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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: The Confessions

Holy Desire's Reconciliations: And St. Augustine's Confessions

jenmichel@me.com

Holy desire depends on acts of reconciliation. To want well, we must first learn to want God.

Which is first to say this: we must be taught to want. We don’t come naturally to holy desire. We don’t roll out of bed and instinctively pick up the will to live in and for and through Christ. No, if you’re like me, your most immediate thought upon waking (after, coffee!) is: I want this day (and ultimately my life) to go my way.

Holy desire has to be formed. And indeed, it is formed in each of us as we ourselves are, through conversion and communion with Christ, re-formed.

If anyone is in Christ, the old is gone, decreed Paul. The new has come!

New desires. A new will. Reformed ambitions and plans.

Yes, this is at the heart of spiritual transformation. Not simply that upon conversion, we come to new beliefs and new behaviors – but that, as those who are made new, we are oriented toward new loves.

This is an old idea, and Augustine, fourth-century Bishop of Hippo, is probably most credited with promoting the idea that our spiritual lives depend on holy desire. (I’m rereading The Confessions, which I can’t recommend highly enough for understanding where I began: Holy desire depends on acts of reconciliation.)

The confessions

Augustine understood that desire itself is not the problem. We aren’t wrong to want. Indeed, none of us can actually stop wanting. The real problem resides in our “disordered loves.” Either we love wrong things or we love right things in wrong ways, and we must learn to seek that which really satisfies.

Augustine knew that we must love God as our supreme good if this life – and our desires – were ever to know something beyond disappointment, something of satisfaction.

If we mean really to flourish, to be truly “happy,” we must be reconciled to our Creator, understanding that He is the source of what Jesus called, “living water.” He himself. (“You will never thirst again,” Jesus promised the Samaritan woman, cf. John 4.)

“Without you,” Augustine asks, “what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?”

Augustine knew how easily we want things that bankrupt us, how diligently we pursue the pleasures, which are only ever promissory notes.

“Transient things . . . rend the soul with pestilential desires; for the soul loves to be in them and take its repose among the objects of its love. But in these things there is no point of rest: they lack permanence.”

Until we desire God first and him fully, we are the wanderers. Tim Keller describes it like this: “No matter what we put our hopes in, in the morning, it is always Leah, never Rachel.” (See Gen. 29:25)

So the first act of reconciliation required of holy desire is this: to God. It requires we confess the age-old sin, as Augustine describes it, “committed . . . when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which, are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law. These inferior goods have their delights, but not comparable to my God who has made them all. It is in him that the just person takes delight; he is the joy of those who are true of heart.”

Desire God first. Repent of loving anything more than him.

Then, having been reconciled to your Creator, reconcile yourself to his Creation.

And this is where I think I say something surprising: enjoy the world.

Augustine knew it made no sense to say, “Love the Creator, and hate His creation.” Or, “Want God, and leave off wanting what he has made.” This would be to betray the very DNA of Genesis, where God makes a good world, a world to delight the senses, a world made for marvel and pleasure.

I understand this better when reading John H. Sailhamer’s, The Pentateuch as Narrative. (If this were the only commentary I owned, I could die a happy woman.)

Sailhamer notes that while God repeats his approbation of his creation (“It is good”) all throughout Genesis 1, he does not call “good” the separation of the waters and the sky (v. 8). Why? Why is this not good in God’s estimation? Or at least, why has he deliberately decided against calling it “good?”

Sailhamer: “The ‘good’ which the author has in view has a very specific range of meaning in chapter 1 – the ‘good’ is that which is beneficial for humankind. . . The heavens were made and the waters divided, but the land, where human beings were to dwell, still remained hidden under the ‘deep.’ The land was still ‘formless’; it was not yet a place where a human being could dwell.”

The point of Genesis 1 is this: God was making a home for his people. The land, only in the measure that it became habitable, could be called good.

Indeed, we were made to want for the world.

Which of course now puts us in the terrible bind in which we find ourselves: the broken world post-Genesis 3 never satisfies us as we want and need it to. It is deformed, corrupted by the rebellion of humanity who would supplant the Supreme Good for lesser goods.

Enjoy the world. Yes, this can an imperative of holy desire. But enjoy them in God, anticipating the better world to come.

Augustine again: “Let these transient things be the ground on which my soul praises you, ‘God creator of all.’ But let it not become stuck in them and glued to them with love through the physical senses.” Love the world as you see all its goodness authored by He who is Good. Appreciate creation’s beauty as you behold the One who is beautiful. Pleasure in His pleasures – and learn to praise.

Holy desire depends on acts of reconciliation.

Through Christ, we are reconciled to God - we who have abandoned the Supreme Good for lesser things. Forgiven of our idolatry, our disordered loves are reformed.

Then, reconciled to our Highest Love, we love the world and experience it as the foreshadowing of that which is to come.

God is in our desire, behind our desire, before our desire, beyond our desire. God is using this potent, sometimes gnawing gift of desire – which springs from God’s own heart – to lead us, like with bread crumbs, to a door which we might not have otherwise chosen or even recognized in this life. Inside that door is home.

– Br. Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist