What do we want? That’s the great question of our times, and getting what we want the first mission. Whether it’s the perfect cheeseburger, the perfect outfit, the perfect bargain or the perfect body, we’re supposed to lock on that target with laser precision and get there. Atlas Shrugged is a great search by Dagny Talbert to figure out what she really wants, It can take a while to figure out what we want, but whether we should have it or whether what we want matters that much is left unquestioned in most modern quests for self-identity. After we get what we want is left unsaid as well, probably we’re supposed to find something new we want and go after that. Small children seem to operate that way much of the time.
The problems are going after the superficial on the one hand and the unattainable on the other. Getting a great deal on a product we want is relatively easy, at least doable with enough work. Sooner or later, our place gets too crowded with stuff and we start looking to get rid of things, and the constant searches can wear us out if we get too obsessed about them. Falling for someone who does fall back for us puts us in a corner: a lot of wonderful songs and great poetry are written out of unrequited love, but carrying the torch for unattainable people can set us up for a lot of embarrassment and pain.
The larger problem is if we pursue what we want blindly and out of control, we open ourselves to being manipulated. Somebody who says: “I love you so much I’d do anything for you,” can get roped into some very dangerous things by someone willing to take advantage. Wanting to drive anywhere we want whenever we want to means we will put up with gas prices no matter where they go. We’ll even settle for a false freedom of choice: in my youth, gas stations had gas wars to see who could undercut each other the most. How often have you see two gas stations in sight of each other have different prices for their products?
If we go deep enough, what we want is an encounter with something beyond us that will keep us interested indefinitely. Usually we think of finding a perfect person or a perfect situation, however if we go farther we long for an encounter with the Transcendent, something other than me. Something that will give us the great reference point in Life, find us Peace, and keep us moving forward with a song in our hearts. This is a longing that can only be filled with an encounter with the Sacred, an encounter with God.
Pope Francis put it very well in a recent talk at the August 11 Angelus: “Desire moves us forward, toward the horizon, and for us Christians that horizon is an encounter with Jesus, who is our life, our joy, our happiness.”
We can control what we want superficially. If we want a cheeseburger, we can retune our taste buds for something that’s better for us, and there’s no long term damage. If we’re attracted to someone who turns out to be a manipulator, we can change our affection away from that person so our lives aren’t wrecked for their pleasure. Longing for the Divine, longing for God, longing for Christ, is the only want where the quest is as satisfying as the realization, where our integrity is respected, and our fulfillment is guaranteed. If encounter with Christ is what we want, if encounter with Christ is what we desire, then everything else in life will work out, and we can cope with not getting whatever else we may think we want.
By an encounter of Christ, it’s important to say what that isn’t, contrary to common wisdom. An encounter with Christ isn’t an anesthesia or disconnect with the world, it’s a deeper level of reality. It’s not a shutting down of logic or denial of scientific fact, but finding the “Why” beneath the “How”. It’s not becoming a patsy to be manipulated or a punching bag for the violent. It’s not about drinking the Kool Aid, or giving up anything in this world that matters, and it’s not about abandoning people who don’t think like we do. It’s not about sitting in judgement of others, or babbling about privileged knowledge others can’t or won’t see. It’s not about using the Bible as a bludgeon, or rejoicing in the damnation of Evil people.
An encounter with Christ is about seeing life, the universe and everything, feeling the depth of God’s Love and Mercy, and letting ourselves be molded into that image of Love and Compassion Christ gives us. It’s complicated even though the basics are simplicity in themselves. Working through this is why we have to keep coming back and coming together: it’s through this practice the length and depth of our encounters with Christ grow deeper and lasting enough they last forever.