Breath of the Spirit Reflection: The Holiness of Desire
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All of us, but especially those in the LGBTQ+ community, are used to hearing that our desires are wrong. We have heard that they should not be given voice – and really it would be better if they would just go away. This violence in the guise of spirituality happens to anyone who is told that turning their humanity off is the best path to earning Divine comfort. The Incarnation itself puts the lie to this theology of deprivation, but so too does the story of Bartimaeus, the bold and blind beggar who would not let his desires be silenced. Although most anyone could conjure up hypothetical desires that should not be fulfilled, Bartimaeus – and Jesus’ generous response – remind us that desire itself is an essential part of our humanity, and as such, is also essential to the holiness and wholeness for which we were created.
Sunday October 24, 2021: the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
The Holiness of Desire
A Reflection by L. F. Ranner
What do you want me to do for you?
From an early age, most of us are taught to be skeptical of desire. We are encouraged to focus on distinguishing between ‘need’ and ‘want’ (as anyone who has ever made a grocery trip with a toddler can attest, this distinction does not come naturally to humans), eschewing the latter and being content with the former; it’s the selfless, sensible thing to do.
The Buddha built a whole spiritual movement around the concept of desire as the source of all suffering. Desire, he said, inevitably leads to dissatisfaction, rooted either in anxiety about what possession we might lose, or regret over what we once had.
In a similar, if less strident vein, the Greeks sought to temper desire with the maxim meden agan, or “nothing in excess.” Desire what you must, but be moderate and tasteful about it, for heavens’s sake. Know when to say when.
Already in the formative period of Christianity, influenced by both the Greeks and Judaism, Church Fathers counseled the faithful to distinguish between “holy” desire - which had as its aim union with the divine will and involved almost exclusively the spiritual side of our beings - and “unholy” or “sinful” desire, which was seen to separate us from God and humanity; physical desires were most commonly relegated to this second category simply by their nature, as being grounded in the flesh.
In Mark’s gospel, the story of blind Bartimaeus is the very last miracle before Palm Sunday, and as such, it provides a kind of bookend to Jesus’ healing ministry; it literally occurs at the walls of Jericho (yes, those walls!) as Jesus and the disciples are about to set out on the fateful last journey up to Jerusalem. In this extraordinary meeting, Jesus turns much of the received wisdom regarding desire on its head. It is a manifesto for the holiness, and even the necessity, of desire.
Who is this Bartimaeus, that he should be immortalized by the evangelist at such a pivotal moment? Mark records him not as just another faceless beggar; he is a person with both a history and a name. We learn his weakness (financial dependency), we know his problem (blindness), and by extension, his deepest desire, which is to be healed.
Bartimaeus is the manifestation of the inherent skinlessness that comes with poverty. Materially lacking, physically limited, and as a result, socially excluded, Bartimaeus does not enjoy the sense of self-sufficiency with which we so often delude ourselves until life proves us wrong. He has none of the traditional shields that people hide behind: prosperity, strength, privilege. The disadvantaged often grow accustomed to expressing their needs openly - as Bartimaeus does on a daily basis as a beggar - because they cannot afford the illusion, much less the reality, of their satisfaction. The more dependent we are on others, the less optional honesty becomes. This may be one reason why Jesus was drawn to those who are poor in different ways, because Jesus, too, was a person without pretense, and with no time to waste on the building of illusions. Jesus is an originator of this idea, for example, that there is no true strength without vulnerability, and it makes sense that such a message would resonate with people for whom it was a home truth.
Mark tells us that many of the “large crowd” surrounding Jesus rebuke Bartimaeus when he cries out for Jesus’ attention. Rebuke is such an archaic-sounding word, and it leeches away some of the slightly comic and very familiar urgency of the original: really, they tried to shush him, the way we do with someone who is speaking up at an inappropriate time, in an unappreciated way, who is making the real work at hand more difficult for everyone. Why would they do such a thing? Did he seem impertinent? Irrelevant? Presumptuous? Were this unsightly person and his insistent needs an annoyance, or an embarrassment?
However, their attempts to silence Bartimaeus come to nothing, and he ends up getting Jesus’ attention: crucially, not because Jesus was making use of some superhuman powers to hear a beggar’s mumblings through a mob, but because Bartimaeus, despite or perhaps because he was being shushed by almost everyone, started yelling all the louder.
This is a crucial moment. Here the most powerless person, the one who is denuded not only of wealth and privilege but one of the body’s most basic functions - the poorest person in the picture - not only refuses to be silenced, but he takes matters into his own hands. He knows what he wants, he sees the opportunity to achieve it, he ignores those who would deny him, and he demands, in a voice unreasonably, tastelessly loud, to be heard.
The desire that Bartimaeus brings to Jesus in the next few lines is for many of us a central component of the human experience: to live in darkness, to crave healing and light. To know what is lacking to make us whole - and to wait, sometimes for many years in fear and impotence, being shushed by the world. Shut up and deal with it, the world says. Learn to do without. We don’t know how long Bartimaeus has been blind, or how he got that way. We do know that he is someone who struggles alone: no family is caring for him, making sure he’s fed and clothed, and he dwells outside walls with the rest of the beggars, amid the garbage heaps: he is a man of no apparent value.
And yet: despite all that, he is a person of immense dignity. In this story, it is Bartimaeus, not Jesus, who makes things happen. He knows what he wants; he is sure. Because when Jesus passes by - on a journey, one might imagine, that has far greater cosmic implications than the wholeness of one blind man - Bartimaeus is ready. He uses the powers that remain - voice, will - to call to Jesus, not just to murmur, but to shout out his holy desire that he believes this person - whom he boldly refers to as the Son of David - can make a reality.
And despite the road that lies ahead, Jesus stops; it seems that Jesus always stops. Unlike us, Jesus so often has time for the people who crave his attention.
Jesus tells the disciples to call Bartimaeus - a crucial detail, because sometimes Jesus’ call to us, his answer to our desires, comes through an intermediary that we least expect. In this case, it is probably some of the very people who were trying to shut Bartimaeus up, to whom Jesus now (very cleverly) gives the task of calling him over. Bartimaeus admits no obstacles: even his cloak, probably the closest thing he has to a shelter from the world, he tosses aside without a care; he leaps up and suddenly it is Bartimaeus who is control of this scene.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
The word that Jesus uses to refer to Bartimaeus’ desire is theleis; it is a speculative word: what’s the thing that you have in mind for me to do, but have insufficient power to make happen? At this moment, Jesus recognizes the sacred, generative quality of Bartimaeus’ desire: nothing happens without wanting it first. Jesus, in other words, is there as a medium, to help Bartimaeus achieve the fulfillment of this desire to see. It is the blind man who makes the difference: the persistence of his hope, his stubborn opportunism that refuses to be degraded or silenced, that shouts out: have mercy on me! My desire is holy and real! And that is a cry that stops Jesus, because the road to Jerusalem and all that awaits Jesus there cannot be traveled, unless this man of no account is answered. At that moment, the beggar goes toe to toe with God: I want to see.
And what happens? Bartimaeus gets what he asks for; Jesus makes a point of telling him why. This passage is usually translated as ‘Your faith has healed you.” This would be revolutionary enough, as the agent of transformation Jesus names is no one else but the destitute Bartimaeus himself. But once more, translation can impoverish meaning, as the word pistis can be read not just as “faith” or “trust” but also as “confidence.” In other words, not just that Bartimaeus put his trust in God’s healing power, but that he was brash enough to call it forth. In this story that brings Jesus’ ministry to a close, there is a hidden miracle whose message is even more astonishing than that of sight returned to a blind man: through the attention of Jesus to exactly that person that no one else wants to see or hear, Bartimaeus the beggar becomes transfigured into the hero, his own miracle worker. This is my holy desire, he cries out, the missing thing that will make me whole, and nothing - including the world’s rebuke - will silence my demand to be heard, and healed.
Lori Frey Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History. Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of extraordinary lecturer at Loyola New Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. For the past seven years she has taught Latin, Ancient Greek, World Religions, and Honors/AP World History at Holy Cross School and Ursuline Academy; she currently teaches AP World History and British Literature at The Academy of the Sacred Heart. She is married and mother to three children. In May of this year, she published her first novel, Sailing to Byzantium.