She was just one more street girl who overdosed. While she worked the streets her only friends and supporters were a small group of street workers, community carers, a scattering of nuns and members of our street café. At death, her family finally owned her and arranged a lavish funeral in a provincial cathedral. None of us was invited so we planned our own celebration of her life in our street café. Our small diverse circle held hands, shared memories and sang a simple made-up song about love and peace. Each of us touched the desire or yearning for a love that would bind us through life’s darkest moments and so we prayed for peace – her’s and ours.
That was a time for belonging, where desire or yearning bound us to each other. The story may sound dramatic, but each of you will have known the same experience where a deep desire fills body and mind. You need the touch of another person, you sense their presence, you listen excitedly for their voice. And when they are absent or lost to you the grief is unbearable. We are all ‘open to desire’.
I do not recall the age but I was certainly not yet seven years old, sitting on the hotel steps waiting for my parents. The nights after some of these episodes were dark and for a small child terrifying. I felt alone and abandoned and then, desire for a life free from this, made me say within myself ‘I will be a different person’. That moment is written into my psyche: I began to discover the transforming power of desire. But life would also need to teach me the pitfalls of desire – how not to be trapped by longing for the unattainable or the unbearable.
A Christian is ‘pure in heart.’ Love has purified the heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper. It has cleansed from pride, whereof ‘only cometh contention’; and he hath now ‘put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.’ And indeed all possible ground for contention, on [the Christian’s] part, is cut off. For none can take from him what he desires, seeing he ‘loves not the world, nor any of the things of the world’; but ‘all his desire is unto God, and to the remembrance of his name.’
In those distant days you mustn’t go to bed at night without first testifying to someone about the love of God that has embraced you. Desire for God was an all-consuming passion.
Each morning’s prayer session included a reading about ‘desire for holiness’ from the studies on Jesus’ sacrifice by Major Ian Thomas or Roy and Revel Hession. They urged that we crucify the self and its desires and yearn for holiness and the fulness of the Spirit. But the small child in me whispered differently, desire might distract into trivial and sinful behaviour – but desire was the essence of being human. Desire is the gift of love.
I have spent most my adult life seeking to awaken self and others to a desire ‘that frees us from clinging’ to old beliefs and habits. I chose as the title for this address the phrase ‘open to desire’. It comes from a book by Mark Epstein, Open to Desire: the Truth about What the Buddha Taught (Gotham Books: New York, 2006, p.32. Here, I explore a quote from this to expand my theme and lead me into Jesus’ words as recorded by John:
Epstein wrote: As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I am confronted every day with clients … [who] engage in behaviors that from any rational standpoint they should abandon … I want to say to them … ‘Why not just throw in the towel?’ As a therapist who has been influenced not just by the insights of psychodynamic theory but also by the wisdom of Buddhist psychology, it would be easy for me to take this position. One reading of Buddha’s teachings certainly suggests that the only solution to neurotic misery lies in forsaking desire altogether … But over the years … [I have learnt that] there is a yearning that is as spiritual as it is sensual … Something in the person (dare we call it a soul?) wants to be free. Desire … is the energy that strives for transcendence’ (pages 1-7).
In John’s account of Jesus, described in his chapter 14, verses 23-31, love issues in a profound inner desire for peace. The tragedies and isolation experienced by those who listened then to John’s words may have shaped their thinking about Jesus’ second coming. But the generations had passed and still Jesus had not returned; only the misery of abandonment surrounded them.
John responded that the Holy Spirit, God’s essential life, had ‘come to them’ and made ‘a home with them’ (14:23). In that gift, Jesus already lives in the lives and discoveries of his friends and followers. As they love from the heart, so they are reborn into the image of love. John’s evocative word used here flows steadily through his entire Gospel – as we abide in him, so he abides in us. The means by which this happens is love, now seen as desire, that awakens deep within us a profound sense of peace.
When the Bible uses the word ‘peace’ in this sort of context it never means ‘the absence or cessation of war’. To use the word ‘shalom‘ in its Hebrew sense is to grasp an essential meaning that peace is harmony. Peace is the yearning for both inner and external reconciliation. This is an experience where we relax our sense of being responsible for every event or mishap. James Hillman puts this very powerfully when he writes:
Though we suffer emotions physically and inwardly, this fact does not make them ‘ours’. Rather, I believe that emotions are there to make us theirs. They want to possess us, rule us, make us completely over to their vision.
(James Hillman, A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meanings for Therapy, Northwestern University Press, 1960, p.x)
We may have been shaped by circumstance but we do not need to be trapped by it. An interesting article by Barbara Schaetti, President of Transition Dynamics, an international training and consulting firm serving expatriate families, speaks of Encapsulated Marginality:
where people surrender their own opinions, their own concerns, to follow somewhat aimlessly the action of those around them. They may have difficulty making decisions, defining their boundaries, identifying personal truths. They often feel alienated, powerless, angry, that life is devoid of meaning (‘Phoenix Rising: A Question of Cultural Identity’, 1996).
In pastoral care and often in student counselling, you witness this constantly – people trapped by their past and consumed by their circumstance.
Being open to desire, rather than consumed by it, can free us from guilt and repression to own the glory of being human. In John’s words we begin to understand that the external, what John calls ‘the ruler of this world’ has no power over us (14:30). If you object that I have transferred a comment of Jesus about himself to you, read the text carefully because the theology that dominates this section of scripture is about the unity of Jesus with God and the unity or oneness of both with each of us. Draw inward John’s comment that ‘the one who believes in me, will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father’ (14:12). Desire is the root of imagination and the energy of living. Openness to desire is the heart of evangelism, when desire is the issue of love
Desire for peace is about learning to trust again. Peace is about being open to the transformation of desire – learning again to love our bodies and our relationships. The desire for peace is the gift of love. In this sense peace is the mark of the divine in your inner life. Turmoil and misadventure will constantly confront us and both must be faced realistically, carefully and with wisdom. Peace is not about the conquest of troubles. Peace is your sacred centre, the wellspring of desire to live with change and possibility.
I am not by nature a man who settles easily into the rhythms of life. The old perfectionism still makes demands and too easily I slip into becoming a victim of my circumstances. It is then that I need to remind myself of a given peace, not as the world gives it. I do not need to be at war with my passions. Instead desire lifts the spirit and the body into fresh experiences and renewed understanding. Most surprisingly you learn to love again.
If daily on the streets, as still in my own life, I sense my self the victim of other people’s decisions, I need to listen carefully for what Shakespeare called ‘the merry songs of peace to all [my] neighbours’ (Henry V111, Act 5, scene 5). We are together in an adventure of discovery. A middle-aged man, unable to read and write, dependant on others for reading signs and seeking welfare payments, spent hard literacy evenings with one of our congregation members. I still have his card written in large, clumsy letters ‘Happy Christmas, Bill’. The merry songs of peace were in that achievement but even more so in his inner discovery of ‘self’. Peace may do little to change circumstances but peace liberates from victimhood and gives voice to desire.
I conclude where I began with a quotation from Mark Epstein:
The acceptance of an inner, private, personal and even silent aspect of self and other is a gift that opens up a continuing exchange with the world. This is the secret capacity that desire is in search of, a capacity for ‘being’ that can only be found when the more dominant need ‘to do’ is undone (p.142).
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, John’s Gospel chapter 14 verses 23-31.
5 May 2013