Summary: What is it to desire God? Are there different kinds of desire? Is it something given to us (infused) or something we can act upon to increase?
Question: I have a question about the desire for Christ, i.e. this desire that forces God, so to speak, to give himself to us. Does it reside in the will or in the emotions – is it only a feeling? Or does desire reside in the upper part of our soul, in the spirit? Is it given as a grace or should we activate it? If given as a grace, is it as a general grace or a particular grace? I feel it is key and want to activate it. Do I make acts of Hope? Ask for the grace? What do I (we) do in practice? Desire seems, according to St. Teresa of Avila, to play a big part in Prayer of the Heart so I was wondering what part we can play in activating it in its growth etc. It seems to have to grow. Or is it a fruit of greater humility as we grow in out spiritual life? I read in your book about our spiritual growth according to St. Teresa of Avila something about it and it has been constantly simmering in my mind… Also, in St. John of the Cross I think… not sure what triggered this question exactly but it seems suddenly important to know if I can in any way deepen this desire. As I am without ‘feeling’ so to speak I want to make sure I am doing what I can during this time to activate/deepen my desire.. maybe I can’t and it’s a gift from God – I don’t know.
First Aspect of Desire: Desire as a Result of Spiritual Growth
Regarding the desire to see God, to receive God, to be united to Him we can say the following:
– A natural desire exists as explained by many theologians and more so by St. John of the Cross. The human being is by formation (being formed by God’s hands in his image and likeness) Capax Dei – even if this capacity has been hugely diminished by the loss of the likeness. This desire is there “naturally” in us because of who we are and how we are built!
– Then with the action of the Grace of God, on passing through the second Conversion, once the soul is wounded by the Love of Christ, she comes out of herself and wants to find Him and searches for Him, as seen, for instance, in the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross.. The supernatural desire here as you can see is born from the grace of God and is not only part and parcel of who we are. The grace of God in us acts like a magnet wanting more always, growth being ever the central object of its desire: union with Christ.
– This supernatural desire to see Jesus’ divinity, or to be united to Him, continues to grow because of the ever-increasing action of the Holy Spirit in us.
– The direct point where the Holy Spirit acts, as is the case in any given grace, is first and essentially in our spirit, the summit of our soul, this part that can be touched directly by God. This is where the Grace of God works essentially. But not only here. Sometimes also God chooses that the conscious part of the soul receives echoes of this action and desire to get closer to Jesus. However, not always. During the deep purification there is an alternation between moments of felt/experienced fervent love (in the conscious part) and the obvious desire and pain of not yet possessing Him totally, and moments where his absence is “felt” to an intense degree, and where our nothingness is increasingly shown, under the effects of the action of the Holy Spirit.
– Some saints, and I am thinking here of St. Augustine, consider that the highest levels of prayer is desire. Think of the Psalm where the soul yearns for God as a thirsty deer. Here why does St. Augustine consider desire to be the highest form of prayer and why does he want us to consider it thus also? Let us think of the fiery prayer (*see my book on Mary’s Fiery Prayer) – which is the highest form of prayer when the whole heart/spirit is a Flame. God is a devouring Fire says the Old Testament. He says He is “jealous”, burning, desiring us. He finds in us his happiness. This is God’s reality. God’s secret. If we reach a point where the fire of God transforms all our being (the spirit essentially) and that we are united with God, the spirit becomes fire from Fire, and is constantly burning and sending out flares! God is fire, you can even say God is desire. Love is a unitive act, that unites the lover with the beloved. God is Love, so God’s very nature is this repeated act, a constantly repeated act: God desires, wants union – this is his nature.
Being transformed into Him, into his nature, participating in his very nature, we become God by participation says St. John of the Cross, therefore the highest and simplest form of prayer is a Flame, or if you prefer a “Desire”.
– The more we are united to Jesus and the Holy Spirit the more God moves us. His desires become our desires. Please do read the fiery letter of St Thérèse to her sister Marie, where she tells her about the infinite desires she “feels”. In a letter that follows she will clarify that she is not experiencing (feeling) anything! Oh! What a paradox!
– Desire is of course linked to hope: the more we desire/hope the more we receive says St. John of the Cross, and therefore the more we grow.
On the other hand, the natural desire we have in the beginning to see God and to be united to Him, becomes transformed by the Grace of God and undergoes a constant growth, providing that we are faithful to Him on a daily basis. In this case the desire to be totally united with Jesus grows exponentially. It even becomes very painful. St. John of the Cross describes this suffering in the painful desire of the future bride to see Jesus, to be united with Him (see Spiritual Canticle). There are alternating moments of feeling both the closeness and the emptiness! The suffering of constantly knowing that we are still far from being united generates excruciating pain. This growth in the desire to be united to Jesus grows by the simple and direct effect of the grace of God in us, the result of our faithfulness to Him in Lectio Divina and Prayer of the Heart. Nobody can trigger such desire, as it is the result of the action of the Holy Spirit who is purifying us, emptying the space in our Heart of all idols, all that is not God, enlarging our capacity to become capable again (“again” because after the Fall, we lost our likeness to God) of containing, embracing Jesus, his divinity, the very sight of his divinity. If you enlarge a place to the dimensions of God himself, no wonder you feel such huge emptiness, since Union is not accomplished yet.
The Second Aspect of Desire: The Act one Makes Right From the Start
As mentioned, and guessed, your question is multifaceted. Another aspect is the issue of, so to speak, “forcing God” to give himself to us. It is in a way the most important practical question in Spiritual Life because it is about “how the grace of God works”, and the relationship between God’s work and initiative and our response, our collaboration. More so, you focus on a point that is rarely underlined i.e. “forcing God” so to speak to give Himself to us. Of course, “forcing God” is a figure of speech but it says something important which should not to be disregarded.
Our part is often seen in the Theology of Grace as the ones who receive, respond. We are never seen as the ones who start or take the initiative.
The core of this question is the relationship between the general and the particular help of the Grace of God in both Lectio Divina and Prayer of the Heart. I can’t insist enough – as does St. Teresa – on the importance of understanding the relationship between these two forms of the action of the Grace of God in us (the general and particular help of the Grace of God). Here lies the secret of the Gospel. I have explained it various times during my courses and in my books and articles. If one fails to correctly understand the interaction between God and us, our Spiritual Life can stand still and not move ahead. It does happen unfortunately on an immense scale. It is the history itself of St. Teresa of Avila, where we see her offered to us as a Paradigm for the entire Church of her time and of all times!
When the Lord says “ask and you will receive”, He is showing us that, in order to receive the grace of God, there is something in its workings that depends on us and not on God! When the Lord tells us that “violent” people force entrance to the kingdom of God, He is hinting at something very important (Matthew 11:12: “the kingdom of the heavens is taken by violence and the violent seize it.”). However, He is still talking about the workings of grace. Similarly, when He says that “the pure of heart will see God”, He is inviting us to take action in order to achieve a certain type of purity which allows us to “see God” i.e. to experiment with God’s Grace.
There are in fact two types of purity: one is the act itself and one is the habit that results because of the act. We are capable of the act at any spiritual level i.e. right from the begining of our spiritual life. The habit and result, however, come with repetition. There is an act of humility or purity (here it is strictly the same thing seen from two different angles) that we can make, at any time, because the general grace of God is given to us. Making God the primary focus in everything is an act that depends on us. “seek first the kingdom of God” is something that depends on us because the general grace of God is constantly given to us, even to the sinner! This, however, is not yet the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit in us but is just the disposition that we must adopt in order to receive it.
St. John of the Cross talks about this so to speak “forcing” the hand of God in a different way. He says that by practising Charity toward our brothers and sisters is as if we are forcing God to give himself more to us. It is as if God feels He cannot be overcome or beaten in Generosity. (see Spiritual Canticle A 12,1 Spiritual Canticle B 13,17).
“God does not establish His grace and love in the soul but in proportion to the good will of that soul’s love. He, therefore, that truly loves God must strive that his love fail not; for so, if we may thus speak, will he move God to show him greater love, and to take greater delight in his soul. In order to attain to such a degree of love, he must practice those things of which the Apostle speaks, saying: “Charity is patient, is benign: charity envies not, deals not perversely; is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeks not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinks not evil, rejoices not upon iniquity, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:4-7)” (Spiritual Canticle B 13,17)
St. Teresa of Avila, also, tries her best to explain this fundamental rule of Spiritual Life: if you want God himself to be all yours, then you need to give yourself to Him. The more you give yourself to Him, the more He gives himself to you.
In a way she says that by the gift of oneself to God, in the perfect practice of Love for instance (or detachment or humility), one attracts God, one opens the door of his heart wider and receives the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit.
It is the summary of her entire story: how by not doing this, despite the fact that she was there for Him for at least fifteen continuous years, He couldn’t give himself to her. Then, the day she started to give Him her all, her emotions, attachments, half spiritual love to the neighbour, He started to pour his graces into her! It is the summary of her life, the summary of the Way of Perfection, the true meaning of her conversion and the deep aspect of her being a paradigm for the entire Church – in her time and in ours.
The epitome of this teaching is what she says about humility and how Mary’s humility (seen here as an act that we can and should make) is what attracted Jesus himself into Mary’s heart and womb. It is also exemplified in this same passage where St. Teresa uses the example of the game of Chess. Here she invites her reader to “corner” so to speak or “force” Him – the opponent’s King (Jesus himself) – to surrender and give himself to us by using Mary’s humility, Her and our act of descent of lowering ourselves in the face of God. (See text below)
The entire Bible is an invitation to lower ourselves in order to receive God’s Grace (see 1 Peter 5:6 and James 4:10). Lower yourself so God can give you his grace because He opposes the proud! It is the secret of attracting God. We can do it. Look at the prayer of the Publican, compared to the Pharisee’s one! Look at the Prodigal son compared to his brother. Whoever chooses to exercise mercy (which is at the heart of the Our Father) toward his neighbour or enemy, attracts God to his heart and therefore triggers real spiritual growth. There is no lack of acts of forgiveness we can make to our neighbour – in fact Jesus himself recommends forgiveness seventy-seven times seven per day. This is the essence of the Gospel.
There is definitely an act we can make from day one that will “attract” God. The repetition of such acts will trigger the Growth of the action of God in us, desire will grow as a result, and, to quote St. Therese, desire will finally reach the infinite.
St. Teresa of Avila Explaining How One Can “Force” God to Give Himself to us
“I hope you do not think I have written too much about this already; for I have only been placing the board, as they say. You have asked me to tell you about the first steps in prayer; although God did not lead me by them, my daughters I know no others, and even now I can hardly have acquired these elementary virtues. But you may be sure that anyone who cannot set out the pieces in a game of chess will never be able to play well, and, if he does not know how to give check, he will not be able to bring about a checkmate. Now you will reprove me for talking about games, as we do not play them in this house and are forbidden to do so. That will show you what kind of a mother God has given you — she even knows about vanities like this! However, they say that the game is sometimes legitimate. How legitimate it will be for us to play it in this way, and, if we play it frequently, how quickly we shall give checkmate to this Divine King! He will not be able to move out of our check nor will He desire to do so.
It is the queen which gives the king most trouble in this game and all the other pieces support her. There is no queen who can beat this King as well as humility can; for humility brought Him down from Heaven into the Virgin’s womb and with humility we can draw Him into our souls by a single hair. Be sure that He will give most humility to him who has most already and least to him who has least. I cannot understand how humility exists, or can exist, without love, or love without humility, and it is impossible for these two virtues to exist save where there is great detachment from all created things.
You will ask, my daughters, why I am talking to you about virtues when you have more than enough books to teach you about them and when you want me to tell you only about contemplation. My reply is that, if you had asked me about meditation, I could have talked to you about it, and advised you all to practise it, even if you do not possess the virtues. For this is the first step to be taken towards the acquisition of the virtues and the very life of all Christians depends upon their beginning it. No one, however lost a soul he may be, should neglect so great a blessing if God inspires him to make use of it. All this I have already written elsewhere, and so have many others who know what they are writing about, which I certainly do not: God knows that.
But contemplation, daughters, is another matter. This is an error which we all make: if a person gets so far as to spend a short time each day in thinking about his sins, as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything more than name, people at once call him a great contemplative; and then they expect him to have the rare virtues which a great contemplative is bound to possess; he may even think he has them himself, but he will be quite wrong. In his early stages he did not even know how to set out the chess-board, and thought that, in order to give checkmate, it would be enough to be able to recognize the pieces. But that is impossible, for this King does not allow Himself to be taken except by one who surrenders wholly to Him.
Therefore, daughters, if you want me to tell you the way to attain to contemplation, do allow me to speak at some length about these things, even if at the time they do not seem to you very important, for I think myself that they are. If you have no wish either to hear about them or to practise them, continue your mental prayer all your life; but in that case I assure you, and all persons who desire this blessing, that in my opinion you will not attain true contemplation. I may, of course, be wrong about this, as I am judging by my own experience, but I have been striving after contemplation for twenty years.
I will now explain what mental prayer is, as some of you will not understand this. God grant that we may practise it as we should! I am afraid, however, that, if we do not achieve the virtues, this can only be done with great labour, although the virtues are not necessary here in such a high degree as they are for contemplation. I mean that the King of glory will not come to our souls — that is, so as to be united with them — unless we strive to gain the greatest virtues. I will explain this, for if you once catch me out in something which is not the truth, you will believe nothing I say — and if I were to say something untrue intentionally, from which may God preserve me, you would be right; but, if I did, it would be because I knew no better or did not understand what I said. I will tell you, then, that God is sometimes pleased to show great favour to persons who are in an evil state [and to raise them to perfect contemplation], so that by this means He may snatch them out of the hands of the devil. It must be understood, I think, that such persons will not be in mortal sin at the time. They may be in an evil state, and yet the Lord will allow them to see a vision, even a very good one, in order to draw them back to Himself. But I cannot believe that He would grant them contemplation. For that is a Divine union, in which the Lord takes His delight in the soul and the soul takes its delight in Him; and there is no way in which the Purity of the Heavens can take pleasure in a soul that is unclean, nor can the Delight of the angels have delight in that which is not His own. And we know that, by committing mortal sin, a soul becomes the property of the devil, and must take its delight in him, since it has given him pleasure; and, as we know, his delights, even in this life, are continuous torture. My Lord will have no lack of children of His own in whom He may rejoice without going and taking the children of others. Yet His Majesty will do what He often does — namely, snatch them out of the devil’s hands.
Oh, my Lord! How often do we cause Thee to wrestle with the devil! Was it not enough that Thou shouldst have allowed him to bear Thee in his arms when he took Thee to the pinnacle of the Temple in order to teach us how to vanquish him? What a sight it would have been, daughters, to see this Sun by the side of the darkness, and what fear that wretched creature must have felt, though he would not have known why, since God did not allow Him to understand!
Blessed be such great pity and mercy; we Christians ought to feel great shame at making Him wrestle daily, in the way I have described, with such an unclean beast. Indeed, Lord, Thine arms had need to be strong, but how was it that they were not weakened by the many [trials and] tortures which Thou didst endure upon the Cross? Oh, how quickly all that is borne for love’s sake heals again! I really believe that, if Thou hadst lived longer, the very love which Thou hast for us would have healed Thy wounds again and Thou wouldst have needed no other medicine. Oh, my God, who will give me such medicine for all the things which grieve and try me? How eagerly should I desire them if it were certain that I could be cured by such a health-giving ointment!” (Way of Perfection, Chapter 16)