Catechism of the Catholic Church series
Article 5: Catechism Paragraphs 27-30
Our Holy Desire for God
As a teenager I often lay on my back in a dew-drenched grassy field behind our house watching for a shooting star, amidst the millions of stars, while asking the age old questions that all of us have asked at one time or another.
Who is God?
How did God create the world we live in … the universe we contemplate?
How did we come into being and why?
What is our purpose here?
How do I fit into this bigger picture … how about others?
How ought I act toward others … toward God?
What was God doing before he created the universe?
Throughout our lives we seek opportunities to gain a better understanding of ourselves, of others and of God. No wonder we read in the Catechism: “The desire for God is written in the human heart” (ccc 27). In St. Augustine’s way of thinking, this “desire for God” is a holy desire. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that this desire to converse with God “is addressed to human beings as soon as we come into being.” The Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church explains further: “… we exist because God has created us through love, and through love continues to hold us in existence. We cannot live fully according to truth unless we freely acknowledge that love and entrust ourselves to our creator.” (Gaudium et Spes, 19).
Nothing represents this human desire to know and communicate with God more than Michelangelo‘s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This, of course, is the room where Pope Francis and previous popes began their ministry as Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ on earth. Here we see the textured surfaces of the artist’s painting of Adam straining to touch the fingertip of God as he did before the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. God likewise reaches out to touch the creature he made in his own image.
Paradoxically (given that God is complete and omniscient and has no need to desire anything beyond himself), it seems that it is part of God’s intrinsic nature, in whose image we are made, to nonetheless “desire.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI observed in one of his Sunday homilies on the Prodigal Son that “like a good father, God desires the best for humanity, which happens to be God himself.” In other words, God desires us. God seeks us. God goes out of his way to embrace us.
St. Augustine, in his “Lectures on First John,” concludes that the whole of Christian life is an exercise in holy desire: “You do not yet see what you long for but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.”
Elsewhere, St. Augustine, by noting his own holy desiring, observes in his “Confessions,” “Lord you are forever at rest, being your own repose. What man can teach this truth to another? What angel to another? What angel to a man? We must ask it of you, seek it in you, and knock on your door. Only then shall we receive what we ask and find what we seek; only then will the door be opened.”
This is a most eloquent description of “holy desire”: We desire, but only God can satisfy the restless part in all of us. By desiring we seek; in the urgency of desiring, we knock; and because we desire so ardently, the door is opened to us. Even more incredibly, this transcendental desire of the human creature is met by the luminous desire of the Man-God who unmistakably tells us of his passion for souls: “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone opens the door I shall come in” (Rv 3:20).
How is desire related to prayer? Prayer, according to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, provides us with the desirability of desiring, that is, we cannot pray unless we have desires. St. Augustine, in a letter to Anicia Faltonia Proba, one of the wealthiest women in Rome, wrote:
“Why Our Lord should ask us to pray when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers.”
St. Thomas Aquinas develops this theme by saying that “Prayer is the interpreter of desire.” (Summa Theologiae, Question 83, article 9). If we still doubt the virtue of holy desire, we may experience it in Sacred Scripture whose theme is “I am his beloved and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs 7:10). This beautiful poem speaks in human language of the God who first loves his spouse, Israel, and then literally, in his Son, dies for love of his Bride, crying out that “he thirsts” (cf. Jn 19:28). In other words, we desire him because he first desired us.
C.S Lewis, in his famous “Letters to Malcolm” on prayer, is a modern version of St. Augustine’s “Letter to Proba.” Like Proba’s letter to St. Augustine, who had written him about the problems she was having in prayer, “Letters to Malcolm” struggles to understand the purpose of prayer, and what actually happens when we pray.
The struggle continues …
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.