As a young priest I made a tactical error while conducting an pre wedding interview. The young couple came to see me and I opened the conversation by saying, “Well, now, I hope you don’t think that being married is going to make you happy.” It was meant to be a rhetorical question to get the conversation going, but the poor bride to be was already so nervous that she burst into tears and fled from the office, with the fiance and myself in pursuit.
While my style may have been, shall we say, rather abrupt, the question is still a good one, for marriage (in and of itself) will not make anyone happy. The marriage would have to be a good marriage to help make one happy, but even the very best of marriages cannot make a person totally and completely content. Every couple should realize that the man or woman of their dreams will never be able to love them enough. This is because there is a need for love and a desire that nothing on this earth can fulfill.
What applies to marriage applies to any other desire or any other dream we have. The best career in the world will not make us happy. All the money in the world will not make us happy. The most beautiful body, the most wonderful social life, the loveliest family, the grandest home, the most wonderful food, entertainment and possessions will not make us happy. All of these desires simply point us to a deeper desire, which is the desire for God.
Once this is grasped it is easy, therefore, to conclude that it is through getting rid of these lesser loves that the path will open up into finding our true desire, which is God. Thus, the Eastern Way which teaches total abnegation of all things in this world. It is tempting for some Christians too, to believe that some kind of radical asceticism and denial of all things ‘worldly’ will bring us closer to heaven. Not necessarily. Self denial might simply increase our desire for those things. A starving man is not necessarily holy. He may just be hungry.
The Christian way of reconciling desire and the divine is more subtle. We engage in asceticism not because we think physical pleasures are bad, but because we want to focus on the greater good. Furthermore, rather than our lesser desires being evil, we embrace them as the way by which we can come to the higher good. This is a challenging and even disturbing proposition for we must recognize that some of our desires are dark desires. Can these desires possibly also be the way to a closer union with God?
I believe they can, but in order for them to be so we must first understand the root of that twisted or dark desire. Even the darkest desires have, at their heart, the desire for something good and something precious. Can we, by God’s grace, sift through the dark desires, control them through self discipline and self denial, and eventually discover the light at the heart of the darkness?
This is a risky business, and it is part of the battle of Lent. This is why the image of the wilderness is so profound. Throughout the story of salvation the wilderness looms large as the antithesis of the promised land flowing with milk and honey. The wilderness is the opposite of the Garden of Eden. The wilderness is the harsh land into which our first parents were condemned to wander.
However, it is also the wilderness where God is encountered. At Sinai Moses and Elijah experience their theophany, and it is in our wilderness that we will look back and realize that God came closest to us, leading us through the barren lands to the land of our heart’s desire and our soul’s destiny.