Lent and the Shaping of Desire

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by John A. Monaco | српски

Self-Mortification of St. Benedict
The Self-Mortification of Saint Benedict (Albrecht Dürer)

Christianity is a religion of desire. At first glance, this statement may seem counterintuitive and contradictory. After all, Christians are told to deny themselves, to take up their cross and follow Christ (Mt 16:24). Several prayers, especially in the Divine Liturgy, also seem to downplay desire. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, prior to the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays for the revering of the Lord’s commandments so that, “having trampled down all carnal desires,” the Christian may do that which is pleasing to God. Similarly, the the prayer during the Cherubic Hymn, the priest prays that “No one bound by carnal desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near, or minister to You, the King of Glory.” Church history is filled with numerous examples of ascetics and saints who renounced their desires, whether that includes St. Benedict throwing himself into the thorn bush to chasten his sexual desire, or Eudocia the Samaritan (whom the Orthodox Church commemorated on Forgiveness Sunday) who abandoned her earthly riches and physical beauty to the disdain of her former lovers. Countless entries within the Church’s illustrious hagiography follow a similar trajectory: a person with worldly fame and material pleasures experiences a conversion, and then sells her belongings, and embraces a life of poverty and self-denial. It would then seem that “desire” has an awfully negative place within Christian discourse. In other words, if you desire something, it is probably bad and sinful, and the way to holiness is thus avoiding what we desire and instead pursue those things we do not like.

In theory, one could pursue the Christian life this way. In fact, many have. Assuming desire is evil (particularly bodily desire), one trods the path of famous historical figures: Mani, whose ideas produced the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism which tormented Augustine of Hippo; Marcion, the Gnostic heretic who repudiated the idea that Christ could have assumed human flesh; Severus, who led an extreme sect of ascetics (the Encratites) and believed marriage, as well as women, were inherently sinful. Orthodox Christian theologians were quick to denounce these figures among others, as such ideas were seen as dangerous and heretical. In affirming the goodness of creation, Orthodox Christianity rejects any notion that matter is evil or that, in order to achieve union with God, one must renounce one’s humanity. At the same time, Orthodoxy is hardly a religion of comfort: the fasting rules (which, of course, can be modified and determined by one’s spiritual father) and extolling of the ascetical life dismisses any idea that Orthodoxy places no demands on its adherents.

Christianity is a religion of desire, precisely because it is concerned with a God who desires to save the human race and who loves mankind. Christians are those who desire to respond to God’s free invitation to love and serve Him here on earth and worship Him forever in eternity. A desire-less Christian is an oxymoron; our intellects are oriented to seek truth and the knowledge of God, and our wills are directed towards loving that which is good and making good use of temporal goods for the sake of loving the Eternal Good. The Christian is the one who desires to follow Christ and orders her desires to pursue those things which lead her closer to Him.

However, as we all know, we do not desire things in a vacuum. Here on earth, human desire is always staged within the context of a fallen world. Our passions move us to desire things outside of their proper place. Desiring sex is good, but the desire to view pornography is not, as it is the selfish inversion and objectification of the sexual act. Desiring to support one’s family and have daily sustenance is good, but the ravenous desire for wealth is not, as it seduces a person to seek pleasure solely earthly things at the expense of finding joy in God. Desiring justice for victims of assault is good, but the desire for revenge is not, as it prevents us from loving our enemies.

Lent is the perfect opportunity for Christians to examine and train their desires—not to eschew them. What is the purpose of asceticism, if not for being the exercise by which we shape our desires to be pure and ordered to their proper ends? Food is good, but an inordinate love for food can result in health problems as well as social ones. Can our time of fasting from meat and dairy help us examine the way in which those popular industries contribute to environmental degradation? Games, movies, and other forms of entertainment are good, but an obsession with the virtual can distract us from the real— including those who are right in front of us. Can our time of fasting from unnecessary purchases and Netflix-binging help us be better stewards of our God-given time, money, and energy? As Philip Kariatlis wrote, “Fasting finds its true meaning when the outward abstinence of food is connected with the inward struggle to intensify our longing for God through the dynamic of purity and repentance.” Renunciation is not an end in itself, but only as a means of ongoing union with God.

Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are activities by which our desires are purified, our wills healed, our intellects open to the glory of divine truth. Far from being a distraction to Christian life, desire is the very vehicle by which we move closer or farther from Christ. Returning to the liturgy, the lex orandi by which Christians are to base their lives, we come across an anonymous prayer to be recited following the reception of Holy Communion. In this prayer, we see the end (that is, the telos) of our desire: “For You are, indeed, the true object of our desire and the inexpressible gladness of those who love You, O Christ our God, and all creation praises You unto the ages. Amen.”

John Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at McGill University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.