Learning Desire for God

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We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful; as unrecognized and yet acknowledged; as dying and behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things.

2 Cor. 6: 8-10

In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians St. Paul speaks of the hardships of the ministry and of the capacity to endure such hardships and suffering as a sign of God’s commendation of the ministry. His description invites us to reflect on our own life work and what we are willing to suffer for the sake of it.

When I was young and gifted with loving parents, they would often voice that they would approve of any life direction I followed “as long as you’re happy.” This is, of course, what we all want for ourselves and especially for our children. Once reaching adulthood, however, we become aware that our parents wished that for us knowing full well that we could not always be happy, anymore than they were always happy. What they did truly wish for us, in all likelihood, was that we would know joy. To be happy, we would, no doubt, need to be seen as truthful, to be recognized as significant, to never suffer and die, to be confirmed and not chastised, to have enough money and goods to be comfortable and esteemed. Yet, St. Paul says that it is possible to have none of these and yet to possess “all things.” In fact, he suggests that the sign of being a true servant of the Lord is precisely to lack those things that seem requisite for a satisfying life.

The fact that Paul identifies each of these elements tells us that he is aware of his natural desire for them and that, to some degree or other, he experiences the suffering and lack which is the result of those desires being unfulfilled. For example, we deeply desire to be recognized and esteemed. This desire fuels the life of the young Saul, who is a bit reminiscent in his persecution of Christians of some present day ideologues and fundamentalists. He clearly is moved by a raging desire for purity and power. That same passionate desire continues after his conversion, but now it is in service to rather than in opposition to the Way of Jesus.

In today’s passage, however, we see another dimension of Paul’s reformation and transformation. We see his appropriating of the limits of his own desires. As he attempts no longer by violence but by preaching to convert to the Way of Jesus the people he encounters, he comes to experience rejection, failure, and even persecution. Paul’s passionate nature is never repressed, his intense desire to make a difference and to change things always burns within him. But he slowly comes to learn that it is by disappointment and frustration, by no doubt feeling totally impotent at times, that he is formed into the ministry as an instrument of God’s will and work. The human way is a way of desire, and a learning, through experience, that God’s work is being done in us even, and perhaps especially, when we feel stymied, frustrated, and impotent. We are to live fueled by, but also detached from, our own desires, and we learn this detachment through encountering the lack that is built in to our very life of desire. In this sense, our desire is always greater than any given object upon which we seize.

Desire . . . is a vehicle for personal transformation. It is a yoga in its own right. Rather than treating it as the cause of suffering, desire can be embraced as a valuable and precious resource, an emotion that, if harnessed correctly, can awaken and liberate the mind. In this way of thinking, desire is the human response to the discontent described in the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. It is the energy that strives for transcendence but, if it is to truly accomplish its goals, the seeker must learn to relate to it differently. He or she must learn how to use desire instead of being used by it. In this sense, desire is the foundation for all spiritual pursuits. As a well-known contemporary Indian teacher, Sri Nisargadatta, famous for sitting on a crowded street corner selling inexpensive bidis , or Indian cigarettes, once commented, “The problem is not desire. It’s that your desires are too small.” The left-handed path means opening to desire so that it becomes more than just a craving for whatever the culture has conditioned us to want. Desire is a teacher: When we immerse ourselves in it without guilt, shame or clinging, it can show us something special about our own minds that allows us to embrace life fully.

        Mark Epstein, Open to Desire

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