In spiritual teaching we are used to hearing that desire, all desire, needs to be transcended. We may accept this as it makes some sense. But we also postpone the fateful day when we will happen transcend it and fall, desireless to the ground like a limp rag or an empty bag. ‘Lord make me chaste,’ prayed St Augustine, ‘but not yet.’
If, however, we have undertaken even a very little practice for Lent of self-denial we will be in a position to understand better this teaching on desire. If we are consumed by the consumerism of our culture, mindlessly assuming that all desires should be fulfilled, at least if they are legal, we may not yet be ready to understand what the spiritual tradition actually teaches on desire. We will still feel that meditation is meant to fulfill all our desires and we should check the warranty when it fails to.
A 5th century mystical writer, the pseudo-Dionysius, described God as the object of the yearning (he used the word eros), that is present in all things, to return to their source (which is God). He added that God is also that very yearning. Doesn’t this give us a better and more desirable approach to the idea of transcending desire. It suggests that rather than quashing all desire simply in case it brings us pleasure or satisfaction, we should examine what it is we truly desire and why.
The desires we need to drop are those which are pirated versions of the real thing. We also have to shun false sublimations of the divine eros. The desire that is in fact built into the deepest structures of our self is a benign yearning. It is not the kind that leads to exploitation, possessiveness and the lust that chases frenzied self-satisfaction at any cost. It is transcendent and yet deeply interior. It passes easily from knowing to unknowing.
We need to be able to spot the complex of false desires that actually block our real desire for God (that is, for fullness of love) and also prevent us from seeing that the desire for God is God’s desire (for us). If this discernment could be rendered as a formula or a definition we would not need to meditate or indeed to be human.
In fact it is the kind of insight that arises from deep silence and then travels through all realms of our being, transforming everything that we let go of as we made the journey into silence.