The Fire Within: Desire, Sexuality, Longing, and God, Ronald Rohlheiser. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.
Summary: A collection of short meditations on human, and particularly sexual desire, contending these come from God and are meant to draw us to God.
With adolescence, we awaken to desire. Much of that is sexual desire and longing for intimacy. About the last thing most of us think of is any connection between our longings and our sexuality and God. Most of us just don’t think of God and sex going together.
Ronald Rohlheiser, speaks candidly of these longings, including his own experience of these as a young man in the novitiate. During a spiritual conference, a speaker spoke of how they must be “jumping out of their skins” and that this was how they should be feeling and it was healthy. As he studied more deeply, he discovered that far from these desires being distant from God, they came from God. He writes in the preface of this work:
“Sexuality is inside us to help lure us back to God, bring us into a community of life with each other, and let us take part in God’s generativity. If that is true, and it is, then given its origin and meaning, its earthiness notwithstanding, sex does not set us against what is holy and pure. It is a Godly energy” (p. xi).
Rohlheiser offers a series of twenty-two reflections expanding on this idea, each about four pages in length. The reflections are divided into two parts. The first focuses on desire and our complex humanity; the second on how we deal humanly and spiritually with desire.
He begins with how longing is at the center of our experience, that this space is a space for God. Instead of using guilt and shame to deal with raw desire, he proposes we help youth see this as God’s creative energy incarnate in our bodies. Our energies are not sinful or evil; only the misuse of them. He compares virgin youth to Jephthah, mourning her virginity. Too often, we demand satisfaction rather than learning to live in the ache of mourning. We are complex in our desires and need to honor and hallow this, learn through it, and live under God’s patience and understanding. Rohlheiser warns of the danger of grandiosity, a type of self-absorption in which desire is turned in on self in pride instead of drawing us to God. Given our complexity and longings never fully to be realized in this life, married or single, we may understand our lives as “unfinished symphonies.’
One of our challenges in dealing with our desires is how easily distracted we are. God’s invitation is to greater mindfulness and attentiveness. Sex is sacramental, filled with spiritual significance. So is everyday life, and we need to have our world re-enchanted. Other essays deal with barrenness, anger, and waiting. Perhaps one of the most illumining are his reflections on re-imagining chastity. He extends this beyond sexuality. The basic idea of chastity is to not force things but to honor their character and rhythms. He uses the example of metamorphosis, which, if rushed, results in a malformed moth or butterfly. Purity is not a matter, first of all of sexual self-control, but of intention, acting in ways that do not manipulate or use others, but align our actions with our commitments. Ultimately, the invitation is into a greatness of soul that can rejoice in the prodigal who returns rather than exacting payback, aware of the mercies we all have received.
It is a good thing these reflections are short because they are filled with insight. These are worth reading one at a time. More important is that they build on a doctrine of our creation as man and woman in the image of God. Our gender and sexuality and desires were created before the fall. Evil doesn’t create anything. It only distorts. Rohlheiser helps us move beyond shame and guilt about our desires to thanksgiving and celebration. From that, it is only a short step from realizing our desires are from God and for God, to wondering how they might be rightly expressed. Chastity and purity are matters of honor and intent rather than restrictive rules or patriarchal control.
One of the challenges facing the church is the articulation of a redemptive vision of sexuality. There is a beautiful story that has been lost in all the rules, the purity culture, the shaming, and the abuses and scandals. Rohlheiser recovers that beauty with both candor and insight. I wish I’d had this book when I was a much younger man, but his insights into our desires and our complexity, and the mystery and wonder of God’s purposes in it all continue to rejoice this heart.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.