Sermon for 20.08.17
Back in the late 90s, when I was a curate in Poplar, we had an annual tradition of putting on a talent show in the parish, and the star turn was always the ministry team making complete fools of themselves. I have vivid memories of one year when the Spice Girls were the latest pop sensation. In a moment of madness, we decided to dance and lip-synch, in cassocks, to their hit song “Wannabe”. My training incumbent was Scary Spice, and he really was intimidating. The current Archdeacon of Hampstead, then a mere team vicar, was Sporty Spice, with some very showy moves. Memory has drawn a merciful veil over my role but I know I took part. You may remember the song – it starts with one Spice girl calling “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want” and another responding “So tell me what you want, what you really, really want.” And so the phenomenon of Girl Power was launched.
Our performance brought down the house in the church crypt, but the actual pop song became an international sensation. It really struck a chord, for all kinds of reasons – fresh young singers, energetic dancing, a great beat, a happy sound, female confidence. But the song lyrics stick in my head for another reason too. Tell me what you want, what you really really want, is the foundational question in spiritual direction. You might say it is the ultimate human question.
At first it just sounds grasping. We can all list things we’d like to own, and popular music has always focused on them: a girl-power singer of my own youth, Janis Joplin, sang plaintively “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” And Elvis, who died 40 years ago last Wednesday, warned his friends, “You can burn my house/Steal my car/Drink my liquor/From an old fruit jar/But don’t you step on my blue suede shoes” – they were obviously his most prized possession.
There is a perverted form of Christianity that preaches what is called the prosperity gospel, and its message is that God will reward faithful believers with all the good things of this life – houses, jobs, health, love, even blue suede shoes and Mercedes Benzes. But most people as they mature come to realise that a flashy car or designer clothes are not the most important things in the world. And they also observe the very obvious fact that the good things of this world are not distributed to the pious while the non-believers go without. Bad things happen to good people, all the time. We have only to reflect on the news this week from Charlottesville and Barcelona.
And yet the gospel story today seems to suggest that if we ask hard enough, God will grant us whatever we want. That cannot be the meaning of it. We know it’s not true. I’m sure all of us have at some time or other prayed desperately for something with all the faith we could muster, and yet we still didn’t get what we wanted. So the story in Matthew’s gospel is telling us something us a bit different.
At one level it is about Jewish Christian communities learning to accept the inclusion of non-Jewish converts – people like the Canaanite woman, who clearly had faith in Jesus as the Lord, the Son of David, even though she was a ritual outsider. If even Jesus had to take a few moments of dialogue with her in order to accept her fully, the gospel story seems to suggest, it is understandable that a new Christian community might struggle with this challenge. It’s a gentle lesson about inclusion.
But I want to look at something else in this little story, and that is the sheer honesty and intensity of the Canaanite woman’s desire for help. She shows courage, persistence and humility in explaining what her deepest desire is. She will not be intimidated or deflected. She knows quite clearly what she really, really wants.
Discerning our deepest, most authentic desire is the work of our spiritual journeys. We have to start with the longings that we can easily identify. They might well be for superficial things – popularity on social media, nice clothes, beating the competition at work or in sport. They might be for things that could harm us – too much food or drink, indulging in dangerous activities or recreational drugs. Our honest wish might be to see someone else put to shame. Some of us were reading the Portpool psalms, 52 to 55, last Sunday evening, and it was uncomfortably obvious that they show some very human tendencies to pray for the downfall of our enemies and even the opportunity to gloat over them.
But what is the result for us of getting these things that we want, or even just imagining that we have got them? St Ignatius of Loyola realized back in the 16th century that when we reflect on our desires, we can discern whether they are authentic desires or not by paying close attention to our feelings. He spoke of experiencing either consolation or desolation. This doesn’t mean just an instant feeling of happiness or sadness. I might imagine saying something really cutting to a person who offended me and get an immediate sense of satisfaction from that daydream, but if I examine it closely I will realise that it is releasing negative rather than positive energies in me. It’s ultimately unsatisfying.
And it may be true the other way as well. I often meet with ordinands who tell me that their first experience of feeling called by God is quite confusing and disturbing. The sense of vocation may be extremely unwelcome, upsetting all their carefully laid plans. But gradually, they realise that the calling is persistent and authentic, and that they will only experience true joy if they open themselves up to answering it obediently.
Another way of describing the difference between consolation and desolation is to ask what is life-giving and what is ultimately destructive. I met a few days ago with a young woman whom I have known since she was a little girl. She is beautiful, intelligent and creative. She is also a self-destructive person who has been abused in the past and who is in thrall to a drug habit. There is a possibility of a loving relationship now with someone who cares about her, but the question is whether she loves her drug dependency more than she desires this partner. It may be easy to say, this way lies desolation and that way lies consolation, but of course coming off a drug habit is the hardest challenge she will ever face. How deep is her desire for a trusting relationship without the anaesthetic that numbs her painful memories? Can a dream of real, lasting happiness outweigh the immediate pleasures of an ultimately self-destructive choice?
So there is nothing easy about discerning our desires. It is a lifetime’s work, but we don’t get there through sheer effort and will power. The spiritual director Philip Sheldrake has written a very useful book called Befriending our Desires. He says that we need to start by centring ourselves and opening ourselves up to the love of God. It is God who will sort out our desires if we allow that to happen. If we only desire to have the right desire, that’s enough. Sheldrake says, “that spark, that chink in my defensive armour, is all that God needs.” Then I can begin to move from the many surface desires of my life into the deepest place of my essential self. Etty Hillesum, the spiritual writer who died in Auschwitz, wrote, “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God: Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit clock the well, and God is buried beneath. Then He must be dug out again.”
Don’t make the mistake of supposing that dwelling with God will inevitably mean that we should become professional religious people. I’ve spoken about those who have discerned that their calling is to ordination. But of course for the vast majority of people the deepest and most authentic desires will lead to a different way of life, but one in which true fulfilment is found. I know a young man who has wisely discerned his own calling to be an ornamental blacksmith. He is doing exactly the right thing, and his work brings him great delight. Others find profound joy in teaching, nursing, public service, caring for relatives or clients, gardening, brewing beer, making music, or any of the hundreds of ways of life that humanity in all its rich complexity has devised.
Our deepest desires might be expressed through our paid work or in the way we spend our unpaid time. But we will know they are taking us in the right direction if they release positive energy in us. We’re on the right track if we are growing and learning every day. It’s often very clear to other people when someone has got in touch with their heart’s desire. I am privileged to see it often.
It may not be a once-for-all choice. Philip Sheldrake himself was once a Jesuit priest. Now he is a happily married man, working in an Anglican theological college. His discernment took him down one path and then a quite different and unexpected one. God is the God of surprises and has no boring plans for us. The world is too small to contain all the blessings God wants us to experience. But in order to do so, we have to really, really want to get in touch with our deepest desire.