Recently, the Catholic community of Washington experienced a sad loss. Our Auxiliary Bishop (bishop who assists the Cardinal), Leonard Olivier died. At 91 he led a long, holy and truly gracious life. Attending the vigil mass (mass celebrated the night before the actual funeral), I was struck by a line from the Book of Job, “my inmost being is consumed with longing.” So far this week, we’re reflected on the longing for a better world, the pitfalls of ambition (another kind of longing)… Let’s muse just a little on the power of yearning…on why it is that longing can consume our whole being… shall we?
Job is one of the great characters of Biblical history. In the midst of great suffering, he is consumed with longing for seeing his Vindicator/Redeemer. St. Augustine said that prayer is “yearning for God…for our heavenly homeland.” It’s an all-consuming yearning. In his Confessions, Augustine affirms, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee [God].”
This is the “root” desire that fuels all our other wants/needs: to be enveloped in perfect love… to return to the original communion with God from whence we came. Recall again, St. John Paul II’s great phrase: man has a “nostalgia for original beauty.” For Catholics it makes sense that desire is such a big part of our lives… and lest anyone should think that I’m over-exalting desire, consider this: The very word “desire” is from the Latin “de – sidera,” “of the stars.” Even Carl Sagan, a cynic about traditional conceptions of God, said that man is made from “star stuff.” Desires, man’s reaching for the stars, are serious things that speak to our origins and our end… Desires merit a sacred reverence.
Dante Alighieri situates his entire Divine Comedy in terms of desire. At the beginning of his epic pilgrimage through hell, purgatory and heaven, the author finds himself in a mid-life crisis, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found that I was in a dusky wood; for the right path, whence I had strayed was lost.” His journey through the frustrated lesser desires of those in hell, and the noble yearning of those in purgatory culminates in the acceptance that what man truly longs for “with his inmost being” is nothing less than the Love of God: “by a lighting flash my mind was struck – and thus came the fulfillment of my wish. My power now failed that phantasy sublime: My will and my desire were both revolved, as is a wheel in even motion driven, by Love, which moves the sun and other stars.”
What are my desires? Do I have desires that consume my inmost being? How are they connected with my own sense of identity? Do my desires ultimately drive me toward the stars, toward something higher? How are my desires connected with my sense of the divine? All good questions to ask ourselves from time to time.