Everything about the season of advent speaks of desire and waiting. Our advent songs are nothing but cries really, begging for someone or something to come and ease our burdens, slake our thirst, calm our restlessness, take away our tiredness, and fill in the empty spots inside us. But what do we desire? For what do we long? What would finally calm the restlessness within us?
Desire is not a simple thing at all. Most of the time, we do not know what we really want even when we think we do. We pursue certain persons, possessions, achievements, and experiences, but, in the end, we always find that we want more. We live in chronic dissatisfaction, no matter what we actually attain or achieve. Nobody lives a fully fulfilled life. Rather we experience only very brief moments of relative fulfillment. Ninety-eight percent of life is spent waiting- waiting for this moment to end and something else to come; waiting for a season of life to pass; and waiting to still meet those persons and circumstances whom we hope will bring us the love and happiness for which we yearn. For about 98% of our lives we live in advent, waiting for the “Messiah”, for “Christmas”, to come.
So what would fulfill us? Medieval philosophy answered the question this way: The adequate object of the intellect and will is union with all Being in knowledge and love. At first glance, that appears rather abstract and sterile, but, unpackaged, it tells us what Christmas must bring. And what does it tell us?
Simply put, it tells us that no one person, no one thing, no one achievement, no one experience, and no one combination of persons, things, and achievements, will ever fully soothe what aches inside us. What would quench those fires, what would be, in their terms, “adequate”? In a word, everything! But how is this “everything” to be defined? What constitutes “Christmas”?
Medieval philosophy saw human desire as operating at six interpenetrating levels. It described them as follows:
1) As a being of soul and spirit we ache for transcendence. At a deep level, we rarely know exactly what we want, but we always know that life should to be more than what it is at present. Always there is the desire to burst limits. Always something is suffocating us. Our lives are never enough for us.
2) As an intellectual being we ache for knowledge, for experience. Here the ache is double: We ache to know and we ache to be known, to experience and to be experienced. Moreover, this ache is universal in scope, we ache to know and experience everything and to be known and experienced by everybody. Small wonder we are so often willing to sell our very souls for fame! We throb with the feeling that if we are known by everyone, then our existence will somehow also enlarge and become universal.
3) As a being of will, a being with a heart, we ache for love. Here too the ache is two sided and imperialistic: The heart wants to sleep with everyone. We long to love everybody and to be loved in turn by everybody. No love in this life is ever enough.
4) As an emotional being we ache for affirmation, for warmth. Again the ache goes both ways. We ache to be affirmed and we ache to affirm, to be warmed and to make others warm .As well, just as at every other level, this ache is insatiable. No amount of affirmation, in this world, is ever enough.
5) As an aesthetic being we ache for admiration and beauty. Again, the ache is insatiable and two-sided: We ache to be an object of beauty and admiration, just as we ache to surround ourselves with beauty so that we can admire it. It is no mystery that we spend so much energy and money on cosmetics, on looking good. We have within us an incurable ache for admiration and thus it is no accident that a first sign of clinical depression is a lack of concern about one’s personal appearance.
6) As a sexual being we ache for consummation. There is an near-overpowering longing in each of us to join body and soul with another so as to be made whole and so as to help make that other whole. This ache too is imperialistic, as we well know.
We can see from all of this that it is not easy to find peace and rest in this life, given that desire is strong and waiting is hard. Every love song really is an advent song and all human longing echoes Augustine’s words: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. ” Advent is the season that celebrates this, both by pointing desire towards its adequate object and by teaching us to wait.