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James Martin, S.J.November 30, 2010

Advent is a time of desire.  We desire the coming of Christ into our lives.  The readings from the Book of Isaiah reveal even the earth desiring the presence of God.  The wonderful “O antiphons,” sung at evening prayer and during the Gospel acclamations towards the end of Advent, speak of Christ at the “King of Nations and their Desire.”

But desire has a disreputable reputation in religious circles. When most people hear the term, they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants, both of which are often condemned by some religious leaders. The first is one of the greatest gifts from God to humanity; without it the human race would cease to exist. The second is part of our natural desire for a healthy life--for food, shelter and clothing.

Desire may also be difficult for some people to accept in their spiritual lives. One of the best books on Ignatian spirituality is The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed, written by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin and Elizabeth Liebert, three Catholic sisters. In their book, they suggest that some dynamics of Ignatian spirituality may present obstacles for women, and may need to be reimagined. Desire is one of them. "Women may often feel that paying attention to their desires is somehow selfish and that they should not honor their desires if they are being truly generous with God."  The authors encourage women to "notice" and "name" their desires.

Why all this emphasis on desire in Advent, or any other time?  Because desire is a key way that God speaks to us.

Holy desires are different than surface wants, like "I want a new car" or "I want a new computer."  Instead I'm talking about our deepest desires, the ones that shape our lives: desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deep desires help us know God’s desires for us, and how much God desire to be with us. And God, I believe, encourages us to "notice" and "name" these desires, in the same way that Jesus encouraged Bartimaeus, the blind beggar to articulate his desire. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.  Recognize our desires means recognizing God's desires for us.  Here's a dramatic story to illustrate this. At least it was dramatic for me. 

A few months before I was to be ordained a deacon (the final step before the priesthood) I started to get migraine headaches--almost every week. At the time I was in the middle of theology studies in Cambridge, Mass. Life was moderately stressful, and I had suffered from migraines before, but never with such intensity. I decided to see a doctor.  After some tests, the doctor informed me that he had seen a "spot" on my test results. He suspected that it was a small tumor under my jaw, which would have to have it removed. At the time, I was something of a hypochondriac, so even though my father had the same operation 30 years ago and had recovered, I was terrified. What if it was cancer?  What if I were disfigured?  What if?  What if? 

Fortunately, my friend Myles is a Jesuit physician. (That doesn't mean that he is a physician who takes care of Jesuits only: he's a physician who's also a Jesuit.)  Myles offered to arrange the surgery at the Catholic hospital in Chicago where he worked, with a doctor he knew well. By way of convincing me, he invited me to stay in his Jesuit community during the subsequent recuperation. What a relief!  I was grateful for his friendship, his professional help and his compassion.

Until this time I had never had "major surgery."  Fear welled up within me, and with it self-pity. Yet when I saw all the others in the hospital waiting room a few weeks before the surgery, I realized the truth of what Myles had said:  When you get your diagnosis you ask, "Why me?"  When you meet others who suffer you ask, "Why not me?"

On the morning of the surgery, lying on a cold hospital table, with tubes snaking out of my arms, I was consumed with fear. Myles entered the room in his surgeon's gown, introduced me as a Jesuit to the physicians and nurses in the operation room. Then he left.  A nurse stuck a needle in my arm and placed a mask over my face, and asked me to count backwards from one hundred. I had seen this dozens of times in the movies and on television.  Suddenly an incredible desire surged up from deep within me. It was like a jet of water rushing up from the depths of the ocean to its surface. I thought, "I hope I don't die, because I want to be a priest!" 

I had never felt it so strongly before. Of course I had thought about the priesthood from the day I entered the novitiate, and felt drawn to the life of a priest throughout my Jesuit training. But never was there a time when I felt that desire so ardently. And I wonder if it was something of what Bartimaeus felt when Jesus was passing by.

When I awoke, it was if I had been asleep for only a few moments. In my foggy state I dimly heard someone calling my name. Since Myles had told the physicians and nurses that I was a Jesuit, they assumed I was already ordained (which I wasn't).   So the first thing I heard, seemingly immediately after having this intense desire to become a priest, was a nurse saying softly, "Father?  Father?  Father?" 

For me it was a surprising confirmation of my desire from the God of Surprises. During my recuperation I realized why Jesus may have asked Bartimaeus what he wanted. Naming our desires tells us something about who we are. In the hospital I learned something about myself, which helped free me of doubts about what I wanted to do. It's freeing to say, "This is what I desire in life." Naming the desire may also make us more grateful when we finally receive the fulfillment of our hopes.

Expressing these desires brings us into a closer relationship with God. Otherwise, it would be like never telling a friend your innermost thoughts. Your friend would remain distant. When we tell God our desires, our relationship to God deepens.

Desire is a primary way that God leads people to discover who they are and what they are meant to do. On the most obvious level, a man and a woman feel sexual, emotional and spiritual desire for one another, and in this way discover their vocations to be married. A person feels an attraction to being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, and so discovers his or her vocation. Desire helps us find our way. But we first have to know them.

The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, as Bartimaeus asked for (and as many ask for today) but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God's desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly, one way that, as Ignatius says, the Creator deals with the creature. They are also the way that God fulfills God's own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks.

A few weeks after the operation I shared this with Myles, who always combines prayerfulness with playfulness. He agreed that it was a grace to have this recognition, but then laughed and said, "Wouldn't it have been nice if you didn't have to have major surgery to realize this?"  (As it turned out, the tumor was benign, and had nothing to do with the migraines.)

Laughing, I replied that if I hadn't had the operation, I probably wouldn't have realized it. Not that God wanted me to be sick, or caused me to be sick, so that I could recognize his presence in this way. No more than Jesus caused Bartimaeus to be blind. Rather, when my defenses were down, I was able to see things more clearly.

These are a few reasons why St. Ignatius asks us repeatedly in the Spiritual Exercises to pray for what we want. At the beginning of each prayer, Ignatius asks you to ask God "for what I want and desire."  For instance, if you are meditating on the life of Jesus, you ask for a deeper knowledge of Jesus. It reminds you of the importance of asking for things in the spiritual life, and of realizing that whatever we receive is a gift from God.

Desire plays an enormous role in the life of a Jesuit. We are taught as novices that our desires are important to listen to. A young Jesuit who dreams of working overseas, or studying Scripture, or working as a retreat director, will be encouraged to pay attention to his desires. Likewise Jesuit superiors reverence these desires when making decisions about where to assign a particular Jesuit.  This is part of the decision-making process known as "discernment" in the Jesuits.

Sometimes in Jesuit life, you might find yourself lacking the desire for something that you want to desire. Let's say you are living in a comfortable Jesuit community and have scant contact with the poor. You may say, "I know I'm supposed to want to live simply and work with the poor, but I have no desire to do this." Or perhaps you know that you should want to be more generous, more loving, more forgiving, but don't desire it. How can you pray for that with honesty?

In reply, Ignatius would ask, "Do you have the desire for this desire?"  Even if you don't want it, do you want to want it? Do you wish that you were the kind of person that wanted this?  Even this can be seen as an invitation from God. It is a way of glimpsing God's invitation even in the faintest traces of desire.

Some people find that their deep desires are difficult to identify. What then?   Margaret Silf, an English spiritual writer, retreat director and popular lecturer, provides one answer in her book Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality.  She suggests two ways that you may come to know your hidden desires. One is "Outside In" the other "Inside Out."  The "Outside-In" approach considers those desires already present, which may point to deeper ones. Desires like "I want a new job" or "I want to move" may signify a longing for greater overall freedom.

The "Inside-Out" approach uses archetypal stories as signposts to your desires. What fairy tales, myths, stories, films or novels appealed to you when you were young?  The same could be asked about stories from your sacred Scriptures. Are you drawn toward the story of Moses freeing the Hebrew slaves?  Or Jesus' healing the blind man? Why? Might these real-life stories hold clues about your holy desires?

Desire is a key part of Christian spirituality because desire is a key way that God's voice is heard in our lives. And our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for Christ, the Desire of the Nations.       

Adapted from The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

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Michelle Russell
13 years ago
Thanks for this post.  It put me in mind of a journal entry which I wrote nearly a year ago, which began:
'I long for His warm embrace, His arms to hold and comfort, to hide inside His robes until my heart is ready to emerge. I long for His love, His gentle hands to dry my tears, to fee safe and protected by His presence until fear no longer holds my soul.  I long to be with Him, to sit at His feet and gaze into His face, to feel that I am the only one, to know I am no longer alone....' 
I certainly agree with you that desire is both a key and natural part of our existence, spiritual or otherwise, and it is through getting in touch with those desires that we can eventually find our way to that deepest of desires, "our desire for Christ".  Or perhaps for some, the desire for Christ comes first, and then branches out into other desires which at their heart are still a longing to be fulfilled with/in Him. 

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