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Preliminary remarks on desire and obedience
> Perhaps there was one who thought it fitting enough that the wish was no longer vivid, that the barb of pain was dulled, but such a man is no knight.
In true obedience there should be no ‘I want this or that to happen’ or ‘I want this or that thing’ but only a pure going out of what is our own. And therefore in the very best kind of prayer that we can pray there should be no ‘give me this particular virtue or way of devotion’ or ‘yes, Lord, give me yourself or eternal life,’ but rather ‘Lord, give me only what you will and do, Lord, only what you will and in the way that you will.’1
Thus Eckhart exhorts us to doff our sandals, to cast off ourselves and rest assured in His will. This obedience, he says, this mode of prayer, is “as far above the former as heaven is above earth.” There is here, however, a radical self-abnegation; it is that we seek be annihilated by the light of God. The Sufis speak of a love in which lover and Beloved alike cease, in which all that remains is Love Itself. This Eckhart urges also.
Suppose we love another and we go to pray—in moments of turmoil we may ask of Him: “Lord, grant me this love of mine which is dearer to me than any other thing.” We may seek beg of Him to act as eternal guarantor of our earthly love. We would ask that He bind us to our beloved, that by His power we are rendered inseparable; yet how do we know what we need, how do we know which the way?2 Temporal love is a muddled thing. Our hearts are not clear waters, murky depths with who knows what which lurks below. The lover may sense for themselves a certainty in love, an overwhelming passion by which they are fixated—but what is the source of this, what is its end? Fear may seize the heart at times like this, may drive us up to madness. Love covers all manner of sins; such doubts as these may well overcome us.
We may then go to pray and perhaps resign ourselves to the impossibility of knowing, of holding—we may follow with Eckhart and say: “Lord, give me only what You will for me.” Thus we make a movement of resignation, that we may reconcile ourselves to whatever comes. And yet there is a gap here, a choice to be made. There is the first movement that we may resign ourselves, that we may accept His will in place of our own—but then we are left at a precipice, alike we may either slide or leap.
The one that resigns themselves to His will may thus renounce all claim to their love, thus give up that which they felt to be the entirety of their life; and in this they may feel great pain, may bring this suffering to their Lord and alone before Him weep a while upon the floor. They may then find within themselves then a choice, for how are they to treat this object now? The beloved has become a thing, has been placed at a distance; in this there is a choice.
They will find the easiest option, of course, is that the thing be denigrated; that we deny it was ever the entirety of our lives, that we dismiss our prior ecstasies as mere illusions. We must be very careful in this, for such a stance can easily arise of the ego. Those that let go of a thing may comfort themselves by telling themselves it was nothing, by seeking to turn the beloved so that only their other side is seen—a possibility, of course, only if their behind was nothing to speak of; some may not be so lucky. Nonetheless, we may thus cast in shadows what was once our only light.
Suppose that Abraham did this on his way to Mount Moriah, suppose that he rode upon his donkey and all the while reflected upon what an ass Isaac was. Say, ‘He was God’s gift to myself and Sarah in our old age, no doubt, and in this a miracle; but we are quite old, and really he doesn’t help out around the house nearly enough; even when he does, there is an irksome sense of resentment in his conduct.’ Thus may Abraham persuade himself along the way that what will come is really no loss, that in fact he may be better off without Isaac; and then what happens?
He has built the pyre, bound Isaac and placed him upon it, drawn the knife—and then the angel speaks to him, points out the ram which is to be the sacrifice in Isaac’s place: “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” How readily then will Abraham embrace this son, the same that he had denigrated so long to disavow his suffering?
Here we see plainly the tension between desire and obedience: “he has not kept the wish young by his pain.” The task is that this must be maintained ever as a living tension. We cannot simply cut the cord, cannot let the rope run slack to save ourselves. This is no true obedience but an inverted counterfeit; it is a pride that would degrade His creation, and worse might well pretend the while that all this was only that we may better honour Him!
We see alike as this in even ordinary things, when we desire a thing and yet—knowing that it is not certain, knowing that it is perhaps impossible; then we must find a way to manage this tension. The way is not to diminish the desire so as to make our eventual obedience easier, from a purely practical standpoint we may well thereby ensure the impossibility which this path presupposes. We must somehow manage to at once desire with our entire being, and thus to act our utmost in ourselves, and yet at the same time with our whole hearts to will for ourselves only what He wills; only thus do we maintain the proper tension between desire and obedience.
This seems, of course, a tricky manouevre; it is tricky to even think, trickier still to enact amidst torrents of actuality. We may well reflect upon this, find it perfectly rational; yet says Kierkegaard: “When one would learn to make the motions of swimming one can let oneself be hung by a swimming-belt from the ceiling and go through the motions (describe them, so to speak, as we speak of describing a circle), but one is not swimming.” Blessed are those that are never thrown into the water! Beware those that would dream themselves on land while really drowning.
These movements towards which I have been gesturing are those which Kierkegaard describes in Fear and Trembling, which he outlines with his two characters: the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. They that would wish dull their pain only make the first movement, that of resignation, in which they reconcile themselves to impossibility; thus they disregard the temporal, take up instead the eternal as if a consolation prize. They even persuade themselves, perhaps, that this was all the while what they really wanted. The knight of faith, meanwhile, makes a movement even more marvellous:
By virtue of resignation that rich young man should have given away everything, but then when he had done that, the knight of faith should have said to him, “By virtue of the absurd thou shalt get every penny back again. Canst thou believe that?”3
“If I am successfully understood, my listener will have acquired the benefit that his life will have been made significantly more difficult for him than ever before, and therefore I will not urge anyone to accept this invitation.”
Eckhart, Selected Writings.
Eckhart: “I shall tell you briefly about someone who greatly desired something from our Lord, but I told her that she was not properly prepared and that, if God gave her the gift in this unprepared state, it would then be lost.”
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.