St Augustine’s famous line, “O God, our hearts are restless until they rest in You” is the foundation of human desire. We are so often thrown out of our peace by our desires and we fear that if we follow our desires we will get into trouble. Therefore we retreat into a dull life of unquestioning conformity rather than embarking on the great adventure of life–one in which we wrestle with our desires rather than retreating from them.
To wrestle with our desires appropriately we need to recognize firstly that our basic desires at the root of our being is for all that is beautiful, good and true. God created us good and created within each of us an innate desire and longing for the beautiful, good and true. However, our desires become degraded into the desire for something else–and the desires are degraded in four ways, and I hope you’ll forgive my addiction to alliteration…
First the desires are Distorted. They are twisted by the concupiscence which is a result of original sin. The desire is pure and undistorted when it is the desire for the thing itself for its own intrinsic value. We are called to “love all things according to their worth” as Thomas Traherne has put it. So, for example, I may desire good French wine. If I desire it for the flavor, the refreshment and the value of the hard work and fruit of the land that it represents, then the desire is wholesome and good. To illustrate this desire, to drink a bottle of good red French wine in an auberge in the French countryside where that wine was grown, along with a well cooked French meal with some French country folk is a truly authentic pleasure and the fullness of appreciation of a bottle of wine. That desire is distorted, however if I drink the wine or want the wine for some other subsidiary pleasure. I may desire it because I am a wine snob or a Francophile snob. I may desire it because I am a glutton and worship the flavor, or I may desire it to get drunk.All these are distortions of the desire.
The second degradation of desire is Disordered Desire. Everything beautiful, good and true is ordered properly to the ultimate source of goodness, truth and beauty– which is God. If I love and desire a thing above its proper order then I am making it an idol. To use the illustration of wine again, if I desire fine French wine over the greater good of fellowship and harmony with my fellow diners–by insisting on an expensive bottle of French wine that we can’t afford, then my desire is disordered. If I love anything more than God, then that desire is disordered. This category of degraded desire includes desire that is disordered from the natural or revealed order. The natural order is given by the creator and is built into the system. The revealed order is that which id divinely revealed through Scdripture and tradition. To give another example, the church teaches that certain forms of sexual desire are disordered because they contradict the natural order given by human biology and the revealed order of holy matrimony. While there may be noble and good aspects of these loves (friendship and fellowship) for those good things to be directed into mere genital satisfaction is to make the desire disordered.
The third degradation of desire is Disproportionate Desire. This is when the Distorted and Disordered desire becomes an greater than all other desires. Like the disordered desire, but to a greater extent, disproportionate desire is that desire that has become an obsession. At this stage the desire overwhelms the person’s capability for authentic desire. Extending the wine illustration–the person becomes a wino–an alcoholic who is obsessed with the consumption of fine wines. When disordered and distorted sexual desire reaches this point the individual is consumed with lust–giving their lives over to the disordered desire and even finding their identity in that desire. We are not defined by our desires. We are greater than all our desires, and our desires were given to us by God in order to attract us to himself. It is Satan who distorts and tempts us to disorder those desires so they become the vehicles to take us into his arms.
The fourth level of degraded desire, is Depraved Desire. At this point satisfaction of the desire consumes the person’s life. Indeed, their whole world and their identity becomes one with the desire. This is the level of genuine addiction and slavery to the degraded desire. Any addiction is a desire that has gained dominance over the person. Much of our contemporary society condones this and many in our society have come to identify themselves with their disordered, disproportionate and depraved desires. At this stage they have given themselves over the the Dark Lord who was leading them down the path by their desires and many parts of our society not only condone, but celebrate this descent into the demonic.
The fifth level of degraded desire therefore, is Demonic Desire. When a person has followed their distorted and disordered desires to their final end they will have yielded their will to the Father of Lies. The desire has then become the chains by which Satan binds the soul, and is perfectly possible, therefore, that the unrepentant soul has given himself or herself to the Father Below rather than the Father in Heaven. Obsessed with disordered and distorted desires, they follow those desires to their own destruction.
Through discernment, discipline and asceticism we can learn to rightly order our desires, but we are unable to do so on our own. Grace is needed, and that empowering grace comes through dedication, prayer and worship.
It is the work of worship and prayer that helps to correct the distorted and disordered desires to which we all are prone. In worship and prayer we turn our whole beings to the Light–and in that action set the right priorities for our desires. It is there in Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you your heart’s desire.” This is why worship should be beautiful, good and true (and traditional worship best expresses this beauty, truth and goodness)–because our hearts are full of desire for all that is beautiful, good and true. It is no wonder therefore, that distorted and disordered desire will keep us from worship. Our hearts will be seeking something other than God so we will flee from his summons.