Desire,
Abnegation,
and Pop-Tarts

Buddhism asks us to detach from the desire; Judaco-Christian prayer, by contrast, concerns the education of desire. Consider, for example, the archetypal formula of that great Rabbinic text, the Lord's Prayer. Simone Weil used to recite it daily in Greek and daily be transported into a mystical state. (I think this only works in Greek.) The idea of a "father in heaven," whom the prayer compels us to address, has been somewhat contaminated for me by listening, as a child, to Burl Ives singing "Big Rock Candy Mountain." This was my earliest idea of afterlife: lemonade springs, soda water fountains. The Greek text, though, seems to open wider vistas, space to get lost in, the pink nebula in Orion.

Most of us independent characters also have trouble with the phrase, "Thy will be done." Peter keeps trying to explain this to me. He is a great reader of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who writes about God's longing for mystical union with creation: may holy desire be fulfilled. Hasidic Jews pray not "Thy will be done," which Christians have been known to mutter in an agony of abasement, but rather, "Thy longing be satisfied." God's desire pursues us, Rabbi Heschel teaches, and that is what makes everything run smoothly --- to the extent it does --- in the universe. This is prayer that prays us beyond our hearts' own limits. Think of Bernini's Teresa of Avila in ecstasy, clearly over the top.

How can this be? As shepherd I have felt a similar agony of desire to communicate my intentions to a suffering ewe. As above, so below. Creation moves according to its longing, the sunflower for light, virus for host, we for God, and God for us. One day soon, after weeks of austere reflection in a zendo in a foreign country, sweeping the prayer hall at dawn, insight will come to me like reverse satori: I do not wish to transcend desire and longing.

Lots of people fear spirituality because they think it incompatible with natural happiness. They think surrender to God will take something precious away from them. It's no wonder they think this, of course: many religious practices violate our instinctive wisdom. Some skinny guru, covered in ants at the mouth of a cave, does not speak to our survival instincts.

Part of our problem is that we want more than food, clothing, and shelter; we want Pop-Tarts, designer jeans, and four thousand square feet of house on five acres --- what I've heard people call a "starter castle." I've just heard about a new abomination called a "princess suite," which realtors are advertising these days: a separate wing for the eldest daughter with bath, dressing room, and vast closets. Still, if that's the light you have, go with it, and no doubt your little princess can become a good woman anyway; such is grace.

I've never had much truck with asceticism. I don't feel led to give up anything I can't give up "for joy" like that merchant tracking pearls in Matthew's gospel. Self-abnegation, when your heart isn't in it, easily leads to self-righteousness, self-punishment, and disdain for creation. Me, I'm on the Pop-Tart path.

But when you have your eye on some prize, possessions begin to weigh heavily, junk food slows the steps. Surrender, at that point, is a natural process; it's what we do to attain the vision we have come to long for.

When I lived in intentional community with my young children, we had to negotiate periodic bursts of "simple living" fervor on the part of other community members. Someone would decide we all needed to have a day of fasting, a weekly "third-world meal" --- clear soup and bread. The first time this happened, my son, coming in from a cross-country run, scarfed down his bread and helped himself to seconds from the sideboard. An elderly lady in the community rebuked him: "The spirit of simple meal is to take only what's provided, not go around looking for leftovers."

After that, I hiked the children out for pizza and ice cream whenever the community got into one of its fits of self-abnegation. I didn't want my children to associate religion with an empty stomach.

Jesus, I'm told, spent a lot of time carousing and picnicking, which is how he got in trouble with the religious leadership. He was always feeding people, as full of kitchen tricks as any housewife. If you hung around with Jesus, you had good wine and your boat would be full of sunfish. When he wasn't feeding people, he was putting his hands on them and getting them on their feet. Most of his counsel, like the Buddha's, was about how to be happy in a difficult world.


--- From The Barn at the End of the World
By Mary Rose O'Reilley
2000 Milkweed Editions


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