Three Kinds of Desire

Question 2.

This article picks up the topic addressed in Question 2 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Why does man have a desire for God?" In turn, this question is a brief summary of the matters dealt with in the Catechism 27-30, 44-45.


Why do we have a desire for God? This question appears right near the beginning of the Catholic catechism. For those who are not familiar with the word 'catechism' it is a compilation of the beliefs of the Christian faith. If someone wanted to find a single key reference book to find out what it is that the Catholic Church believes the Catechism would be it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is readily available in printed form and is also available in full on the Vatican website. There is also a much shorter summary called the Compendium of the Catechism which is presented in question and answer format.

The specific reference for the present topic in the Compendium is to Question 2. The specific reference in the Catechism is to Sections 27-30.

The first section of the catechism sets the scene for all that follows by looking at what human nature is. The key text of the Christian faith, the Bible, is also known as the Word of God. This is because Christians believe that God did not want to remain unknown and inscrutable but revealed himself to human beings. But if God wanted to 'speak' to human beings then it implies that they are the kind of beings who could 'hear' such communications.

So the first section of the catechism addresses this kind of question. How is it possible for us to 'know' God? This explanation begins by considering, not ideas, but feelings. It's a good place to start because it parallels how we come to be self-aware beings in the first place. We are born into the world as babies. At that stage we don't have any ideas, at least not in any clear sense, but we do have feelings. We can sense and respond to the care and affection shown to us by others. Whatever we learn about the world at that stage is 'unspecialised'. We simply take in whatever we feel in one way or another.

Human beings, even as adults, are in many ways like infants compared to a being who has the capacity to be the source of all things. So that's where the catechism begins, by considering how it is that we might have some sense or feeling for the reality of God even apart from any clear ideas about who or what divinity could possibly mean.

So if we ask the question 'Why do we have a desire for God?' the first part of the answer is - so we would be capable of receiving God's revelation of the divine nature to us.

Why do we have a desire for God?

Now we need to examine this question more closely, and in doing so it will be helpful to distinguish between three different meanings of the word 'desire'.

The word ‘desire’ can be used in three senses. The first is in a logical sense in which it means something like ‘orientation’ or ‘constitution’. This is the subject of the first reflection of an ontological nature, which is explained using an extended metaphor. The second is ‘desire’ in the more usual sense in which we are speaking of palpable human feelings. Our desire for God will be explored in this sense from a dramatic perspective, that is, how we commonly experience this desire in practice and what this signifies. The third is desire in a poetic or 'pure sense', not intermingled with disharmony and disorder but desire as it is meant to be.

A. Ontological

God is Being, that by which created beings have their existence. God is the Origin who has no origin, but who brings forth particular beings by creating them from nothing. The human being then is like other beings in being infinitely less than God. To use a metaphor, if God is like the sun, we are like specks of dust orbiting the irresistible gravitational force of God’s Being. But God wanted to create a being with whom he could share in a personal way. To extend our metaphor, the human being is perhaps like a planet rather than a speck of dust, which is nevertheless still caught in orbit around the sun. In fact, because God has then endowed us with more being, more ‘mass’, we are more strongly held in orbit, because the gravitational attraction is greater.

We could extend the metaphor even further. Whereas rocks, comets and moons are lifeless, able only to reflect some of the light of the sun, the planet Human Being brings forth its own life, its personality, because of the light of the sun. So in this ontological sense, our being as human has a powerful, built-in attraction towards God, yet since God wants us to be distinct beings, able to love and adore him freely, this gravitational, constitutional attraction to God does not plunge us into the sun to be consumed, but holds us in the equilibrium of orbit. If our relationship with God was static, having no movement, we would plunge into the fire. But God makes it a dynamic relationship, so we can stay in orbit, abiding safely in his presence.

Desire then is like both the gravitational attraction of the earth for the sun, which holds the earth in a steady equilibrium of pure desire, and the way plants turn towards the light of the sun, somehow ‘knowing’ it is a source of all warmth and growth. Desire then means the attained object of desire. Yet since God is infinite he can never be fully ‘attained’, rather, our goal is to be always falling into the centre of the sun, but always ‘missing’, which is another definition of orbit. Such falling is abiding in the fullness of joy. It is the endless fulfilled but open-ended desire of happiness.

This ontological meaning of desire exerts its influence whether we are aware of it or not. So the word desire is used by analogy with its usual meaning, even though this underlying 'structure' of being is more fundamental than the passing feelings which alert us to its presence. We are only able to feel desire consciously and palpably because this underlying force of attraction is already operative. Again, it is like gravity. In physics gravity is considered a 'weak force' because its effects only become perceptible in relation to large masses. It is sometimes referred to as the 'curvature of space' to try and give some sense of how it seems to be like a force yet is in some way simply the relation between objects.

The attraction of human beings to God is similar in that its force can seem imperceptible, so that many doubt that it is even real. We often become aware of it indirectly, not recognising its cause. It might become perceptible as a generalised restlessness or unfocused longing. People often need help to even recognise what it is. The faith helps us interpret these things because it brings greater clarity to experience.

B. Dramatic

1. The word ‘desire’ can be used in different senses. The first, as we have seen, is a more abstract, ideal or ‘neutral’ sense, in which it simply means ‘movement towards’. For example, gravity is a power of ‘attraction’, such that a smaller mass is attracted to a larger, like a rock falling to the ground, or the moon held in orbit around the earth in a state of equilibrium. Desire in this sense, as regards the divine and the human, means the orientation of the finite to the infinite. From this perspective the human person is naturally drawn to God, as any creature is drawn towards that which fulfils or completes its own essential nature. God is love, and we are created to be loved, and to respond in love. This is what it means in this first sense for the human person to desire God.

Used in this sense, the human person has a desire for God simply as an attribute of being. That is, to be human is to be drawn towards God. This inherent desire for God is not something that will only exist in the fullness of time, but which characterises our whole earthly existence. There was not meant to be anything problematic in this, but God created the human race to live in earthly happiness.

2. However, the word desire can be used in a second sense, the sense in which we actually experience it, in which there is a problematic aspect interfering with the gravitational attraction towards God. Desire in this sense is aware of a ‘distance’ between lover and beloved. It is not the ‘pure distance’ that simply constitutes our being as distinct from the divine. It is a ‘compromised’ distance that adds longing, turmoil, frustration and weariness, but also involves anticipation, energy, drive and willing sacrifice. Instead of a single, pure desire that encompasses everything, we discover a multiplicity in desire. We can have different desires for different things, and these can conflict. But we feel this as tension because of the underlying force of pure desire that continues pulling us towards God despite ourselves. It is our resistance that creates the problematic tension.

The second sense of the word desire implies some dissonance and restlessness. It implies an incompleteness of a different kind, not merely that of finitude, but an improper incompleteness. Desire in this sense is a kind of hunger or craving, even a desperate longing. Since sin entered the world we are ‘structurally’ separated from God in the sense that something is lacking in us, even when we have done no particular wrong. We are meant to be fully embraced in the peace of friendship with God, where there is no distance between us. It is distance that creates this desire. This kind of desire has an ‘agitation’ in it caused by the fear that we might not end up getting what we long for. We can imagine it slipping through our fingers and staying forever out of reach. Temptation arises through this fear, temptation not to wait and hope in accord with the free nature of other persons, but to go out and take hold of what we desire. It is this second sense of desire that opens up the possibility of the problematic. Our relationship with God can be affected by this will to take hold of what we long for, instead of waiting and accepting it as a gift. By doing so we intermingle in our minds what properly belongs to us and what belongs to God. In a way it is a temptation to become like God, though in a confused and usually obscure way.

We have distinguished two kinds of desire and we can identify two different objects of such desire. In (1) above, the notion of a pure desire is introduced. However, in a world distorted by sin, desire is usually ambiguous. The waters have been muddied so that such a notion seems merely abstract, or ideal. We cannot establish such a state of affairs ourselves, but we can experience something of it as a gift. When we do so, we discover that it corresponds to what we call ‘spiritual’. So our hearts are now drawn to God through being attracted to higher, purer, more refined things, since these approximate more closely to the pure orientation to God that is now structurally lost. By contrast, the other meaning of desire, that most affected by fear of loss, of the desire to take and hold, corresponds more to what we commonly think of as ‘material’. We find ourselves in the situation of desiring both spiritual and material goods. We recognise in a general way that both spiritual and material are good, though each is potentially compromised. How do we respond to the situation?

3. In this situation, of disorder among desires, we seek a balance. Since that which God creates is good, we recognise that there are desires that are essentially natural, so we do not want to eradicate or suppress them, but we want to restore the balance. To revisit the metaphor of a planet in orbit around the sun, instead of the equilibrium of a steady orbit, an uninterrupted gaze at the sun of God's love, we get the wobbles. We are afraid of getting too close to the fire and being burnt, or of drifting off into the cold and outer darkness. We keep getting knocked off balance, so we seek to restore the equilibrium of balanced desires. We do not seek absence of desire because that would remove the motive force we need to do good. But we must moderate misdirected desires by realigning them with their true objective, God. Yet ‘moderating’ desire does not necessarily mean lessening it, since as we see from the lives of the saints, God can draw us into a ‘fire’ of loving fervour. This is what helps us counter the ‘counter-fire’ of pain, which could not be overcome through an absence of desire. This leaves us with a problem, because there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes we need to lessen desire and sometimes to increase it. The very effort to foster desire for the good can inadvertently foster desire for the problematic.

Our desire for God is now intermingled with other desires and now takes on a new guise, a desire for balance, for equilibrium. We have sensed the way things could get out of balance. Even though such imbalances might be fairly minor, we can recognise in them the potential for a bigger problem. We are familiar with the way a small imbalance in an object, like a vase, not placed flat can get bigger and bigger till it topples over altogether. So we have a new objective, balance. If we sense that we are getting overbalanced towards the material, we can try to compensate by giving more attention to the spiritual. And vice versa. We discover though that these efforts at restoring balance actually develop our desires. Like putting weights on a scale, if we keep adding weight to each side to counterbalance an overweighting on the other, both sides keep getting heavier and heavier. We recognise that the desire is for something good. So we enjoy the desire, as well as the good thing it is oriented towards. Both the spiritual and material are good, and by cultivating these goods we also cultivate the desires that give us the motive power to attain them.

4. If we do not maintain that balance we fall into sin, which is rejecting the good appropriate to the situation, or desiring a good in a disproportionate way. So, for example, we wish our own ease more than the good of others, or our own pleasures rather than the commitments of friendship and love.

5. The desire for God then becomes subordinated to other desires and a corrective is needed. This corrective can be thought of as some form of law. The first is the ‘law of consequences’. The disproportion of desires brings suffering, sorrow, remorse, jadedness, loss of hope, and so on. The second is law in the sense of rules to avoid such distortions of desire. They are guidelines on how to be happy, how to cultivate the necessary desire to attain good ends, and how to let go of desire beyond that point, so it does not go on to bad ends. The third is law in the sense of punishment. The ‘law of consequences’ already provides some punishment, but on its own it does not ensure justice, since harmful consequences can flow from someone else's acts. Justice seeks a compensatory balance. The fourth is the law of prayer, in which the desire for the supreme good, God, is ordered, guided and cultivated. It is no accident that the first three of the Ten Commandments are laws about our relationship with God.

6. Yet even with all this we might fall back into disordered desire, indeed, to some extent we cannot avoid it. So we might conclude that if we focus only on desire for God we could neglect other desires. This is unlikely to be successful because, although it remembers the command, ‘love God’, it forgets the command, ‘love your neighbour’. By focusing solely on apparently spiritual desires we can become blind to the reality that we have substituted more subtle material desires instead.

7. So the desire for God can only be properly rediscovered through the desire for the love of neighbour. Since we are so unteachable, we must learn from our worldly desires the pattern of the desire we should have for God. (The parable of the dishonest steward.) By trying to find God in our neighbour, we rediscover that renunciation is necessary to purify desire.

8. If we do not learn that lesson, we might learn it through suffering. At the end of our tether, who else is there to turn to but God?

C. Poetic

From what has been said so far it might seem as though all desire is compromised. There is always the potential for it to be compromised, but there can be actual experiences of desire that are pure. But if this is the case how can there still be a distance? Isn't it the distance that causes the disordering of desire, that provokes the fear of loss and the desire to possess?

In order to understand what I am calling the poetic form of desire we need to look more closely at the notion of distance. To put it in simple terms there is 'good' distance and 'bad' distance. It could be put another way by saying that a distinction and a separation are two different things. Taking up our metaphor again, there is a distance between the sun and a planet, but this is a 'good' distance. It is a distinction but not a separation. This is because the two bodies are held in a relation. If the planet had a mind of its own and could go wandering off into the outer darkness, never to return, that would be a 'bad' distance. It would be a separation – the severing of the relation that held the two bodies in their proper places.

The notion of good distance is important because it helps us understand the nature of love. Personhood is relation. The Holy Trinity is one God in three persons. The distinction between the persons gives us our model of what 'good distance' means. It can help us grasp that the strength of desire increases as the distance increases. The 'distance' between the Persons of the Trinity is infinite so their desire for each other is infinite. Yet it is always 'good' distance because the three persons are only one God. They are constitutionally incapable of being separated.

This metaphor of distance is helpful in understanding desire. Because of our own ambiguous and often painful experience of distance we can be inclined to think that all distance should be done away with and replaced by closeness. But in this metaphor the closeness is the 'oneness' and the distance is the 'threeness'. There needs to be both.

In order to experience the joy of desire we need both the closeness, the relation, and the distance. Take the case of a small child. At a certain age a child discovers that it is very enjoyable to pretend to run away from his parents. He will experience a delicious 'naughtiness' at discovering he has the power to create this distance. This is a heightening of self consciousness. But of course it is only fun if the one you are running away from doesn't want you to, but chases after you to bring you back. If the parents ignored the child's attempts at this playful running away the whole thing would fall flat. At a later age it would be like a girl playing a little hard to get and the boy not realising it was supposed to be a game.

This playful dynamic is at the heart of the 'poetic' form of desire. It is pure in the sense that it is all good, yet it works by seeming to play with distancing. But it includes no intention of separation. Its purpose is the expansion of being. We feel as though we become more through being more strongly desired. Our difficulty is that we find it hard to get the balance right, so what is meant to have the form of play ends in 'tears before bedtime'.

One of the reasons we struggle to find the right ways to talk about desire is our ambivalence about distance. All our talk about relationship with God tends to be about increasing closeness. Then we get confused when God seems to be distant. We struggle to tune in to the dynamics of how God wants to relate to us. This is the challenge of spirituality. Without a dynamic relation between closeness and distance we miss the joy that is meant to draw us on into deeper relationship.

This 'poetic' desire is exemplified in scripture in The Song of Songs. But we will leave that for another day.