Monday, February 25, 2008

Mauriac on Desire

Just a brief something before I hit the sack. This is Mauriac in "The Viper's Tangle," arguably his best novel. The protagonist muses:
I have always been mistaken about the object of my desires. We do not know what we desire. We do not love what we think we love.
This is a core insight of Ignatian spirituality. The protagonist here is reflecting on the fact that he finds himself suddenly capable of giving his money away to his children when he dies, a thought that was loathsome to him before. Now he realizes:
I had torn out of myself something to which I was attached, so I thought, by the deepest roots. But I felt nothing but relief.
We do not know what we desire. The whole of the Spiritual Exercises focus on this insight. Each prayer begins with what I desire, with the implicit understanding that there will be an inversion of this by the end of the prayer. Our desire that leads us into this retreat, the impetus for making the retreat, doesn't become a different desire. Rather, the same desire is purified as to its true and proper love. This "spiritual" principle translates into practical life for a Jesuit through conversation with his superior and the "manifestation of conscience" and "representation." There are few things I have found more helpful, precisely because I do not manifestly know what I desire and long for. I desire Christ, but on a practical level I find that I am often wrong about my desires. I regularly think that I desire one thing, and when I get it, discover my own disappointment. Conversely, when I do what I am asked, I experience the fulfillment of desire. I have had so many of these experiences that I now take it for granted about myself.

A central element of Thomistic theology of the body - enunciated by De Lubac in "the Mystery of the Supernatural" - is that the desire of every human is for God. While most modern and post-modern theory speak of desire in terms of fragmentation and lack, and hence of violence, Aquinas spoke of desire in terms of promise, and so in terms of peace. Desire already has what it yearns for, but only in promise. Yet this promise makes all the difference, since it constitutes desire not as a Schopenhaurian locus of violence and struggle, but as a catalyst of peace. This of course does not mean that desire is aware of its promised satisfaction explicitly, but implicitly it has what it yearns for. This is Christ. And so the Ignatian dialectic is that of following desire, "consolation," and yet constantly submitting that desire to the scrutiny of obedience, since the promise of desire is only always already understood by Christ. I want to love what I really love, not what I think I love. But this must be revealed to me, since sin has clouded vision. The very first paragraph of the Exercises points to this.

Therefore desire becomes richest as it learns to discern the presence of "consolation." Tony Corcoran, one of my favorite Jesuits, now in Russia, once told me that John of the Cross's dark night of the soul was actually an experience of consolation. How? Because consolation has little to do with good feeling and everything to do with the awareness of the working of God in one's life. Discernment is nothing other than a glimpse, an insight into the Promise of desire. Even in the misery of his experience, John of the Cross received this, a glimpse in the darkness, and so it was profound consolation. This is how desire is to be followed and discerned, plumbing its depths for its implicit promise.

Markel, SJ

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