A well-known psychotherapist describes an exercise he has often done with large groups of people. In a very large room, people are told to pair up with each other, and to ask each other the simple question: ‘What do you want?’ They are instructed to ask the question over and over again, to let it penetrate. The psychotherapist says that time and again, he has seen this provoke very deep and powerful responses in people. Within minutes, people are stirred to their depths, calling out for loved ones who are dead – long lost parents, spouses, children, friends. I want you back. I want to see you again. I want your love. I want you to be proud of me. I want you to know how much I love you and how sorry I am that I never told you. I want the childhood I never had. I want to be healthy. I want my life to mean something.
All of that depth and honesty welling up from one little question: ‘What do you want?’ All those buried desires unearthed. Many people, believers among them, imagine that religion and faith are, in large measure, about limiting our desires, putting a lid on our wants. The reality is the opposite: Christian faith is not about eliminating our desires; it’s about honing them, purifying them, directing them, making them a force for good in our lives. Yes, our faith prunes us (cf. Jn 15:3), but only so that we might blossom.
What people want is at the heart of the parable we’ve just heard. A king invites people to his son’s wedding banquet, and they don’t want to come. They have their minds on other things; they don’t see the value of the invitation. This story tells us that far from being an imposition, our faith is an invitation – an invitation to a truly good life.
It’s often been remarked that the biggest problem with consumerism is not that it makes us want too much, but that it makes us want too little, it gets us more and more diverted and distracted by lesser thing, lesser stuff. The most precious thing we have is our attention: I may give you all sorts of things, but if I don’t give you my attention, if I can’t respect you enough to be present to you, then all the other stuff I might give you will eventually become irrelevant. The world we live in, now more than ever, is full of appeals to our most precious possession: our attention. When voices and messages are lined up, conspiring to steal our attention, there is a risk that our capacity to offer this most precious commodity to others may be depleted.
In Jesus’ parable, when the king issued the invitation to his son’s wedding banquet, people’s attention was elsewhere, they wanted other things. Some of them, evidently, were very angry at what they perceived to be an imposition on their time and on their priorities.
We would do well to let this parable of Jesus pose two simple questions to us. First, do we habitually think of our faith, and the practice of our faith, as an imposition or as an invitation? Second, what do we want – for ourselves and for our loved ones? What are our most fundamental values? If we’re willing to go a little beneath the surface of both our faith and our desires, we may come to see that there’s a surprising convergence between our faith and the deepest desires of our hearts. Faith in Christ is our ally in living the best kind of life. He invites; he does not impose. We’re free to accept or to reject. Let’s accept, so that our lives may look like the response to a beautiful invitation.
Fr Chris Hayden