The National Catholic Review
Margaret Silf
Desire has a bad press. Most of us, at least those beyond a certain age, have grown up thinking that anything we desire is probably something we shouldn’t even be thinking about, and whatever God’s will might be, it is surely diametrically opposed to what we actually want.
It came as a huge surprise to me to discover that this is far from the truth, when a Jesuit priest first opened up for me, and for many, the stunning possibility that our desires can actually lead us closer to God’s will. But, of course, there are desires and desires. Some are wholly self-focused and live on the surface of our consciousness. They hardly merit the name desire at all, and are more like Christmas wish-lists. True desire goes a whole lot deeper than that. It goes to the ground of our being. It is what makes us tick. Without desire we wouldn’t have got out of bed this morning. We would never have learned anything, never related to anyone, never put one foot in front of the other to go someplace. At its deepest level, desire is the source of life, growth and energy for ourselves and for all creation.

In the northern hemisphere we are heading into the month that could be described as the high season of creation’s own desiring. In May everything is alive with desire, from the humblest daisy to the soaring eagle. The hedgerows are humming with it. The waters are brimming with it. Just see what desire can do.

My first witness to the power of desire comes from a tiny coral island on the Great Barrier Reef, about 70 miles off the coast of eastern Australia. I don’t even know his name. I met him during a stay on that island a few years ago. More precisely, I was introduced to him by a local guide who called him simply the restaurant bird. No prizes for guessing why. These sturdy little birds have lived on that island for as long as anyone can remember. They feed on whatever they can scavenge from the restaurant. In fact, they live the life of Riley out there, and, as everyone on the island knows well, they are completely flightless! Well, who would fly anywhere, when there is a gourmet meal three times a day at the restaurant?

But one day someone had the bright idea of colonizing another reef island with these complacent and easy-going birds. A consignment of them was packed in crates and taken by boat to a neighboring, uninhabited island, some 40 miles away, where they were duly deposited in their new home. The next morning these flightless birds were all back outside the restaurant on their native soil, waiting for breakfast.

Our desires are powerful. They are stronger than all the things we think we can’t do!

The second witness lives in Uganda, and like the first, is also nameless. I heard about him from a Ugandan friend who had grown up in extreme poverty. The people survived by eating wild birds. One particular bird had been unforgettable, my friend recalled, a small bird with beautiful yellow plumage. The villagers set traps for these birds, and often when they went to collect the catch, they would find not a yellow bird, but only a fractured, twisted leg. The bird desired its freedom so much that it would break off its own leg, in order to fly free.

Our desires are courageous. They can be stronger than the most grievous pain or loss.

A third bird, a stork, came my way one day in a Polish village. In that part of the world storks are a common sight and are regarded as bringers of good luck by the local people, whose enthusiasm sometimes leads them to decorate their chimneys with a plastic replica of a stork. This particular, very real stork was sitting astride the ridge of a rooftop, pecking angrily at a plastic replica of himself, and furiously throwing down pieces of the imposter to the street below.

Our desires are discerning. They will not tolerate the inauthentic. They want the real thing, and nothing less!

What about me, I wonder. What about you?

When God offers us life in all its fullness, will we rise above our limitations, as eagerly as an exiled restaurant bird? Or will we stay locked in our conviction that we are utterly incapable of flight, trapped, as we might express it, in our learned dependency?

If we sense that something is holding us captive, whether it is the weight of circumstance, or another person’s dominance, or our own crippling memories or negative attitudes, how high a price are we prepared to pay for the freedom of the children of God? Do we have the courage of the little yellow bird? Courage enough to sever ourselves from the captivity of the less to be free for the grace of the more that God holds out to us?

And, should we glimpse the image of our less-than-authentic self reflected in the baubles of a consumer culture, or in our own superficial wants and wishes, how will our true and deepest self react to all within us that is less than the real thing?

Perhaps in this May-time of creation’s overwhelming desire for life, we might look again at where our deepest desires really lie, and trust that they are held in God’s heart too. May our longing for all that is of God and leads to life give us the confidence to do what we never thought we could do, the courage to break free from all that holds us captive in our shadow-selves and a discerning heart to know the difference between God’s dream and the world’s many plastic replicas.

Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living and the Catholic Press Association award-winning The Gift of Prayer.

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