The Future of Christian Spirituality: Part 1 | The Role of Desire in the Spiritual Life
“The reason we do not see God is the faintness of our desire.” –Meister Eckhart
Truth be told, it was desperation that first drew me deeper into the spiritual journey. I was raised a pastor’s kid in a Protestant, fundamentalist home—which means that I knew a whole lot more about paying attention to “oughts” and “shoulds” than giving any attention at all to desire and desperation. As the very responsible eldest daughter of this pastor, I was “saved” in family devotions when my dad, who was in seminary at the time, was practicing his preaching on us. One night he delivered a particularly effective sermon on heaven and hell, and even at the tender age of four, I knew what side of THAT equation I wanted to be on, so I “asked Jesus into my heart” right then and there.
Later on, in junior high school, I made a more mature decision to commit my life (what I understood of it at the time) to being a Christ-follower, but by the time I reached my early thirties I felt stuck spiritually. Married with three young children, on staff at a church I loved, and studying in seminary, my star was beginning to rise, but inside my soul there was another level of truth that needed to be told. In the midst of outward busy-ness and achievement, there was an inner chaos that was far more disconcerting than anything that was going on externally.
Even though I had been a Christian for many years and was now leading others, I was struggling with some of the basics of the spiritual life.
Struggling with the Basics
For one thing, I could not seem to consistently love my husband and children; there was an element of selfishness and self-centeredness that was being exposed in the crucible of marriage and parenting that was frightening to acknowledge. At best I was impatient with the demands of life in the company of others; at worst I was angry that people wouldn’t just leave me alone to pursue my own dreams and ambitions.
At first I trivialized my struggle by categorizing it as something like an early mid-life crisis, but the deeper truth was this: after years of being in church, studying my Bible to gain right beliefs, and doing all the Christian things, I still had not moved much beyond self-centeredness and self-interest.
Particularly when love was demanding or inconvenient or interfered with my own desires, I did not know how to die to myself in even the smallest of ways. True transformation seemed just beyond my reach.
What Lies Beneath
As it turned out, my limited capacity to love was the tip of an iceberg that hinted at an even larger reality. Right under the surface of my busy life lurked questions of the deepest kind, questions I could no longer quiet. There were questions about identity and calling: Was there anything truer about me than the “externals” of gender-related roles and responsibilities? Was there anything more defining than how hard I could work, the level of excellence I could achieve and other peoples’ assessment of that?
There were also questions about the possibility of true spiritual transformation: What about those stuck places that I was just beginning to acknowledge—those places where I could not break free to love? Was there any power effective enough to touch those intractable places in the here and now, or was my best hope for transformation some distant possibility beyond the grave? And there were questions about what was lurking deep in the subterranean levels of the soul: What was motivating the frenetic quality of my life and schedule? Why did I find it so hard to say no, even when my over-commitment hurt those closest to me? Would I come to the end of my life only to mourn poor choices that did not value that which is of ultimate value?
This Can’t be All There is!
These were painful questions indeed and paying attention to them stirred up emotions I had somehow managed to keep outside my awareness: anger about past pains and present injustices that covered for deep wells of sadness underneath. Confusion about things that I used to be so sure of. Undercurrents of loneliness and longing for more but more of what—God, love, belonging, peace? I wasn’t sure how to articulate my longings, but it felt like I was being swept away. The more I tried to suppress my emotions and questions, the harder I worked to resist them or pretend that they didn’t exist, the more they seemed to wield a subterranean power over me.
Amid much outward productivity, the interior spaces of my life echoed with words like, “There has to be more to the spiritual life than this.” Sometimes the words were quiet and wistful, full of a profound sadness. At other times they were feisty, fighting words full of a lack of acceptance: “THIS CAN’T BE ALL THERE IS! And if it is—I’m not sure I want it!” Sometimes there were no words at all—just longings I could not even express in words.
What does one do with such unwieldy aspects of the human experience? How does one adequately describe the human heart’s desperate longing for God in the midst of so much religious activity? What do you do when all of the dogmas and methods for seeking God offered within your tradition—Bible studies, prayer journals, more and better preaching, self-help books, small group gatherings—come up so empty? Where does someone who is involved in leading others on a spiritual path go to articulate questions that seem so dangerous and almost sacrilegious?
This was not a good time to admit to any kind of spiritual emptiness or acknowledge any kind of serious questions about my faith. It was a time for being “good”, for being available when people called, for maintaining outward evidences of spiritual maturity and commitment commensurate with the opportunities that were coming my way. And yet, these interior groanings were real and needed attention.
What We Do With our Desire
Although I would not have known to name it this way at the time, this is the stuff of our spirituality. This is where I got in touch with my desire and realized I wanted God more than anything else—more than loyalty to family and religious tradition, more than my job, more than being accepted in the circles I was a part, more than any success I was experiencing, more than theological rightness and certitude, more than looking good in other peoples’ eyes. More than anything.
This was a frightening time and it was at this moment that Fr. Ron Rolheiser appeared as my teacher. The very title of his book, The Holy Longing, gave me courage to go on, and his statement, “Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with our desire. What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality…it is about what we do with the fire inside us, how we channel our eros.”
It is hard to express what this meant to a young, passionate, melancholy and yet very conservative religious woman who had never in her life considered that there was anything good about desire. That first chapter alone changed my understanding of myself and of Christian spirituality. Phillip Sheldrake’s book, Befriending Your Desire, helped me as well, where he writes, “At the heart of all of us is a center that is a point of intersection where our deepest desire and God’s desire in us meet and are found to coincide.” Who knew? Not me, until I read these great spiritual authors. It changed the trajectory of my life and witness.
A Deeper Respect for the Role of Desire
This brings me to my first observation about the future of Christian spirituality: it will be propelled by greater understanding of and respect for the role of desire and desperation in the spiritual life. As strange as it may sound, desperation that keeps us in touch with our deepest spiritual desire is a really good thing in the spiritual life.
Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity because they know their very life depends on it. Like the cancer patient who embarks on a quest to a foreign country, seeking cures that are beyond what can be found in familiar territory, spiritual seekers embark on a quest for that which cannot be found within the borders of life as we know it. We embark on a search for healing that has not been found in all the other cures we have tried. We run all the way out to the edges of our own answers until we have exhausted the possibilities and are finally ready to admit our powerlessness in the face of the great questions and unfixables of our lives. We come to the point where we know we need help opening to a reality beyond ourselves, and we are willing to rearrange our lives and our priorities in order to find it.
The Question Jesus Asked Most
When he was here on earth, Jesus routinely asked people questions that helped them get in touch with their desire and name it in his presence. He often brought focus and clarity to spiritual conversations by asking some version of the question, “What do you want? What do you want me to do for you?” Such questions had the power to elicit deeply honest reflection in the person to whom they were addressed, and it opened the way for them to get on a new path of health, hope and healing.
So what about you? What longings and desires are you aware of right now? How does it feel to be invited to pay attention to these inner realities as fuel for your spiritual journey?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
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© Ruth Haley Barton, 2023. Adapted from a presentation given at The Future of Christian Spirituality Conference in honor of Fr. Ron Rolheiser in 2020.
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