For some years now, an Oblate colleague of mine has been developing an idea he calls: The Evangelization of Desire. Among other things, he gives a retreat to help persons get in touch with their deep desires so as to see in them how the Holy Spirit prays through their longing.
In essence, he tries to help people appropriate in a personal way what St. Paul says when he tells us that when we do not know how to pray as we should, the Spirit, “with groaning too deep for words”, prays through us.
How does the Spirit pray through human longing? There is a complex, though very rich, theological explanation for this. At root lies the fact that the same Holy Spirit which drove Jesus into the desert and guided him through his ministry also drives all of physical creation, including the movements of the heart. What animated Jesus also animates everything else, except that nothing else is as perfectly responsive to it as Jesus was.
The Holy Spirit is the deep fire driving all of creation and the dynamics of this spirit can be studied through physics, biology, chemistry, or psychology, just as they can be studied through Christology and spirituality. As the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 104, addressing God, “if you take away your spirit, all creation returns to dust.” Astonishing? Yes. The Holy Spirit holds physical creation together. What animates the union of hydrogen and oxygen and what animated Jesus is the same thing, a spirit that unites elements and then presses outward towards greater life, a fire that can be seen in Jesus’ life and ministry, just as it can be seen in the relentless growth of a bamboo plant. At the heart of everything there is a divine fire. In the end, all yearning, longing, and aching, every desire we have, is driven by that fire. So too are the laws of gravity.
And what does this fire want? An interesting question. Jesus poses it to us at the beginning of John’s gospel and then answers at the end that gospel.
In the first chapter of John, Jesus sees two persons eyeing him with curiosity and he asks them: “What are you looking for?” At the end of the gospel, he answers the question. When Mary Magdala comes looking for his dead body and meets instead his resurrected person, he pronounces her name: “Mary”. In that, she recognizes him and she recognizes too what she, and everyone else and all of creation, is wanting, namely, to have God, personally and gently, pronounce her name. What are we looking for? All of the fire in all of creation, all conscious and unconscious desire, in the end, longs to be so embraced by God, to have God intimately pronounce its name.
But, and this needs to be immediately added, this has already happened, God has already pronounced our names. In the depths of the soul, in that part of us where all that is most precious is kept and nurtured, where we suffer moral loneliness, where we have our purest longings, we know that we have already been touched, caressed, and embraced by God. There is a part of us that no hurt can harden, no abuse can stain, and no sin (save the sin against the Holy Spirit) can warp. It is here that we have a dark, warm memory of having once been gently embraced, held, and caressed.
An ancient legend says that, before putting a soul into a person, God kisses that soul. Bernard Lonergan suggests that faith is “the brand of God” inside of us, an indelible memory of some deep touch. These are other ways of speaking of this.
There is a place in the soul where we still remember feeling God’s embrace and it is there that we gently hear God call our name whenever in this life we meet truth, love, gentleness, forgiveness, justice, and innocence. In the presence of these the soul feels right, something touches its hypothalamus, and we, like Mary of Magdala, suddenly recognize the voice of Christ calling our name.
So how do we evangelize desire? How can we take the aching dis-ease within us and turn it into prayer? How do we baptize what groans in us and what groans in creation?
By nurturing more and more that part in us which still remembers God’s embrace, by getting in touch with our moral loneliness, by recognizing that all that is so restless in us wants, at its root, to hear God call its name, and by connecting truth, love, gentleness, forgiveness, justice, and innocence with the voice of the resurrected Christ.