(Vatican Radio) What really satisfies man’s deepest desire? Is the desire for God absurd, irrational in today’s secularised world? How do we reach out to people who have lost their faith? To people who do not believe in God? How do we accompany them on their search for true good? These were the questions Pope Benedict XVI posed to 30 thousand people in St Peter’s Square for the Wednesday general audience, the third in his series for the Year of Faith.
The answer, Pope Benedict XVI said, lies in rediscovering the real meaning of human desire, ecstasy and love. In rediscovering our taste for the joys of life.
“We must believe that even in our era, seemingly reluctant to the transcendent dimension, that it is possible to open a path toward an authentic religious meaning of life, showing how the gift of faith is not absurd, it is not irrational”
Below please find a Vatican Radio translation of Pope Benedict XVI’s general Audience catechesis, the third in his series on the Year of Faith:
Dear brothers and sisters,
The journey of reflection that we are making together this Year of Faith leads us to meditate today on a fascinating aspect of the Human and Christian experience: man carries within himself a mysterious desire for God. In a very significant way, the Catechism of the Catholic Church opens with the following consideration: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for”(No. 27).
Such a statement, which even today in many cultural contexts seems quite acceptable, almost obvious, might instead appear as a provocation in the sphere of secularized Western culture. Many of our contemporaries could, in fact, argue that they do not feel such a desire for God at all. For large sectors of society He is no longer desired, expected, but rather a reality that leaves some indifferent and not even worth wasting one’s breath over. Actually, what we have defined as “desire for God” has not completely disappeared and still today, in many ways, appears in the heart of man. Human desire always tends towards certain tangible assets, which are often far from spiritual, and yet it is still faced with the question of what “the” good really is and as a result confront itself with something other than itself, something that man cannot create, but is called upon to recognize. What can really satisfy man’s desire?
In my first encyclical, Deus caritas est, I tried to analyze how such dynamism is experienced in human love, an experience which in our era is more easily perceived as a moment of ecstasy, of going beyond oneself, as a place where man senses that he is being filled with a desire that is beyond him. Through love, men and women experience in a new way, thanks to one another, the grandeur and beauty of life and of reality. If what I experience is not a mere illusion, if I really want the good of the other as a path towards my own good, then I must be willing to de-centralize myself, to put myself at the service of the other to the point of surrendering myself. The answer to the question about the meaning of the experience of love thus passes through the cleansing and healing of the will, which is required by the very good we want for the other. We have to practise, train and even correct ourselves so that that good may be truly wanted.
The initial ecstasy translates thus becomes a pilgrimage, «an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God» (Enc. Deus caritas est, 6). Through this journey man will gradually deepen his knowledge of that love which he initially experienced. And the mystery which it represents will increasingly come to the fore: not even the beloved, in fact, is able to satiate the desire that dwells in the human heart, indeed, the more authentic the love for each other is, the more the question of its origin, its destiny and its chances of lasting forever emerges. Therefore, the human experience of love has a dynamism that draws us beyond ourselves, it is an experience of a good that leads us beyond ourselves faces us with the mystery that surrounds all existence.
Similar considerations also could also be made about other human experiences, such as friendship, the experience of beauty, love of knowledge: all that is good and experienced by man is projected toward the mystery that surrounds man himself; every wish that arises in the human heart is echoed by a fundamental desire that is never fully satisfied. Certainly from that deep desire, which also hides something enigmatic, one cannot arrive straight to faith. Man, after all, knows what does not satisfy, but can’t imagine or define that which would make him experience the happiness that hi heart longs for. One cannot know God, beginning simple with man’s desire. From this point of view the mystery remains: the man seeks the Absolute, in small and uncertain steps. And yet, the experience of desire, of the ‘ restless heart ‘ as St. Augustine termed it, is very significant. It proves that man is, deep down, a religious being (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 28), a “beggar of God». We can say with the words of Pascal: “man infinitely surpasses man” (Thoughts,. Chevalier 438; ed. Brunschvicg 434). The eyes recognize objects when they are illuminated by light. Hence the desire to know the light itself, which makes the things of the world shine and thus illuminate the sense of beauty.
We therefore must believe that even in our era, seemingly reluctant to the transcendent dimension, that it is possible to open a path toward an authentic religious meaning of life, showing how the gift of faith is not absurd, it is not irrational. It would be of great use, for that purpose, to promote a pedagogy of desire, both for the journey of those who still do not believe and for those who have already received the gift of faith. A pedagogy that includes at least two aspects. First, learning or relearning an authentic taste for the joys of life. Not every satisfactions produces the same effect in us: some leave a positive trace, are able to pacify the soul, make us more active and generous. Others, after an initial light, seem to disappoint the expectations that they had aroused and sometimes leave behind bitterness, dissatisfaction or a sense of emptiness. Educating from people from their childhood to savour the true joys, in all spheres of life – family, friendship, solidarity with those who suffer, renouncing of oneself to serve others, love for knowledge, for art, for the beauty of nature – this means exercising the inner taste and producing effective antibodies against today’s widespread trivialization and banalization. Adults also need to rediscover these joys, to desire authentic realities, purifying themselves of the mediocrity which may have become involved in. In this way it becomes then easier to leave aside or reject all that while seemingly attractive, turns out to be rather tasteless, a source of addiction, not freedom. And this fosters that desire of God that we’re talking about.
A second aspect, which goes hand in hand with the former, is never settling for what has been achieved. The truest joys are able to free in us that healthy restlessness that leads us to be more demanding – to want a higher, deeper good – and also to perceive with increasing clarity that nothing finite can ever fill our hearts. In this way we will learn to reach out, unarmed, towards that good that we cannot build or provide ourselves with by our strengths; to not be discouraged by fatigue or by obstacles born of our sins.
In this regard, we must not forget that the dynamism of desire is always open to redemption. Even when it takes a wrong turn, chasing artificial paradises and seems to lose the ability to yearn for true good. Even in the abyss of sin that spark is still alive in human hearts that enables man to recognize the true good, to savour it, and set out again on the upward climb, on which God, with the gift of His grace, never fails to help. All of us need to tread a path of purification and healing of desire. We are pilgrims on the journey toward our Heavenly homeland, towards that full, eternal good, that nothing can every take from us. It is not a question of suffocating the desire that is in the human heart, but of freeing it, so that it can reach its true height. When desire is open to God, this is already a sign of the presence of faith in the soul, faith that is a grace of God.
In this pilgrimage, all are our brethren, our fellow travellers, even those who do not believe, those who are seeking, those who sincerely question the dynamism of their desire for truth and good. Let us pray, in this Year of faith, that God may shows His face to all who seek him with a sincere heart.