RonRolheiser,OMI

The God of our Desires

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What lies deepest inside authentic faith is the truth that God is the object of all human desire, no matter how earthy and unholy that desire might seem at times. This implies that everything we desire is contained in God. We see this expressed in the Psalms, which tell us that God is the object of our desires, and in Jesus, who tells us that it is in God that our deepest hungers and thirsts will be satiated. And so we pray, without perhaps ever really being conscious of what we are saying: My soul longs for you in the night. You, Lord, alone, can fill my heart. You, O Lord, are my all. But is it really God that we are longing for in the night and aching for in our desires?

Do we really believe that God is the real object of our desires? When we look at all that is beautiful, full of life, attractive, sexually alluring, and pleasurable on earth, do we really think and believe that this is contained in an infinitely richer way inside of God and inside the life into which God invites us? Do we really believe that the joys of heaven will surpass the pleasures of earth and that, already in this world, the pleasures of virtue trump the sensations of sin?  Do we really believe that faith will give us what we desire?

It would seem not. We, and most everyone else, struggle to turn our attention towards God. We find religious practice and prayer more of a disruption to life than an entry into it, more a duty than an offer, more an asceticism than a joy, and more as something that has us missing out on life than entering into its depths. In most of us, if we are honest, there is a secret envy of those who recklessly plumb sacred energy for their own pleasure, that is, we doggedly do our duty in committing ourselves to something higher, but, like the Older Brother of the Prodigal Son, we mostly serve God out of obligation and are bitter about the fact that many others do not. This side of eternity, virtue often envies sin and, truth be told, this is particularly true regarding sexuality.

But partly this is natural and a sign of health, given that the brute reality of our physicality and the pressures of the present moment naturally impose themselves on us in a way that can make the things of God and spirit seem abstract and unreal. That is simply the human condition and God, no doubt, understands. You would have to be a true mystic to be above this.

However it can be helpful to tease out more explicitly something we profess in faith, namely, that all that we find attractive, beautiful, irresistible, erotic, and pleasurable here on earth is found, even more fully, inside of its source, God. God is better looking than any movie star. God is more intelligent than the brightest scientist or philosopher. God is more witty and funny than the best of our comedians. God is more creative than any artist, writer, or innovator in history. God is more sophisticated than the most-learned person on earth. God is more exuberant than any young person. God is more popular than any rock star. And, not least, God is more erotic and sexually attractive than any woman, man, or sexual image on earth. We don’t ordinarily think that or believe this about God, but those statements are as much dogma as are the strictest church-doctrines on record. Everything that is alluring on earth is inside of God, in even a richer form, since God is its author.

However that does not take away the power of earthly things to allure, nor should it. Countless things can overwhelm us with their stunning reality: a beautiful person, a sunset, a piece of music, a work of art, youthful exuberance, a baby’s innocence, someone’s wit, feelings of intimacy, feelings of nostalgia, a glass of wine on the right evening, a stirring in our sexuality, or, most deeply of all, an inchoate sense of the uniqueness and preciousness of our own lives. We need to honor those things and thank God for the gift, even as we make ourselves aware that all of this is found more-richly inside of God and that we lose nothing when virtue, religion, and commitment ask us to sacrifice these things for something higher. Jesus, himself, promises that whatever we give up for what is higher will be given back to us one hundredfold.

Knowing this, we should live our lives fully enjoying what is earthy and earthly. The beauties and pleasures of this life are a gift from God, meant to be enjoyed. But, by being aware of their source, we can also then be free enough to accept the very real limits that life puts on our desires. And, better still, we need not fear death since what we lose will be trumped one-hundredfold by what we gain.

The Hero-Complex

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Several years ago, the movie Argo won the Academy award as the best movie of the year. I enjoyed the movie in that it was a good drama, one that held its audience in proper suspense even as it provided some good humor and banter on the side. But I struggled with several aspects of the film. First, as a Canadian, I was somewhat offended by the way that the vital role that Canadians played in the escape of the USA hostages from Iran in 1979 was downplayed to the point of simply being written out of the story. The movie would have been more honest had it advertised itself as “based on a true story” rather than presenting itself as a true story.

But that was more of an irritation than anything serious. Art has the right to exaggerate forms to highlight an essence. I don’t begrudge a filmmaker his film. What bothered me was how, again, as is so frequently the case in Hollywood movies and popular literature, we were shown a hero under the canopy of that adolescent idealization where, by going it alone, the hero singularly saves the world, alone is the “messiah”, and whose self-sequestration coupled with a certain arrogance is presented as human superiority. But that, the classic hero who does it “his way” and whose wisdom and talent dwarfs everyone else, is an adolescent fantasy.

What’s wrong with that “classic hero” as he is normally portrayed in some many of our movies?

What’s wrong is that the great ancient myths and a good number of anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists tell us that this kind of “hero” is not the mature archetype of the true warrior or prophet. The mature savior, prophet, or warrior is not “the hero”, but “the knight”. And this is the difference:  The hero operates off his own agenda, whereas the knight is under someone else’s agenda. The knight lays his or her sword at the foot of the King or Queen. The knight, like Jesus, “does nothing on his own”.

But this isn’t easy to understand and accept. The powerful idealization we throw onto our heroes and heroines is, like love in adolescence, so powerful a drug that it is hard to see that something much fuller and more mature lays beyond it. The obsessive love that Romeo and Juliet die for is very powerful, but a mature couple, holding hands after fifty years of marriage, is the real paradigm for love. The lonely, isolated, unapologetic hero grips the imagination in a way that the more-fully mature man or woman does not: Alan Ladd riding off into the sunset at the end of the movie, Shane; any number of characters played by Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger; and, not least, the hero of Argo, overruling even the orders of the President in saving the hostages in Iran.

The Nobel-prizing winning philosopher, Albert Camus, in his book, The Plague, presents us with what should, by all accounts, be an example of a most-noble hero. His hero is a certain Dr. Rieux who, because he is an atheist, struggles with the question of meaning: If there is no God, then where can there be meaning? What difference does any virtue or generosity ultimately make? Dr. Rieux answers that question for himself by finding meaning in selflessly giving himself over, at the risk of his own life, to fighting the plague.  What could be more-noble than that? Few things fire the romantic imagination as does this kind of moral rebellion. So, what could be more-noble than the hero in the movie, Argo, going it alone in taking on the regime in Iran?

Charles Taylor has a certain answer to answer this. Commenting on Camus’ hero, Dr. Rieux, Taylor asks: “Is this the ultimate measure of excellence? If we think of ethical virtue as the realization of lone individuals, this may seem to be the case. But suppose the highest good consists of communion, mutual giving and receiving, as in the paradigm of the eschatological banquet. The heroism of gratuitous giving has no place for reciprocity. If you return anything to me, then my gift was not totally gratuitous; and besides, in the extreme case, I disappear with my gift and no communion between us is possible. This unilateral heroism is self-enclosed. It touches the outermost limit of what we can attain to when moved by the sense of our own dignity. But is that what life is about? Christian faith proposes a quite different view.”

And so it does: We see this in Jesus. He comes into this world precisely as a savior, to vanquish the powers of darkness, violence, injustice, Satan, and death. But notice how, almost as mantra, he keeps saying: I do nothing on my own. I am perfectly obedient to my Father. Jesus was never a hero, a “lone-ranger” doing his own thing while barely concealing a smug superiority. He was the paradigm of the “knight”, the humble foot-soldier who always lays his sword at the foot of the King.

 

The Best One can do in the Circumstances 

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Recently I led a weeklong retreat for some sixty people at a renewal center. Overall, it went very well, though ideally it could have gone better. It could have gone better if, previous to the retreat, I would have had more time to prepare and more time to rest so that I would have arrived at the retreat well-rested, fully-energetic, and able to give this group my total undivided attention for seven days.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. The days leading up to the retreat were consumed by many pressures in my regular ministry; these were long days that kept me preoccupied and tired. Indeed, in the days leading up to the retreat, I had to do many extra hours of work simply to free myself up to lead this retreat. So I arrived for this retreat partly exhausted and carrying with me still a lot of pressures from my regular duties.

In spite of this, the retreat still went pretty well. I had enough energy and focus to make things essentially work. But it wasn’t the best I could do ideally, though it was the best I could do given the circumstances.

Given that confession, it’s fair to ask: Didn’t those retreatants have a right to have me arrive for this retreat more-rested, more-prepared, and more-ready to give them my full, undivided attention?  Fair enough. They did have that right; except that this was mitigated by the fact that all the people who are daily affected by my regular duties also had that same right. They too had a right to my time, my un-fatigued self, my full energies, and my undivided attention. During that week of retreat, my office also got second best: I was not giving it my ideal best; but only what I could do, given the circumstances.

I suspect most time-management experts, and not a few counselors and spiritual directors, would tell me that the reason this tension exists in my life is because of my failure to set clear priorities and be faithful to them and that this sloppy indecisiveness is unfair to everyone on every side. If am over-extended, it’s a fault in my life, pure and simple, which I have a moral responsibility to correct.

But is it really that simple? Are we really meant to have this much control of over our lives? Don’t circumstance and need perennially trump that? Aren’t the generative years of our lives about much more than ensuring our own health and rest? Even if the purpose of our own self-care is not selfish but intended for the better service of others, isn’t that service itself the final culprit? There are needs all over and our resources are finite, isn’t that always a formula for tension?

Circumstance conscripts us and, in the words of Jesus, puts a rope around us and takes where we would rather not go, namely, beyond our comfort, beyond always being adequately rested, and beyond always being in control of our own timetable and energies. Admittedly it’s dangerous to over-extend yourself, except that it’s equally, perhaps more, dangerous to under-extend yourself so as to always have full control of your own energy and commitments and be always well rested and not over-taxed. We can burnout, but we can also rust-out.

This, of course, can easily become a rationalization for not setting proper priorities and for letting ourselves be non-reflectively buffeted by circumstance. But the opposite can also be a rationalization used to over-protect our own comfort and rest. That’s the tension, and it’s meant to be a tension. Sometimes we overextend ourselves and sometime we under-extend ourselves. Most of the people that I admire most in the world suffer from the former, overextension, and, paradoxically, it seems to give them more energy. Jesus, while cautioning proper self-care (Let us go away by ourselves for a while and rest. Mark, 6, 31) also tells us that we should pour ourselves out completely for others without worrying too much about whether this will kill us or not.

I had all of this in mind as I struggled while giving a recent retreat, knowing that neither the retreatants nor my office were getting my best energies … though both got the best that I could give, given the circumstance.

And isn’t this a good image for the whole of our lives? We have finite energies, finite time, finite attention, and we are constantly swamped by circumstance, need, and pressure. There’s always something!  And so we are often caught in a major tension as regards our time, energy, and attention. In any given season within our lives, if we are honest, we might have to say: This wasn’t the best I might have done ideally, but it’s the best that I could do, given the circumstance!

Ultimately this is true for our whole lives. It’s never ideal, but it’s the best we can do, given the circumstance. And that should be more than enough when we stand before our Maker in judgment.