In the story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), Jesus is leaving Jericho when a blind man sat by the side of the road calls out to him. Those around him try to shut him up, but Jesus hears him and calls for him. Jesus asks him what he wants, to which he replies that he wishes to receive his sight. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well, and the man is immediately able to see.
It is one of many healing stories in the Bible, each one a wonder but each one unique. The healing of Bartimaeus is interesting because Jesus first asks him what he wants, even though it feels like it should be obvious. We talked on Sunday about why that may be. Perhaps there was something significant in the man examining himself and naming his desire. Perhaps it is a sign that Jesus respects our desires rather than simply enforcing his own. Perhaps it is a recognition that physical healing is not always what people desire most.
Whatever the case, it is an interesting way in to thinking about a particular aspect of Ignatian spirituality, because Ignatius had much to say about the importance of desire. It is a word that is often held in low esteem in Christian circles, perhaps as the church has at times fallen into seeing a dichotomy between body and spirit, assuming desire to belong purely to former, and therefore to that which is weak and imperfect.
I’m not sure that sort of dualism is right or helpful. Of course there are physical and mental and emotional and spiritual aspects to our lives, but as we are called to love God with body and mind and heart and soul, I believe they are meant to exist as part of a totality, and we should not draw hard lines between them. And as for the body being seen in wholly negative terms, I believe the incarnation shows that God takes our bodily experience seriously, and with the amount of feasting he did, I expect Jesus rather enjoyed his physicality at times.
Desires can certainly be physical, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. Surely is depends on how they are expressed and the fruit that they bear. And desires do not only belong to the body, but also to the mind and heart and soul. Ignatius believed that our deepest desires shape who we are and what we do, that desire can be deeply spiritual and one of the most important ways in which God communicates with us
And yet with all the baggage it carries, it may be easier to redeem the idea of desire than the word itself. We also spoke on Sunday night of “soul deep yearnings”, and we heard shortly after our meeting that the Halls had just heard a preacher speak of “that which we cannot not do”. Whatever language you choose to use, I invite you to reflect on the things that God has planted deep within you, the things that inspire and excite you, that bring light and life even if they also exhaust or frustrate you.
The Jesuit poet Pedro Arrupe touches on some of these ideas in his poem about falling in love, and so it may help for you to meditate on these words, asking what has seized your imagination or amazed you with joy and gratitude.
James Martin (the priest not the chef!) talks about finding our desires in moments of longing, or connection, or clarity, or exultation, or vulnerability. They may be things that have been with us from childhood, or they may catch us unawares just when we think we know who we are and where we are headed. We can’t predict them or control them, we can only be open to recognising them and chasing them.
Ultimately, Ignatius said that “our one desire and our only choice should be this: I want and choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me”. Our truest desires are therefore those that draw us closer into relationship with God. Hopefully they are the things you have fallen in love with, but if not you may need to spend some time in prayer and perhaps in conversation with someone you trust, seeking to unpick why it is that the things you love are not leading you to God, and reflect on how you might change that
Perhaps we could look at it another way. Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, said that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. Running was one of his deepest desires because it deepened the life of God in him, and he knew that because he felt God’s approval and delight. It’s not just about what brings us pleasure but about what makes us feel God’s pleasure.
Which brings us to a final thought. Recognising our desires for God means also recognising God’s desire for us . Again and again the scriptures show God meeting people where they are – Hannah weeping for the child she fears will never be, Job covered in sores and raging against the unfairness of it all, Jonah in the belly of a whale, the Samaritan woman drawing water in the middle of the day because she has been ostracised by her community, Saul on the road to further persecution – because that is his one desire and only choice.
Some of the sweetest moments of exaltation I have known have been when I have been overwhelmed by a sense of God’s love, and it has nearly burst my heart with a desire to love better. Because this is the digital age, I turned to facebook after one of these moments, and so I will leave you with what I wrote in an attempt to capture that feeling, and invite you to reflect on your own experience of God’s love.
I have been trying to describe to myself what it feels like to experience the presence of God, and I had the most profound sense of it being like looking at someone you love and seeing their love for you written across their face as plain as day. Like the surge of joy that comes when their heart speaks to yours, and you understand how truly and deeply you are loved and wanted. Like knowing in every moment and every atom of your being that they love you, but just for a moment that love filling you so that it is the only thing that matters. Sometimes God’s presence is the most perfect sense of calm, and sometimes it is energy coursing through you like electricity. Sometimes it is a sense of things falling into place, and sometimes it is a righteous fury against all that is still wrong in the world. But just sometimes it is all the love in the world being lavished on you by the one who knows you best and loves you all the same.