Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Abbey - Trappistines of Rogersville.
HR.
Vocation Discernment.

Desire for God and the Spiritual Journey -
The Spiritual Journey and Religious Life

Vocation discernment retreats are often referred to as "Come and see" weekends, a phrase inspired by John's Gospel account of two soon-to-be disciples following Jesus in the beginning of his ministry. Jesus turns to them and asks: What do you want (desire)? They answer with a question: Rabbi, where to you live (dwell)? Jesus replies: Come and see.

Such a simple story and yet how dense with meaning. Jesus' question to anyone discerning their vocation in life is the same: What do you desire? And if your answer is the same: I desire to know where you dwell, Jesus invites you, too, to come and see. Come where? On a journey, a spiritual journey to where Jesus dwells, there to dwell with him. Desire and the spiritual journey, the spiritual journey and religious life, that is what I would like to speak with you about today.

Life is a journey. Life has a beginning and seemingly will have an end. We might not all agree on the exact nature of either but we cannot deny that we are caught up in a process. Life is not static, it is dynamic. Some may interpret it as naught but an absurd journey stretching from womb to tomb and ending there, but our faith-vision contends and our hearts confirm that life has its origin and its culmination in Mystery - a Mystery we call God. Even those who do not share our faith in God carry within their soul, within their spirit, a innate nostalgia for something, for someone... not quite known but as if vaguely remembered. Independent of any formal religious belief, our very "being", our very "nature", carries deep within it traces of a "presence" that envelops all human existence. I recall a charming Jewish fable that speaks to this inborn sense of the Holy, this half-forgotten memory of God that lurks on the edges of our consciousness. It recounts how the indentation on our upper lip is the mark left by an angel who, as we were leaving heaven and about to be born upon this earth, put a finger to our lips and bade us be silent about what we had seen. As if, at birth the truth of our origin was still fresh in our spirit, only to grow dim with the passing of time, as we lose the innocence of youth and don the dullness of the rational adult. There is a poem by William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality, wherein we find an echo of this intuition:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home...

Yes, human existence is a journey - a spiritual journey, one that begins in God and ends in God, although "in God" there can be no ending.... We have our part to play in its unfolding, this to be sure, for we are free to become who we are or not. We are free to come and see or to go our merry way down the path of illusion. And yet, to the degree that we wander along our own sinuous paths that lead us further and further away from God and our true self, our hearts will witness against us with a prophetically gnawing ontological dis-ease. As St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: "God, you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee". Yet, it is not necessary to travel far and wide on this spiritual journey. What is necessary is to return within, for that is the true terrain of the spiritual journey. Jesus is calling us to come and see where he dwells, within our own heart. I recall the poignant story, recounted by Henri Caffarel in his book: Lettres sur la prière, of a musk deer who expended all its time and energy seeking elsewhere than where it was to be found, the traces of a longed-for fragrance which one day, long ago, it had sensed and by which it had ever since been haunted. Let us listen carefully to this tale:

Once, many years ago, a deer was haunted by the perfumed scent of musk. He ran from jungle to jungle, in pursuit of the musk. The pitiful creature renounced food, drink and even sleep. He knew not whence came "the call of the musk", but was compelled to pursue it through ravines, forests and hills until finally, starved, haggard and exhausted, stumbling about in a daze, he slipped from the peak of a rocky crevice and fell, mortally wounded, body and soul. His last pathetic gesture before dying was to have pity upon himself and lick his wounded chest... And behold, his musk sac, ripped open by the fall, exhaled its perfume. Panting and gasping deeply, he tried desperately to inhale the scent so longed for, but alas, it was too late. (And the moral of the story:) Oh! my beloved child, do not seek outside yourself for the perfume of God, only to perish in the jungle; seek your soul, and behold, there God is.

One could say, along with these authors, that the human soul is inhabited with a longing, a yearning for its homeland and that life here on earth, as beautiful as it may be, is, in some sense, both an exile and a pilgrimage. If it is true, as the adage goes, that "home is where the heart is", and that our hearts are indeed restless until they rest in God, then could it be that "home" is not a place, be it terrestrial or celestial, but rather a relationship, a loving relationship of the human person with God? Could it be that it is within the depths of this relationship that we find our way home because we have found God, or better yet, because we have let God find us? To paraphrase another of St Augustine's insights, where he has God say to us: "You would not be seeking me had you not already found me", we could put it yet another way and have God saying: "You would not be seeking me had I not already found you!" For in truth, the spiritual journey is more about God pursuing us than us pursuing God.

I am reminded of another poem, The Hound of Heaven, by Francis Thompson in which he describes, metaphorically, this relentless, loving search of God for the human person. What he is trying to represent in poetic form is the theological dogma that God is, in fact, seeking us long before we ever set out to seek God. Our search for God, our love for God, our desire for God is but a response to the initiative of God's grace. It is God who acts first, who loves first, who desires first, who calls first. St. John tells us this quite clearly when he writes: "It is not we who love God but God who loved us first." And yet, paradoxically, that very love from which and for which we were created, we often end up fleeing. We fear its demands, we fear letting-go of our little dreams in order to wake up to the awesome reality of God in our lives, a God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. In the poem, we are presented with the image of a "hunt", a "chase", where the "hound" is in hot pursuit, on the hoofs of the "hart" (or the deer). The "hound of heaven" is a symbol of God and the "hart" a symbol of the human soul. Listen to a few lines wherein we here the dialogue between the hart and the hound:

"I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat--and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet--
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.'

This last line: 'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me' returns as a variation on the theme throughout the other stanzas of the poem. It is God calling to the soul, whispering that nothing will ever suffice its desire but God alone:

"Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.'

'Lo! Naught contents thee, who content'st not Me.'

'Lo! All things flee thee, for thou fleest Me."

'Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
Save Me, save only Me?'

And finally, there is the poignant cry of God the lover still in pursuit of the misguided soul who exhausts itself by seeking everywhere but in God the happiness it so desires:

"Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.'

Bittersweet indeed! The journey of life is a journey of love and the journey of love is, first and foremost, a spiritual journey. As I have been trying to make clear, with the help of some poets and saints, our deepest desire, our truest desire, our most human desire is of a spiritual nature - it is a desire for union with God. Now, you might find this a bit extreme. You might agree that such a desire is one of your desires in life but not the only one nor the principal one. But I would venture to disagree with you there and hold to my position that, at the root of all our desires, is the desire for God.

This might make you a bit uncomfortable when you start going down the list of what you desire, as you might find contained therein some pretty profane or mundane categories: a sports car, a date Saturday night, a sexy figure, designer jeans, and these along with some grandlier aspirations such as success, family, friends, social status, and these cohabiting with such basic animal appetites as sensual pleasure, adequate if not luxurious shelter, good food and drink, power. Then, squeezed in there, amongst all this clutter and competition, there's a little bundle of "spiritual" desires: charity, justice, goodness, honesty, piety, fidelity, prayer.

What a hodgepodge! But do you know what the common denominator is in all these desires? Happiness. Beatitude. No matter what object we direct our desire toward, the goal is to attain happiness. Be it Nike jogging shoes or a Harvard education, be it artistic expression or human love, be it things or persons - what we need, what we are seeking, what we desire in life is to be happy, fulfilled, satiated. It is the quest of every human being. It is part and parcel of our common human nature. Every culture, every race, both genders equally, young and old alike - we all desire happiness but how many of us have yet to realize that the only happiness which will ever last is that profound spiritual wellbeing that comes from our relationship with God? Alas, what havoc we have wrecked upon the face of the earth by seeking to fulfill this desire for happiness in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways! And what a heyday our consumer society has, tapping into and capitalizing upon this misguided desire, promising to give us the happiness we so long for and this through the possession of a million and one nifty new commodities, all at a dear price - the price of our soul, actually.

Many are the spiritual writers and mystics who have experienced and attempted to articulate the centrality of desire in the spiritual life. And yet this insight is not restricted to such as those, for even a contemporary psychiatrist, Gerald May, has recognized in this dynamic of desire, an important key to understanding what motivates, for better and for worse, the human heart and psyche. Let me share with you an excerpt from his book, Addiction and Grace:

"After twenty years of listening to the yearnings of people's hearts, I am convinced that all human beings have an inborn desire for God. Whether we are consciously religious or not, this desire is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. It gives us meaning. Some of us have repressed this desire, burying it beneath so many other interests that we are completely unaware of it. Or we may experience it in different ways -- as longing for wholeness, completion, or fulfillment. Regardless of how we describe it, it is a longing for love. (...) This yearning is the essence of the human spirit... Modern theology describes this desire as God-given. In an outpouring of love, God creates us and plants the seeds of this desire deep within us. Then, throughout our lives, God nourishes this desire, drawing us toward fulfillment...".

Now the irony is, as he goes on to explain, that we "try to fulfill our longing for God through objects of attachment". "We seek satisfaction of our spiritual (desire) in a host of ways that may have very little to do with God." And, sooner or later, we come up empty handed, frustrated, disappointed. "From a psychoanalytic point of view, one could say we displace our (desire) for God onto things" and consequently, we attach our love to them instead of to God, creating a myriad of idols to which we bow down and serve. "Even when we know that our hunger is for God alone, we still look for loopholes, ways of maintaining our attachments to things and people while simultaneously trying to deepen our intimacy with God."

Now, you might be wondering what all this has to do with "religious life"? And my answer is, everything!

In the first place, the very word "religious" or "religion" literally means to "bind" or "connect" or "attach". So, when we speak of the religious life, we are referring to a way of life whose very function is to connect, to attach the persons following that path with the God of their heart's desire. Religious life, religion in general, binds us to God, throws a bridge over the abyss, nurtures the relationship between the human and the divine. Religious life is a response to that deep longing of the human spirit to find its way back home, to stop running from its destiny and let itself be found by God - to seek its happiness in God.

So, at the heart of any religious institution, at the heart of its charism, at the heart of its Constitutions, of its mission in the Church and in the world there is this inner journey, this interior spiritual journey. Everything else is secondary to this primordial dynamic: lifestyle, ministry, mission - all must flow from it and lead back to it. Spiritual life, which is to say our intimate relationship with God, is the ground, the bedrock, the foundation, the raison d'être of all religious life. And yet, as we have seen, the very marrow of the spiritual life is our innate desire for God. Understandably then, religious life is designed to offer a concrete way to channel or re-channel that desire toward its ultimate fulfillment in God. The vows are an essential part of that design.

It is through the detachments inherent in religious life, detachments in the guise of "vows", that we reclaim our freedom to follow the desire of our heart toward its fruition in our relationship with God. To quote again from Gerald May:

"Detachment is the word used in spiritual traditions to describe freedom of desire. Not freedom from desire, but freedom of desire. (...) For centuries people have distorted the meaning of detachment, mistakenly assuming that detachment devalues desire and denies the potential goodness of the things and people to which one can become attached. Thus detachment has come to be associated with coldness, austerity, and lack of passion. This is simply not true. An authentic spiritual understanding of detachment devalues neither desire nor the objects of desire. Instead, it aims at correcting one's own anxious (misguided) grasping in order to free oneself for committed relationship with God."

One way of explaining religious vows is to see them within this context, as a sort of antidote to this insipid distortion of our deepest desire. The vows construed as evangelical detachments, serve "to enkindle the heart, awaken the spirit, stimulate our longing, and shows us where God (dwells)...". The vow of "evangelical poverty" can be understood as a refusal to seek our happiness in material possessions but rather to content ourselves with what is necessary, leaving intact that sacred indigence which is an openness to the Kingdom. "Evangelical chastity" or celibacy is the realization that no human relationship, no matter how sublime, will ever suffice a heart made for God. "Evangelical obedience" undermines the modern myth of individualism, realizing that the only authentic freedom is the freedom to do good and not to be slaves to our egocentric passions and fears.

In poverty we give away all we have and even our right to personal ownership in order to possess the pearl of great price, in order to receive the gift of the Kingdom. In celibacy we detach ourselves from exclusive relationships in order to commit ourselves to an absolute relationship; one which is all consuming while at the same time liberating, releasing in us the energy of spiritual love which expands our commitment beyond limited horizons to include all God's people, in whatever way we are called to serve them. In obedience, we renounce self-will in order to be totally available to God's will; we refuse to indulge the narcissistic tendencies of our "ego" in order to obey the exigencies of the "law (of love) written on our hearts", in order to follow the divine tendencies of our true self, of our "imago Dei".

Religious life is a fundamental option to follow the spiritual desire inscribed in our hearts, to seek our happiness and fulfillment first and foremost in our relationship with God. This is not a solipsistic journey. To seek God with all our heart and soul and body and mind is to become fully human, to become who we were created to be - loving partners of God, through whom divine life flows into the world, creating a new heaven and a new earth where God comes first and all the rest fits perfectly into place.

Although some of you may be too young to be considered as candidates for religious life at this time, or others may think they are too old, you are never too young or too old to claim and nurture the spiritual desire that inhabits your soul. Others among you may not feel ready to make a formal commitment to a religious congregation, you would be wise, however, to commit yourself right now to the longing of your heart. Name it, protect it, engage it, fan the flame - this is the spiritual journey to which you are all called and to which you are invited to respond. It is to the deepest desire of your heart that you must continue to listen and, assuredly, you will then know where God is calling you.


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