February 2016

Vague wanting

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.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. 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.

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