It seems to me that the human struggle to make sense of desire, both conscious and unconscious, is universal. After all, we are created in this way – we are in need of one another, irrespective of our cultural background, gender identity, sexual orientation, or systems of belief. It is also here that we hurt and harm each other the most. The place of our closest connection is also a space of intense vulnerability, the sacred home of our intimacy.
My previous contribution talked about Christmas as the Christian celebration of love’s desire, incarnate in the historical person of Jesus Christ. In this piece, I will develop this point, and pick up on the challenge proposed in Mario Gerada’s latest article (link below), namely, the “problem” of desire.
I shall go one step further, asking; How can we understand the role desire plays throughout our spiritual journey?
Sappho wasn’t wrong when she wrote that the experience of love is bittersweet. Actually, the word she uses (γλυκύπικρον) is more accurately translated as “sweet-bitter”. To anyone who has experienced love, this feels a lot more true to life. What begins in sweetness must mature and evolve to express a more complex range of reactions.
And yet God is all love. The Spirit walks with us in suffering just as it is joyfully disclosed in moments of understanding. Furthermore, accepting the sweet-bitter demands of love in our lives means turning away from the seduction of mere abstractions. To put it more plainly, loving God and others cannot mean loving in the ideal, which is not loving anything, or any real thing, at all.
Rather, the turn to love is the turn to all kinds of things. It is a turn towards the concrete reality of other creatures and other persons. The transcendence (going beyond) which we seek through our spirituality creates an importance distance where the differences between us can simultaneously exist. This is crucial, because real love never tries to appropriate wholly, or to consume utterly, or to exploit mindlessly.
Any love that is founded on possession, be it through egoism, colonialism, profit-driven capitalism, and so on, is desire expressed as domination. It is the deformation of love into instruments of control, where the privileged (whether that is defined in terms of one gender, one ethnicity, or one class of people) control all others. Environmental devastation, institutionalised oppression, and the exploitation of countless human beings are evidence of these abuses.
Dominating ideologies seek to remake us in their image, to obliterate rather than to honour our differences. Here is the more tricky bit, but it is simple in its truth. Love is not a desire to dominate – it is the need to approach, the transcendent movement “towards” others.
For example, think of the physical intimacy shared between two people. This is the space where two bodies exist in the closest touch, held within each other, and yet there is a differentiation between the two. The desire to be connected by the very nature of our physicality and yet the need to be celebrated in our individual identities.
Love is the dynamic grace that connects us while also protecting the spaces between us. For this reason, we cannot let our desire be all consuming, with no thought for the wellbeing of others. Love invites each of us to enter a place of our own, in all areas of our lives, to be recognised in our differences and to acknowledge that we are never only one thing.
Our identities themselves contain multiple meanings. Our bodies, which touch but do not dissolve into one another, even at the most intense moments of our desire, carry complex histories. However, it is thanks to these painful and beautiful experiences of life that we are capable of respectfully and tenderly holding the histories of others, just as we desire to be held.
When we acknowledge the responsibility to love, to respect our differences in healthy expressions of desire and to celebrate our differences, then we cannot forget our role as guardians of this world and one another. Our desire must find expression in practical strategies of social, environmental, political, and cultural connection. These are all opportunities to encounter desire.
Love, therefore, is a matter of boundaries. Understood in this way, as the inner nature of God and our own greatest need, it is unlike the dissolution into undefined “oneness” which some other traditions propose. God’s trinitarian revelation is an intimate union of Persons, nonetheless maintaining unique identities in their Oneness.
Our spiritual journeys must embody this movement of desire. We must discover new possibilities to connect with, but not collapse into, one another. The goal of our journeying is to know and to live our own dignity, always mindful of the dignity of others. Striving, without ceasing, to embody the great potential of our shared humanity.
Mario Gerada; ‘Male and Female He Created Them… And Whoops!’, https://zuntier.com/male-and-female-he-created-them-and-whoops/
Pyt Farrugia, ‘Love Was Born At Christmas’, https://zuntier.com/love-was-born-at-christmas/