The complexity of desire

Wings of Desire

People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterward repent of the lust they’ve indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.
Your desire for the illusory could be a wing,
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality.
When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame, abandoned by the fantasy.
Preserve the wing and don’t indulge such lust,
so that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.
People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings
for the sake of an illusion.


We have such a complex relationship with desire. Most of us, brought up in strong Christian traditions, are taught to be deeply suspicious of desire. If we are to steer clear of the road to perdition, then desire is to be quietly dismissed. But this is gross misunderstanding. Even Augustine of Hippo, who has shaped so much of our tradition with respect to sexuality, is famous for the quote: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.’ What is restlessness if not some form of desire?

This poem by Rumi holds that tension so beautifully. Not only can our desire lead us to destruction, but it is also the vehicle which will take us to Paradise.

In Ignatian spirituality desire is not the problem. It is disordered desire which trips us up. It’s not quite as simple saying the stuff labelled ‘God’ will lead us in the right direction and everything else should be held at arms length. A key tenet of this spirituality is that God can be found in all things.

What matters then, is what happens within me as I interact with this particular person, or job, or object. It requires a habit of reflection; a commitment to noticing my internal response; and a willingness to gently set aside the things that do not lead towards deeper relationship with God.

It isn’t a single choice, but a daily commitment. The process of discernment is never perfect. There is no guarantee that I will not mess up. I take my full self into the process, and as a result I cannot escape my flawed humanity. But with practice, over time, I begin to taste the difference between the sweet nectar of the life giving choice and the saccharine of the illusion.

For anyone wanting to explore more about Ignatian spirituality here are a few suggestions:

2 thoughts on “The complexity of desire

  1. I have been away on a silent retreat over this past week and during this time have come face to face with the complexities of my own desires. On the one hand i desired to spend time just being with Jesus, hearing His voice and letting His love fill and cleanse my heart. On the other hand I’ve wanted to run away and to escape into various activities which although not bad in themselves, can rob me and stop me fulfilling the greater desire.
    How much should true God given desire be rooted in our emotions? When I came last week I longed with my mind and inner consciousness to draw close to God and to put Him first in my life, but my emotions were quite detached?, Sometimes it seemed to be from my emotional depths that I wanted to escape into other things, so my mind would be pulling towards God and my emotions towards something that would help me escape! Mostly I tried to follow the pull of my mind in its desire for God and now just gradually my emotions are beginning to respond too and I am feeling as well as thinking that I want the Lord to be first in my life.
    So desire is a complex issue indeed!

    • Tracy – I think that is the whole point of discernment. Desire is important information, but we need be discerning about what we follow. It isn’t just about following the strongest pull. It is important to pay attention to the trajectory of that pull too.

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