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Desire: Human and Divine – Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

Sunday 15th July 2018 – Matins

Deuteronomy 28:1-14     Acts 28:17-31

There can scarcely be another piece of choral music which more exquisitely captures that sense of longing and desire conveyed in the words of Psalm 42 as does Like as the Hart, the anthem by Herbert Howells we’ve just heard. Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde, is a masterpiece in its use of the language of music to evoke the very experience and feeling of desire, but compared with the little more than five minutes it takes to sing Like as the Hart, Tristan takes some five hours! And although there is a musical resolution of desire in Tristan in the closing bars of the opera, Like as the Hart leaves us with the feeling that the desire is somehow still there, awaiting its consummation.

There’s something of a restless, unsettled quality about Like as the Hart. The music’s both expansive and taut at the same time and, like much of Howells’ music, it always feels to me as if the composer’s just about managing to keep the lid on a volcanic energy, which is constantly on the verge of erupting. The music has an extraordinary strength and power, which always seems to have a forward momentum, as if it’s forever seeking its destination but not quite getting there. Even though musical destinations do indeed seem to be reached, there’s so often something rather bittersweet about them, such that they leave us wanting something just a little more satisfying, more definite and slightly less ambiguous. And it’s precisely for that reason that Howells so eloquently captures the real nature of our human desire and of what we’re all ultimately longing for, whether we realise it or not, for imbuing all of Howells’s music, it seems to me, is the sense of longing for that which alone will satisfy, yet which seems always to be just ever-so-slightly out of reach, that mysterious reality we call God: ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God’.

Desire’s a tricky customer, not least because it’s inescapable. Without it we’d never even get out of bed in the morning, let alone do anything else. Desire in one form or another is what motivates every decision and choice we make, every action we undertake, so it’s really important to discover what it is we really want. Our desires are shaped and formed in all sorts of ways by our biology, our culture, our upbringing and social convention. Some of what human beings sometimes desire has been and continues to be deemed by various societies and cultures as unacceptable, or even immoral, and yet it’s only by facing squarely what we think we want, and discovering what we really want, that desire can be channelled creatively and constructively rather than negatively, for, in the end, desire is God-given, and it’s the very thing that draws us to God. As St Augustine of Hippo put it in book one of his Confessions: ‘You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. So the beginning and end of desire is love. All our searching and all our restlessness is a kind of divine discontent, precisely because there’s an intuition of divine love in the human heart. The repression or misdirection of desire is, in the final analysis, disastrous, because unless and until we can identify our most fundamental desire as the desire for God, we shall be forever unsatisfied. The beginning of the fulfilment of desire lies in identifying that what we really want is God: ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God’.

The reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles as the second lesson doesn’t on the face of it seem to have much to do with desire. Yet the whole of the Acts of the Apostles is actually about desire and its fulfilment, for in its entirety the book can be seen as a story of both God’s desire that the gospel of divine love be made known to everyone, and also of human desire to give everything in response to that divine love as the only thing that will finally make sense of our existence. The Apostle Paul becomes the focus of these twin desires in Acts, for from his conversion on the Damascus Road in chapter nine he’s portrayed as being marked by a restlessness to come to know and understand more fully the nature of the sheer grace of divine love, and to share what he’s come to know for himself with everyone. The way the author of Acts conveys this is to depict Paul as longing to preach this gospel of love throughout the Roman Empire and, most importantly, as showing the fulfilment of Paul’s desire, despite the many twists and turns that threaten to throw him off course, by his reaching the centre of that Empire : Rome. In a quite unexpected way, the city of Rome itself becomes the symbol of both human desire and also of God as the end, the goal and the fulfilment of human desire. So it is that the end of the Acts of the Apostles sees Paul arriving at his destination to share the good news of divine love for all, which he did, we’re told, with all boldness and without hindrance’.

What is it that you most want? Have you ever stopped to consider that your desire, however unlikely this may seem to be, is simply a reflection of your real desire for God and of God’s desire for you: ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God’.


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