While he was still on the journey back his servants met him with the news that his boy was alive.
Desire is a two-edged sword. It can cut through confusion and doubt and help us commit wholeheartedly to a direction and course of action. Or it can turn on us and incapacitate us. Be careful what you pray for in case you get it, is ancient wisdom. Be careful about what you desire is equally important because it decides whether we make progress or get stuck in the trajectory of transcendence which is our true life.
Parents anxious for a sick or wayward child feel an overwhelming desire to help the child, to sacrifice themselves for the child in any way necessary. This desire is so instinctive it is hardly desire as we usually think of it but a need rooted in deepest nature. Compare this with the overwhelming desire of a politician to be elected, someone climbing a hierarchy to get higher or an athlete poised to compete and win. In these cases desire will also lead to a willing sacrifice of time and even health in order to fulfil it. Whether this ambition is largely motivated by ego or a desire to do good is a matter of self-discernment. Managing the desire, so that it doesn’t become an all-consuming obsession or a destructive force, requires courageous self-knowledge.
With all desire comes attachment. This means that a deep part of our identity becomes fused with what we desire. With attachment comes suffering, the pain of hoping to succeed or the fear or pain of loss or failure. Even with the euphoria of success the relief of pain doesn’t last long before we wonder how long it will last. So we are well advised by the wisdom of the ages to develop a habit of detachment in order to manage desire. We cannot live without desire but, unmanaged, desire can suck the joy and freedom out of life. Meditation is the simplest and most natural way to develop this habit of detachment, the best insurance against the equal perils of success or failure. Times like Lent and particular practices of self-restraint and deeper commitment also help to loosen the grip of attachment. They free up some of the identification we have made between our selves and our object of desire. We still accept that we have things to desire but we don’t over-invest. However great the desire, we remember that we are not what we want. Good discipline sets us free.
Then there is the desire to be enlightened, for God, for holiness, the desire to be without desire. This needs to be managed very carefully. It can produce great fruits and liberation. Or it can cause us much distortion of soul and make us insufferable bores to others. The greater the good we desire, the greater the detachment needed to manage it. Then, as for the man in today’s gospel, what we desire can arrive when we least expect it with the transcendent force of something utterly free of us.