Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


August 31, 1998

William Blake once coined a series of pithy aphorisms on desire and frustration. Among them, we find:

"Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained – and in being restrained it does by degrees become passive until at last it is nothing but the shadow of a desire. . . . Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires."

Blake called these sayings, Proverbs from Hell. Viewed with an over-pious eye, they do seem to come from that realm. No doubt they are enemy, the devil, to anyone who approaches life, commitment and church in an overly pious way.

Ironically, though, these aphorisms are just as misunderstood, and viewed just as simplistically, albeit in quite a different sense, by those who despise the pious.

For example, many intellectual criticisms of Christianity and the church today sound a lot like Blake's Proverbs from Hell. The church is accused of killing desire in people by asking them to sacrifice what they would really want for things which, in this view, are abstract and lifelessness.

Omnipresent in both secular and church circles today is the idea that Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, is responsible for a lot of frigidity, timidity, guilt and neuroses because of what it asks people to do vis-a-vis their natural desires.

Part of this criticism too is the insinuation that those who do follow the church's teaching do so precisely because, in their case, their desire is weak (and second-rate) enough to be restrained.

However, for those who are full-blooded, mature and whole enough to be fully in touch with themselves it is the church's classical teachings regarding desire, sublimation, sexuality, commitment and sacrifice which might more aptly be called Proverbs from Hell.

At a popular level, this criticism expresses itself in many of the men and women who understand themselves as "recovering Catholics." Part of what they consider themselves as recovering from is a certain Christian (Catholic) timidity, guilt and neurosis, the result of repressed desire for which they blame the church.

In the light of all this, what's to be said? What's to be said about those who don't break the rules? What's to be said about the married man or woman who, despite every kind of temptation in terms of desire, remains faithful to his or her spouse? What's to be said about the celibate sister, brother, or priest who, through every kind of difficulty, lives out a lifetime of sexual inconsummation?

What's to be said about the young person who, despite overwhelming pressures to be sexually active, waits until marriage to have sex? What's to be said about the man or woman who gives up a chance for marriage or a career to take care of an elderly or sick parent?

What's to be said about anyone who puts real blood on the line for some religious or moral ideal? Is this all seeming virtue really only timidity? Are these persons less full-blooded and more infantile than those who do not make this kind of sacrifice?

There is a strong voice today that would say "yes" to that last question. In this view, those who restrain their desire do so precisely because theirs is weak enough to be restrained – and persons who do so restrain themselves end up half-persons because of it. Sacrifice, in its classical religious sense, then produces not virtue but frigidity.

That is one view. There is another, and I suspect that Blake, were he alive today, might accept this interpretation:

We are a very complex mixture of desire. Some of our desires are pretty earthy and urgent, others more abstract and less focused on the immediate. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin: We have two great loves which forge our desires. The world, with its beauty and with what it offers, can take our breath away. But God can also take our breath away.

And these two take our breath away in different ways; the former has flesh, the latter does not. This makes for considerable schizophrenia and we are often at a loss as to what is restraint and what is, in Goethe's words, the desire for higher love-making. What really is our desire?

Blake, in the end, is right. If a desire is restrained, it is restrained because it is weak enough to be suppressed. But, but . . . for those people who sacrifice real life and blood, real desire, to live out certain commitments, it is, I submit, precisely the desire for God and for good, for high love-making, that cannot be restrained.