"Advent is all about desire," an elderly Jesuit in our community
used to say every year as November drew to a close. And whenever he
said it, I would say, "Huh?"
But gradually it dawned on me. Christians who celebrate Advent, the
liturgical season that precedes Christmas, desire the coming of Christ
into their lives in new ways. The beautiful readings from the Book of
Isaiah, which we hear during Advent, describe how even the earth longs
for the presence of God. The wonderful "O antiphons," sung at evening
prayer and during the Gospel acclamations toward the end of Advent,
speak of Christ at the "King of Nations and their Desire." The Gospel
readings for the season tell of John the Baptist expressing Israel's
hope for a Messiah. Mary and Joseph look forward to the upcoming birth
of a son. My friend was right. It's all about desire.
But there's a problem: desire has a bad rep in some religious circles.
When some Christians hear the term they think of two things: sexual
desire or material wants, both of which are condemned outright by some
shortsighted 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 my favorite books on prayer is "The Spiritual
Exercises Reclaimed," written by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin and
Elizabeth Liebert, three Catholic sisters. It's a meditation on what is
called "Ignatian spirituality," a spirituality based on the writings of
St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order. In
his classic text, "The Spiritual Exercises," Ignatius repeatedly
recommends praying for what "I want and desire." For example, a closer
relationship with God.
The three authors astutely note that this seemingly positive
invitation may present obstacles for some women. "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 strongly encourage women to resist that tendency and
to "notice" and "name" their desires. To claim them as their own.
Why all this emphasis on desire? Because desire is a key way that God
speaks to us, whether in Advent or the rest of the year. Our holy
desires are gifts from God.
Holy desires are different than surface wants, like "I want a new
smartphone" or "I want a bigger office." Instead, I'm talking about our
deepest longings, those that shape our lives: desires that help us know
who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deep longings help 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 in the
Gospels, to articulate his desire. "What do you want me to do for you?"
he asked the blind man sitting by the roadside. "Lord, I want to see,"
Why does Jesus ask Bartimaeus a seemingly idiotic question? After
all, Jesus knew that the man was blind! For one thing, Jesus may have
wanted to offer him the freedom to ask, to give the man the dignity of
choice, rather than simply healing him straightaway. For another, Jesus
knew that recognizing our desires means recognizing God's desires for
us. Jesus may have asked Bartimaeus what he desires because our
longings help us learn something about who we are. It's so freeing to
say, "This is what I desire in life." Naming them may also make us more
grateful when we receive the fulfillment of our hopes.
Expressing our desires brings us into a closer relationship with God.
Not naming them sets up a barrier. It would be like never telling your
best friend your innermost thoughts. Your friend would remain distant.
When we tell God our desires, our relationship with God deepens.
Desire is also the primary way people are led to discover who they are
and what they are meant to do. On the most obvious level, two people
feel sexual, emotional and spiritual desire for one another, and in this
way discover their vocations to love. A person feels an attraction to
becoming 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
The deepest-held 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 hope for change, for growth, for a fuller life.
And our deepest desires, those 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 St. Ignatius Loyola says, the "Creator deals directly with
the creature." They are also the way that God fulfills God's own dreams
for the world, by calling people to certain tasks.
Desire plays an enormous role in the life of a Jesuit. As novices, we
were taught that our deep longings are important to notice. A young
Jesuit who dreams of working with the poor and marginalized, 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.
Sometimes in life, you might find yourself lacking the desire for
something that you want to desire. Let's say you are living in a
comfortable world with 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." 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.
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 Advent desire for Christ, the Desire of the
Originally published at America, the national Catholic weekly magazine.