Purifying Our Desires

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Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves?
James 4: 1

“What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. For they had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
Mark 9, 33-4

One of the most difficult arts to attain in human life is the art of gentle reflection on our own actions and experience. It takes a great deal of humility to be honest with ourselves, and honesty with ourselves is very humbling. It is not difficult to identify with the disciples in today’s gospel. The shame they feel is due to Jesus “catching them” in one of the most common human behaviors, self-justification and self-promotion. Much of our communication, in any given day, is given over to the various ways in which we attempt to “make something of ourselves.” As Jesus confronted the disciples in today’s gospel passage, so, as I imagine it, he will at some point confront me with the same challenge. “During all those years you were given, what were you arguing about? What is it that you really wanted?”

The argument, the conflicts, we engage in with the world are really internal arguments and conflicts. As the letter of James says, they are “the desires fighting inside your own selves.” We create alternative narratives about our identity and our significance because we cannot trust in the identity we have been given. We then design our words and actions in such a way as to support that alternative narrative of our own greatness. Of course, since such an identity is built on sand, our narrative must also include the “lower place” that we give to others. If it weren’t for their intransigence to our designs, we would be all of what we imagine ourselves to be. So, there is seldom a day when we do not spend time, figuratively or literally, waging wars and battles within and among ourselves.

To examine ourselves in love, as John of the Cross says God will examine us, requires a growing ability for a gentle and compassionate honesty. It requires that we release any pride we have about our own virtue and goodness, while at the same time remembering the love of the Lord for the lost sheep and the prodigal child. Step one in reforming our lives and purifying our minds and hearts is to look at our behaviors and words during the day past. Doing so in an honest way will inevitably reveal both moments of honesty and moments of deceitfulness and illusion. To recognize those moments when our speech or actions were not “right” or helpful will give rise to the question concerning the source of this behavior in us. What made us inflate ourselves or criticize others? What led us to avoid persons and situations or to diminish in some way the reputations of others? What in us evoked such feelings of anger and resentment toward others and toward life?

James says that it is the desires fighting within us that lead to all conflicts among us. Adrian van Kaam says that the source of all violence is the “inner refusal of our spiritual awareness.” Our conflicts with each other are sourced by our desires for what we think we want that the others have. Our “spiritual awareness” is our ability to recognize and to realize what it is we most deeply want — and need, and to live in awe and gratitude for what has been given to us.

So, we can ask ourselves in the second step of our examen, what do I want that led me to speak in this way about another, to avoid encountering that person, to not take up the difficult aspect of the tasks before me? What is the gratification I receive by fostering my anger and resentment toward the other? When the answer to our question arises, we are now face to face with the reality of our conflicting desires. I think I want to be recognized by others in such and such a way. I think I want to be seen as competent and successful. I think that I want to have power in one way or another over others. I think that I want to be seen as a good person and upright citizen of the world. I think that I want to live without the discomfort of fear and suffering.

Because all of these multiple and sometimes contradictory desires are part of us, they inevitably lead to a level of violence toward ourselves, others, and the world.

Our “spiritual awareness,” however, is that capacity in us that knows our core desire. It is singular and total. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength.” (Deut. 6:4-5) Living from the place of our conflicting desires we are dispersed and scattered, searching for and attempting to create our own personal significance. Yet, in the Lord all is one; we, and all, are one single desire. As Paul prays in the letter to the Ephesians: “And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to comprehend the length and width and height and depth of His love . . .” (Eph. 3:18).

As the disciples when Jesus questioned them, we at first feel shame when honestly looking at and accounting for our words and deeds during each day. it is difficult, after all the years of our lives, to see how much of our behavior is still in service of our own illusions. This is one of the strongest reasons why maintaining a practice of self-reflection and examination of consciousness is so difficult for us. Yet, in time, we learn that this act is not one of self-perfection or introspection. Rather, by facing and passing through the initial moment of shame and embarrassment, we discover that in our struggles to learn to love we are not being judged by God but rather loved. As Jesus calls us to learn from children and to be as children, he is revealing to us God’s relationship to us. As we with our children, God longs to help us learn the way to fulfill what we really need and want. The “continual conversion” to which we are called is that by which we learn, by trial and error, the purification of our life of desire. Slowly, over a lifetime, we learn what it is that we really want by detaching from the more superficial and illusory multiple desires that are the source of “wars and battles” within us and among us.

The Father speaks the Son out of all his power, and he speaks in him all things. All created things are God’s speech. The being of a stone speaks and manifests the same as does my mouth about God; and people understand more by what is done than by what is said. The work that is performed by the highest nature in its greatest power is not understood by an inferior nature. If the inferior nature performed the same work, it would not be subject to the highest nature—they would be the same. All creatures would like to echo God in their works, but there is little indeed they can manifest. Even the highest angels, as they mount toward and touch God, are as unlike that which is in God as white is unlike black. What all creatures have received is quite unlike him, except only that they would gladly express him as closely as they can. The prophet says: “Lord, you say one thing, and I hear two things” (Ps. 61:12). As God speaks into the soul, the soul and he are one; but, as soon as this goes, there is a separation. The more that we ascend in our understanding, the more are we one in him. Therefore, the Father speaks the Son always, in unity, and pours out in him all created things. They are all called to return into whence they have flowed out. All their life and their being is a calling and a hastening back to him from whom they have issued.

Meister Eckhart, Sermon 53

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