A Cigarette at Midnight: Lenten Thoughts on Desire
Wisps of smoke drift into the midnight sky like mist around the still moon. Sea air wafts in on a cool breeze. All is quiet. Even the dogs move soundlessly, sniffing the dark corners of the yard. I watch them to see if they sense anyone hiding in the shadows, projections of a guilty conscience whispering “thou shalt not smoke.”
I gave up smoking many years ago but, occasionally, the desire hits me for the ritual: Inhale. Exhale. Time to be alone. Time to reflect. I would never want to go back to the hold cigarettes once had over me. Of the many addictions my friends have suffered, it is probably the least debilitating, at least in the short term, but the destructive nature of addiction can be seen all around us from alcohol to food, shopping, and a host of other less obvious things.
In psychology, I was taught addiction is a trauma-based response to soothe and forget our pain. While wandering this spiritual path, I’ve discovered addiction can also be our attempt to suppress the desires of our hearts we do not know how to answer, the longings we fear the “God of no fun” will take away from us if we lay our cards onto the table. Or, maybe, it is that others have dismissed our dreams – a professor at college or a parent. Or a close friend ridiculed us in our vulnerable moment of sharing the still formulating ideas of what we hoped life might look like.
I’m brought back to a wedding I attended years ago as the only single person at a round table of married friends. They asked me what qualities I wanted in a man.
“A tall, Irish poet” tumbled out of my mouth.
I lived in a small town in America at the time and meeting an Irishman was far out of reach, yet something about it rang true. I had always loved Ireland and longed to visit. I’d also been talking to God about marriage and my response stirred my spirit: something about the man I described felt real. And yet, everyone laughed at me and told me to lower my expectations. Red-faced, I acquiesced.
A few months later a man from Northern Ireland came to visit a friend in our little cul-de-sac. A year later, I moved abroad with my tall, ginger-haired husband. While I wouldn’t call him a poet, his language could be described as creative, a common trait among the inhabitants of The Emerald Isle.
What if I had ignored that desire and given in to their unbelief? We can be so quick to squelch desires, both our own and others. Proverbs 13:12 says “A hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” How often do we defer our desires because we are hiding them from others who might disapprove?
Of course, some desires are not meant to be pursued. The desire to give into unhealthy addictions, the desire to run away from responsibilities, the desire to give into feelings like hate, jealousy, greed – to name a few. St. Augustine, who notoriously indulged in sinful desires before his conversion, encourages us to desire — while knowing the difference between the desires that lead to death and those that lead to life:
“So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Such is our Christian life. By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our souls. Now this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world.”
Though I’ve seen many of my desires fulfilled, like marrying the man of my dreams, I’ve also had to learn to heed St. Augustine’s words. Only God can fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts. Idolizing what we desire, or desiring wrongly, will bring deep pain. But so will repression.
This Lent, let’s think about our desires. Let’s honestly name what’s on our hearts and ask ourselves what is standing in the way of fulfillment.
What are your desires? Can you articulate them? Do you hide them behind lesser things that soothe the pain of your longing or protect you from the ridicule of others? Do you struggle with unbelief?
Maybe this year for Lent, we give up the obstacles standing in the way of our healthy desires – whether that’s fear of judgment, our own pride, or material things that blind us from pursuing something greater.
As the mist passes across the moon once more and the last of the embers die, a flame passes to me. A holy fire that calls me once again to tell God what I want: I want to trade my heart of unbelief for a heart of faith, to stop living in “someday” and live fully expectant in today. To stop deferring hope out of fear and embrace the desires that lead to Him. Underneath a moonlit sky, I feel the breath of the eternal Easter fill my lungs and blossom into a tree of life.