Matthew J Mills
A Vindication of Desire: St Anselm, with C. S. Lewis
“Desire” is one of those terms from the lexicon of Catholic spirituality, which can make people squeamish. Alongside “longing,” “yearning,” “panting,” and so forth, it may conjure up images of over-wrought medieval piety and risk offending sober sensibilities.
Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) took a similarly dim view of curiositas (“curiosity”), which he understood as a precursor to the Fall. Curiosity and desire have, at times, been perceived as part of the architecture of sin rather than holiness, of wantonness rather than self-control.
It is unlikely that anyone reading this post today would find much to complain about in a genuine curiosity, but desire—even the mention of the word—still has the power to inspire a frisson of fear, a feeling that what it being spoken about is quite dangerous.
What, then, was C. S. Lewis up to when he preached that “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak”?
In an article for The Downside Review in 2021, I attempted to offer an answer to this question by a close reading of Lewis’ sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” in dialogue with the writings of Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109). What emerged was a picture of desire transfigured, put to a higher use as an animating force in the spiritual life, properly directed towards obtaining the soul’s fulfilment in union with its maker.
As Pope Benedict XVI (d. 2022) would much later write about the spiritual validity of eros, sometimes described as a “worldly” form of love: it is not that eros has been rejected by Christianity, but rather reinterpreted in light of the gospel as a servant virtue, enabling rather than hindering the soul’s path to God:
An intoxicated eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.
According to Anselm, desire exists in a dynamic relationship with love and, in the Christian life, it can be ordered towards the highest possible good of union with God. This is not easy, in fact the journey of desire is also a journey of tears, but it contains and ultimately fulfils God’s promise of eternal joy.
For more on this theme, read my article which is free to download.
Anselm of Canterbury, Prayers and Meditations, trans. by Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin, 1973)
— Major Works, ed. by Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Benedict XVI, Pope, Deus Caritas Est (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2006)
C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: A Collection of Lewis’s Most Moving Addresses (London: HarperCollins, 2013 [orig. 1949]), pp. 25-46