Chapter 10

The Transmutation of Desire

"You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, his slave, his slave-girl, his ox, his ass or anything that belongs to him" (Exodus 20.17).

Desire is the emotional stimulus that sets in action all purposeful activity. Hunger and thirst stimulate the body to search for sustenance that will assuage their pangs. Likewise, sexual desire finds its fulfilment in copulation, which may end in the conception of a new individual. Without desire nothing would be achieved; we would live in an inanimate world not so much dead as never having been alive. However, if desire is the power behind the onward movement of life, it is also the cause of suffering. The great religions of the East, especially Buddhism, stress the connection between the suffering that is an aspect of mortal life and human desire. Only when we have moved beyond desire can there be an end of suffering, and for this purpose an enlightened way of life is prescribed. The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism shares points in common with the Ten Commandments; the purpose of both great doctrines of the good life is a raising of the selfish consciousness of the unenlightened person to a dimension that transcends the ego and embraces the whole community, finding its summation in the realm of the divine. We remember in passing that the Buddhist way has no use for a personal God, but is concerned rather with the eternal law of life, the dharma (or dhamma in the Pali script). The dharma can be equated with the eternal uncreated consciousness from which all creation proceeds and which penetrates, informs and judges every action of life whether in this world or in the realms beyond death. When we co-operate with the universal law of the dharma, our personal desires merge and dissolve into a reality that transcends all discursive thought, and we enter the formless, transpersonal consciousness of nirvana (or nibbana).

While this may indeed be the ultimate truth, there is no doubt that desire plays an essential part in our earthly existence. Jesus himself said, "How have I longed to eat this Passover with you before my death. For I tell you, never again shall I eat it until the time when it finds its fulfilment in the Kingdom of God" (Luke 22.15-16). With loving desire he had waited to share this last meal with his disciples, so that they could proceed to celebrate his sacramental giving of himself to them and to all the world after he had left them. We too celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist until he comes to share it with us in the Kingdom of God, when all earthly things are changed into spiritual radiance. Desire impels us onwards to our next work; according to the nature of that desire, the action performed is either good or bad, but without desire there would be no development in our lives, and the world would founder in stagnation and death. It is evident that there are two levels of desire, one that has to be outgrown if we are to become truly adult and mature in our humanity, and the other that has to be obeyed if we are to attain fulfilment as spiritual beings.

Covetousness represents essentially the lower level of desire. It craves eagerly, almost insatiably, for that which belongs to another person, and to attain its end it would quite happily resort to evil actions, for it cannot rest until it has gained possession of what it desires. It is grasping, its nature is avarice, and it dominates the thoughts of the person who suffers under it. Stealing, giving false evidence, and murder are all potential fruits of a covetous nature. So also is adultery when the covetousness is tinged with lust. In the biblical narrative covetousness is a recurring theme. Jacob coveted Esau's birthright which was his brother's due as the elder of the twins, and he acquired it under duress when his brother was exhausted and famished. Later he was to gain his father Isaac's blessing by impersonating Esau, whom his blind father preferred to Jacob. Jacob's covetousness cost him Esau's friendship, and he had to flee to escape his brother's murderous intentions. Nevertheless, in this primitive story, whose morality was still undeveloped as compared with the later teachings of the Law and the prophets, Jacob's unscrupulous actions seem to have been justified inasmuch as he was far more worthy than his coarse, sensual brother to fulfil the divine plan for Israel's election.

In the later scriptural narrative, covetousness is more clearly sinful. An especially despicable instance mars the life story of David, who covets the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a humble soldier in David's service and a man of greater morality than his royal master. Having seduced Bathsheba, David plots the death of Uriah at the battlefront, after which he takes Uriah's widow as his own (2 Samuel 11). Thus the act of covetousness culminates in the murder of an innocent, noble man, but it sets in action a sequence of disasters in David's own family, culminating in his favourite son Absalom rising in mutiny against him. The nation is divided, and although Absalom's insurrection fails and he himself is killed in battle, David is heartbroken at the death of his son. His initial act of lustful desire had set in motion fateful repercussions within his own family, ending in his own fight for survival and the death of his beloved son, now become his mortal enemy.

Another fearful episode of covetousness concerns Ahab and his desire to possess the vineyard of Naboth. When Naboth refuses to hand over this family land to the king, Ahab, acting through the perfidy of his wife Jezebel, has Naboth falsely accused of cursing God and the king. Once Naboth has been stoned to death for alleged blasphemy and disloyalty, Ahab sallies forth to take possession of the property. But God, through the prophet Elijah, denounces the royal couple, forecasting disaster for them and a complete wiping out of the family line (1 Kings 21), events that occupy the end of the first Book of Kings and the beginning of the second Book. Thus the covetousness of David and Ahab led to the callous murder of their respective victims, but the destruction they executed was visited upon them much magnified. David, however, was truly penitent, and led a more upright life after the sequence of family tragedies, whereas Ahab was basically evil and moved inexorably towards the annihilation of his dynasty.

In the New Testament narrative, covetousness once again rears its head, this time in connection with spiritual gifts rather than material wealth or sexual lust. The most notorious account concerns the magician Simon who was active in Samaria. The charismatic gifts of Philip the deacon impressed him sufficiently to accept baptism, but his cupidity was stimulated almost to the point of explosion when the apostles Peter and John appeared on the scene: when they prayed over the converts with the laying-on of hands, they bestowed the Holy Spirit on them. Simon offered them money, to acquire the same power of bestowing the Spirit. Peter denounced him forthwith, forecasting a bitter future for him unless he repented of his wickedness, for Simon was fundamentally dishonest with God (Acts 8.9-29). The sin of simony, the buying or selling of ecclesiastical preferment, takes its name from this episode in the life of the early Church.

God's gift is not to be coveted. It comes by grace to those who are empty of selfishness, not to those who would use it for their own benefit. Indeed, even those who do receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit have to be inwardly cleansed of personal impurities before they can become worthy ministers of God, and the process of purgation goes on ceaselessly throughout their life on earth and, no doubt, in the life beyond death also. Likewise, the spiritual gifts that are used to succour those in need bear no charge. The gift is its own reward for the one possessing it, and the joy of being able to assist a person in distress is the greatest recompense anyone could desire. Once we use the gifts of God to inflate our own personalities or to strengthen our position in the society in which we work, these blessings assume a demonic power. Thus we read Jesus' stark warning:

Not everyone who calls me "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly Father. When that day comes, many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out devils in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them to their face, "I never knew you; out of my sight, you and your wicked ways" (Matthew 7.21-3).

We are brought once again to the fundamental spiritual teaching about the eternal life of the true self as opposed to the flickering existence of the ego consciousness. It is the staple of all the world's great mystical traditions, and is expressed particularly cogently in the gospel:

Then he called the people to him, as well as his disciples, and said to them, "Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind; he must take up his cross, and come with me. Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the gospel, that man is safe. What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back?" (Mark 8. 34-7).

The self that has to be left behind is the ego that demands rights and privileges for itself. What it lacks it will seek covetously in the other person, but it will never be satisfied. The riches of this world are mere illusions if substantial support or protection is expected from them. The more we have, the more we covet, and yet our basic insecurity remains unhealed. Possessions, whether of things or people, never really belong to us, for we can be stripped of them overnight. Indeed, only when we have taken up our cross and left the ego image behind can we pursue the great work of following our Lord. This cross represents the particular defect we have to bear in our incarnation: it may be a tendency to ill-health, a moral weakness, a mental instability, a difficulty of temperament or a social incubus. The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger has no part in its joy (Proverbs 14.10). The cross may be temporarily concealed during the day's delights, but when the evening comes it is stripped for all the world to see. And then the world sees Jesus nailed to the cross once more. This is our final test, and if we cling to God alone, we too will pass from death to immortality, from the crucifixion of mortal life to the resurrection of eternity.

Thus the person who cares for his own safety - in other words his mortal life to the exclusion of all else - is lost, for all the rewards of this world are necessarily consummated in mortality; not one can be taken with us when we die. On the other hand, when we have sacrificed all we have and are for God, as revealed in Christ, the immortal principle of the spirit is revealed in us. This is eternal and of the nature of Christ. What indeed are all the world's riches in comparison with the immortal self that is the repository and guardian of the moral values to which all true religion bears witness? Whatever we covet we put in the place of that spark of God which is the light of men, a light that issues from the eternal life of the Word, from whom all life proceeds, to quote from the prologue of the fourth Gospel. Thus a covetous nature obscures the light of God that burns in the spirit of the soul, until the divine flame is occluded by worldly encumbrances.

It was the tragedy of the rich young man who came to Christ for instructions about the attainment of eternal life to be so encumbered with the riches of this world that he was unable to let them go. It only he had had the courage to make this final renunciation, his soul would have shone forth with the radiance of the spirit within, and he would have attained a knowledge of eternity there and then. As we have more than once stressed, it is neither the ego nor the things of this world that are bad - in fact, they are all essential for our well-being while we are alive in the world. What makes them dangerous is our tendency to cling to them. Personal craving and covetous desire pervert all the beautiful things of life, including the most intimate personal relationships. But when all is given to God and the service of our fellow men, we are not only free of a mounting incubus, but are also given back what we renounced, a thousand times glorified. Our own needs are fully satisfied, and now we can work towards the satisfaction of the needs of all other people instead of being imprisoned in our own insecurity, which in turn nourishes a covetous attitude to life.

The only possession we can take for granted in this strange life is our own being, and how little do we know of its intricacies! We are a motley collection, an assemblage, of gifts and defects housed in an indifferent body. Our great work in life is to integrate the various facets of our complex personality into an efficient working unit, so that what was previously divided and at war within us can now be united, accepted, healed and blessed by the power of God. The power, the Holy Spirit, is always available, but he cannot act until we have attained sufficient awareness to call upon God for help. This is essentially the nature of petitionary prayer. By contrast, there is a perverse way of seeking inner healing, and this involves the coveting of qualities and possessions from outside ourselves. Whatever we covet serves in essence to plaster over a crack in our personality, concealing our incompleteness from the outside world (and all too often from our own inner scrutiny as well). Thus we live as blurred, unreal people.

The person who is inwardly insecure may, for instance, plausibly ascribe his feelings of unease to financial stress or social inferiority. He may unconsciously be driven by this insecurity to devote his life to acquiring money or attaining status in his social or professional milieu. And yet while an impressive façade of dross is being erected on the surface of the personality, there lies beneath it the wounded heart of a little child, seeking pitifully for acknowledgement and love. It is indeed ironical that the more such a deprived person attains by coveting the world, the further does he distance himself from any truly living relationship and therefore from any possibility of love. Thus the great social evils denounced in the Ten Commandments stem ultimately from inner incompleteness: we are tempted to kill, steal, lie and covet in order to protect ourselves from the frank admission of our own intrinsic deficiency. What we lack in ourselves we will grasp surreptitiously from our neighbour even if this involves his injury to the point of death.

Fortunately, the inner defect that has been plastered over in this way will in due course split open to public view as our moral bankruptcy becomes obvious to everyone. The sooner we are exposed, the more fortunate it is for us because the ensuing humiliation, severe punishment as it is, is the first step in our rehabilitation. Exposure and ostracism bring the offender rapidly to his senses, so that he can at last face the corruption within himself, confess his sins and await forgiveness. Forgiveness is the essential therapy in the healing of all delinquencies: "For all alike have sinned and are deprived of the divine splendour, and all are justified by God's free grace alone" (Romans 3.24). As the offender seeks forgiveness, so the social background that led to his covetous inclinations is exposed, and this too has to be forgiven in retrospect, for no good comes from the constant bearing of a grudge. Thus do we pray that God will forgive us our sins as we are empowered by him to forgive those who sin against us. Indeed, all sin forms part of a continuum of perverse action.

As we receive forgiveness, so may love slowly enter our hearts while an understanding of the frailties of other people is granted us. He who has not traversed his own dark pit of suffering and faced exposure to the truth of his situation can seldom feel compassion for his erring neighbour. Empathy comes most easily to those who have attained self-knowledge in dereliction; when we are no longer chained to diverting delusions of self-importance, we become free enough of self-absorption to admit other people into our private lives. On coming to know them better, we can begin to accept ourselves as we are with a fresh thanksgiving that does not depend on veiled comparisons with other people. In this way we attain a genuine self-esteem that is based on the amazed recognition of our uniqueness, but is not tied to personal gifts or triumphs in daily life. When we can hold our head high in affirming our own splendid identity, we can affirm with equal delight the identity of all around us, needing neither to denigrate them nor exalt them on a pedestal of special esteem. In this way the tendency towards coveting anything from anyone finally leaves us.

It is important to realize that while an amelioration of adverse social conditions is important in providing the basic needs of life, these alone, even in profusion, will not put an end to the tendency to covet, steal, lie or murder. The core of sinful action lies deep within the soul; in theological terms it is called original sin, and it seems to be an inevitable by-product, almost a concomitant, of the free will the Creator has bestowed on his rational creatures. We, as human beings, are given a freedom of choice, the means of a free, unobstructed movement towards self-actualization. If we use God's gift of will wisely we tend towards the good life, but even then the full understanding of what that goodness entails comes slowly to us through life's many experiences, some joyful and others tragic. When at last, perhaps after an experience comparable with that of the prodigal son sitting in destitution among the pigs, we grasp the primary truth of the spiritual life that our greatest personal good brings with it a corresponding benefit to our fellow creatures also, we are moving from the world of covetousness to that of sacrifice. This is the way shown by Christ, who gave of his riches to his brothers: he became poor so that they might be rich. But his poverty embraces all riches, transfiguring them from inert articles of worldly splendour to sacraments of the risen life.

The tragedies of life expose a void in the soul that the person all too readily seeks to fill with attributes taken from the common stockpile. Eventually by bitter experience he has to learn that the repair can proceed only from the elements of his own personality. Only then will he be filled with something that will never be taken away, but will instead grow to profusion. When Jesus expounded the mystery of the Holy Spirit to the Samaritan woman, he showed the way to a spiritual outpouring that can have no end. "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I shall give him will never suffer thirst any more. The water that I shall give him will be an inner spring always welling up for eternal life" (John 4.14).

The craving for personal belongings and attributes is therefore part of our childhood. It provides us with a sense of security, permitting us to hold our head high in the company of our peers. In the same way the exhibition of professional qualifications confirms the status of the inexperienced graduate. But all this can act merely as an impressive smoke-screen concealing the identity of the person behind a façade of pomp and grandeur. It may well have to be dissipated before the inner validity of the person is revealed: it is what we are that alone matters in a time of crisis, for neither possessions nor academic honours can help us effectively then. The reputation we may have built up previously in terms of popular acclaim is tested in the crucible of suffering, and what emerges from the fire of attrition is our authentic nature. Jesus came through his ordeal entire and glorified; Peter, so sure of his absolute loyalty to Christ, emerged after his third denial of ever having known the Lord shattered and in tears. His glib assurance and ambivalent loyalty lay incinerated; all that remained was a scorched heart palpitating with shame. When their master was alive, the disciples coveted the best places at the heavenly banquet presided over by Christ himself. When they came to themselves, after the death and resurrection of Christ and the downflow of the Holy Spirit upon them, they were to give up their lives for the conversion of the world to their risen master, remembering his words that the true master is the servant of all.

As we grow in spiritual stature, so we crave for the healing of the world. Our own life assumes importance inasmuch as it can be used to God's honour and glory. The desire that once was directed to our own interests is now extended to the welfare of our neighbour, who finally includes every member of the human family - and from that family to every living creature in the world. Reverence for life finds its completion in the resurrection of the entire created universe, so that everything is brought back to the Father in spiritual radiance. In this way desire is transfigured as covetousness drops away and a burning concern for all created things occupies our thoughts and actions.

Should we therefore be concerned about ourselves at all? The answer is given categorically in that part of the Sermon on the Mount dealing with detachment (Matthew 6.25-34), in which Jesus admonishes us to put away anxious thoughts about food and drink to keep us alive, and clothes to cover our body. This is not because they are unimportant but because God already knows our need. What we have to do is to set our mind on God's Kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to us as well. Once we have lifted up our minds to God in prayer, his spirit so infuses us that our daily work is conducted with efficiency and in harmony with those around us. We cease to covet that which does not belong to us, and instead work with concentrated application in the present moment. Desire indeed drops away from us, ceasing to be the stimulus for further activity, and we are now perfectly aligned to the divine will. Thus the two perfect prayers are those of Mary at the time of the annunciation - "As you have spoken, so be it" (Luke 1.38) - and of her son in agony at Gethsemane - "Father, if it be thy will, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but thine be done" (Luke 22.42). When we desire to do God's will and wait patiently in the work of the present moment for this to be revealed to us, we move beyond personal desire to perfect service. And then we know a freedom of action that comes from God alone, for we no longer have to please men in order to gain their approval.

Even a desire to help others, laudable as it may appear on the surface, may carry with it unconscious elements of domination. Only when we are centred fully in God can our actions be harmless: As St Paul puts it, "I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2.19). Once the lower nature has been crucified and therefore ceases to make inordinate demands on the environment, a higher power within us can take charge. This is the spiritual self concentrated in the soul and issuing from the spirit. Christ lives in the spirit of each of us, and when he is fully operative in our lives we cease to demand anything - even the well-being of our neighbour. Instead we can give of ourself humbly to his service and confidently leave the final outcome of the transaction to God alone. Equanimity replaces both personal covetousness and a passionate concern for the rights of others that all too often explodes in violence and hatred. Whatever we desire for others, no matter how commendable it may appear, is coloured by our own prejudices and shortcomings. When we are centred in God in contemplative prayer, our own desires melt away, except for the supreme desire of doing God's will. At that point we move from circumscribed personal existence to the shared life of eternity where God, ourself and our neighbour are all one. Personal desire has been transfigured to service for all life, and what comes from us has a healing power beyond all rational understanding.

In a wonderful way the final commandment brings us back once more to the first: you shall have no other god to set against me. When we worship God in spirit and truth, we have attained all that life can give us. There is nothing left that could be coveted, for we are filled with the divine grace compared with which all material wealth, all intellectual brilliance and all social grandeur are as nothing. Desire has been transcended, except the ceaseless ache in the heart that all people may know the truth that sets them free from material illusion so that they too may share in the life of eternity.

Chapter 11
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