Desire is everywhere. Whether it’s for (or on behalf of) ourselves, our families, our friends, or our world most of us desire something most of the time. It is part of being human. We might not all talk about it in spiritual terms, but as the great philosopher Plato observed: “We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have us believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine.”
I remember an incident from when I was a boy, probably about 12 years of age.
It was the practice of my family to attend Mass together on a Sunday morning. I wouldn’t say that my brother, two sisters and I were particularly fond of this aspect of family life, but it had been the case for as long as I could remember and none of us really thought to question it.
Yet I had to admit that, by the time my early teens came around, there was a quiet resentment starting to build toward anything the relevance of which I couldn’t immediately see.
Since last we corresponded a significant little figure who added her own beautiful take on how to understand the wonder of human creativity has died. She was the unexpected television star, winning a following the world over as she made the journey from country to country, gallery to gallery, work of art to work of art, to contemplate the essence of what she saw before her.
Sister Wendy Beckett was a natural guide and teacher. A nun vowed to the life of prayer and simplicity, she responded to the invitation to share her insights into the world’s great art because, in faith, she believed that was what God was asking of her. She had never seen a television program, much less understood what had to go into making one. Producers were initially perplexed by her as she refused to provide them with a script. She would talk off the cuff about what she saw before her, drawing spontaneously from the many hours of study she had put into her favourite hobby.
The Christmas story is all about journeys. The journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The journey of the shepherds from the fields to the stable. The journey of the wise men from the East. The journey of the Holy Family as they flee from Herod into Egypt. Their journey back to Nazareth once the coast is clear. These are the obvious journeys associated with these stories. There are others.
The word ‘spirituality’ is all the rage today. It has become one of those commonplace ideas that gets used by all sorts of people in all sorts of contexts. Today you can scarcely watch an interview with a celebrity without them humbly noting that, while they may not be religious, they are ‘spiritual’. And let’s face it, it sounds fair enough. Being religious – that is to say – identifying yourself as belonging to a particular religion, is not something that sits easily in the world in which we live. It sounds like you’re limiting your options and unnecessarily restricting yourself.
Have you ever been to a funeral that seems to be more an upbeat celebration than an acknowledgment of the sadness of death? Or have you noticed how many people today refer to somebody as having ‘passed’ rather than simply saying they have ‘died’?
As a culture, death and dying are increasingly realities we find difficult to even contemplate. Ironically, we’ll spend inordinate amounts of money and energy on prolonging our lives and yet, as soon as death is on the horizon, we’ll argue the case for being able to pull the plug prematurely. Our relationship with death is, as a culture, one of either ‘let’s avoid it at all costs’ or ‘let’s get it over with’.
There are times when the spiritual journey we are on takes us into the darkness. As a metaphor, ‘darkness’ expresses those experiences where the way forward is unclear, and the real meaning of what we are (or are not) experiencing isn’t immediately apparent to us.
We can resist these moments and imagine that they are a sign that things aren’t as they should be. As someone said to me once: ‘I made a deal with God: I believe in him and he makes sure I have a nice life’. So when his ‘nice life’ began to evaporate, my friend thought it only fair that he should stop believing in God…
There are certain moments in your life when you are confronted with a choice: do you continue on the path you are currently following, or do you take a turn to the left or the right? You weigh up all the options and you attempt to take into account all the information you have at your disposal…and then you decide.
That works for many of the decisions we need to make. However, it doesn’t work in the journey of faith. That’s because we need to consider more than ourselves, or simply those factors that we believe need to be taken into account.
Belonging is part of being human. Right from the start we are nurtured in the womb of our mothers, and placed into their arms for nourishment, comfort and security. Things get a bit complicated after that, of course, as we seek to establish ourselves and assert our autonomy, but the pattern is set: human beings primarily discover who they are in relationship.
Have you ever thought of yourself as ‘holy’? Holiness is a tricky word for most of us. In my experience we don't tend to associate it with ourselves or even with the people we love. If we think of it at all, we think of holy people as being the saints, men and women before our time who don't live the sort of lives we live.