NOTES ON THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF DESIRE
AT THE SERVICE OF MONASTIC
(Conference to the General Chapters, October 2005)
Once again I would like to offer a contribution along anthropological lines, in the context of our monastic formation. What has made me reflect on this subject is the departure from our monasteries of six or seven young adult monks during the past two years. In almost every case there were two common factors, namely, the discovery of human love embodied in a particular woman and the total relativity given to everything the man had previously lived. It would seem that the discovery of human love had converted his former search for God into something unreal.
Obviously it is not a question now of judging the vocation of these young men. Rather, we should question ourselves about the formation we offered them. The following could be pertinent questions to ask: What human foundations was the spiritual skyscraper built on? What type of anthropology was implicit in their formation process? Are we really convinced that grace builds on nature? Are we fostering split personalities, even though we say the opposite? Why do young nuns not have similar experiences? Are women more realistic, while we men are more carnal? Do we perhaps repress what is instinctive in us, so as to favor what is rational? Do we give priority to the spirit in detriment to the body? Do we keep allegorizing the biblical texts on love and thus empty them of their human richness? And we could continue with more questions like this.
It is not my intention to answer such questions directly. However, the following paragraphs will offer an initial response. The theme we will treat can be stated like this: “anthropological notes concerning human desire at the service of monastic formation.” Therefore I will treat the theme only partially and incompletely, since these are simply “notes” and my approach will be principally anthropological, yet without forgetting that Christian anthropology finds its fullest and most adequate meaning in a theological context.
The following text from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.2) has been an inspiration for me and will be a good starting point:
God himself, by creating man in his own image, has written in the human heart the desire to see God. Even though this desire is often ignored, God does not cease to draw man to Himself, so that he may live and find in God that fullness of truth and happiness which he is constantly looking for. That is why man is, by nature and by vocation, a religious being, capable of entering into communion with God. This intimate, vital bond with God confers on man his fundamental dignity.
This text from the Church’s magisterium puts desire in intimate relation to the divine image in the human being. This primordial, structural desire moves the person to search for the fullness of the Creator and makes the person a religious being, worthy of all respect.
It is hardly necessary to
say that this text from the Catechism has its roots in the tradition springing
The theme of desire is central to Cistercian anthropology. The mystical language of our Fathers expresses their experience of desiderium. There are six key words that refer to this experience: desiderium, affectus, amor, caritas, contemplatio and nuptiae. Moreover St. Bernard, in his Sermons on the Song of Songs, uses other synonyms, such as suspirare (to sigh, 59:4), appetire (to crave, 47:5), sitire (to thirst, 7:2), suspendere (to hang on, 17:2), clamitare (to cry out, 74:7), se afflictare (to be distressed, 31:5), inhiare (to be openmouthed with eagerness, like the baby pigeon waiting for food from its mother, 28,13), deficere (to faint away, 28:13), flere (to weep, 58:11). These many expressions show the importance of this theme and are another reason for discussing it with you at this moment of the Order’s life.
The present conference will deal with the following points: first we will consult Biblical revelation so as to point out the central place which desire occupies in Judeo-Christian anthropology. Then we will see the etymology of the word, its paradoxes and the continual presence of desire in human experience, especially in sexuality, religion, psychology and human cultures. We will conclude with some reflections on its relation to the theological virtue of hope. I will try to draw some conclusions from each of these subtopics and underline some aspects of them which have to do with monastic formation.
1. Desire in the Context of Image and Likeness
In Biblical anthropology there is a word whose importance is fundamental for understanding the human experience of desire. It appears early, in the first pages of the Bible: The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living nephesh (Gn 2:7).
A simple consultation of dictionaries and studies on the biblical theology of the Old Testament shows that nephesh appears some 754 times in Sacred Scripture with a large variety of meanings: breath, soul, life, throat, appetite, desire, living being, person. For our purposes, it is enough to say that it can mean:
- A bodily organ connected with breathing or swallowing: the throat, neck (Is 51:23; Ps 69:2; Prov ; 25:25), mouth (Is ; Prov 28:25), and even the stomach (Is 29:8; Prov ; Ps 107:9).
- The physiological function related to these organs: breathing (Gn 35:18; Lam ; Job ), thirst (Ps 78:18; Prov ), desire for food (Dt ; Prov ; Ps 106:15).
- As a transferred meaning, the tension
of longing or desiring (1 Sam 20:4; Prov 19:2; Ps 105:22).
In other words, nephesh can be used to designate the living person as a being of desire, structured for a relationship with the other/Other, which relationship is necessary for his or her self-fulfillment. In this sense, the text from Genesis 2:7 can be translated freely in the following way: and the man became a living subject of desires. When the spouse of the Song of Songs speaks about her beloved as the love of my soul, she would be saying, “the desired one of my desires!” (Song 1:7; 3:1-4; cf. 5:6; ). And we read in Psalm 130:6: My soul (my nephesh) is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak; that is: the structure of my person, as a subject of desires, is ordered to God like the watchman who waits for daybreak (Cf. Ps 42:2,6,12; 43:5).
These examples let us see that the noun, nephesh, is sometimes translated as soul, or life, or even by a personal pronoun. Thus, when it is used
in relation to human feelings it generally points to the vital center of the
person, where he or she feels things, breathes, reacts and decides (Jgs 18:25;
II Sam 5:8; 17:8; Is 19:10; 38:15; Prov 11:25; 14:10; Jer 42:21; etc.). This
Biblical teaching is taken up by
We humans live out of this primordial structural desire. We are continually desiring and multiplying our desires, which stir up a whole constellation of feelings in us, so that we live desiring and feeling. It becomes obvious, then, that this foundational reality of our human life must be given an important place in our programs of monastic formation. The monastery is a school of charity to the degree that it knows how to educate human desires and order human affections.
2. Etymology and Meaning
A human being behaves as such when it functions in a way that is “desiring,” affectionate, decisive, moral and intelligent. In other words, desire, affectivity, will power, conscience and intelligence are the basic psychological functions of behavior on the part of any human being, whether man or woman. Desire is a basic structure before being differentiated into various types of desires. This primordial desire underlies our affectivity and our will power.
But what does the etymology of the word, “desire,” teach us about the experience which it refers to? From among its several possible derivations I think the best is the following one: the word, “desire,” comes from the Latin, de-siderare, which is composed of a privative prefix (de) and a noun (sidus, -eris: star, heavenly body). Thus we have the expressions, chasing stars or a star in one’s life.
Chinese culture also teaches us something interesting on this point. The character for “hope” (wang in Mandarin Chinese) is composed of two other ideograms. In the lower part of the character is a man standing on a platform looking up. In the upper part is a crescent moon. In other words, hope is characterized by a human being wanting and waiting for the arrival of the full moon. This same character is used in Japanese to signify desire (nozomi) and the action of desiring (nozomu).
Therefore, when we talk about desire we are speaking metaphorically. We are referring to the movement toward some absent thing or person that we perceive as good and attractive. More specifically, desire implies a feeling of absence due to a lack of satisfaction with what is presently available. Bernard of Clairvaux describes this experience of desire in a concise way by saying, “All rational beings, by their very nature, are continually longing for what seems better to them and they are not satisfied as long as they do not have what they consider to be better” (Dil., 18).
There is an important lesson for the process of personal maturity in what we have been saying. The world and other persons as different from ourselves, with all their intrinsic wealth of meaning, including a personal mission for us to accomplish, can only be perceived when we recognize our own structural “lack” of completeness.
The acceptance of this absence, of this need, with the existential solitude it implies, which is so characteristic of our human condition, is an indispensable requisite for establishing relationships with others. In fact it is only when we recognize that we are beings in need that another person, precisely as other, can become a companion on our journey. We are not everything for anybody, and nobody can be everything for us. This is the necessary condition for the success of any married couple, any friendship, any group of brothers or sisters, any community, any effort towards unity. There will always be an essential distance, separation and distinctive difference. Everything is both presence and absence, even in the most intimate forms of communion.
When our desire has been configured and limited by separation, difference and absence, it becomes possible to avoid the following three temptations:
- Fusion with the other person, which ends up annihilating love. This is a fairly common danger in the process of initial monastic formation.
- Manipulation of the other person for one’s own benefit, thus reducing the person to the status of a material object. This is possibly a danger for superiors who lack adequate human maturity.
- Elimination of self at the service of what one supposes to be the desire of the other person. This is a danger for not a few young persons in formation who want to please their formators.
3. Paradoxes and Dimensions
Desire is a paradoxical reality in human life that is always present. Starting from a lack, with its need for satisfaction, it puts us in motion so that we search for someone or something beyond ourselves. To desire is to know oneself as incomplete, needy, aware that something is missing, the possession of which appears as satisfying and enjoyable. This is an important principle, namely, that every desire stirs up one’s feelings; underneath all awakened affectivity lies desire.
Someone has said that because of desire we experience a certain uncomfortable anxiety and that this experience of unease is the basis of all human activity. However, someone else replied that, if we did not have anything to desire we might be happy, but would be deeply unfortunate. Many of the paradoxes of desire have become popular sayings or maxims, such as these:
- Do not try to make things as you want them to be, but want them to be as they are.
- If you were to get half of what you want, you would double your worries.
- The more you want, the more you will find wanting.
- Impatient desire is more stimulating than a glut of delight.
- A goal hard to attain is doubly enjoyed.
- Desire wanes when opportunities abound or when success is easy.
- Plenty becomes little when you desire a little more.
We grow anxious when failure looms, because we could fail and not obtain what we want, but the opposite can also happen. Nevertheless, there is a long distance between our desire and its achievement, because our achievements are often less than our hopes. Nothing fully satisfies us. Satisfaction is passing. Desire leaves us this side of what we want: it always leaves us hungry. A million kisses do not extinguish the desire for a kiss! Desire seems to be satisfied only with what is infinite and eternal.
If the painful inability to be satisfied were the final result of desire, the world and we humans would be absurdly meaningless. That is why we must always remember that desire enables us and pushes us to become beings of hope. Waiting and hoping are radically human experiences. If I wait with hope, I am alive. In the last resort, desire exposes us not only to anxiety, but also, and above all, to hope.
Desire invites us to live outside of ourselves. It puts us in contact with others and establishes relationships. It is the experience of our finiteness and limits, but also of the possibility to be more and better. Since it relates us with others, desire lets us become subjects, in the sense that the look of another on me awakens my own awareness. Attention to our desires lets us know ourselves and say who we are. Here is a fundamental task in the formation process, above all in its initial stages: find out what and whom you desire and you will know who you are.
It is true that desire starts us moving. It makes us search for someone or something that is missing. It is tension toward something more. However, this “something more” in the last analysis, can only be received as a gift. Therefore desire is also space, openness, and receptivity to the gift. Above all, it is receptivity to the giver.
It is also true that among the paradoxes of desire we must recognize its goodness or its evil. Desire can be misplaced. The verb, “to desire” (hamad), is used positively in Genesis 2:9: Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is desirable to the sight and good for food. In the next chapter, however, the same verb is used to refer to the desire from which sin is born: When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was desirable to the eyes… (Gn 3:6). However, in the Song of Songs we find a reference to this situation, but prior to any sin, when sexuality was still a source of pleasure, joy and happiness in God: As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. I desire to sit in his shadow, and his fruit is sweet to my mouth (Song 2:3).
Paul the Apostle is very clear when speaking about this ambivalence of desire: Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, preventing you from doing what you want (Gal 5:16-17). Anyone, woman or man, who has embraced the following of Christ through the inspiration of the Spirit will have to practice an asceticism of desire in order to direct desire to what is good and away from what is evil. This asceticism needs to be given the highest priority during the years of initial formation, but it has permanent importance throughout one’s whole life.
The primordial desire, which structures our human existence, generates a whole series of different aspirations, anxieties, longings, drives, appetites, wishes, ambitions, fancies, whims… which take shape with the passage of time in the life of each one of us. This all gives rise to a most complex assortment of desires closely related to the ups and downs (pleasures, fantasies, relationships) of one’s personal life story.
It can and does happen that the real objects of desire are repressed, and therefore unknown. Dreams are one way of helping these unrecognized desires to come to the surface. The wider the field of unknown, excluded desires, the less authentic will that life become, since the person does not know what he or she wants! Vague wishes are confused with sincere intentions; passing whims with deep desires. Thus it happens that totally mistaken decisions can be made, resulting in all types of frustrated vocations.
In the same way, the ignorance of our desires, combined with their self-contradiction, can paralyze our life and give rise to an unbearable conflict among our many attractions. This may be one of the most common causes of our “neuroses”, whether the latter are passing or permanent. On the other hand, dispersed desires which lack a concrete object are often the cause of vague, indefinable anxieties.
The deeply rooted structure of desire and the infinite variety of objects which appear to satisfy it make desire to be present in almost all the dimensions of our life. It is important to have inner clarity about this so as to choose well, renounce well, put order in our life and thus live with integrity and harmony. Let us look in a summary fashion at how desire shows itself in some dimensions of human existence.
- The biological dimension shows itself in appetites, attractions and sexual union.
- The affective dimension wants tenderness, affection, falling in love, romances.
- The playful dimension is expressed in the desire for humor, jokes and sports.
- The pragmatic dimension looks for industriousness and service.
- The interpersonal dimension wants paternity, maternity, fraternity, friendship, sociability.
- The hierarchical dimension leads to the desire for authority and politics.
- The possessive dimension is expressed in desires for property, business and commerce.
- The intellectual dimension shows itself in research, information, discoveries.
- The aesthetic dimension produces the desire for beauty, art and music.
- The altruistic dimension expects generosity, almsgiving, sacrifice.
- The religious dimension desires the absolute, the infinite, transcendence, God.
Thus desire is a basic structure of the human being in relation to a lack and/or an absence. It is open to a wide gamut of interdependent dimensions and experiences, some of which are more common than others. Among the more common experiences are the two following ones:
- Above all, desire is present in the area of our sex and affectivity. Here is its origin and the widest field for its growth. Sexuality is the dimension of human life offering the greatest promise of achieving a union which can break through the limits of differentiation, absence and distance. Affectivity, of course, feeds and enlivens many types of interpersonal relationships, such as motherhood, fatherhood, fraternity and friendship.
- However, it is probably the religious dimension which offers most possibilities of satisfying the deepest needs and longings of human life, since in religion desire finds love, protection, survival, transcendence, transformation. In all major religions, monks and nuns are people with an irresistible desire for God. God is for them the dominating attraction. God’s beauty fascinates them. It is on this foundation that a Christian, Gospel-directed monastic vocation can rest.
4. Desire, Sexuality and Religion
We have already pointed out that the dynamic source of human desire is the fact of being created in the image of God. Depth psychology teaches that its more existential origin is the fact that we are born in an act of separation from our mother. As it grows from that two-fold point of departure, desire tends towards a double goal: full satisfaction in the beatifying communion with God (its divine goal) and complementarity in the joyful union with another (its interpersonal goal).
We can refer to spiritual desire, whose goal is communion with God, as a longing for blessedness. To bodily or affective desire, whose goal is interpersonal relationship, whether heterosexual or not, we apply the terms “sexual appetite” and “personal eros.” According to this terminology, we can say that sex is biological desire, eros is personalized desire and longing is divinized desire.
We can also see that the satisfaction of the sexual appetite causes pleasure, that of interpersonal eros produces joy, but only longing for blessedness opens someone up to incomparable happiness.
The following table gives a clearer and more synthetic vision of what has just been said:
Two Basic Dimensions of Human Desire
Bodily – Affective
- Creation in the image and likeness of the Creator
- Separation from the mother’s womb at the time of birth
- Longing for Blessedness
- Sexual Appetite (sex)
- Personal Eros (affectivity)
- Comunion with God
- Complementary Union with Another
- Sexual Pleaure
- Affective Joy
4.1. Desire and Sexuality
Personal eros and sexual appetite have something in common in that they are two powers which let us go out of ourselves and thus root out the deep-seated egoism of our being. Nevertheless, eros and sex are different, so it is important to understand where the difference lies:
- Sex produces bodily tension and its release, whereas eros gives a personal meaning to the experience by shedding its light on it and guiding it.
- Eros fosters intimacy between persons, while sex only fosters a relation between their bodies.
- Sex without eros terminates in one’s own body, whereas eros, even without sex, goes out to the other person.
- The sexual act is the most powerful symbol of relationship between two persons and eros is the intimacy within that relationship.
- Eros goes far beyond sex; if sex is the doorway, eros passes through it.
In so far as eros is a desire for interpersonal fellowship, fullness and joy with someone we love, it lets us both feel fulfilled and give this fullness to the other. Looked at this way, eros is both attractive and frightening. It is attractive by its promise of fulfillment, but frightening because it requires loosening the controls or giving up all control. Eros is awakened by affectionate intimacy, which is attractive, but at the same time the intimacy fostered by eros asks the person to keep loosening the controls, which is frightening. Celibates and those who have chosen virginity often do not know where to draw the boundary line so as to be faithful to their chosen options. In the relationship between a man and a woman, eros usually produces the following sensations:
- Pleasure, felt from being together.
- Impulse, to create intimacy by lessening the degree of separation.
- Silence, for the sake of “contacting” and feeling.
- Joy which, if left on its own, can run in search of pleasure.
The renouncements and self-control implied in an option for virginal celibacy should not be an obstacle preventing men and women from spending some pleasurable time together. Those who do not know how to live these moments of healthy cordiality with gratitude often compensate in their daydreams for what they give up or repress.
Western culture, which now is also invading other cultures, has enslaved eros under the tyranny of sex. It is true that we are no long tied to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, when there was a shift from forbidden pleasure to required pleasure. Sex was made obligatory. A dictatorship of the forced orgasm was imposed and required. However, most of our societies now live a sexuality which knows no moral norm whatsoever. Sex is often reduced to a game, one in which all the players lose. Our young people, both men and women, come from this type of culture.
On the other hand, some disembodied spiritualities with an excessive emphasis on what is supernatural and no support in what is natural, have produced the same effect as the secular sexual revolution, namely, the death of eros, that is, the death of interpersonal desire. As pious men and women pretending to subdue the flesh, we actually end up killing flesh, affectivity, appetite, eros and the like.
Maybe we should organize and proclaim another revolution, in order to give back to interpersonal eros all the charm of its openness to what is absolute and transcendent. This “erotic revolution” would not be a reclaiming of erotism as a disguised exaltation of the genitals. It would be a promotion of eros to make our sex more truly human and more noble.
4.2 Desire and Religion
It is well known that religion is the source of satisfaction for the most fundamental human desires. The language of God is the language of deep feelings, which are rooted in the fundamental desires of the human heart. This is where we find the source of conversion, faith, justice and love. Scripture offers many examples of these deepest desires: Lord, you enticed me, and I was enticed (Jer 20:7); Lord, you search me and you know me (Ps 138); Were not our hears burning within us? (Lk 24:32) By this type of language, God seduces our hearts so as to open them to Jesus Christ and to his Good News. Seduction by God is liberating and calls for our free response.
In this context we can ask whether the longing for God rests on the foundation of sexual desire. Put another way, is there an uninterrupted continuum between desire’s biological dimension and its religious dimension?
Many psychologists do not hesitate to reply to this question affirmatively. Some theologians have their doubts, saying that there is a qualitative leap between nature and grace. Other theologians, while not denying the gratuity of divine grace, teach that there is continuity between the human person, as a body-soul composite in the image of God, and union with God. They agree with the medieval theologians who taught that the human being is capax Dei! Grace does not destroy nature, but presupposes it and perfects it!
Looking beyond this theological discussion, however, it is clear that without personal desire and eros the search for God becomes artificial, inconsistent, an empty mental game which falls apart like a house of cards when there appears a concrete relationship with someone who touches our heart and stirs up our deepest feelings. I think that we men are more vulnerable to this than women are, since we are more inclined to abstract theoretical thought.
We have pointed out from the beginning that the desire for God is constitutive of human nature. In all human beings there exists an innate capacity for God and an orientation to God that precedes one’s own choice. It is in this sense that the created human person has been made in the image of God.
Some medieval authors, especially the Cistercians, depart from the Augustinian tradition on a concrete practical point. Augustine’s tradition seems to draw a clear boundary between the “exterior man” and the “interior man,” between flesh (sexuality) and spirit. The former is the cause of perdition, while the latter results in salvation. Such a spirituality can establish a dichotomy which does not correspond to the inner reality of human existence.
Several of our own Fathers cross over the boundary between the inner and outer man, and appropriate some land belonging to the flesh. Eros and its spontaneous affectivity, rooted as they are in sex, are called to play an important role in the search for God. Here is what William of Saint-Thierry says in his Exposition on the Song of Songs:
The Holy Spirit, when he was about to deliver over to men the canticle of spiritual love, took the story which inwardly is all spiritual and divine and clothed it outwardly in images borrowed from the love of the flesh. Love alone fully understands divine things; therefore the love of the flesh must be led along and transformed into the love of the spirit so that it may quickly comprehend what is similar to itself. Since it is impossible that true love, pining for truth, can long remain satisfied with images, it very quickly passes, by a path known to itself, into that reality which was previously perceived only through images. Even after a man becomes spiritual, he still shares in the delights of fleshly love which are natural to him; but when these delights become the possession of the Holy Spirit, the person devotes them all to the service of spiritual love. That is why the heroine brazenly bursts forth from a hiding place and, without even telling her name or where she comes from or to whom she is speaking, cries out: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth!” (Exposition, no. 24).
William is speaking from within that wide spiritual tradition which proposes to start the search for the face of the Lord with what we are by creation, so as to arrive by grace at what we can become.
I am aware that this doctrine, with its practical consequences, can have its dangers. It can cause some fear due to the fact that the boundaries are not as clear and the inner world not so simple. Thus some questions remain. How deep can one go inwardly so as to find solid ground from which to climb safely back up toward the world of the spirit?
The basic question, however, both for monks of the Middle Ages and for us, is this: how is eros transformed into charity? The solution to this problem may be different for men and for women. The latter could unduly eroticize the love of charity, while we men could “genitalize” it or not know what to do with the carnal vibrations that can sometimes occur.
The transformation of interpersonal eros into spiritual longing is not easy, but it is possible. It = requires, above all, consciously and peacefully integrating one’s own sexuality, starting with one’s genital desires. Then it means centering this experience on eros, understood as the desire for joyful fullness in interpersonal communion. Finally, it implies letting eros transcend all types of permanent attachment to any creature, in order that it be changed into a longing for unified blessedness in God.
The alternation of presence and absence, consolation and desolation, plays a very important role in the purification of eros and its transformation into a divine longing.
It is in this context that we should include in our formation a solid emphasis on Cistercian devotion to the humanity of Christ, on contemplation of his pre-paschal “mysteries,” leading to a deeper following of this divine Person and a richer communion in his glory. We also need to bring spousal spirituality up to date, understanding it as “reciprocal self-gift in fruitful fellowship.” It is certainly a rich spirituality, even though not free from its own difficulties which, however, can be overcome by adequate formation. How much more healthy, happy and fulfilled we would be if the words of the ascetic John Climacus were verified in our lives: “Blessed the person whose love for God is like the eros that a man in love has for his beloved!” (Ladder, 30:5).
5. Desire and Humanist Psychology
Contemporary psychology in its more humanistic tendencies speaks of “human potential.” The latter phrase tells us that a human being has a natural capacity to grow into a fully personal mode of behavior. The teaching on human needs or tendencies was developed in this context. We make this teaching complete with the anthropological reality of desire.
A need has the particular characteristic of enclosing us in the present moment and in our own little world. Desire, on the contrary, opens us up. It thrusts us towards the future and towards others. Needs can be easily satisfied. When the adequate object is obtained the tension previously unleashed in one’s organism is eliminated: water satisfies thirst. But no single object can completely satisfy desire, because desire, in the last analysis, refers to the past and the future, to which nothing in the present can give a fully precise answer.
Both our needs and our desires are “tendencies” toward satisfaction. Their goal is to escape from a state of privation which can be physical, psychological or spiritual. It is easy to see that this tendency toward satisfying one’s needs plays a paramount role in any theory or practice concerning human motivation.
Let us try to classify synthetically these tendencies, both as needs and desires. They fall into three groups:
- Biological needs: air-breathing, water-thirst, food-nourishment, sleep-rest, sex-bonding-reproduction, house-dwelling-clothing…
- Psychological needs: security-protection, love-belonging, self-esteem and esteem for others, living and associating with others…
- Spiritual needs: beauty, goodness, truth, justice, order, fullness, meaning, freedom, perfection, religion, spirituality, mysticism…
It is easy to see that the “biological” tendencies are needs more than desires, whereas the psychological and spiritual tendencies belong to the order of desires.
These tendencies – both needs and desires – do not come to the surface all at the same time, or with equal demands. There is a certain hierarchy among them. Generally speaking, each of the different levels makes itself felt to the degree in which the preceding level has been satisfied. Obviously, the concrete situation of a society or group can affect the satisfaction of the needs of its members, the multiplication of such needs and their confusion with desires.
Experience teaches that it is very difficult to satisfy spiritual desires when there is a serious lack of biological needs or a frustration of psychological desires. Someone suffering from lack of sleep can hardly give any fruitful attention to the search for the meaning of God’s Word. Similarly, low self-esteem impedes liberty of action or adequate appreciation for what is good in life.
These principles have a practical importance in the area of monastic formation. In the majority of our monasteries, the biological needs of the members are taken care of, but I am not sure that the same can be said concerning psychological desires, which often act as supports for spiritual desires. One might also ask whether our communities are skilled in the art of developing the spiritual desires which lead to the mystical experience of communion with God, and whether everything in our life is ordered to this goal.
6. Desire and Capitalist Culture
The greatest human cultures have had – and still have – different approaches to the reality of desire. Eastern culture tends toward freedom from desire, with certain currents of Buddhism considering that the person who is free from desire is free from “self” and thus achieves full freedom. One of the names of nirvana is, precisely, “annihilation of thirst” (tanhakkhaya): when the thirst of desire is eliminated, all suffering and misfortune come to an end.
Classical Greek culture will teach the control of desires. Thus Aristotle praises Plato for having stated that education consists in teaching how to desire what is truly desirable. We find this line of thought in Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the Our Father contained in the Summa Theologica: Prayer interprets our desires before God. That is why it is right to ask for something in prayer only when it is right that we should desire it. Now in the Lord’s Prayer not only do we ask for all the gifts that we may rightly desire, but we do so in the order in which we ought to desire them, so that this prayer not only teaches us to ask, but it also directs all our affections (sit informativa totius nostri affectus) (II-II, 83,9).
During the Middle Ages, Western
culture was pregnant with Christianity and thus, as we have seen, put human
desiring at the service of the search for God. We can even think that some commentaries
on the Song of Songs were pedagogical tools written with a view to this transformation
of human desire. In contrast, contemporary Western culture on both sides of
The capitalist economic system is dominating today’s world for the following reason: it is producing a global “culture” by creating an anthropology for the masses which features a system of values and needs corresponding to its economic model.
In order to achieve its goal, capitalism deals with desires in a particular way. It intentionally confuses them with needs and then attempts to mould them into a particular form. As we have already pointed out, needs can be satisfied, since they are linked to social interaction, whereas deep desires are insatiable, because they are linked to the interiority of a person’s deepest, most original center of being.
Capitalist theories are elaborated in terms of satisfying needs and desires, not immediately the needs and desires for profit on the part of the business people, but rather the needs and desires of the customers. Profit is the consequence of satisfying the needs and desires of the consuming client.
However, besides the goal of satisfying needs and desires, there is also the tactic of creating and manipulating these needs and these desires. Since needs are uncountable and desire is unlimited, the possibilities for profit will be infinite. Capitalism does not educate one’s desires. Instead, it confuses them with needs, produces them, reproduces them and molds them artificially. This is why the consumer – a person with the power to acquire something – assumes and consumes what he or she desires, as well as what they do not desire, but firmly believe that they need!
In the capitalist world, the means of communication are governed by the law of maximum financial profit. They are therefore not neutral. Even though they may claim to be “independent,” they are connected to the political and economic establishment. Their profits come from advertising. The viewer, listener or reader has a value measured by the time he or she spends every day at the television, radio or reading newspapers and magazines. The owner of the respective means of communication sells to the advertiser a number of readers, listeners and viewers with the hours they spend doing this. In other words, the audiences are sold. This explains why the purpose of the program or publication is to captivate the largest possible audience for the longest possible time. The mass-media, especially television, are geared to keeping the spectator’s desire glued to the screen or speaker by means of carefully programmed stimulations. That is how their needs and desires are manipulated and converted into financial profit.
Within a monastic context, the education of our desires cannot ignore this manipulation of human desiring. Discernment is needed so that free, correct options can be made. On the other hand, the shift in many of our monasteries from manual work to commercial work obliges us to enter, in one way or another, into this world of capitalist advertising with its manipulation of human desires. Moreover, it is possible to change from being a manipulated subject into a manipulating one. It is not easy to discern the boundary line between what is financial and what is apostolic, between what is profitable for our industry and what is pastorally prudent. The business ethics of a monastery cannot use the same criteria as secular business ethics. This is a question that needs more reflection on our part, as some monks and nuns have already done, in order to avoid ambiguities which can undermine the foundations of any formation program and thus harm the transmission of the monastic charism to younger generations. It would be difficult to pray the Our Father, with its ordering of our desires and its norms for our affections, if at the same time we are involved in the manipulation of other peoples’ desires and affections.
7. Desire and Christian Hope
The virtue of hope corresponds
to the desire for happiness which God placed in our hearts when he created us.
This hope expands the heart as it waits for eternal beatitude.
This hopeful desire, open as it is to eschatology, should be a very powerful force to help us live in persevering fidelity. Hope is not avoiding the world or launching ourselves heavenward. Rather is it a commitment in time and space to base one’s life on heaven and eternity. The Church walks and works on earth as a contemplative citizen of heaven. There is no doubt that, “For this we toil and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God” (1 Tim ).
The source of our hope is the presence of the risen Christ in the heart of the Church and in the heart of the world. This presence incites us to desire with groanings the glorious manifestation of the Lord and to work with eagerness for a better world.
One of the features of monastic life is doubtless its eschatological openness combined with its earthly realism based on desire and hope. The secular history of monasticism witnesses to this two-fold reality: the desire for God, with a deep longing for heaven, rooted in remarkably creative cultural achievements.
Some of our communities in the northwestern world are undergoing a deep trial of hope at the present time. Progressive aging, the lack of vocations, reduced numbers, diminished personal competence and an uncertain future certainly constitute a difficult trial to pass through. But they are also a fruitful opportunity, a chance to live a transparently evangelical monastic life stripped of additions which have now lost their meaning. It can be a life which has become freer and more flexible in its daily rhythm, more of a family home in its buildings and finances, centered on its essential search to meet the Lord in the communion of charity.
So that this can happen, it may be necessary to go beyond just patching and mending. We need to desire a new monastic life in a new heaven and a new earth, where new men and new women can be reborn. We need to choose what is most impossible, most difficult and most utopian. We need to be able to say, “Yes, but not yet.” We need to be changed into midwives of hope, who show that the mother wolf will suckle the lambs, that war will be an archaic word found in old dictionaries, that armed weapons will be museum pieces, that spoken promises will be more valid than a thousand documents signed by a notary public, that everyone will give up their power in order to serve, that the deaf will compose symphonies, that all human cities will be paved with green gardens, that the deserts will be filled with a divine presence, and monks and nuns will be the yeast of communion wherever there might still be a vestige of discord.
Keeping to our climate of utopia, we might dare to think that a monastic life renewed like this could prove to be attractive to the young people of today who, like those of yesterday, are searching for God. With even less hesitation, we can be sure that this monastic life would be an excellent way to communicate the charism of our Fathers to new generations.
In any case, if nothing like what I have described takes place, if we remain alone and faced with death despite our desires to live, we can believe that all peoples will remember us with gratitude and no one will forget that we were hopeful pilgrims in this life, who knew how to sing to heaven while building monastic community on earth.
Our monastic pilgrimage is
fed by the “prayer of desire,” which lets us persevere at night in the desert.
This simple prayer life is a cry of hope in a world searching for the meaning
of its existence. God grant that we can all raise our eyes and unite our voices
to sing: O true noontide, fullness of warmth and light,
dwelling-place of the sun; noontime that blots out shadows, that dries up marshes,
that banishes impure odors! O perpetual solstice, day that will never be over!
O radiance of noon, with your springtime freshness, your summer charm, your
autumn fruitfulness and your winter of restful feasting! (