Vague wanting

Patty Fawkner SGS

Patty Fawkner SGS

Our lives, yours and mine, are too precious to fritter away on lukewarm commitments and half-hearted vows, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS*

“Do you want God?”

The retreat director’s question to me, a young nun preparing to renew her vows as a Good Samaritan Sister, was uncharacteristically blunt. The much-revered Benedictine priest must have picked up something in my attitude during our daily one-on-one encounters.

“I vaguely want God,” I replied somewhat evasively.

Not a word from the kindly monk. He simply and deliberately picked up his pen, took a blank sheet of paper and in large letters wrote: VAGUE WANTING = 0.

Floored by one punch. I was shaken. I was shocked by the truth of the simple mathematical formula. I was sobered, not so much because my youthful arrogance had been exposed, but by the seeping realisation that I was a hypocrite; worse, I was wasting my life. Here I was about to renew my vows, declaring to myself, publicly to my Sisters, to the world, that God was the love and the primary relationship of my life, a God whom I “vaguely wanted”!

It was a moment of clarity – yes, a moment of conversion. Did I want God? Did I? My prayer was raw, not even “God, help me to want you”, but a more primal “God, help me to want to want you”.

At the end of the retreat I did renew my vows; I did so intentionally and willingly, and I experienced deep joy.

Commitment is an ongoing issue. I have had to make the choice for God and to pray to want God again and again and again.

Initially, more often than not, our commitments are anything but tepid. Loving of heart and firm of faith, we earnestly avow the “yes” and “I do”. But in the wake of our first fervour, as we settle in for the long haul of ‘ordinary time’, it’s hard to be faithful and focused; it’s hard to resist the vague wanting which comes upon us in many guises.

We may become nesters, allowing a creeping desire for comfort over commitment to overtake us. We opt for the convenient and casual in our relationships with our increasingly taken-for-granted God, spouse, friend or colleague.

We may become dabblers, succumbing, in Thomas Merton’s words, to the “temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues”. All of us, not only contemplatives, may become “itsy-bitsy” people, dabbling in a bit of this and a bit of that, but lacking a real and passionate commitment to specific people or cause.

We may become complacent or compliant. Sure, I turn up for communal prayer, I still bring home the pay packet, and I never miss the family meal. But my heart is elsewhere.

Nesting numbs, dabbling drains and complacency kills commitment.

“Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.” I love the import of Mary Oliver’s challenge. Our lives, yours and mine, are too precious to fritter away on lukewarm commitments and half-hearted vows. Don’t settle for the bland commitment palette, Oliver infers, when the vibrant primary-coloured one is within our reach.

If I want God, if I want to be truly committed, excising the “vague” part of my wanting is not enough. “The seduction of embarking on a spiritual life,” warns Joan Chittister, “is that people can be fooled into believing that wanting it is doing it.” I can earnestly want God but, as my spiritual director reminds me, “choice outstrips desire”. It is not enough to want God. I must choose and do what I can to nurture this relationship with the One who first creates and chooses me.

Love is the fuel and fruit of commitment. And like love, commitment is difficult and demanding. It is not an abstraction, nor is it a technique. It is personal and relational and its currency is space and time. So I make the time and I create the space for the one to whom I am committed, reassured by the mystics that where God finds space, God enters. And I make time and create space daily. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” counsels Annie Dillard.

Inevitably there will be infidelities – minor or major. I fall in love with another, I become lax or I become more devoted to an enterprise at the expense of my loved ones. There have been times when people or projects, utterly good in themselves, have become false gods because I have allowed them to decentre my primary commitment to God.

But in this relationship, God never ‘decentres’ me. Profligate in love, God always forgives my infidelities, always cherishes me as “beloved”, always yearns for my love in return, and always invites me to begin again and commit myself again.

Leonard Cohen’s classic song, Anthem, consoles me. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

My commitment and offering will never be perfect. God, the Light, will use even my ‘cracks’, perhaps especially, my ‘cracks’ – my failures, infidelities and vague wantings – to invite me closer to God. This is what happened on that retreat all those decades ago. Once I admitted my vague wanting I was drawn closer to the One who fiercely, passionately – never vaguely – wants me.

* Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.

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The Good Oil, February 16, 2016. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

18 Responses to “Vague wanting”

  1. Sylvia Denetto says:

    Thanks Patty for the call to commitment to just give back to God ‘some’ space and time so He can fill it with His Love and Grace. We do fill our days with so many ‘important’ tasks that just ‘must’ be done and God so easily gets removed from our priority list. Yet, we are always His priority, as you say He never ‘decenters’ us. What a loving and forgiving GOD we have!
    Thank you for so eloquently reminding us that God just wants us to connect and spend time with Him inspite of our ‘cracks’. Sylvia

  2. Nerina Zanardo says:

    I so welcomed this reflection Patty. Thank you! To “make the time” and “create the space” for God is a huge challenge for me! And there is so much more that challenges me in the richness of your reflection…be blessed in the wonderful gift you have to communicate beautifully much of what is of the essence of our life of commitment. Thank you again. Nerina Zanardo

  3. Ern Azzopardi says:

    Complacency kills commitment. As I reflect on my life I stand guilty as charged. Thank you for challenging me to respond once again to the God who never stops drawing me to love as Jesus loved.

  4. Marie Casamento says:

    The imagery and metaphors are so powerful Patty ‘diddling around in the contemplative life making itsy bitsy statues’ and ‘there is a crack in everything that’s where the light gets in’. I gazed at the mosaic at the back of the altar at St Scholastica’s chapel when I attended Sr Justin’s funeral. Cracked pottery created the mosaic. Here was the beauty of Benedict, Scholastica and all the saints who have gone before me and been part of the mosaic of my life. This gives me hope when my focus centres on the many imperfections in my own life. Marie Casamento

  5. Bronwyn Klease says:

    Thank you Patty I really appreciated your article . The richness wonder and beauty of your personal experience is not lost on me. All you really have to do is to continue to BE who you really are in God’s sight.

  6. Peter Dowling says:

    Always good to read Patty’s reflections. She articulates very well her own experience, and I can identify with so much of what she says.

  7. Billie Saint-Rang says:

    Thanks Patty ……I’ll go away and think about all this ……maybe come back to it.
    Hmmmm ………..

  8. Elizabeth Murray says:

    Your gift for words – more importantly, your gift to look more deeply – shines through in this article, Patty. And challenges me! Thank you,
    Elizabeth M.

  9. Leo Pitts says:

    Thank you Patty for yet another thought provoking article. Love is one of those issues which we always find time to talk about. Agape, Erotic and Platonic forms all have a habit of sometimes becoming enmeshed and therefore can confuse us at times. The use of the phrase “falling in love” seems to suggest that we somehow “fall” off the bandwagon when we love another person. Similarly, when we become so engrossed in a project that we seem to neglect all else for the time being, we are unable to love something outside of that interest. The way around this is to designate all such projects to God in the first place and the confusion disappears. The difficulty with this is to convince the “unloved” party that nothing is diminished. I think it was Longfellow who wrote:
    Life to have it’s sweets must have it’s sours
    Love isn’t always two souls picking flowers.
    I’d better not go on. Thanks again Patty.

  10. Beth says:

    There is nothing vague or wanting in the clarity and challenge of your writing.
    Thank you Patty for offering much to think about.

  11. Patricia Banister says:

    Thank you again Patty. Hope you are well.

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