What Do You Desire?

We have all heard one or another version of a three wishes story.  In some, a person rubs a lamp and a genie appears offering to fulfill three wishes of the finder.  In others, someone performs some good deed for a disguised fairy and is granted three wishes in return.

Most often in those stories, the person granted the wishes ends up either worse off at the end or back in the same place they started, because they use their wishes foolishly.

“I want a younger more beautiful wife,” says the old man, and when the wish is granted, she leaves him for a younger man.

In one a king asks for the best and biggest beard in the world and ends up surrounded by a beard that fills the whole castle and the countryside.  (He then has to use a second wish to negate the first – a trope that occur frequently in these stories.)

In some a wish is made unthinkingly.  In a Scottish version, a wife uses the first wish asking for a sausage.  The husband is so irritated she only asked for one sausage rather than a life time reply, that he unthinkingly wastes the second wish when he exclaims, “I wish that sausage was stuck on your nose.”  He then has to waste the third getting the sausage off her nose.

If I told you right now you could have anything you wished for – that whatever you expressed a desire for would be immediately given to you, what would you ask for?  What do you desire?

In today’s first Mass reading from the First Book of Kings, Solomon is given a chance to answer that question.  God says, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”

Solomon doesn’t ask for a guarantee he will always defeat his political rivals, or that God smite his enemies.  He doesn’t ask for a long life or six-pack abs.  He doesn’t ask for jewels or a large treasury.  Instead, he asks for wisdom and understanding, pleading for “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”  He has been given a big task by God – at a young age succeeding his father David to govern the chosen people.  And his wish it to be given the tools to carry out that task.  And for that he is rewarded, given by God “a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.”

What is your desire?  What do you want?

St. Ignatius understood very well the importance of knowing our desires.  He instructed people making the Spiritual Exercises to begin every prayer period by communicating their heartfelt desires to God.  “Asking for what I desire”, asking God for the grace I am seeking, is an essential component of Ignatian prayer.

Ignatius is concerned with our deepest desires, the deep longings of our hearts, what we might call our holy desires or our spiritual desires.  When we talk about deepest desires, we are talking about what it deep in the core of our being; that is the part of us where God’s dream for us is shaped.

Getting in touch with our deepest desires requires sifting through the complex desires embedded in our heart.

Lots of us have the kind of surface desires expressed in the three wishes stories.  We might laugh at the king who ended up with a beard that completely surrounded his kingdom, but I have heard more than one young man over the years express the wish that his wispy facial hairs would grow into a full beard.  Or we laugh at the man who wanted a younger wife, but who has not heard an older man or woman wish they were younger.  In these days of pandemic, I really wish I could get a haircut.

Some of our desires are less frivolous.  I really want to walk another Camino while I am still physically able to do so; my first was a wonderful spiritual experience.  We wish our schools will open safely in the fall; the education of our children is important.    We want a friend or relative  who has been looking for employment to get a job.

There is nothing inherently wrong with those kinds of desires, but ultimately even the less frivolous desires, even the most well-meaning ones, are insufficient.

What we need to uncover are our Solomon desires – our deepest, most authentic desires.  And those desires are the ones that help us discern our unique role or calling in life.  Authentic desires spring from our deep longing for God, they move us toward more and more giving ourselves to God, because we know that the source of our deepest desire is God.

Ignatius truly believed that: that our deepest desires, the desires that lead us to become who we truly are, God’s desire for us.  That at the deepest levels, our desires and God’s desires are the same.  That makes desire a key way God’s voice is heard in our lives, an important way that God leads people to discover who they are and what they are meant to do.

What is your deep desire?

[Excerpted from the reflection I gave at Mass this morning at the church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul MN.]

Donatello and Mary Magdalene

Today is the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, the first person to whom the  resurrected Christ appeared.

One of the first images that comes to my mind when I think of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s haunting sculpture of her, in Florence.  The statue shows Mary during the 30-year period it is believed she spent fasting and repenting at the end fo her life.  (The myth that she was a prostitute was given up long ago, but – like any of us – she doubtless had things she felt the need of repentance for.)

According to popular biographies of her, Mary Magdalene was said to have renounced material possessions and covered herself only with her long hair. One biographer wrote that she lived without food because she “knew that Jesus wished to sustain her with naught but heavenly meats, allowing her no earthly satisfaction.”

Whatever we do or don’t know about the historical Mary Magdalene herself, Donatello’s sculpture is (in the words of Martha Levine Dunkelman) “one of the most famous expressions of female emotion in the history of Western art. She has become an iconic image of a suffering woman….[and] an example of penitence.” At the same time, the figure shows strength and endurance.

You may find it a good image for meditation on this feast of Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene

A Prayer for Unity

Today the United States celebrates Independence Day, the federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago on July 4, 1776.

In 1776 the American colonies were united in their opposition to overreaching by the British Government, which taxed them severely while not letting them make their own laws or trade with other countries.  I’m not suggesting the years surrounding 1776 were glory days of unity.  “We the people” largely meant white property-owning men.  But there was a belief that the united colonies stood for something.

What are we as Americans united for or against today?  That shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but lamentably it is.  What do we as a nation stand for?  I don’t know how to answer that question, and that saddens me.  And it should sadden all of us.

To adapt a portion of Jane Deren’s Prayer for Unity, I pray on this Independence Day that we may “move beyond partisan politics so we may create a vision of the common good so sorely needed for our country.”  That we may practice respect, be grounded in compassion, and work together to rebuild our world.

[Note this is the same post I made three years ago on this day.  When I re-read it, it seems even more appropriate today than it was then]