Category Archives: Bible & Theology

Dante and Desire

By Joe Brownsberger, SM ’21. Joe is majoring in Physics & Philosophy.

We live in an age of unprecedented liberty. The sheer number of choices available to us is staggering; we desire things that people in former ages never thought of. Along with these desires comes the power to satisfy many of them. Although this represents progress in many senses, the liberty that we have inherited has also been in large part squandered. We who have been given the ability to do anything have chosen instead to indulge in the pointless, “insipid pleasures” and extravagances that even luxury-loving Hume recognizes as worthless.[1] The Enlightenment, promising “man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage,” has instead culminated in a new and more degrading serfdom, a bondage to the god of Entertainment.[2] Like the decadent imperial Rome and the corrupt medieval nobility before us, we have been given the liberty to desire anything and fulfill those desires—and we have desired wrongly.

I argue that for liberty to be justifiable, on the societal level but perhaps to a greater degree in the individual, it must be ordered towards an end, and this end must be the Good (which of course for religious people is synonymous with God). In place of our many conflicting and pointless desires that point every which way, we must strive to wrestle our often-errant will into conformity with the Good so that our desires all point in a unified, positive direction. In this way, the fulfillment of those desires also brings us closer to our goal. Desire simply as an inclination to do something is a fundamentally good thing; it is in fact the way we draw closer to God and become better people. It is only when our desires are bent and misdirected that we find ourselves dissipated and unsatisfied.

***

No one speaks of this “wrestling of the will” more beautifully or with more insight than Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. In the beginning of the poem, Dante (appearing as a character in his own work) finds himself in a dark wood, having lost the “diritta via,” the straight and right path. And as a result of his faulty inclinations towards pride, lust, and greed (symbolized by three beasts), he is unable to climb the mountain that would bring him to virtue and happiness. Instead, then, Dante turns towards the poet Virgil, who guides him through the realms of the afterlife. Circling down through the rings of Hell and circling up around the mountain of Purgatory, Dante untwists his warped will and gradually rids himself of his vices. At long last, in Canto 27 of Purgatorio, Virgil addresses Dante with the last words he will speak in the Comedy. As Dante is more eloquent than I will ever be, I encourage the reader to meditate on his words and to pay more attention to them than to the rest of this essay.

Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;

libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,

e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:

per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.

 

Do not any longer expect my words or advice; free, right, and healthy is your will, and you would be foolish not to do as it commands: over yourself I crown and mitre you.

Purg 27.139-142

In touching and beautiful verse, Dante makes clear the true essence of liberty: to be lord over oneself and to will the right. As described above, his desires no longer pull him in unproductive directions, but his desire is simply to do that which will bring him closer to God. Therefore, he is not only good but also happy, walking once again on the diritta via.

Over the next thirty-nine cantos of the Comedy, Dante grows stronger in his new, sanctified identity, gradually gaining the ability to realize the good intentions that he has been given. At last, he is able to gaze straight into the supreme Light, the Good from which all good things derive not only their goodness, but their very being. The final words of the Comedy run thus:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Here I lack the force to describe the high fantasy, but already my will and my desire was turned, like a wheel which is evenly moved, by the Love that moves the sun and other stars

Par 33.142-145

Dante here ends his magnum opus with a simile of a rotating wheel: the edges of the wheel move exactly in accordance with every other part of the whole, around the central point that itself does not move at all. In the same way Dante’s desires conform to the greater scheme of the universe, which like the wheel moves around its Unmoved Mover in perfect harmony. Dante takes his place in the order of the cosmos and is truly free.

My humble suggestion is that for us too, true liberty is achieved when our desires conform to the Divine Will, when we take our place in the order of the cosmos. Our obsequious servitude of Entertainment and other vain pursuits puts us at risk—to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine—of finding ourselves “scattered out over multiplicity” instead of self-possessed, ordered by and ordered towards “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

[1] Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[2] Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?

To Want to Want: Desiring Differently

By Jason Lee, TD ’22. Jason is majoring in Global Affairs.

Sometimes I’ll look up from lunch and wish I liked math. This is different from wishing I was good at math. As it is, I’m perfectly fine being remarkably average. What I mean is that sometimes I wish math was as beautiful to me as it to the people who love it. Somewhere past the point where numbers become Greek lies the internal, ticking logic of the universe that I imagine is what pushes them to slog through things called combinatorics or “Boolean” whatever.

But while I know I’m missing some sort of splendor behind the polynomial veil, I’m stopped by the unfortunate fact that math bores me. So I kind of want it, but not really. There’s a distance between me, a person who wants to see lovely and evocative things, and a desire for this particular lovely and evocative thing.I almost have the desire, but not quite.

This is odd, but not uncommon. Exercise is another example of this in which we all know that running — or jogging, hopping, or picking things up and putting them down again — in the long run will make us healthy, which we want. But for various reasons we don’t do any of these activities. Eating poorly and staying up late are related examples in that, right now, we want to do both — fast fried food tastes good, and there’s a curious sense of pride and/or solidarity in working until predawn — but we wish we didn’t. Next to all our wantings and not-wantings, there appears to be a second category of desire in which we want to want or, alternatively, we want to not want.

Academics sometimes call this “wanting-to-want” a second-order desire or metadesire. I do not want to do math, but I know there’s an arithmetic wonder for those who count it all out, so in recognition of that, I want to want to do math. Once recognized, metadesires pop up everywhere (see: procrastination — we want to punt the p-set that’s really just the same problem repeated seven times, but we wish we didn’t).

So then, what to do about this, not new, but maybe newly attended to set of wants? We may as well start where we do with our more immediate cravings, which is to say, rank them. We do this almost instinctively with our regular wants. Our desire for learning (or maybe just a diploma) outweighs our desires for things incompatible with the demands of college, such as free time, or a disposable income. Over learning, we value our identities and our self-worth.

In the same way, maybe our want to want to exercise lies above our want to want to listen to country music. That seems to make sense: fitness can be its own reward, whereas country — country can wait. But then, shouldn’t we value finding, or rather, learning beauty in all things above being able to lift unreasonably heavy objects? That’s not exactly a fair comparison, but what I’m trying to ask is, whether we do or don’t, why?

There appears to be a standard or purpose by which we have ordered our desires, even if we did not consciously subscribe to one. There are a thousand and one such standards, whether altruism, God, or I-just-want-to-be-happy, and all offer many ways to prioritize, but also filter, our desires. If this standard, or “The Point” is our own happiness, we pull our great tangle of wants into order based on what drives us to joy. Maybe eating terrific cuisine tops that list, or making gobs and gobs of money, or living by the coast while others are cast aside.

By ranking and pursuing these immediate desires we can take steps towards our Point. At the same time, we also put together a set of metadesires, which by nature are more oriented towards the future. Alongside desires fitted to who we are right now, there exists a class of metadesires that pertain to self-transformation, to who we want to become.

Maybe that sounds a little grandiose. And in a way it is grandiose, ambitious, and plain difficult to accept–not to mention achieve–the project of self-improvement. After all, there’s been more than enough research demonstrating sturdy links between CO2 ppm and meat production, refrigerators, and palm oil to provoke some lifestyle changes with the recognition of “caring about the planet” as a worthy desire in line with our Point. Yet for some reason, that recognition isn’t enough. Even if we only consider those who have the funds to enact such lifestyle changes, my favorite dish is short rib stew, yours is ice cream cake and we both use semi-cheap soaps. Sometimes, our resolve to pursue improvement is simply too weak. Within certain margins of nuance, we don’t want to protect the environment: we want to want to.

It is here that our metadesires of self-improvement become achingly relevant. On some level, our metadesires reveal a lack: of resolve, of foresight, of willpower, of vision, of stamina, or of tenacity in ourselves. There’s a sense in which we want to become ready, or maybe worthy of our Point before we take it on. If our Point is to protect and empower people, we must first want to fight by all means for the planet, to acknowledge the homeless, or even just be academically responsible and start papers prior to their due date. If we ignore the project of self-improvement fueled by these transformative metadesires, then the Point is not only out of our reach, but out of our pursuit. If we don’t value metadesires as part of our Point, if we are always waiting to be prepared for our desires rather than letting our metadesires prepare us, then there’s no reason to seek anything more than what we are already capable of, to desire anything more than what we already know, or to be more than we already are.

But if we do attend to them, our desires for transformation help us not to just pursue “feeling good,” but health, and not just health but wholeness. They guide us beyond I-just-want-to-be-happy to a timeless happiness that may be called satisfaction, or even peace. They push us not just to live well or be compassionate, but to be good, the best we can be. Wholeness, peace, goodness, which can be called righteousness: these are enduring, one might say eternal desires that prepare us for our Point as much as they push us to it.

At the same time, it makes sense to be wary of these types of metadesires. After all, we don’t know where they come from, and sorting the origins of desire like trying to unmix paint. Maybe these projects of self-improvement as I’ve defined them are just the result of social pressure, conditioning, and overactive community instincts. Maybe it is efficient or biologically sound to pursue certain desires, even if, for some reason, we don’t feel the desire itself. Maybe they’re a burrowing side effect of a consumerist culture that is constantly telling us to want things that we don’t currently want. The resulting wariness is paralyzing; if we can never parse the roots of our desires, how do we know we’re not wasting our time, or worse, being made fools of?

It is in this uneasiness that I and other believers turn to faith. As Christians, we believe that there’s a Big Guy™ up there who not only created the world, but has a particular way in which He’d like us to live in it. Not because He’s picky, but because He knows His Point for us will be larger and broader and more fulfilling for us, the people He loves, than any other.

This is not to say that such a life will not be difficult. God knows it will at times seem just as complicated and confusing as all the other Points. In fact, Paul, the author of several books of the Bible, explicitly acknowledges in his letter to the Romans the difficulty of metadesire, self-improvement, and general existence in this way:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-19, NIV).

In response, we’re promised that God will help us along the way. In combination with our own earnest efforts, He will grant us the resolve and the capacity we lack to deny our misleading (which for me means un-Godly but could also be called counterproductive) desires and help us become worthy of the Point that He has set before us.

If this is true, then resolve can be trained and morality practiced. We can try to do it on our own, or with those we trust. It could be that the desires of self-improvement promoted by the Bible are the only way to live a fulfilling life. The exact way we live and the goals we set for ourselves seem to be matters of faith. For those who say, “that’s good for you, but I don’t really need it,” I understand. In fact, I’ll be honest in saying that even if we believe them to be promoted by a holy text, we’re not always sure how our professed metadesires will get us where we need to be.

One simple response to this uncertainty is that if there is a person or method or series of poems that some believe to be inspired and effective in helping them get to where they want to be, it seems odd not to look there. But more importantly, the Christian message is that in our doubt, in our uncertainty, we’ve chosen to believe the word of an unwavering, divine, bigger-than-capitalism God. Rather than rely on what we know–which, as we’ve discussed, is often so, so little–we’ve chosen to humble ourselves in faith. To keep living in that humility is the Point.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

An Ordinary Love

By The Logos Masthead.

For all its hype, love doesn’t always work out. Christians, for whom love is the most fundamental truth and mandate, can say that “love covers a multitude of sins” and “love is patient, love is kind” (1 Pet. 4:8, 1 Cor. 13:4), but these verses don’t seem to be a very good remedy for a broken heart.

While the precise definition(s) of “love” may warrant extensive discussion, we know love when we encounter it. It is a deep and powerful force that changes the way we feel, the way we act, the way we promise. It is something extraordinary, in the literal sense. Love is patient and kind but also crushing. It can be tyrannical.

“I envy their happiness who have never loved; how quiet and easy are they! But the tide of pleasures has always a reflux of bitterness.” – Peter Abelard

Before love breaks in on our blissfully ignorant existence, life is reasonable and full of the possibility of contentment. When it does invade, everything fades to dark in contrast. The most powerful love feels not only desirable, but right–so right that nothing can be denied it, and anything can be justified for its sake. Even when our conscience tells us that something about this love–its intensity, its object, its context–may be wrong, love pushes back: not to love would be wrong. Love seems to come so close to the divine, sanctifying and exalting its object.

“When the Best is gone – I know that other things are not of consequence – The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care –

Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking – doesn’t ease it – and nothing does – but just itself.

I often wonder how the love of Christ, is done – when that – below – holds – so -“ Emily Dickinson

As divine as it can feel, love is tragically bound by mortality. The classic love story always features a happily-ever-after: love’s triumph over seemingly insurmountable circumstances. But there is no guarantee of this happily-ever-after in real life. Arbitrary and inevitable difficulties will tear at relationships, seeming to contrive against lovers’ perfect union and satisfaction. No union between people can ever be perfect, thus to be a lover is to never be satisfied; to be a lover is to face daily tragedy.

“In spite of all my misfortunes, I hoped to find nothing in it besides arguments of comfort; but how ingenious are lovers in tormenting themselves!” – Heloise d’Argenteuil 

The one inescapable circumstance of human life is death. Yet worse than death is having to kill our loves. In the face of inevitable obstacles, what happens when unextraordinary ethics challenge love’s tyrannical rightness? The height of tragedy is the moment of choice. Agamemnon decides to slay Iphigenia. Cordelia refuses to profane her love to Lear. Christ says “Your will be done.” Does one choose to be good, or to be happy?

“The love boat has crashed against the everyday” – Mayakovsky

Sometimes the choice is widely agreed upon by society: monogamy is preferable, while restrictions on sex and gender are now almost unthinkable. The struggle raging in our hearts is rarely so clear. If I love someone I cannot be with, why does it sear my lungs? Because I feel that this capricious, tragic love is something extraordinary. I feel that the love that is opposed to life also transcends life. But I know I am wrong.

“I incessantly seek for you in my mind; I recall your image in my memory; and in such different disquietudes I betray and contradict myself. I hate you: I love you. Shame presses me on all sides: I am at this moment afraid lest I should seem more indifferent than you, and yet I am ashamed to discover my trouble. How weak are we in ourselves, if we do not support ourselves on the cross of Christ.” – Peter Abelard

The Christian claim is that ethics and happiness are compatible in Christ, no matter how seemingly at odds. If love and justice meet at the cross, where is the hope for the unjust lover? I am trying to believe in the ordinariness of extraordinary love. We fall in love given the right circumstances, the right time, and in the most unexpected of ways–only our finitude is what makes love special and extraordinary in this place and time. But the hope of the resurrection is that somehow, all ordinary loves will be made extraordinary. At such a time, the most extraordinary, mind-blowing, heart-breaking earthly love will be no more or less divine than other, simpler loves.

When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven (Mark 12:5).

This, I think, is the hope of an ordinary love: that we can look at  our extraordinary loves and believe that they will be made abundant. It means that we can temper love’s tyranny because this isn’t the last or even the best of it. It means that when the ethical crashes into the love boat, it need not sink, but can expand to include the ethical. It means that mortal life need not stand opposed to love.

“I love you as I did on the first day – you know that, and I have always known it, even before this reunion.” – Hannah Arendt

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

A Fear of Far Drops

By Bella Gamboa, JE ’22. Bella is majoring in Humanities.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an epic poem dating from the early first century CE, is a collection of tales of transformation, many of which remain quite well known in some form today. Among these stories is that of Daedalus, the ill-fated artisan who is exiled to Crete, and his son, Icarus. What follows is an original translation of Ovid’s Latin text.

Daedalus loathed Crete and his long exile; he was filled with longing for his home, the place of his birth, but the vast sea separated him from it.

“Minos, king of Crete, may obstruct our escape by land or sea,” he said, “but the sky is yet clear. We will take that path: though he might possess everything, even Minos does not control the air.”

As Daedalus spoke, he directed his mind to previously unknown arts. Now, he makes nature itself new. He puts feathers in ascending order, beginning from the smallest, with the short feathers following the long – you could imagine they grew along a slope, like a rustic panpipe that rises up little by little, with uneven stalks. Then he fastens the center of the feathers with flax and their edges with wax; and he bends the structures which he assembled so that they resemble real wings.

Meanwhile, Daedalus’ son, Icarus, stands nearby. Not knowing that he handles his own ruin, his face beaming with pleasure, Icarus begins capturing feathers, which he lifts with his breath; just now, he softens the golden wax with his thumb – and his playing hinders the wondrous work of his father.

After Daedalus placed the finishing touch on this undertaking, the craftsman balances his body in the pair of wings, and, as his wings strike the air, he hangs aloft.

Daedalus equips his son and says, “Icarus, I warn you to fly quickly in the middle way. Do  not go too low, for the water will weigh down your wings; and if you soar too high, the sun’s fire will scorch you. Do not be distracted by the constellations – not the Deer-keeper or Ursa Major, nor the unsheathed sword of Orion. Rather, be sure to follow my lead, and seize the way!”

As he gives his son this advice for flying, Daedalus fastens the unfamiliar wings onto Icarus’ shoulders. Between the work and the warning, his aged cheeks grow wet, and the fatherly hands tremble; he gives kisses to his son, not to be repeated again. Daedalus flies ahead, lifted by his wings. He fears for his companion, just like a bird that leads forth its fragile offspring from their high nest into the air. Daedalus encourages his follower, and he instructs Icarus in the damned art, and shifts his own wings to look around at those of his son.

Those who catch sight of them flying – a fisherman trying to catch fish with his rod, or a shepherd with his staff, or a farmer leaning on his plough – are amazed and believe those who can soar over the sky to be gods.

And as they begin to pass by the islands – on the left side lies Junonian Samos (Delos and Paros had been left behind), Lebinthos on the right; and Calymne, overflowing with honey – the boy begins to delight in daring flight. He deserts his leader and pursues a higher path, as he flies full of desire for the sky. The nearness of the swift sun softens the sweet-smelling waxes that bind the feathers; the waxes gradually melt.

Icarus shakes his arms, now bare; but, lacking wings, he cannot catch hold of the air. His lips, forming the name of his father, are received by the sapphire sea, which afterwards was named for him.

And the unlucky father, now no longer a father, cries, “Icarus, Icarus, where are you? Where should I seek you? Icarus!”  he calls out.

But then he catches sight of feathers in the waves, and he curses his skill. He lays Icarus to rest in a grave. That island is since called by the name of the buried.

From a ditch, a cackling partridge watches the unfortunate son being placed in a muddy tomb. The bird claps his wings and reveals his joy with song. At that time, this bird, called a perdix, was unique and had never been seen before – it was created but recently as an eternal record of your crime, Daedalus.

Once, Daedalus’ sister, not knowing what fate held, had given her child to Daedelus for teaching, a twelve-year-old boy, with a mind hungry for learning. This child, Perdix, removed fishes’ backbones to study them; he cut continuous spikes in the spines with a sharp knife and discovered its use as a saw; and he was the first to fasten two iron arms onto one vertex, so that when the bars were evenly set apart, one arm traced a circle.

But Daedalus envied the boy and threw him headlong from the sacred citadel of Minerva. Then he lied that the boy had fallen. But Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, who favors the clever, saved Perdix and transformed him into a bird and covered him with feathers in midair. So the vigor that once fed his genius was transferred to his swift wings and feet. His name from before, Perdix, remains as the name of the partridge. However, this bird does not lift its body on high, nor does it make its nest in branches and high trees: rather, it flies near to the ground and places its eggs in bushes. Mindful of its past, it fears far drops.


Icarus’ flaming fall is a well-known parable, generally presented as a warning against the foolish ambition represented by his arrogantly flying too close to the sun. But Ovid’s myth in its entirety, including the little-known context of Perdix’s story, transforms typical images of the principal characters. Icarus becomes a playful boy who flies too high due to the exhilaration of flight, while Daedalus is jealous and overreaching, guilty of killing his nephew and of manufacturing the false wings that enabled his son’s death.

Yet even with the story of Perdix, Daedelus is not entirely despicable. He appears to genuinely desire intellectual distinction, and he achieves mastery as an artisan and inventor. Yet this desire leads him tragically astray. What, then, is the distinction between productive intellectual pursuits, and the destructive desire for preeminence that dooms Daedalus?

Despite the myth’s age, Daedalus’ overreaching ambition remains recognizable, particularly at a place like Yale, where everyone strives for excellence. Just getting to Yale requires a highly competitive process, and that competitive pursuit of success continues here, with countless applications for internships, seminars, and clubs. Although our ambition might not lead us to throw our nephew off a citadel or result in the death of our son, any degree of mastery requires sacrifice — students’ sleep deprivation and overwhelming GCals can attest to the toll.

While the inventive Perdix displays the beauty of innovation and genius, Daedalus twists this pure curiosity with his consuming desire for preeminence. Blinded to his limitations,  Daedelus values his own supremacy over Perdix’s life, and that murder leads to his exile. Then, in his attempt to escape, he convinces himself that he can “make nature new.” But as real as the wings might appear, and despite his trust in his creation, Daedalus’ work is flawed and finally melts away. He could never have made Icarus a bird, for no matter his skill, Daedalus is only human. Icarus was only a playful, curious child whose entrancement with flight was practically inevitable. Daedalus begins with genuine knowledge and passion for his artistry; but once his desire becomes one for preeminence itself, without heed for his finitude or the consequences of his actions, he pursues any end to remain the greatest and to escape his stifling exile.

Our desire for intellectual distinction can both push us to be our best self and lead us astray. An understanding of both excellence and humility is necessary to honor our efforts and passions and prevent them from crushing us.

Like Perdix, with his “mind hungry for instruction,” I find that learning is most enjoyable when it is sought for its own sake. Beyond the pleasure of learning itself, as a Christian I think that God appreciates and even encourages intellectual efforts, just as Athena offers her divine endorsement to Perdix. Furthermore, I believe that God is Himself the source of that impulse. Our desire to learn and to create, intellectually or physically, reflects our being made in the image of God. God’s preeminent creativity is apparent in the simple beauty of ochre autumn leaves, or in the more opaque but nonetheless fascinating principles of organic chemistry. The divine value of intellectual pursuits is liberating and invigorating, particularly for students – we ought to and can acquire knowledge, grow in creativity, and passionately pursue our interests.

But lest we depend on excellence for satiation, a certain humility is crucial so that our pursuits do not become distorted as Daedalus’ desire for preeminence. Humility is not equivalent to self-deprecation, but rather entails a healthy recognition of one’s limitations, and of what is greater than ourselves. Daedalus unsuccessfully attempts to bring about a metamorphosis of himself and his son into birds; but unlike Daedalus, the divine Athena successfully transforms Perdix into a true bird. It often seems that we can attain an enduring sense of self-worth, or some sustaining success, through our work and academics, or other spheres in which we might seek perfection and preeminence. But I, at least, cannot successfully manage this. I know that I will fail, whether a slightly disastrous pop quiz or something of greater significance. I cannot accumulate achievements that are sufficiently dependable. When Perdix falls, Athena enfolds him in feathers, and provides some salvation. Yet even his new partridge form remains limited – the bird does not lose its fear, and so it continues to “fl[y] near to the ground and place its eggs in bushes.”

To me, Christianity offers a more thoroughgoing and enduring salvation; Christ, in his faultless life and sacrificial death, covers us with his perfection. As a result, I do not need perfection and supremacy to establish my identity or prove my value. And the existence of God counteracts my hubristic sense that I must or even can attain some unattainable supremacy – it is, in a sense, an impulse to make myself a god, comparable to Daedalus’ foolhardy wings. Just as only Athena can make a true bird, only God can offer me full, lasting perfection and ultimate excellence.

The elusiveness of preeminence and greatness are no longer an existential threat when my performance and distinction do not define my identity or worth. The ability to pursue knowledge and excellence without the pressure that my identity is rooted in my success in these endeavors is quite freeing.  That I will inevitably fail, in ways large and small, is not crushing, and I need not despair that I am not the best in every (or any) subject. Though they certainly remain stressful, orgo midterms do not define me, and I can more readily embark upon my attempts to muddle through material without that additional pressure; and classes that are primarily pleasurable can become all the more so. I can enjoy soaring through the sky when I have the chance, for when I fall like Icarus, I know I will not face his end. And unlike Perdix, I need not “fear far drops” due to past catastrophes. The knowledge that in God I needn’t and simply cannot be the best is perhaps the only effective relief I find from the endless pursuit of ever-fleeting success.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

Thoughts on Catholic Liturgy and Expressive Individualism

By Jadan Anderson, MC ’22.

The rhythm of the Catholic Mass is silent. I remember from my childhood. But after a few rounds of standing and kneeling, calling and responding, listening and reading, and standing and kneeling again you latch onto the beat. You start to feel it first when you fall to the kneelers. Then it’s in the page turns. Then it inhabits the rumble of the congregation’s chants. It’s overwhelming, and you are mildly terrified of sitting down a moment too late or singing the hymn too fast or stumbling over too many words of the Nicene Creed. Your own beat just cannot keep the same time; so, you stifle it. You are part of the mass but struggle to find yourself in it.

This liturgy, the structure through which the congregation is meant to worship, meant to be reminded of the beautiful mystery of their faith, was suffocating. The homilies were monotonous. I felt that if I was here to praise God, I should do so the way I wanted. If I wanted to clap my hands, I should. If I wanted to dance around, I should. If I wanted to stand when everyone else kneeled, I should. But to deviate from the ritual meant to disrupt others and embarrass myself. So, I went through the motions. In doing so, sincerity was lost to tradition’s rigidity, mass lacked integrity, and, despite reciting the psalms and singing the hymns, the rhythm of the Catholic mass remained silent and so did I.

I arrived at Yale eager to replace ritual with all new things. Behind the tropes about college being a time to discover ourselves and craft our future is the implicit assertion that this will all be done away from home, free from the influence or command of liturgical, familial, or even cultural ritual. It’s a major selling point; it’s a promise. With this scope and freedom, discover what you really want, learn who you really are, grow into yourself. While this yearning to know ourselves is innocent and noble–it is the key to honest self-expression, and self-expression is beautiful–the promise falls short.

When in my first year I tried to parse through all that I thought I wanted, I found a mess of tangled up, contradictory hopes and ambitions. I found ephemeral ideas of a future self, some of whose origins were almost unknown to me. Without the grounding knowledge of my own desires, which were more fickle and fragile that I had previously thought, I wasn’t sure where to turn for the answer to the question, “Who am I?”

Filled with this unexpected and disappointing doubt, I found myself one night on Park Street in a 10:00 PM service at Saint Thomas More. Mass began. The rhythm had not changed. It was still structured and rigid, silent and pervasive. My beat still didn’t keep time.

 But then it did. Abruptly, the two rhythms became one. Mine was completely the Mass’s and the Mass’s completely mine. What was once suffocating was no longer. I still felt the rhythm surrounding me, in the falling and the chanting and the turning. But it became intuitive, natural, liberating because I trusted that the beat would ground me. The rhythm, always silent, remained silent, and so did I. Yet self-consciousness gave way to a long-awaited sense of self.

**

The moment those two rhythms become one holds the essence of liturgy. It’s about this essence that Luke pens in his gospel, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”[1] Of all the great paradoxes of the Christian faith–Jesus as fully God and fully human, the Trinity, the resurrection of the dead–this one is no less incredible. You want to find your true self? Die to yourself. Trade in your will for God’s will. Trust that He will return to you a truer and better self than any version concocted out of jealous ambition or misguided filial obligation or even innocent yet short-sighted dreaming. The claim sounds outlandish. Many might say it sounds repulsive.

Identity is one of the things we hold most dear. There exists a universal desire to know oneself and be known to others, and with it, the cry of expressive individualism. For the expressive individualist, fulfillment is achieved “through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity.”[2] That identity is found in the pursuit of that which is desired, so long as the desire is authentically one’s own, as the best manifestation of one’s true self. Expressive individualism maintains that since only the individual knows and can discern her desires, only the individual has the power to define herself.

The Christian also seeks fulfillment through identity. However, she rests knowing that the definition and revelation of true identity comes thankfully not from herself and her desires but from God and only God. This Christian idea is repulsive at first glance because it willingly takes the power of self-definition away from the self. This seems to fly in the face of expressive individualism by opposing mainstream conceptions of authenticity and undermining freedom of choice. And it does, but not in totality. The choice is, to where or to whom we turn to look for ourselves.

**

The rhythms became one when I chose to participate in the liturgy, to let my worship be formed. As Luke’s passage suggests, you choose to surrender yourself not to your desires but to God’s; for the promise–backed by a God who claims perfect constancy, unlike my inconsistent desires–is that at the end of it all, our true selves will be illuminated.

The rhythms became one when I realized that where the mass’s beat rested, my own could fill in. There exists a “living space of freedom between each commanding beat.”[3] The capacity for expression, for personality, is not forgone. It is highlighted by the steady, external structure, like watercolor seeping just outside of definitive lines, or a riff floating between the notes of a melody.

The rhythms became one when I allowed liturgy to challenge the idea that authenticity is only the work of one pair of hands. Expressive individualism makes knowing oneself an isolated endeavor, prior to relationships with others. The Christian idea is that the expressive individualists have it out of order. You cannot really know yourself before you go to others; you go to the Other in order to know yourself. Authenticity, then, is a relational project, not an insular one. And like any relational project, it requires both the relinquishing of power and the decision to trust. As for the decision of what structure or philosophy or God to trust, that is the reader’s decision. I have come to follow C.S. Lewis’s line of thinking when he writes, “The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become—because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be.”[4]

Looking outside of oneself in search of one’s true self seems counterintuitive. But parallels exist outside of the experience of a Catholic mass. When is the last time you went to a party or to a club? Toad’s Place, perhaps? Do you remember wedging yourself through to a comfortable spot on the dance floor? The rhythm of the music likely complemented the chaos around you. It may have been hard at first to catch the beat. But you do, and before you know it you’ve spent two hours swaying–or jumping–to songs you can’t even remember. Time passed by so quickly. You lost yourself to the beat. But you were at home in the beat. Content in the beat. Yourself in the beat.

A better parallel is dancing with another person. When was the last time you were led in a dance with a partner? Intimately? Not necessarily romantically, just intimately–a dance in which give-and-take ruled your steps, in which you had to resist the impulse to control lest the both of you trip over each other. When you trust the leading partner to lead, provided they are experienced, the dance becomes fluid. Intuitive. Natural. As it should be. Hours, again, are lost to it. And though your control is lost to your partner’s steps, the dance is good. The dance is yours.

[1] Luke 9:24, New American Standard Version.

[2] Levin, Yuval. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

[3] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1985.

[4] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Walker & Co., 1987.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

Delaying Desire: When Tomorrow Never Comes

By Bradley Yam, SY ’21. Bradley is majoring in Ethics, Politics, & Economics and Computer Science.

When John and I sat down under the beautiful beams of Berkeley’s Dining hall to swap stories about our novel and wondrous versions of The Yale Experience™, from talks by celebrity academics on Quantum Computing to otherworldly jazz concerts, we knew we were at the peak of privilege. Our conversation was charged with awe, but also an accompanying anxiety to make the most of our time here. Out of the blue, John asks, “But really, are you satisfied?”

Grateful? Gratified? Bedazzled? Surely all of the above. But satisfaction lies just around the corner. This is the time of our lives, the time to move fast and break things, to make our mistakes. Deans, professors and parents assure us as anxious first-years on the green that we have “made it”, but it seems like the only thing we have made is an opportunity, an opportunity for more. I thought the point of it all was exactly not to be satisfied, but in the fashion of Tennyson’s Ulysses, to seek, to strive, and not to yield to the specter of contentment.

Every year, articles appear in the Yale Daily News critiquing, discussing and reflecting on Yalies’ complicated relationship with work and success. With titles like “The Golden Ticket” and “What’s the Point of a Yale Education?” they strike at the very heart of Yale’s meritocratic ambitions. Working too hard (and often working at a student income contribution too) is often the subject of such critiques. Yale’s workaholism seems to mirror a broader American trend as described in Derek Thompson’s The Atlantic article, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable”. For Yalies and Americans alike, so much of life’s purpose, meaning, and joy seems to depend on work.

But Yalies also recognize that life is not all about work, that our all-consuming desire for success must be mitigated and tempered by caring for our human needs: we seek friendship, love, leisure, or simply good food and a place to chill. The university has responded with mindfulness activities, the Good Life Center, mental health resources and more, which is a classically Yale-way of trying to solve a problem by resourcing it. Nevertheless, we’ve begun to come out of workaholism by realizing that satisfaction in life must be more holistic.

 

Gratification vs Satisfaction?

We might have gratified our desires, our holistic human needs, but it’s questionable whether we’ve gotten to the heart of satisfying them. On average, we find time to go out with friends, eat healthy meals, and attend yoga classes. We are, for the most part, just fine. These “wellness strategies” have helped to reduce burnout, but that can’t be all we hope for in life: to be just functional enough to manage the crazy high stresses of Yale life. Is this all that it means to take care of ourselves?

To answer that, we have to ask: What’s the difference between gratification and satisfaction? Gratification merely appeases desire: it meets desire just enough that we are able to put it out of our minds. Gratification quenches desire with a substitute object. On the other hand, satisfaction does not quench desire, but actually intensifies it; it allows one to revel in the mere fact of having experienced something so desirable and thereby “completes” the desire. Desire that is completed does not vanish, it is transformed. Gratification is to satisfaction what take-out fast food is to a five-course meal; it’s a one-night stand to a life-long loving relationship; it’s “that’ll do” to “that’s exactly what I wanted!”. Desire that is satisfied transforms into a deep and lasting joy, even if its object has come and gone. Satisfaction asks not for desire’s repetition.

“The experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity – like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.” – Perelandra, C.S. Lewis[1]

The ability to delay gratification has been widely shown to correlate to higher educational attainment and general success in life. It seems predictable that Yalies, an extremely selective student body handpicked by a rigorous admissions process, would take this ability to delay gratification to the nth degree: not simply choosing to delay our immediate wants, we attain the ability to delay satisfaction for our ultimate and deepest desires. In the elaborate balancing act that we perform on a daily basis both work and leisure have been instrumentalized for the sake of someday satisfying our desires, while getting by through gratifying some of them now. Satisfaction lies just around the corner.

Our longing for love, for novelty, for well-being is gratified rather than satisfied. We have accepted that for now, gratification is acceptable, for now, we’ll settle for pleasantries instead of conversation, for now, we’ll have a quick lunch instead of a feast. But delaying satisfaction comes at a cost. Gratification may conceal a compulsivity, a perfectionism, even a workaholism, just by keeping us sane and functional. It may also conceal something more important and more terrifying: the answer to Slavoj Žižek’s question, “How do we know what we desire?”[2]

 

Delaying Satisfaction

Delaying satisfaction is insidious because it allows us to perpetually put off the true quest for the heart’s desire. The way this works is apparent when compared to delayed gratification. Delaying gratification has a clearly defined end, and once that end is fulfilled, our wants can be gratified. For instance, I’m not going to watch The Good Place on Hulu because I need to finish this article in time for print. But once the article is done, I can binge watch all the Hulu and Netflix I want. In contrast, delayed satisfaction has no clearly defined end because the question of satisfaction is itself the question “What are my true ends?” Delaying satisfaction means never confronting our deepest desires.

The combination of delayed satisfaction (always putting off the big questions) with the profound resources of gratification (doing just enough to take care of ourselves) makes for a potent trap. It makes us feel purposeful and functional, but it makes it too easy to never truly interrogate our desires, to go along with the flow, to assume that the objects of our all-consuming desire (however nebulous they may be, don’t worry, we are told, we will “figure it out”) will – must – satisfy us. Eventually.

I am no stranger to this maze. I convinced myself that working 100-hour weeks was feasible and necessary for the sake of getting a meaningful and fulfilling job. I made sure I blocked out meal times with friends, a weekend or two for get-aways and buffets at Sushi Palace, and I tried to adopt daily routines of prayer and a yearly fast during Lent. These were all undoubtedly positive things, but the spirit of delayed satisfaction and optimization ruled me entirely. I was meeting my most important present wants, I was gratifying my desires, but satisfaction was always looming tomorrow. I was always hoping that I would go to bed and wake up and find that I had somehow, magically, arrived. But I never asked myself where I hoped to arrive at. John asked, “But really, are you satisfied?”, then our lunch hour was up. But his question haunted me.

What if tomorrow never comes? What if the act of placing our hope for deepest joy and truest happiness–for satisfaction–in some ambiguous future state is surely to sabotage and condemn that satisfaction?

 

The Christian “Impatience”

It comes as no surprise that the resources that Yale offers to counterbalance workaholism involve practices with spiritual roots, for the issue of satisfaction is traditionally and ultimately a spiritual question. This is an essential quality of true self-care that is lost in the process of secularization.

The Christian spirituality and doctrine regarding satisfaction is strange, but refreshing. It demands that we pursue our highest goods immediately, impudently, almost impatiently, like a child might stamp his feet for his mother or father. It defies the doctrine of delayed satisfaction. The Christian is commanded to ask and then be answered, to knock and for the door to be opened, to seek expecting to find, and she’s asked to do it all right now.

This only makes sense in light of the Christian truth that our highest good cannot be achieved, it can only be received, and it must be received today and every day. Hence we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.”[3] Jesus tells his disciples an amusing story about an impatient friend. A man knocks incessantly at his friend’s door, late in the middle of night, to get some food for his guests. His friend gets up, obviously annoyed, but satisfies his request–not because of their friendship, but because of the urgent and unceasing knocking!

I believe that the demand Christianity makes on all of us is to seek the satisfaction of the heart’s deepest desire, and to seek it now. This is a surprisingly reasonable demand. Only Christianity insists that our satisfactions must be sought now, even if all our desires may not be immediately fulfilled. It asks us to confront the tragedy of desiring deeply and perhaps being disappointed, but being sure of what we truly desire. The proper name for this kind of satisfaction and simultaneous dissatisfaction is joy. Joy persists whether desires are fulfilled or delayed. The call of Christ on the cross is not one of immediate satisfaction, and not one of delayed satisfaction, but a call to bravely, humanely, and sensitively face the tragedy of our lost longings, our inconsolable desires, our most powerful pinings. Only in our present yearnings can we discover what we truly, truly desire.

[1] Lewis, C. S. 1968. Perelandra; a novel. New York: Macmillan.

[2] CHICAGO

[3] Matthew 6:11, New International Version.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

Stepping Into the Bigger Story

By Serena Puang, DC ’22. Serena is majoring in Linguistics.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the goodness of God and faith. I think growing up in church, it was always assumed that we knew and believed in the fundamental goodness of God. We sang hymns about it and repeated it to each other so often that sometimes, I’ll admit, it became kind of like a joke: someone would share an annoyance from their week and punctuate it with “but God is good…all the time”. 

But what does it mean to really believe that God is good especially when your circumstances aren’t? I’ve struggled a lot in previous years with mental health problems, and as a youth counselor and even as a friend, I’ve encountered so many people who have asked me or even begged me to help them understand why a loving God would let them go through this

I don’t have all the answers. While I’ve experienced radical healing by the grace of God, I don’t know why other people don’t always experience the same healing when they come to Him. I don’t know why God blesses some people more than others. I have no idea why some people are born into loving and supportive families while others aren’t. These are questions I wrestle with often, but maybe they aren’t the most pressing ones. At the end of the day, I have no control over these things, and based on my limited life experience, that’s probably a good thing. So the real question is how we should move forward. 

According to Hebrews 11:1, faith is “the confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” It might seem childlike and anti-intellectual to believe in this way.  As someone who likes approximately zero uncertainty in her life, I can attest that this is very difficult, but God doesn’t call us to blindly follow him with no evidence of his provision/goodness. He’s given us his word which not only points us to the ultimate assurance of his love for us, Jesus’ death on the cross, but also gives us story after story of regular people who had to step out in faith even when it didn’t make sense. He called Abraham to move away from everything and everyone he knew at the ripe old age of 75 (Genesis 12); he brought David into the wilderness when he was one step away from the throne (1 Samuel 19), and he brought Philip away from his ministry in Samaria to speak to the Ethiopian (Acts 8).

In their lives, and in many more, God calls people to walk with him and join into the bigger story he’s telling with humanity, and each time they step out in faith, God provides and shows them that he is worthy of that trust which in turns strengthens their faith. On that foundation, I’ve found myself stepping out in faith in little ways and then bigger ways because each time I do, I become more and more convinced of the fundamental goodness of God.

In the last 20 years, God has never let me down. That’s not to say that everything has been smooth, but I’ve watched as God has thwarted my little plans and invited me to a bigger one, and I can say with confidence that his way was better than I could have imagined. I need constant reminders of that truth. I think faith is daring to hope expectantly that God is good in this instance too, even when you can’t see it and then acting accordingly, and since God is good, he’s faithful to meet us there.