODI once berated a preacher who was moralising about people with AIDs, saying that they bought it on themselves by their promiscuity. I pointed out that Augustine speaks of a ‘God-shaped hole’ which we seek to fill. I reckon that people who seek casual encounters are really looking for love, in which case they are looking, ultimately, for God. Instead of condemning desire, we should be seeking to refine it.

The author argues that ‘desire’ should be placed at the centre of the spiritual life: the concrete reality of passion has always been linked to the human search for the divine. God can be found at the heart of all desire.

This book has become something of a classic. The vocabulary of religious experience and that of sexual love have much in common, dwelling on desire, longing, yearning; but post-enlightenment Western Christianity has valued the rational and controlled rather than the vulnerability of passion. The abandonment, the commitment of desire can be a spiritual experience; learning to deal with our desires is essential to our spiritual development, our search and yearning for God. Sexuality is part of this, but desire must not be linked exclusively to sex.

BOD 2Quotations:

To my mind, desire is intimately associated with our capacity to love truly — ourselves, other people, God and even more abstract things such as ideals or causes. Love, we need to remember, is not simply a matter of immediate feelings. There may be times, even in the most intense love commitments, when tangible feelings are absent. But love ultimately proves itself in its focused attention and its quality of dedication that is richer and deeper than mere duty or will-power. It is perhaps what St Augustine means by ‘intention’ and the author of the English medieval text, The Cloud of Unknowing, by ‘naked intent’.

I, and many other Christians I have met over the years, have found it hard to think of desire as a key to the spiritual journey. On the contrary it is experienced as a problem or at least as something difficult to integrate with our understanding and practice of faith. This is partly because we have inherited an image of a very disengaged God. Consequently we do not instinctively relate to the more biblical notion of a God who is passionately engaged with the whole of creation, whose life is a continuous movement out of self, who is God precisely as the one who out of love sends the Son into our world not to condemn it but to redeem it. As Jon Sobrino and other Latin American liberation theologians have reminded us, the cross of Christ is not just an event or an act but in a radical way points to the nature of God’s being: On the cross of Jesus God himself is crucified. The Father suffers the death of the Son and takes upon himself all the pain and suffering of history. In this ultimate solidarity with humanity he reveals himself as the God of love, who opens up a hope and a future through the most negative side of history. Thus, Chris­tian existence is nothing else but a process of participat­ing in this same process whereby God loves the world, and hence in the very life of God. (Sobrino)

“Desire lies at the very heart of what it is to be human.  There is an energy within all of us that haunts us and can either lead us to set out on a quest for something more or frustrate us with a nostalgia for what we do not have.”

“Because God has no shoreline, as it were, the desiring of our hearts will also, I believe, prove to be of infinite extent and duration”

“Unless we feel free to own our desires in the first place, we will never learn how to recognize those that are more fruitful and healthy, let alone how to live out of the deepest desires of all.”

“Desires are best understood as our most honest experiences of ourselves, in all our complexity and depth, as we relate to people and things around us.  Desires are not the same as instincts … on the other hand, desires undoubtedly overlap with our needs and neediness … When we choose to talk of befriending desires rather than simply responding to needs, we are implying that desires involve a positive and active reaching out to something or someone.”

“We can think of desire as an openness to the fullness of what is rather than what ought to be.  Desires, then, contrast with a world of duties or of unrealistic dreams.  Any ideal that attempts to overcome desire and replace it with cool reason is both inhuman and unattainable.”

“(Desire is) one of the few ways of touching God (wrote Catherine of Siena): “You have nothing infinite except your soul’s love and desire.”

“Even holy desires – the desires that ultimately find their rest and quietness only in God – tap into energies that are partially physical.  The sensual, indeed sexual quality (understood properly) of even holy desires is witnessed to by the language of many of the great Christian mystics.”

“The Spirit blowing where it wills is the risky, wild and profligate side of God inviting us to seek a similar risky freedom and to pour ourselves out into situations, commitments and relationships.  The Spirit is vulnerable as well as powerful.  To allow ourselves actively to desire is also to be vulnerable.”

“The teaching of the Christian church has tended to place a very strong emphasis on external sources of authority in contrast to our personal desires … Duty, faithfulness to the expectations of others, or self-denial in an almost literal sense of denying individual personality and tastes all too easily became the criteria for spiritual progress – often to the detriment of physical and psychological health in the long term.”

“We have inherited an image of a very disengaged God … whose perfection … is to be self-contained, still and at rest … God’s will is eternal, predetermined and extrinsic to our own hopes and feelings. If we believe ourselves to be created in the image of that God, we can easily associate desire and passion with lack of balance, confusion, loss of control and dangerous subjectivity.”

“Authentic desires come from our essential selves rather than from the surface of our personalities or from our immediate reactions to situations and experiences … At this level the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I want?’ touch intimately upon each other.”

We can think of our authentic desires as vocational in orientation. They can be guides to what we are called to become, to live and to do.

Some spiritual writers mention a deepening of desire in associ­ation with the gradual loss of images of God. The inability to pin God down, as it were, to this or that image drives us ulti­mately into a certain darkness or unknowing in which desire alone becomes the force that drives us onwards. It is sometimes important to remind ourselves that dryness in prayer is not the same as absence of desire — in fact the contrary is true. For Julian of Norwich, ‘longing’ or ‘yearning’ are key experiences not only in our forgiveness by God and conversion from sin but also in our developing relationship to God. And for the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, ‘Now you have to stand in desire all your life long!’

“At the level of deep desires, any distinction between what we desire and the desires with which God gifts us actually begins to blur … We experience desires that are both uniquely our own and also uniquely God-given.  I think it is important to affirm at this point that these remarks are true of healthy sexual desire as well.”

Two questions inform a potential spirituality of desire: “Is God a God of desire? … Second, if we say that the goal of all human desire is God, does this mean that all other desires are a distraction or that God is to be found at the heart of all desire?  I suggest that a thoroughly Christian, incarnational answer is the second.”

“Our desires imply a condition of incompleteness because they speak to us of what we are not or what we do not have.  Desire is also, therefore, a condition of openness to possibility and to the future … Desire comes into its own as the condition for discerning what our choices are and then choosing from within the self rather than according to extrinsic demands.”

For Meister Eckhart this implies that God’s act of creating in love is a permanent state. In other words God is so filled with love that God is, as it were, continu­ally being born in the soul, the welcoming space at the heart of every person.

It seems to be that we desperately need to recover a sense of God who is not so much ‘of power and might’ as vulnerable. Jesus, the image of the unseen God, ‘did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (Phil. 2:6-7). If we accept that both the incarnation and the cross reveal the very heart of God then we are bound to say that the nature of God is not to cling but to be self-emptying and to be non-possessive. God continually risks a pouring out into the cosmos. For Julian of Norwich there is the continually repeated phrase that ‘in righteousness and in mercy he [God] wishes to be known and loved, now and forever’.

Of course, none of us can possibly know what ‘eternal life’ will ultimately mean. But against the traditional static view I will suggest that it may, like the God we encounter, have an eternally dynamic quality in which we shall remain beings of desire

“Human desire is the image of God within us.  It is God operating in us and gifting us with a holy dissatisfaction with anything transitory or less than all.”

“The notion that God desires us implies that, in some sense, God needs us, and this is a much more difficult notion for us to grasp and accept.”

“In the story of the efforts of the shepherd to retrieve one lost sheep (Luke 15), God rejoices in the ‘wastefulness’ of love … focused on each person particularly and equally … God’s desire is always to include all that would otherwise be lost.  Nothing is too slight, nothing too insignificant.  Lost sheep, lost coin – and then, lost son.”

“(In the story of the prodigal son), the desire of the father is so powerful that it is in some sense the very presence of that desire that brings the boy to his senses in the pigsty.  The same power drives the father down the road to draw the son home.”

“God’s being is to love, but it is also to be loved.  God is somehow incomplete if not loved.”

Pseudo-Dionysius actually defines God as eros or longing: And we may be so bold as to claim . . . that the Cause of all things loves all things in the superabundance of his goodness, that because of this goodness he makes all things, brings all things to perfection, holds all things together, returns all things. The divine longing [eros] is Good seeking good for the sake of the Good.

God is erotic power properly understood and is the erotic power between people. God is our capacity to love revealing itself in the matrix of all human relations.

As a student in one of my courses powerfully suggested, ‘Our bodies are God’s body language.’ This implies that what we do to and with our bodies, to other people’s bodies and to all the embodiments that make up created reality, we do, as it were, to God.

The Middle Ages in western Europe particularly saw a more general flowering of the language of love and marriage in spiri­tual writings — and indeed of the quite explicit sexual vocabulary of kisses and even intercourse. This use of sexual language for the union with God was by no means confined to women even though the imagery for God remained predominantly male. depends very much on your point of view whether this reflects an unhealthy repression of sexual urges among celibate mon­astics and clergy that forced them to come out in other ways, whether it is a perfectly acceptable process of harnessing to power of human desire towards its origin and completion God. My sense as a historian is that the origins of this language, reflect a peculiar mixture of the two.

Eckhart’s insight that God is free to desire and to let go of divine self-containment in creating, loving and redeeming because in God there is no ultimate loss of self in doing so. God’s way of loving does not diminish God but reaches out to be inclusive of all true loves. The nature of God’s loving desire and our love of God do not in any way contradict our other human loves. On the con­trary. The divine dimension in ourselves simply enables all our loves to be experienced in their full reality. Progress in praying, as opposed to mere improvement in prayer technique, consists in coming ever closer to that dimension in me that is open to love and which can receive from moment to moment the gift of existence in God’s activity of creating.

There is a tendency to think of knowledge only in terms of objective analysis. Paul Tillich not only sought to rescue religious ‘knowledge’ from such a limited definition but sought to explore a fundamental unity between it, the ecstasy of mysticism and the desire of human love: ‘Love includes the knowledge of the beloved. But it is not the knowledge of analysis and calculating manipulation.’ It is ‘participating knowledge which changes both the knower and the known in the very act of knowledge’. ‘Partic­ipating knowledge’ is a pretty good description of desire in relation to prayer. For as that great teacher of spiritual desire, Ignatius Loyola, reminds us, ‘what fills and satisfies the soul consists, not in knowing much, but in our understanding the realities profoundly and savouring them interiorly’.

“It is important to express the inclusive nature of God’s love and that God has no favourites in the notion of agape (or universal love).  But we also need to redeem the notion of eros in God.  God also loves specifically, longingly and in a particular way and this, essentially, is what eros love implies.”

“The church tends to be uncomfortable with the ‘messy, sticky and smelly’ quality that is an inherent part of every kind of human engagement … an overbalanced spirituality of detachment or separation follows from a search for reliability … Because flesh and human intimacy are affected by decay and uncertainty, they are patently not reliable … these equations … tend to protect not only God but us from all that is impermanent.”

“Truly disinterested love is not impersonal.  It is deeply engaged and yet free from self-seeking … Agape and eros are not two different loves but two qualities of the one human love, just as they are complementary aspects of Love itself or God.”

“Religion without eros will tend to be reduced to moral values and dutiful rituals … Stable social and religious roles will tend to outweigh the value of the great variety of our own personal lives.”

“Eros in God also makes it possible to come to know the divine in the experience of human sexual relations.  Indeed, human relations provide our primary image of God in everyday terms … true loving, true eroticism, is always an experience ‘in God.’  God is erotic power properly understood and is the erotic power between people.”

“We can only truly desire God if we actually believe that we are capable of growth … the more self-aware I am, in the best sense, the more I feel the pull of this perfecting … in proportion to the sense that my life is significant.  So, desire for God is rooted in self-belief, which is why attention to our all too human desires, including their ambiguities, is not irrelevant but vital!”

“Prayer is not just one activity among others – explicitly and exclusively focused on God – but the whole rich mixture of event, action and receiving gifts that constitutes our relationship with God in the midst of human life.”

“It is not simply because we want very strongly that we receive.  The mystery of petitionary prayer cannot be solved so cheaply … True desire is all … If we desire something single-heartedly out of the depths of ourselves, it can be ours … To desire something strongly enough is always to deprive ourselves of the alternatives … To desire is to choose and exclude and thus to experience a small death.  Yet the experience of many people is that if it is authentic it will be a moment of enlightenment and expansion rather than of fundamental loss.”

“To ask for what I desire, or to stand in desire is likely to be an experience of conversion and change … learning to want what can actually answer our longing.”

It is recorded that Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that when she first started her homes for the destitute the sisters sometimes lacked the necessary money or other resources to carry on. Yet a period of intense prayer always seemed to produce the necessary results. We should not think that it has anything to do with the sheer quantity of prayer or even its emotional intensity. It is not simply because we want very strongly that we receive. The mystery of petitionary prayer cannot be solved so cheaply. What it does point to, however, is that the degree to which we pray in harmony with our deepest desires, in congruence with our truest self, and open to God desiring in us, governs the harmony that will exist between our asking and what is appropriately given.

In extreme situations Ignatius Loyola was not beyond letting some confused young Jesuits be, in conventional terms, thoroughly irresponsible for a time. He believed that if they actually had the freedom to do exactly what they felt like, rather than what was expected, they might become aware more freely of what they deeply wanted!

“It is vital to discover the thread that links our desires together.  We might say that we need to recognize the deep desire behind the desires we more easily express. (This requires) the freedom to do exactly what (we feel) like, rather than what is expected, to become aware more freely of what (we) deeply want!”

In fact Ignatius’ wisdom was that we should be worried if there were no conflicts (see Exercises, no. 6). Why should this be important? First, the chances are that a complete absence of inner conflict in our lives indicates a lack of emotional engagement rather than deep peace. But, more than this, the greater our sensitivity to our authentic, deep desire, the more aware we will become of the tension between these and the temptations to unauthentic behaviour that all of us experience daily.

 “Our deepest desires need to be stimulated.  A powerful medium for this is our imagination … Desire big things, the biggest of all that God can give, the coming of the Kingdom, and you will find that the smaller needs are not rejected but always included in that gift.”

“The unlocking of our desire in prayer creates a dynamic whereby the least encounter with God stirs us to seek more … But this has a perpetual quality of incompleteness, for we never come to possess God finally.  (Julian of Norwich:) “So I saw him and sought him, and I had him and lacked him.”

“The moment you feel yourself to be in definitive contact with the reality of God, you have missed God. Hadewijch’s unfaith bypasses what is manageable and controllable in human terms.”

Gregory of Nvssa reminds us, communion with God is an experience of continual expansion. In meeting God we can never be filled in an ultimate sense.

In an ultimate sense the language of stripping ourselves of every thought and desire for what is not God does not imply the destruction of human desire but its intense concentration, which can fan a spark into a flame.  For, if directed toward many objects separately, our desire is dissipated.”

“The paradox is that as God’s presence is perceived more deeply so desire is increased rather than satisfied.  For Julian, God is a God of desire and this quality in God lasts until the end of time … Whether we can understand desire as existing even beyond this, in whatever we mean by eternal life … it would appear that longing and desire, ours and God’s, are qualities that remain until we are caught into God’s ‘bliss.’”

For classical Christianity it was human sexual language that was usable in terms of human encounters with God, not human sexual experience.  The result was an uncomfortable paradox. While eros transformed into spiri­tual energy might be fine, there had to be, at the same time, a complete separation between holiness and self-conscious, let alone active, sexuality.

“Eros love does transcend purely physical desire, but it does not bypass it.  When directed toward another human being, eros love includes the physical but is not oriented primarily or exclusively to pleasure or to the release of physical tension.  Eros love strives ultimately for union with whatever we perceive to be the source of all value for us.”

“There is an important difference between false eroticism and true eros love.  The first is an uncontrolled desire to draw other people into ourself … Eros love is a unitive power bringing together elements that belong to each other … a desire for another person mediated through his or her body and the experience of being joined.”

“Spiritually, the human body is the sacrament of a person.”

“The scandal is that our Christian faith, while based on a particular instance of embodied love (Jesus on earth and the cross), has so little place for the religious significance of the erotic (particular, embodied love).”

The ideal of living ‘like the angels’ who do not marry (assumed to be the lot of resurrected human beings as well) did not really originate in a concern for physical purity however it may have been interpreted later. The assumed life of the angels had more to do with a conception of perfected human society which, it was thought, would be voluntary and harmoni­ous rather than based on purely conventional structures.

“Where an overbalanced emphasis on the afterlife has appeared in religious thinking, the inevitable result is a devaluation of the erotic … Can we experience, even if only partially, what is of absolute value in the here and now?  Are we capable of reading spiritual depth into the enjoyment of all good things as God’s blessings and God’s playfulness?  Or is real fulfilment and joy only to be found in the hereafter – a better life in a better place?”

The call to intimacy also involves a realisation that however much two people love each other they will never possess or own each other nor will they ever fully know each other. There is always an area of inalienable strangeness in the other person. There is, therefore, for ever the possibility of greater depth, of ‘more’, in all relationships.

The risk of intimacy, rather than the apparent security of emotional detachment, reveals the truth of ourselves teaches us about availability, educates us in truthful self-disclos­ure and of all human experiences is the one most likely to pro­voke real change in us.

Rainer Rilke suggested that real love does not consist in ‘merging’ but means ‘that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other ‘

Appropriate sexual body-language is a sacrament of Real Presence — both the true and unashamed presence of one person to another and, within that and cementing that self-disclosure, the Real Presence of the indwelling God. ‘This is my body — my life — given for you.’ ‘And they recognised him in the breaking of the bread.’ And we may recognise God too, in the breaking open of bodies, the breaking open of self, for each other.

“Christian insights about eros love and agape love remind us that to become complete we are all called to seek the eventual integration of particular and universal love.  Only within our experiences of intimacy with other people, whether genital or not, may we learn a way of being fully present to both ourselves and to others rather than being superficial and remote in our emotional lives.”

“German poet Rainer Rilke suggested that real love does not consist in ‘merging’ but means ‘that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.’”

“The moral dimension of sex is essentially linked to our inner life in the Spirit rather than to abstract norms and external guidance.  As we learn what we desire (both what we enjoy and what we need in the broadest sense) and learn to communicate that desire, we come to live increasingly in relation to it rather than to compulsion on the one hand or moral guilt on the other.  This is the process of becoming a sexually mature person.”

“To give and to receive sexually has a sacramental quality as long as it truly aspires to be a gift of self and a joyful receiving of another person, rather than merely an exchange of bodily stimulations.  Spirit touches spirit … it ‘is an outward sign of inward grace’.”

“Sexual union is Eucharistic, a liturgy that may heal and restore loving partners to a spiritual centeredness.”

“(Overcoming) our fears of absorption … (we enter) a deepening sense of the wholesomeness of our person … We move slowly toward the horizon of non-exclusive, universal love where, as in God, eros and agape are found ultimately to be one.”

“Shared sexual joy, as a step toward God rather than as a substitute for it, is a genuine act of worship, a genuine prayer.”

“(In Jewish tradition the Song of Songs) was sometimes read on the Sabbath evening as a reminder that the beginning of the Sabbath saw the arrival of a ‘Bride’ who was to be welcomed.  Sexual intercourse between spouses was also encouraged on the Sabbath night.  To make love out of the fullness, relaxation and joy of the Sabbath was the earthly counterpart of the holy union that occurred on the Sabbath evening between the shechinah (the indwelling presence of God, sometimes seen as the feminine aspect) and the masculine aspect of God.”

For the religious person both death and sex are channels of union with God and/or another person that involve the dissolution of the boundaries that normally identify us as individuals, distinct from other people and all that surrounds us.  The dissolution of boundaries can take place without loss of personal identity.  In this way both death and sex share in the traditional characteristics of mysticism. Without doubt, to step beyond the familiar boundaries is always a risky business. Perhaps this is why death, sex and mysticism have been viewed with equal fear and suspicion at times within the Christian community!

“For adults, sexual relations may at times be a major source of ecstatic experiences.  However, we have been conditioned not to think of them this way.”

“Ecstasy is a moment in which some otherwise distant reality is glimpsed as here and now and at one with oneself.  This is a peak experience.  It is something that is dangerous and damaging to grasp for its own sake … such addiction is to mistake the means for the end.”

“Intimacy with another human being (physical or otherwise) … is the privileged context for experiencing God as immanence.”

“In the process of maturing we hopefully move, whether consciously or not, from fulfilling the expectations and desires of others to a greater realization of our own desires and the appropriateness of choosing for ourselves.”

What it is important to grasp is that our so-called ‘spiritual’ desires do not exist in a separate compartment of life. The whole of my life is spiritual. We cannot say that any desire is irrelevant to the process of spiritual growth and discernment. Every kind of desire is touched by the Spirit of God in some sense even if it is capable of being misdirected.

“There is a journey into the cave of the heart where our essential self and God both dwell.  The problem is that we are often the prisoners of our immediate and urgent neediness.”

From childhood onwards we all have to learn that to grow up involves leaving the familiar and controllable, and travelling through places and experiences that are not familiar. These are where ‘you are not’.

Yet paradoxically it is also in this journey through the loss of childhood certainties and securities that we come more and more to a firm sense of our own identity and to the ability to make autonomous choices. In the process of maturing we hopefully move, whether consciously or not, from fulfilling the expec­tations and desires of others to a greater realisation of our own desires and the appropriateness of choosing for ourselves. If you are unwilling to leave the security of what is known you will never arrive anywhere: ‘To reach satisfaction in all desire its possession in nothing.’ If you cannot let go of trying to accumu­late many different things you will never discover what having ‘all’ means.

the famous Thai Buddhist master Achaan Chaa suggests, ‘At some point your heart will tell itself what to do’.

“We have, in a sense, to dive headlong into our experience, into our desires, in order to discern truly.   To discern our deepes desire involves an act of commitment as well as an experience of enlightenment.  To discern is not, on the one hand, purely a deeper level of awareness or, on the other, merely a decision.  It (does include) coming to a realistic acceptance of how we are situated in the world of places and events.  Discernment, in other words, is a matter of continually reaching out for integrity.”

“(Our ‘destiny’) is not something imposed from outside by a God who acts like some puppet-master of the universe, making demands of us irrespective of our circumstances.  On the contrary, destiny is ‘what lies in us’; it is our special gift. This does not make it painless: (as Etty Hillesum writes from Nazi-occupied Holland) ‘No, it is a terrible, sacred, inner seriousness, difficult and at the same time inevitable’.”

“The key to discernment is not technique but the focused intensity of our desire.  It is a matter of attitude and relationships – the quality of how we relate to ourselves, to other people, to created reality, to God.”

“We will never come to know our deepest desire except through attention to the many desires … ‘I have so many desires, I don’t know what to do with them.’  But it is in fearless engagement with this confusion, rather than simply by some activity of our rational, detached intellect, that we move toward our centre.  The many desires are staging posts on a journey toward what is most true in us.”

“The way we treat our bodies affects the deepest longings of our spirits.  And our spiritual desires find their expression in our immediate feelings and in our bodily reactions … Our so-called spiritual desires do not exist in a separate compartment of life.”

“For Ignatius, it is much less helpful to search for the roots of our actions than to focus on the direction in which our desires and longings are moving and the deeper moods that they create.  Discernment is all about recognizing the energies that drive us.”

“The basic characteristics of (Ignatian) consolation are an increase of love of God as well as a deepening of human love, an increase of hope and faith, an interior joy, an attraction toward the spiritual, a deep tranquility and peace … Ignatius is not talking about the immediately pleasurable.”

However, for each of us in a distinctive way, certain desires have the potential to shape our most serious choices and therefore to give direction to our lives. These are what Ignatius Loyola termed ‘great desires’. Active commitment to a great cause would fall into that category — for example, to be with Christ and to play a part, with others, in establishing the Kingdom of God throughout the world. The self-giving of disinterested love — or the desire for it — would be another. At the other end of the spectrum some desires merely speak of instant needs or immediate satisfaction in matters that are petty rather than life-directional.

It is, of course, only too easy to mistake the desire for personal satisfaction for the answer to life’s mystery — but that is what the art of discernment is all about. As a process, discernment enables us, in the first instance, to be aware of and to accept the full range of desires that we experience. From this starting point we are slowly led to understand the way in which our desires vary greatly in their quality. Certain desires, or ways of desiring, if we follow them through, will tend to push towards a disper­sion of our spiritual and psychic energy or a fragmentation ai our attention, experience and personalities.

“In contrast to consolation (Ignatian) desolation may initially feel quite pleasant and attractive.  However, whether on the surface or deep down, desolation ultimately reveals itself as drawing us in destructive directions … a decrease of faith or hope or the capacity to love truly … turmoil and confusion at a deep level rather than merely surface disturbance.”

“Psychological depression and spiritual desolation may overlap at times, but they are not precisely the same thing.  There are people who suffer from lifelong clinical depression but who may, nonetheless, be said to be in consolation because they never quite lose touch with the love and faithfulness of God as their deepest truth.”

“Can we always trust our experience of desires?  We can if we befriend them and then test them rather than try to ignore them or bypass them, (… to discover the) desires that are genuinely part of a pattern of consolation.”

the third way of being tumble, that moves beyond either duty or detachment, is described by Ignatius as ‘the most perfect’. Here my desire will be simply to be like Christ, whatever that means in my particular drcumstances. This is not so much by imitating precisely the actions of the human Jesus as recorded in scripture: essentially it points to reaching the deepest possible level of attunement to the reality of God in me, ‘May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you’ (John 17:21).

“There is a point at which any attempt to write about desire and discernment begins to run out of vocabulary!  This is precisely because what we are considering is not a skill or method but a contemplative process that leads us toward the Center that we call God … Our difficulty with pinning down the whole business in words actually models the inclusiveness of the process of discernment.  (Words lend themselves to what this is not:) an easily defined ‘objective’ and disengaged position.  (Better to call it what it is), an entering into a way of mystery and darkness and therefore of loss of control – and ultimately of abandonment to God.”

A second characteristic of our deepest desire is that while it may be located metaphorically at the ‘centre’ of our being it is not self-centred. It involves a movement away from isolation and introspection towards harmony or union within ourselves, with God and with all people and things. True contemplation and the process of moving inwards to the depths of our desire do not isolate us from surrounding reality. It may help to return to my image of the circle. If our journey takes us to its centre and if we live and choose from that centre, it becomes a point of unity, concentration and connections rather than of exclusions. It is the hub, as it were, of all desiring. The many desires of our surface consciousness, that is, on the circumference of the circle, are not simply lost but discovered to be enveloped in a wholeness and inclusiveness which fulfils and completes them in an unexpected way.

“There will be some point in life (or perhaps a number of points) when we come to know ourselves to be controlled or defined by many things outside ourselves – misshapen images of God, an overdeveloped sense of duty, the expectations of other people.  Then there is a gradual struggle toward … really choosing rather than being chosen for.”

“To learn how to choose freely is also to learn a great deal about dying – about letting go of much that is apparently necessary, satisfying and good in life for what is ultimately better.  Such deaths happen daily.”

“One of the most painful experiences arises when we find that what seems to be genuinely our heart’s desire is continually hindered with apparently insuperable obstacles.  This inevitably raises the question of what this is actually saying about our deepest desire … (Asking good questions about this does not) always solve the dilemma …Sometimes we really can do no more than sit with the desire and the obstacles and wait for the meaning.”

“God always calls us out of our future, comes to us from our future.”

“For the Celtic Christians and wanders, the ‘pilgrims for Christ,’ the sea was not simply a route somewhere but an archetypal symbol of a deliberate spiritual displacement.  It was the massive and powerful “between place” that was never far away.  Here wayfarers were, like the Israelites in the desert, always ‘on the way.’  It might be said that the sea was a place of desire as the pilgrims sought above all else what they called the place of their resurrection.”

“The notion that knowing, stability, fixed points, being utterly clear or possessing all we need is what we should expect in life, is questionable.”

“(Can we) create a spirituality of change, which will enable us to live within a condition of permanent transition?”

“It seems to me that a belief in absolute human certainty conflicts with the reality of desire for the infinite that is inherently part of our human condition … there is always ‘more’ beyond our vision and grasp, (though …) part of our human instinct finds the experience of uncertainty profoundly disturbing.  Maybe it is to compensate for this that we tend to create a vision of life after death, specifically heaven, as a condition that will provide us with all that we feel we lack in the present life … as contrasting in all respects with our life now rather than  completing or fulfilling it.  We lose any sense of there being a profound continuity with our essential human experience in the present.”

“Transition marks a boundary between two situations of relative stability … This transition or boundary place may be where, as far as our consciousness is concerned, we can only wait, (while we experience) both a departure and an arrival.  Waiting can sometimes be a purging of our need for the security of the past and a place where the intensity of our desire for growth may be increased.  Departure has to take its time; arrival of the new cannot be complete until the ending of the previous life structure is complete.”

Even though I was brought up by the ocean, I still tend to hesitate before diving into water of any kind. I fear the shock of the cold. But in the end I cannot decide what the water might be like to swim in simply by sitting on the rocks and wondering! The problem with commitment is that it is not static or fully realised in the moment of first decision. Commitment is itself a journey.

“All true commitments include risk and exclude total certainty.  Anyone who has made any kind of solemn vow knows this only too well.  Without the balance of risk and provisionality we could not make the commitments in the first place.”

“In reality we can only discern the truth of our desires and the focus of our commitments at any given moment as best we can, that is, provisionally.  At some point we need to stop equivocating and choose to risk a commitment … (but) commitment is itself a journey.  We are right if we think that human commitments are dangerous because unpredictable, an balk slightly at the prospect.”

The call to change also means that we and our desires are continually confronted with the challenge to be converted and to choose between reality and unreality. Just as change is a pro­cess not a moment, so conversion is an unfolding state of mind and heart rather than a static or self-contained point. The God who is at the heart of change and to whom we are converted ultimately eludes us. There is always a new aspect. Whatever illumination we receive, we are always left at a new ‘square one’. However, there is a consistent temptation to turn aside from the search for a true vision of God and to settle for one aspect, one face of God, and call it ‘all’. We try to capture the fullness of God in one moment and then to hold on to the moment.

The danger of so-called conversion experiences, particularly in our consumer culture, is that the language we use can give the impression that a task has been fully accomplished. We will now live happily ever after. We have arrived at a condition of rest that is human perfection. But in fact the reality is not like this and everything is not under control. Conversion is more likely to mean that things, perhaps for the first time in our lives, get out of control. To be transfigured like Jesus we need to die. But real dying involves losing the illusion of control. That is why it is such a struggle. Conversion is always to another state of provisionality rather than a simple movement from chaos and uncertainty to the rock of final invulnerability.

The goal of the spiritual journey is ever-expanding as far as our perceptions are concerned — that is, God. The experience is not a commodity called ‘perfection’ but a process of being continually filled. It involves responsiveness rather than grasp­ing. For this we have to give up the search for the horizons we find humanly so necessary — especially tangible progress and visible success. Conversion leads us to respond only to the ‘co­ordinates of grace’ rather than to expectations, our own or other people’s. As I heard a recent speaker say, ‘I don’t think there is a grounding in this time of chaos other than the willingness to free-fall or float-free, with the shards of our shattered images of God, each other, our selves, as space dust around us …’

. In the desert there was no abiding city, merely a God who continually called the people onwards to new places of encounter which could be reached by faithfulness to God alone. Yet the land is a central theme of biblical faith. This land of promise was the sign of the covenant between God and the people. Eventually Sion, Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, became associated in a special way with God’s presence.

So two theologies existed side by side in the Hebrew scriptures, sometimes uncomfortably so. The theology of the ‘Moses’ school of thinking was always sharply aware of the spiritual temp­tations of settling down and becoming too fixed in our ways. The experience of wandering, of desiring but never totally arriving, of complete trust in God, was central. The contrasting theology of the ‘King David’ school reflected the experience of coming into possession of the land, of settlement and of developing a Temple cult. The desert was an ambiguous symbol of trial and tribulation that did eventually come to an end in the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring the descendants of Abraham into possession of the land.

The founding scriptures of Christianity are deeply embedded in the Jewish experience of defeat, exile and ceasing to be a nation that was inextricably linked to a special sacred landscape. Much of the writing of the New Testament was born in the Jewish Diaspora. This gave early Christianity a context in which, spiritually to some degree, as well as physically, it moved away from its roots in the life of Jesus and the early disciples in rural Palestine. Eventually it became a faith that expanded through missionary-journeying throughout the breadth of the Roman Empire. The theology is of a people on the move. Christians are ‘people of the way’.

“It would be false to pretend that any human embodiment is absolute.  The experiences of commitment and choice, therefore, have two dimensions.  First, we need to be wholeheartedly engaged.  But second, in terms of the human contexts within which we express them, commitments are always a risk and are always, provisional.”

“The God who is at the heart of change and to whom we are converted ultimately eludes us.  There is always a new aspect.  Whatever illumination we receive, we are always left at a new ‘square one.’”

“There is a consistent temptation to turn aside from the search for a true vision of God and to settle for one aspect, one face of God, and call it ‘all.’  … The danger of so-called conversion experiences, particularly in our consumer culture, is that the langue we use can give the impression that the task has been fully accomplished.  We will now live happily ever after … but conversion is more likely to mean that things, perhaps for the first time in our lives, get out of control.”

“The experience is not a commodity called perfection but a process of being continually filled.  It involves responsiveness rather than grasping.  For this, we have to give up the search for the horizons we find humanly so necessary – especially tangible progress and visible success.”

“In both human loving and our love of God, the conversion process is one of ‘de-centering,’ that is, of moving beyond seeing the self as the unquestioned centre of reality … Only falling in love, both with another person and with God, makes it possible for us to surrender the self to any significant degree at all.”

“Two theologies existed side by side in the Hebrew scriptures, sometimes uncomfortably so.  The theology of the “Moses” school of thinking was always sharply aware of the spiritual temptations of settling down and becoming too fixed in our ways.  The experience of wandering, of desiring but never totally arriving, of complete trust in God, was central.  The contrasting theology of the “King David” school reflected the experience of coming into possession of the land, of settlement and of developing a Temple cult.”

“One of the later Christian traditions that picked up this theme of movement and journey and turned it into a focus for spiritual desire was the Celtic, especially the Irish, one … The development of peregrinatio, wandering exile (led to …) not just change, journeying and movement in themselves, but ‘to seek the place of our resurrection.’ … It focused human desire away from settling for a mere this or that … The wanderers remind us in a romantic and dramatic way of the inner journey of desire that all Christians are called to undertake.”

“What drives the whole process of existence for a human being is the desire for God, that is, eros.  This implies a perpetual and not accidental process of growth and change.”

“In the powerful words of the French thinker, the late Michel de Certeau, mystical experience is to be caught up in ‘an eternity without shores.’  Because God has no shoreline, as it were, the desiring of our hearts will also, I believe, prove to be of infinite extent and duration.

“(Certeau writes) ‘He or she is a mystic who cannot stop walking and, with the certainty of what is lacking, knows of every place and object that it is not that; one cannot stay there nor be content with that.  Desire creates an excess.  Places are exceeded, passed, lost behind it.  It makes one go further.  It lives, nowhere.’”

This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. —  Gregory of Nyssa

See also The Education of Desire – T. Gorringe

and Choice Desire and the Will of God: What more do you want? by David Runcorn

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