In Praise of Holy Desires

It is not true to say that the disciples of Father Feeney are against desire.1 Our public witness is directed toward bringing people to believe the true Faith, and to desire to enter Christ’s Body, the Catholic Church. God Himself, who inspires holy desires, will see to it that they are fulfilled (cf. Phil. 1:6).

Desire, simply considered, is a motion toward a good we perceive either with our senses or with our reason. As “concupiscence,” it is a passion in the sensible appetite that we have in common with irrational animals, but as “volition,” it is a movement of our rational appetite (the will) towards a good known by our intellect.

If our desires by wicked, we will be wicked; if our desires be good, we will be good.

But whatever we desire, we desire because we first love it. And we love it because we think it is good. It may be morally bad to pursue a given perceived good, but we pursue it because it seems good to us. Eve’s temptation presents us with a pattern we are all too familiar with: “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat” (Gen. 3:6).

Evil desires have ever since been in the world, the fall having rendered us vulnerable to them. Demons and their willing human confederates have ever and anon sought to inflame our evil desires. This is that unholy trinity of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that forms an alliance against our salvation. While wicked desires are nothing new, today, more than ever, they are a big business. As  John C. Médaille has pointed out, the self-centered homo economicus of anarcho-capitalism has created a new type of zombie, a humanoid that has been reduced by manipulative marketing to the loathsome status of “consumer”:

Marketing has displaced philosophy to become the preeminent integrative science of the modern age. At one time, we relied on the philosophers to put together all the knowledge that was, and to advise princes, merchants, and soldiers on the proper way of the world. But today, the philosophers have become second-class citizens—even within the academy—and it is advertisers who put together all the knowledge of the world for their own ends. That is, advertisers hire the best psychologists, sociologists, mathematicians, musicians, composers, writers, actors, and artists, and their work directs the engineer and the scientist to push the limits of product and surveillance technology. But this patronage of the arts and sciences has a quite different end from, say, the merchant dukes of Venice or Florence; marketing patronage seeks to destroy the intelligence and play on the vices. That is to say, it seeks to create zombies, people whose lives and brains have been destroyed, and whose only object is consumption.

The more we subject ourselves to their marketing ploys, the more likely we are to be zombified ourselves.

But even if we escape zombification, there will be goods (genuine or counterfeit) that we love and therefore desire. Our part is to make sure that the objects of our desire be worthy of a Christian. The desire for God, for all God desires, and for the means necessary to attain to these — such are the holy desires we ought to inflame in ourselves.

But how do we do that?

Saint Augustine indirectly gives us the answer to this question. In preaching about prayer, the great African Doctor sought to answer this question: If we should not speak much when we pray, because God already knows what we need (cf. Matt. 6:7-8), then why should we speak at all? God’s omniscience doesn’t need our few words any more than our many. The answer that Saint Augustine gives to his own question is that we need those words, not God. And we need them because prayer disposes us to receive the gifts of God by kindling our desires. He is evidently not speaking of adoration, thanksgiving, or reparation — all of which are types of worship — but specifically of the prayer of petition.

Holy Scripture encourages us to holy desires, and even gives us inspired prayers that express holy desires:

  • But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better (Phil. 1:23).
  • But now they desire a better, that is to say, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city (Heb. 11:16).
  • As newborn babes, desire the rational milk without guile, that thereby you may grow unto salvation (I Pet. 2:2).
  • I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope. In me is all grace of the way and of the truth, in me is all hope of life and of virtue. Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits. For my spirit is sweet above honey, and my inheritance above honey and the honeycomb (Ecclus 24:24-27). [In her liturgy, the Church applies these words — said literally of Divine Wisdom — to Our Lady.]
  • As the hart panteth after the fountains of water; so my soul panteth after thee, O God. My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? (Psalm 41:2-3).
  • For what have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever (Psalm 72:25).

The Church’s traditional liturgy also comes to our aid. The Postcommunion prayer from the fifth Sunday after Easter asks, with typical Roman succinctness: “Grant us, O Lord, who have been nourished and strengthened at the heavenly table, both to desire that which is right, and to gain that which we desire.”

Besides praying vocal prayers for holy desires, we ought to occupy ourselves with mental prayer in an effort to enkindle these divine urges in our souls. Then, we can say with King David, “My heart grew hot within me: and in my meditation a fire shall flame out” (Psalm 38:4).

As a sort of appendix to my own words, I offer three paragraphs from Saint Louis de Montfort, who spoke of four means of obtaining Divine Wisdom: ardent desire, persevering prayer, universal mortification, total consecration to Jesus through Mary. Here he is on “ardent desire.”

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181. Children of men, how long will your hearts remain heavy and earthbound? How long will you go on loving vain things and seeking what is false? (Ps 4.3) Why do you not turn your eyes and your hearts towards divine Wisdom who is supremely desirable and who, to attract our love, makes known his origin, shows his beauty, displays his riches, and testifies in a thousand ways how eager he is that we should desire him and seek him? “Be desirous, therefore, of hearing my words,”(Wis 6.12) he tells us. “Wisdom anticipates those who want her. (Wis 6.14) The desire of Wisdom leads to the everlasting kingdom.” (Wis 6.21)

182. The desire for divine Wisdom must indeed be a great grace from God because it is the reward for the faithful observance of his commandments. “Son, if you rightly desire wisdom, observe justice and God will give it to you. Reflect on what God requires of you and meditate continually on his commandments and he himself will give you insight, and your desire for wisdom will be granted.” (Sir 1.26; 6.37) “For Wisdom will not enter into a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body subject to sin.” (Wis 1.4) This desire for Wisdom must be holy and sincere, and fostered by faithful adherence to the commandments of God. There are indeed an infinite number of fools and sluggards moved to be good by countless desires, or rather would-be desires, which, by not bringing them to renounce sin and do violence to themselves, are but spurious and deceitful desires which are fatal and lead to damnation. (Prov 21.25) The Holy Spirit, who is the teacher of true knowledge, shuns what is deceitful and withdraws himself from thoughts that are without understanding; iniquity banishes him from the soul. (Wis 1.5)

183. Solomon, the model given us by the Holy Spirit in the acquiring of Wisdom, only received this gift after he had desired it, sought after it and prayed for it for a long time. “I desired wisdom and it was given to me. I called upon God and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” (Wis 7.7) “I have loved and sought wisdom from my youth, and in order to have her as my companion and spouse I went about seeking her.” (Wis 8.2,18) Like Solomon and Daniel we must be men of desire if we are to acquire this great treasure which is wisdom. (cf Dan 9.23)

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  1. In fact, it is not even true to say that we are against baptism of desire. As Brother Francis said in his article, “Sentimental Theology”: “Baptism of desire is a desire for the baptism of water and not a wish for the baptism of desire.” We are very desirous that the unbaptized come to believe the Catholic Faith and desire to be baptized into the Catholic Church. If they do not desire it, they cannot be baptized.

    In the Roman Ritual of Baptism, the last question an adult is asked in the interrogations just prior to the administration of the sacrament is “Wilt thou be baptized?” (Vis baptizari?). To this, he must respond “I will” (Volo). In so saying, the baptizand declares his desire to be baptized.

    The Council of Trent tells us that adults are disposed to justification when they have made numerous grace-induced internal supernatural acts such as faith, hope, detestation of sin, etc., and that these conclude, “lastly, when they purpose to receive baptism (dum proponunt suscipere baptismum), to begin a new life, and to keep the commandments of God.”

    If, following Jesus Christ’s admonition, we preach the Gospel — including the part that says: “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16) — we will be doing our part to elicit this desire, this will, this holy purpose on the part of the unbaptized. It remains for the Holy Ghost to move the hearts and minds of our auditors to accept the faith and desire the sacrament.