I have been reading quite a bit of Thomas Aquinas lately, particularly as it pertains to what our final experience of God will be like, when we’re in his presence. As I was reading, I stumbled across this interesting passage:
“The nearer a thing is to its end, the greater the desire with which it tends to that end…And however much we know that God is…we still go on desiring, and seek to know him in his essence.” – Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IIIA, Ch.50.
To parse it out: the closer something gets to where it’s supposed to be, the more it wants to be there. For Christians (and humans, per Aquinas), our end is God himself and knowing him as well as we can. The idea that stuck out to me though is that the desire increases as one draws closer.
Aquinas isn’t alone in expressing this idea. Half a millennium earlier, Gregory of Nyssa had also emphasized this. He explained that even as we are united with God, our desire is equally satisfied and then increased – the more we have of God, the more of him we want.
It is like we are magnetically drawn to God. Held across the room from each other, the pull of two magnets is so faint as to be nonexistent. Put them closer and closer together, however, and they are drawn to each other such that eventually you can’t hold them apart.
It’s a nice image but what does it actually suggest about how we live the Christian life?
We often struggle to live lives that reflect the fact that the closer we are to God, the greater our desire for him.
Maybe we go through a spiritually dry period and rather than faithfully turning towards God, we grow discouraged and fall into complacency. We tend to believe that if we don’t have the desire for God now, then we won’t have it later. For many of us, living a life of prayer (praying without ceasing) sounds incredibly dull, rather than something our hearts yearn for. So we don’t practice those practices that draw us towards God in the desert times and our desire for God goes nowhere.
Or maybe we experience the other end of the spectrum. In a time of worship or prayer or reading the Bible, we experience a desire for God that is so potent we cannot believe that we could surpass that desire. Our lives are then spent in constant pursuit of that one moment where we were enraptured rather than the pursuit of God which engenders that desire.
In both cases, there is a subtle idolatry at work – we pursue the power of desire rather than God himself. Yet if Thomas and Gregory are right, desire is actually created (and increased!) as we faithfully pursue God.
The voices of these saints call to us from deep in our Christian history, reminding us that desire is not dependent on our fostering certain emotional states. It is dependent on our intimacy with our true end, God himself.