Thursday 10 April 2014

What I Desire

Psalm 27:4
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
4 I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking Him in His temple.

The sound, and sometimes the fury, generated by 'muscular Christianity' and its activists can sometimes conceal the fact that the Christian faith has at its heart a contemplative dimension. This psalm points us towards that dimension and reminds us that the Temple cult in Jerusalem, which also has a reputation for activism often involving swords, had a gentler aspect also.

 The word 'desire' has various connotations, not all of them good. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says 'Be a warrior and kill desire, the powerful enemy of the soul.' The Buddha suggested that desire was the cause of all suffering. Christianity tends to look upon emotions or feelings in relation to their objects rather than in isolation. Anger, for example, is a cardinal sin unless it is directed against a legitimate object where it becomes a source of strength for a succeeding action. Desire, then, when it is directed towards the possession and enjoyment of a temporal and material object as an end in itself is bad or at best neutral. When directed towards a transcendent and spiritual object or Person then it is not only an unqualified good but it is a strengthening factor in helping us to secure that object or Person and therefore to be secured by it or by Him.

This kind of desire is spoken of elsewhere by the psalmist 'As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, God. I thirst for God, the living God.' (Psalm 42) 'God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You. I thirst for You; my body faints for You in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.' (Psalm 63) This is desire expressed as urgent necessity, as dehydration prompts a person to seek water so a realisation of our spiritual barrenness should prompt us to seek Him who can 'turn a desert into a pool of water, dry land into springs of water.' (Psalm 107)

To achieve his object the psalmist has one powerful instrument- 'I have asked.'  He prays. To ask is to receive. To want to ask is to have the assurance of success when we do ask. The desire for God comes from God and it is inconceivable that He would thwart His own wishes. Only we have the power to do that. Once we recognise His presence in our hearts urging us towards Him in an ever more intimate union and exchange of love then we can choose to accept His gift and respond to it or we can reject it. The desire to preserve this life and its passing glories is, indeed, a powerful enemy of the soul. 'whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it' (Luke 9)

The 'house of the Lord' referred to in the psalm is the Jerusalem Temple. In the most sacred part of that building, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was situated. And the One God of the Universe abode within the Ark in a special way. That is, although He was everywhere and upheld everything His awesome glory and power was manifested in a singular, concentrated fashion in this one place. When the psalmist spoke about dwelling within that house all the days of his life whatever literal meaning he had in mind his spiritual intention was perfectly clear. He wished to be, heart and mind, body and soul in the most intimate possible contact with the beloved object of his most powerful of desires all of the time. And when his energies flowed into that relationship the beloved's energies would flow back in return. These would bear a powerful fruit as the psalmist wrote elsewhere 'Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me
all the days of my life.' (Psalm 23)

The form this relationship, which I have described in active (not to say sensual) terms, takes is quite literally contemplative 'gazing on the beauty of the Lord.' The God of the Israelites was invisible, the Ark of the Covenant was concealed from all but the High Priest and that only once a year. So the psalmist was describing a spiritual reality in the form of a material metaphor. It is difficult for us to describe such realities in any other way. Later in the psalm he invoked another such image which the King James Version renders as 'When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.' (Psalm 27:8) The what of the relationship is thus made clear. The how of the relationship the same version subsequently describes in these terms 'Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.' (Psalm 27:14)

The Jerusalem Temple has long been destroyed yet the call for Christians to seek Him in the Temple is not an historic curiosity but a current vocation. And this in two ways 'Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body.' (John 2) Contemplating Jesus in the Gospels, in prayer, in meditation, in His Saints is one way that we can seek Him. 'Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you.' (1 Corinthians 6) Looking inwardly to 'that of God in everyone,' as the Quakers put it, communing silently with the grace of God at work within our souls is another way of seeking Him in His Temple.

There is no real conflict between the notion of an activist 'muscular Christianity' and that of a contemplative one. Some individual are drawn more towards one path than another yet it is always the case that we only drink at the fountain of His grace in order to give us the strength to do that which we must do, and we can only know what that doing is to be if we have drunk at that fountain. The body of Christ is always in balance, although often enough that balance gives the appearance of tension. It is however not the tenseness of a conflict, a Pope Benedict versus a Pope Francis, it is the tension of a creative process forever giving birth to Jesus in the world and in the hearts of believers.

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