Sorting Our Desires In Spiritual Direction

by Kate Laymon

“God writes his hopes into our desiring.” – Joseph Tetlow SJ, Choosing Christ in the World

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus said to the blind man, Bartimaeus, on his way out of Jericho. It can seem like the answer would be obvious. Here was a blind man, shouting out for mercy. And yet, Jesus asks him what it is he wants. He does not presume to know. He invites Bartimaeus to name his desire. 

There is a vulnerability in the naming of our desires, even when they are obvious. Naming our desires opens us to the possibility of disappointment or even rejection. What if God says no? What if I do follow my desire and it leads me astray? We are more often prone to protect our hearts and bury our desires. 

I learned very early to put others’ needs, desires, even preferences above my own. This was not only reinforced in my family, but in the Christian tradition I grew up in. I learned early on that Jesus served others and that I was supposed to be like Jesus. I never saw myself in the place of the blind man. I never knew that Jesus also desired to know what I wanted from him. 

I remember vividly a time that I opened myself to desire and soon found myself at the bottom of a metaphorical ditch. I cried out to God for help. And he helped me. But I concluded afterwards that my desires could not be trusted. And I concluded that God’s desires for me, must be, had to be, so very different from my own. So, I set out to try to contort myself into someone I wasn’t, but someone who I thought God wanted me to be. Someone else. 

Then, last year I journeyed through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, a 9-month intensive prayer journey, accompanied by a spiritual director. Using Joseph Tetlow’s, Choosing Christ in the World as my guide, I came upon this line: “God writes his hopes into our desiring.” Read that line again. St. Ignatiaus of Loyola, a Christian mystic and saint, believed and taught in his Exercises that it’s in excavating our deepest desires that God’s heart and hopes for us will be found. That our desires are not something to be avoided, denied, or sacrificed, but that they are the very place to turn to find out who we are in Christ and what he hopes to do our in our lives. As we name our desires, we are witnessing the Christ in us. We are recognizing the Christ who lives in each of our own unique hearts and selves. 

It’s been a long hard road back home to myself. And also, a beautiful homecoming. Like falling back into an old comfortable couch. A relief. A rest. There’s a way in which we can be prodigals to our own hearts and to Christ who dwells there, even in the name of religion or right living. As we come home to ourselves, to our hearts and our native desires, Christ runs out to meet us saying, “Welcome home! I’ve missed you so! Let’s throw a party!”

In listening to and naming our desires we can come home to ourselves and to God in the same fell swoop. Spiritual direction can be a place where we turn towards our desires and perhaps dig through a treasure chest that’s been long buried. There might be a lot of dust and debris on top, but there are beautiful jewels waiting to be discovered, if only we keep digging. 

Even before I knew to begin naming my desires, my director began ushering me back home simply by sitting with and honoring the messy, flailing parts of my heart. This experience reassured me that God welcomes and embraces my beat up, broken, and bleeding heart and that it’s safe to bring my heart to God. This opened the way for me to receive the truth that God wants to know what I desire.

While Jeremiah’s words are often misused in chapter 17, it’s true enough, that our hearts can be deceitful, and our desires sometimes disordered. There are many desires that if followed may lead us somewhere we later wished we hadn’t gone. So how do we sort and discern what desires originate Christ? 

Janet Ruffing, in her book, Beyond the Beginnings, says this about sorting our desires:

“As each thing we think we want emerges, it takes some time to test out whether we really do want it or not. This interior sorting through requires listening to ourselves at deeper levels than many of us are accustomed… Honest prayer, in fact, structures our desires… In allowing our desires room to be – to become conscious, intelligent, and available to us, even to become enlarged and expanded – and in the process of praying we find that we and our desires ‘get sorted out.’”

As I’ve been turning towards my soul, listening to Jesus’ invitation it to tell him what I want, a desire emerged that’s been stubbornly sticky over the years. I’ve learned to pay attention to desires that don’t seem to go away and so I brought this one to my spiritual director recently. I noticed that as I’ve turned towards it more fully, that it seemed to fade a bit, almost like it became shy, and I was tempted to dismiss it.  Instead, she invited a deeper exploration. “What are the desires underneath this desire?” she asked. And I began to name things like agency (which is a desire to assert myself in my life), an enjoyment of continued learning, to use my voice and be heard, for healing of myself and others, and the enjoyment of adventure. Many of these are values and parts of me that make me, me. To see these deeper desires at work in me helped me see Christ’s own heart beating within mine. While I still don’t have a decision, I can now more clearly articulate to Jesus what it is I want and listen for how he may want to meet me in them and fulfill them in me.

Spiritual direction is a place where we can hear Jesus’ question to us personally: What do you want me to do for you? In my practice, I always begin a spiritual direction relationship asking some variation of this question: “What do you want in spiritual direction?” or even, “What do you want Jesus to do for you?” This is where we begin. With desire. And as we listen to desire, we begin to hear a faint but constant thumping: the heartbeat of God. Christ appears in our midst, beckoning us to get up and come. He’s calling.