The very first words that Jesus utters in the Gospel of John (the Gospel for this Sunday) are a question: What are you looking for? Jesus speaks these words to two of John the Baptist’s disciples after Jesus “turned and saw them following him.” On the surface, the question seems simple enough, but there is much more to it than meets the eye. The Lord’s question is meant to go to the heart of our heart. In effect, what Jesus is saying to these would-be disciples and to us is, If you want to follow me, if you want to know where I stay, if you want to know me, you must first know what you are looking for. In other words, Jesus’ question is a summons to us to examine our desire.
Desire and the infinite
Why does Jesus start with desire? Because our desire is a most precious and sacred gift from God. St. Catherine of Siena learned this truth from God himself, as she recounts in her Dialogue:
So your desire is an infinite thing. For I who am infinite God want you to serve me with what is infinite, and you have nothing infinite except your soul’s love and desire. Do you know how I show myself within the soul who loves me? I show my strength in many ways, according to her desire.
From the moment that Jesus begins to engage with people in the world, he reveals that the way to real intimacy and lasting union with him is by taking our desire seriously. “The access to heaven,” states the anonymous author of the 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing, “is through desire. He who longs to be there really is there in spirit. The path to heaven is measured by desire and not by miles.”
The reliability of desire
Which is why St. Thomas Aquinas stresses the value of every desire. “A natural desire,” he insists,“cannot possibly be vain and senseless. There is no desire which is not directed towards a good.” Even if a particular desire does not appear to start out that way. Because desire puts us on track to pursue the Infinite Good that our heart is made for. In fact, St. Thomas, very pastorally, observes a phenomenon we have all experienced. When we want something very much, we tend to fixate on it and even obsess until we get what we want. But then, once we get it, we don’t want it anymore. For after we finally come to possess the thing we crave, “it is found to be neither so great as thought nor sufficient to satisfy our desires, and so our desires are not satisfied but move on to something else.” Because our heart is not satisfied with anything less than the infinite.
The mortification that we practice is meant in essence to enable us to go to the root of our desire so that we can know with certainty what we really want. Mortification sorts things out for us, purifying us of false wants so that we can dedicate ourselves to what really matters … what will bring about our authentic happiness. “We can only really possess what we desire” (George Bernanos).
The design of desire
Every desire we are given in life exists to enable us to understand the purpose for which we are living. The dynamic of desire is a constant, refining challenge. Am I truly content in my life with just pleasure, possessions, popularity, and power … or do I want something more than that? “Desire is given to us precisely in order to know who Jesus is, just how much he can fill our lives, can give a satisfaction that each time is even greater, otherwise life diminishes and fades” (J. Carrón).
This is the reason why Jesus, all throughout the Gospel of John, keeps re-proposing his initial question — keeps targeting desire — but in different forms to different people.
This is the reason why Jesus, all throughout the Gospel of John, keeps re-proposing his initial question — keeps targeting desire — but in different forms to different people. To the Samaritan woman at the well he says, “Will you give me a drink?” (Jn 4:7). To the man sick for 38 years, Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?” (Jn 5:6). To the Twelve, possibly scandalized like the disciples who leave Jesus after he proclaims himself the Bread of Life, he inquires, “Do you want to leave me too?” (Jn 6:67). And in words chillingly similar to those first ones of the Gospel, Jesus says to the soldiers in the garden, “Who is it you want?” (Jn 18:7). If we do not answer from the depth of our desire, then our next step may well be to send Jesus to his Passion.
We have these wise words of St. Cyprian to guide us:
May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently.
And then we are ready to answer Jesus’ question to us.
Find his series of brief reflections on prayer here.
And his new series on the Eucharist here.