"Advent is all about desire," an elderly Jesuit in our community used to say every year as November drew to a close. And whenever he said it, I would say, "Huh?"
But gradually it dawned on me. Christians who celebrate Advent, the liturgical season that precedes Christmas, desire the coming of Christ into their lives in new ways. The beautiful readings from the Book of Isaiah, which we hear during Advent, describe how even the earth longs for the presence of God. The wonderful "O antiphons," sung at evening prayer and during the Gospel acclamations toward the end of Advent, speak of Christ at the "King of Nations and their Desire." The Gospel readings for the season tell of John the Baptist expressing Israel's hope for a Messiah. Mary and Joseph look forward to the upcoming birth of a son. My friend was right. It's all about desire.
But there's a problem: desire has a bad rep in some religious circles. When some Christians hear the term they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants, both of which are condemned outright by some shortsighted religious leaders. The first is one of the greatest gifts from God to humanity; without it the human race would cease to exist. The second is part of our natural desire for a healthy life -- for food, shelter and clothing.
Desire may also be difficult for some people to accept in their spiritual lives. One of my favorite books on prayer is "The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed," written by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin and Elizabeth Liebert, three Catholic sisters. It's a meditation on what is called "Ignatian spirituality," a spirituality based on the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order. In his classic text, "The Spiritual Exercises," Ignatius repeatedly recommends praying for what "I want and desire." For example, a closer relationship with God.
The three authors astutely note that this seemingly positive invitation may present obstacles for some women. "Women may often feel that paying attention to their desires is somehow selfish and that they should not honor their desires if they are being truly generous with God." The authors strongly encourage women to resist that tendency and to "notice" and "name" their desires. To claim them as their own.
Why all this emphasis on desire? Because desire is a key way that God speaks to us, whether in Advent or the rest of the year. Our holy desires are gifts from God.
Holy desires are different than surface wants, like "I want a new smartphone" or "I want a bigger office." Instead, I'm talking about our deepest longings, those that shape our lives: desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deep longings help know God's desires for us, and how much God desire to be with us. And God, I believe, encourages us to "notice" and "name" these desires, in the same way that Jesus encouraged Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in the Gospels, to articulate his desire. "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked the blind man sitting by the roadside. "Lord, I want to see," says Bartimaeus.
Why does Jesus ask Bartimaeus a seemingly idiotic question? After all, Jesus knew that the man was blind! For one thing, Jesus may have wanted to offer him the freedom to ask, to give the man the dignity of choice, rather than simply healing him straightaway. For another, Jesus knew that recognizing our desires means recognizing God's desires for us. Jesus may have asked Bartimaeus what he desires because our longings help us learn something about who we are. It's so freeing to say, "This is what I desire in life." Naming them may also make us more grateful when we receive the fulfillment of our hopes.
Expressing our desires brings us into a closer relationship with God. Not naming them sets up a barrier. It would be like never telling your best friend your innermost thoughts. Your friend would remain distant. When we tell God our desires, our relationship with God deepens.
Desire is also the primary way people are led to discover who they are and what they are meant to do. On the most obvious level, two people feel sexual, emotional and spiritual desire for one another, and in this way discover their vocations to love. A person feels an attraction to becoming a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, and so discovers his or her vocation. Desire helps us find our way. But we first have to know them.
The deepest-held longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, as Bartimaeus asked for (and as many ask for today) but also the hope for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, those that lead us to become who we are, are God's desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly, one way that, as St. Ignatius Loyola says, the "Creator deals directly with the creature." They are also the way that God fulfills God's own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks.
Desire plays an enormous role in the life of a Jesuit. As novices, we were taught that our deep longings are important to notice. A young Jesuit who dreams of working with the poor and marginalized, or studying Scripture, or working as a retreat director, will be encouraged to pay attention to his desires. Likewise, Jesuit superiors reverence these desires when making decisions about where to assign a particular Jesuit.
Sometimes in life, you might find yourself lacking the desire for something that you want to desire. Let's say you are living in a comfortable world with scant contact with the poor. You may say, "I know I'm supposed to want to live simply and work with the poor, but I have no desire to do this." Perhaps you know that you should want to be more generous, more loving, more forgiving, but don't desire it. How can you pray for that with honesty?
In reply, Ignatius would ask, "Do you have the desire for this desire?" Even if you don't want it, do you want to want it? Do you wish that you were the kind of person that wanted this? Even this can be seen as an invitation from God. It is a way of glimpsing God's invitation even in the faintest traces of desire.
Desire is a key part of Christian spirituality because desire is a key way that God's voice is heard in our lives. And our deepest desire, planted within us, is our Advent desire for Christ, the Desire of the Nations.
Originally published at America, the national Catholic weekly magazine.