Boswell read Doctor Johnson's papers after his death: I select from his private register the following passage: 'July 25, 1776. O GOD, who hast ordained that whatever is to be desired should be sought by labour, and who, by thy blessing, bringest honest labour to good effect, look with mercy upon my studies and endeavours. Grant me, O LORD, to design only what is lawful and right; and afford me calmness of mind, and steadiness of purpose, that I may so do thy will in this short life, as to obtain happiness in the world to come, for the sake of JESUS CHRIST our Lord. Amen. Boswell comments: This was composed when he 'purposed to apply vigorously to study, particularly of the Greek and Italian tongues.' Such a purpose, so expressed, at the age of sixty-seven, is admirable and encouraging; and it must impress all the thinking part of my readers with a consolatory confidence in habitual devotion, when they see a man of such enlarged intellectual powers as Johnson, thus in the genuine earnestness of secrecy, imploring the aid of that Supreme Being, 'from whom cometh down every good and every perfect gift. Let us all have confidence in habitual devotion! Life of Johnson by James Boswell, via Kindle.
Tag Archives: desire
Soul of sorrow, why this weeping?What immortal grief hath touched theeWith the poignancy of sadness,—Testament of tears?Have the high gods deigned to show theeDestiny, and disillusionFills thy heart at all things human,Fleeting and desired?Nay, the gods themselves are fetteredBy one law which links togetherTruth and nobleness and beauty,Man and stars and sea.And they only shall find freedomWho with courage rise and followWhere love leads beyond all peril,Wise beyond all words.
Doctor Johnson, though born in Staffordshire, was an 18th Century Londoner who could not have settled anywhere else. He was a devout Anglican, but treated Catholics fairly. This post could have gone under different headings, but the last paragraph speaks to our times – as does the door of mercy!
To what degree fancy is to be admitted into religious offices, it would require much deliberation to determine. I am far from intending totally to exclude it. Fancy is a faculty bestowed by our Creator, and it is reasonable that all His gifts should be used to His glory, that all our faculties should co-operate in His worship; but they are to co-operate according to the will of Him that gave them, according to the order which His wisdom has established.
We may take Fancy for a companion, but must follow Reason as our guide. We may allow Fancy to suggest certain ideas in certain places; but Reason must always be heard, when she tells us, that those ideas and those places have no natural or necessary relation.
When we enter a church we habitually recall to mind the duty of adoration, but we must not omit adoration for want of a temple; because we know, and ought to remember, that the Universal Lord is every where present; and that, therefore, to come to Iona, or to Jerusalem, though it may be useful, cannot be necessary.
Life of Johnson, by James Boswell
https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/agnellusmirror.wordpress.com/23921 – Pilgrimage around Wales
Dr Johnson suggests a concise theology of hope – as opposed to ‘improper expectation’. As for that lottery ticket, that requires the common course of things to be changed!
Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged, must end in disappointment. If it be asked, what is the improper expectation which it is dangerous to indulge, experience will quickly answer, that it is such expectation as is dictated not by reason, but by desire; expectation raised, not by the common occurrences of life, but by the wants of the expectant; an expectation that requires the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.
It is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded; for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are less dreadful than its extinction.’ The Idler, No. 58.
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765″ by James Boswell.
This is one of those pictures that say a thousand words. It is in Saint David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. Last time we were there, one of the canons was addressing a group of schoolchildren in Welsh, but this sculpture could speak in any language including its own.
Try holding your hands that way, and you’ll see that if they belong to one person, it is the viewer, and the dove is looking you in the eye; and the dove is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Of course, for the vast majority of us, for the overwhelming proportion of our time, we do not see such a sign of God when we pray. Is it all wishful thinking? Paul addressed the question in his letter to the Romans (8:24-28).
We are saved by hope. But hope that is seen, is not hope. For what a man seeth, why doth he hope for? But if we hope for that which we see not, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings. And he that searcheth the hearts, knoweth what the Spirit desireth; because he asketh for the saints according to God. And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints.
Instead of racking our brains for the right words to pray with, let the Spirit utter our feelings and desires – the hopes and fears of all our years.
Between gurgles, crying, eye contact and all body movements, my new grandson conveys his needs and desires efficiently enough for his adults to jump to meet them. He prays as he ought, to make known his hopes, needs and love.
We all have a history, including Zacchaeus. We do not know what his history was, but it is probable that this friendless man had an unhappy one. Why choose a profession that guarantees the hatred of one’s fellow-man otherwise? Perhaps he was tossed out of the home at a young age by an abusive parent, or perhaps he ran away from a situation of poverty and violence, had to fend for himself, become street-wise, learn to manipulate situations to his advantage. Whatever happened, he became, for reasons we will never know, a rich man, but also a dishonest man in a despised profession. No doubt he was intelligent and competent – too competent, maybe, at getting money – but wealth and the power to ruin people does not attract friends. Sycophants, maybe, but not friends. And not even these were with him that day. He was alone, unsupported. No wife, no servant. No colleague. No one.
Let’s fill in some other details about this man. Working backwards from what the text tells us, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine Zacchaeus as a wiry little boy, able to run fast and scale obstacles easily as he escaped from the angry adults who wanted to thrash him for some misdemeanour – or none. I think he knew what hunger meant as a child, and although he survived by his wits, perhaps his nutrition was dubious, and bodily growth was affected. Now he is a well-to-do adult, but Zacchaeus is a small man. He is abundantly energetic, though, and is both crafty and agile enough to solve his current difficulty without reference to anyone else (it is the story of his life): he cannot see Jesus because he is too short and the crowd is too big and unyielding. Fine. He dashes ahead and swings easily into a sycamore tree, as the text tells us – a tree well furnished with thick branches radiating from a central crown. Here is a resourceful person with few inhibitions. Here is someone determined never to allow his desires to be thwarted. Here is a man who has never cared what people thought of him as he ruthlessly made his fortune – why start now? He climbs higher on the sturdy branches. Yes, excellent view, he thinks smugly. He can see Jesus perfectly now.
And what is happening with Jesus? What is Zacchaeus apt to be seeing? St Luke tells us in the immediately preceding passage that Jesus, on entering Jericho, had healed a blind man, and that ‘all who saw it gave praise to God.’ The formerly blind man then followed Jesus, we are told. He was probably now part of Jesus’ joyful entourage walking down the main road of Jericho. I expect this group might have included many of the people who had known the blind man all his life and had now witnessed his healing. They would have joined Jesus’ group, already consisting of the Twelve, without whom he rarely went anywhere. The gospels also report that there were women among Jesus’ constant supporters and followers, and I image that some of them would have been there now, too. Chances are, the collection of people coming down the road with Jesus was a large one.
As we have seen in our gospel passage, Jesus already seems to know Zacchaeus’ name when he starts the conversation with him. No one introduces them. We do not need to assume that this is a demonstration of Jesus’ divine omniscience. Zacchaeus was infamous. The apostle Matthew, reformed tax collector himself, probably knew him, even if Jesus didn’t. He would probably have warned Jesus about Zacchaeus as he approached the town: “Rich man, but the very devil for getting tax money from people – and then some. Ruthless,” Jesus might have been told. He was probably also told that Zacchaeus lived a big house. I can see Jesus listening quietly to such information, and forming his own plans. Jesus had nothing to fear from notorious individuals.
Favella image from CD.
Our Saviour’s cross is the throne of delights. That Centre of Eternity, that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of God. There are we entertained with the wonder of all ages. There we enter into the heart of the universe. There we behold the admiration of Angels. There we find the price and elixir of our joys.
As on every side of the earth all heavy things tend to the centre; so all nations ought on every side to flow in unto it. It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the Soul, that we travel thither. By withdrawing our thoughts from wandering in the streets of this World, to the contemplation and serious meditation of His blood sufferings. Where the carcase is thither will the eagle be gathered together. Our eyes must be towards it, our hearts set upon it, our affections drawn, and of thoughts and minds United to it. When I am lifted up, saith the Son of Man, I will draw all men unto me.
Traherne was able to reconcile science and faith with his remarks on gravity.
The Cross as the door of Mercy
As we begin Advent and prepare to remember Christ’s coming at Christmas, we return to Thomas Traherne with a challenging reflection: God willed his Creation into existence in order to be himself, and he became man, to be himself. As he told Moses, ‘I am’.
God willed the Creation not only that He might Appear but Be: wherein is seated the mystery of the Eternal Generation of His Son. Do you will it as He did, and you shall be glorious as He. He willed the happiness of men and angels not only that He might appear, but be good and wise and glorious.
And He willed it with such infinite desire, that He is infinitely good: infinitely good in Himself, and infinitely blessed in them. Do you will the happiness of men and angels as He did, and you shall be good, and infinitely blessed as He is. All their happiness shall be your happiness as it is His. He willed the glory of all ages, and the government and welfare of all Kingdoms, and the felicity also of the highest cherubims.
As we get nearer to Christmas, Sister Johanna will be sharing her reflections on Jesus as God’s wisdom. Today Thomas Traherne challenges us to be good and wise and glorious too, as Jesus is, eternally.
The evil in unredeemed desire is far deeper than the law could engender – which is why we are told that anger = murder and lust = adultery. The way evil cannot touch is forgiveness. We need to learn to desire without the need to compete, blame or measure ourselves against. We need to be free to relish good wherever it is found – but who decides what is good?
God gave a prohibition for our protection – which we have consistently ignored – not to eat of the tree whose fruit is knowledge of good and evil. But seeing something withheld led to rivalry and envy – we’ll show him – we’ll do it our way. Paul tells us that the Law is not sinful – Romans 7.7. – I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the command came sin sprang into life and I died. Paul sees the Serpent not as the Devil but as sin. Desire is a gift of God, but not when disfigured by envy. We have victimised the Law making it an instrument of redemptive violence, and locking ourselves within the shadow of death.
Desire turned to envy made what should have been the irenic way to life into the sphere of rivalry, envy and exclusion. Now all life is infected [universality of OS] by such distorted desire – they saw that they were naked – all this through ignoring that prohibition that was there to ensure our well-being.
It is my awareness of me as “I” that results from knowing other than me. Paul insists that it is Faith that allows us access to desire redemption, to desire in ways that owe nothing to envious rivalry. Sin means my “I” is not in control but is itself controlled by distorted desire. What is needed is the way of living that Paul describes as: It is no longer I but Christ living in me [controlling my “I”] – Gal.2.20.
Jesus shows that Original Sin is not of our essence, it is simply evidence of a faulty foundational principle [way of life]. Paradoxically, what Jesus was founding was subversion of the notion founding – in the sense of achieving identity by comparison over against others. It is totally gratuitous in every way… something that existed long before our capacity for distorting desire ever happened. Before Original Sin there is Original Grace.
The tragedy of Original Sin is not that it is universal, but in the universality of the new people we discover what is possible for “I” – to become enabled to move from the universal to the particular; whereas conversion requires recognition of our equality as the foundation of human dignity; unity in diversity, equal but not the same. Original Sin is what we are leaving behind when we take new life seriously. We realise the reality of Original Sin through those who have been set free from it. As Jesus told Nicodemus – we must be born into a new way – not going back and starting again. – Jn.3.3. Death was seen as an extrinsic punishment for sin – we all sin, we all die! Death and sin are connected – distorted desire cannot bring life, since only God is life!
Why are we here? What are we like? What are we here for? Karl Rahner’s explorations went much further, by showing that God is an essential part of our lives and we are all related, whether we realise it or not. God is at the core of every aspect of our experiencing. We are never satisfied. We never reach a point where we know all that there is to know or experience all that there is to experience because we are always open to newer and more fulfilling experiences. Our thirst for knowledge and new experiences is never quenched.
We can always go beyond what we know. But we need to remember that this transcendence includes our knowledge of the finite; we go beyond every finite object thanks to our openness to the infinite, in order to recognise a limit, we must transcend it. Imagine the fence around an area. You might think that when you reach that fence, you don’t need to go beyond it to recognise it as a limit. On a physical level, you’re right. However, in thought you’ve already transcended the fence. You’ve realised that there’s something beyond it but that you can’t go beyond it. In the same way, though we can only take hold of the finite, we aspire to the infinite. In supposing that we’re limited by a finite horizon of questioning, we go beyond this and experience ourselves as able to transcend. So, the fact that we know the finite requires the existence of an infinite.
Original Sin shows us to ourselves. It is natural to assume that my desires are mine! This presumes that I am me before I decide to desire; whereas my desires make me. Something is triggered in me when I experience another person desiring something. I too can begin to desire like this. Eventually and inevitably this leads to rivalry – mine’s better… and then I am set against the other, which is how I experience me as different. This rivalry is simply me against you, the way I establish myself.
Desire has become my desire and what makes it mine is that it is not yours! Some call it friendly rivalry, or competitive spirit. In fact the “me” that is now opposed to the not me is the product of my desiring. Much time and energy is spent on fostering and preserving this artificial self; whereas, as we discover from the Incarnation, real self is total gift. My own sense of self is me in contrast to you, whereas my real self sees other as total gift to me.
Society becomes possible through imitation by keeping humans together while forming individuals psychologically. The infant imitates the adult, reproducing what the adult does; there is no me in the infant independent of the model that fashions it. The adult plays with a toy to get the infant to do the same; eventually this will lead to desire, which tends to detach us from the model and seeks autonomy.
However, much more than imitation is needed to make me. This results in my wanting to be who the other is. This in turn can lead to an unequal rivalry. Rivalry tends to be resolved by the exclusion of the victim, asserting my emerging self against the other. It is the tension set up between my sense of being as given, and my acquiring of it by more or less violent means that is at the heart of theology of Original Sin.