I am going to speak more soon of the beauty of the body as the living-space of encounter, as the potentiality for the gift of communion with Christ and the new existence of love and intimacy that he brings. After this, at the end of these reflections, I will speak of the breathtakingly beautiful destiny that awaits us at the end of time, in which, in body and spirit and in the fullness of our subjective consciousness, we will rejoice in eternal intimacy with God and with every person. But first I want to draw some connecting lines from the points that I have already made to where we are going. In particular, I want to express more precisely how this reality of “mysticism” is not an esoteric path divorced from the concrete experience of life and the universe, but rather its full flowering, while also being present within every moment of time as a hidden seed, already alive and communicating itself.

There are a few points I would like to elucidate in order to make this clear, to try and unveil the true depth of human existence, beyond all reductionistic or partial interpretations. 1) First, I would like to speak again, and more deeply, about the primacy of desire in human existence, and about the richness with which this desire is to be understood, on all levels of existence. In order to do this, I will try to illumine, however, imperfectly, the rich contours of subjective consciousness, within itself and in its orientation towards communion with beauty, goodness, and truth. 2) After this, I will speak (in the next chapter) about the insight into the so-called “hierarchy of being,” in which each reality has its place within the rich orbit of the universe as God has fashioned it, with each reality speaking a particular “word” from him and inviting a proper response from the human heart. In this, I will talk in particular about the three “kinds of importance” specifically about the concept of “value,” which will help to complement and deepen the previous reflections on the good and on our natural inclinations. 3) Finally, I will speak about the sacramentality of the universe as a whole, and of the present moment in particular, which will also bring us full circle to the sacramentality of the body with which we began these reflections, and to the reality of mysticism anew.

So let us begin. The natural inclinations, according to Thomas Aquinas, are expressions of our nature as human beings, and are the very “building blocks” of morality and the happy life. In order to understand their significance, it is important to remember that, before the reductionism of the modern period, the concept of the “freedom” was much more profound than it is in our contemporary understanding. Freedom was built precisely of the “stuff” of our nature, and not apart from it. It was formed and matured in the context of the very innate orientation of our being, sealed forever by God’s creative touch, in which he impressed upon our bodies and spirits the very dimension of gift in which we find fulfillment. As Servais Pinckaers says:

Natural inclinations…constitute the human person’s spiritual spontaneity. They are at the source of voluntary free action and, consequently, of morality. They form what St. Thomas occasionally referred to as the instinctus rationis, the rational instinct, which, with Aristotle, he likened to the higher instinct, inspired genius. Here the action of the Holy Spirit intervenes with his gifts, which St. Thomas did not hesitate to call the instinct of the Holy Spirit, instinctus Spiritu Sancti (IIaIIae, q 68 a 1). Our instinct for truth and goodness, which is at bottom an instinct for God, thus enjoys a relationship with freedom quite different from the animal instinct that first comes to mind. It creates freedom, which can neither exist nor develop without it. …

We also have difficulty forming an idea of the relation between natural inclinations and natural law, because we are used to seeing opposition between law, an external principle, and inclinations, which are interior. Can inclination and law harmonize? Does this not run counter to the requirements of law and morality? How, then, can we claim to base moral law on inclinations, natural though they may be?

Yet this is what St. Thomas did, and apparently he found it no great problem. For him, natural law was the expression, in the form of precepts, of our natural inclinations, which were guided by our inclinations to goodness and truth [and beauty]. Thus natural law, imposed externally when taught, was in reality written in the human heart—that is, in the very nature of our faculties of reason and will [and affectivity], at the root of free action. This teaching on natural inclinations was fundamental for St. Thomas. It established natural law and provided the basis for morality. Inclinations developed into virtues, which received their beginnings from them and would provide morality with its main categories.

We should add that, in St. Thomas’s view, inclinations, like the natural law, were God’s most precious work in the human person, a direct, unique participation in his own wisdom, goodness, and freedom and the emanation of the eternal law [which is nothing but the inner life of the Trinity as love and intimacy]. St. Thomas’s entire moral theology was based largely on his teaching on natural inclinations and on the freedom for the good that activated them.

In separating freedom from natural inclinations and in creating opposition between them with his concept of freedom of indifference, Ockham demolished what we might call the capstone of St. Thomas’s doctrinal edifice and completely overturned the structure of moral theology.i*

All of this is to say that, at the foundation of our human existence, and thus of our freedom, is inclination. What does inclination mean? It is a directedness-toward something, an innate orientation or movement toward the reality in which it finds fulfillment. And thus it is desire. This is precisely how Saint Augustine, in his own beautiful and vivid language, can speak about the driving force of human existence as desire. It is not fear, nor obligation, nor tasks, but desire. And for Augustine, as for Thomas Aquinas, desire is another word used to describe love. Throughout the entire tradition of the Church up until the fourteenth century, the thought and writings of the saints and fathers and theologians of Christianity were touched, if not permeated, by the radical awareness of the newness of the Gospel. This was a newness of love that came, not as a law from the outside which either constricted the human heart or placed upon it a burden which it could not carry, but which rather impregnated the human heart with the life and love of the Spirit, so that the inmost desires of the human person could be set free and find full flowering in harmony with the desire of God.

As Augustine wrote:

No one comes to me unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:44). Do not think that you are drawn against your will; the will is drawn also by love. We must not be afraid of men who weigh words but are far from understanding what belongs above all to divine truth. They may find fault with this passage of Scripture and say to us: “How can I believe of my own free will if I am drawn to believe?” I answer: “It is not enough that you are moved by the will, for you are drawn also by desire.”

What does this mean, to be drawn by desire? Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps 37:4). The heart has its own desires; it takes delight, for example, in the bread from heaven. The poet could say: “Everyone is drawn by his own desire,” not by necessity but by desire, not by compulsion but by pleasure. We can say then with greater force that one who finds pleasure in truth, in happiness, in justice, in everlasting life, is drawn to Christ, for Christ is all these things.

Are our bodily senses to have their desires, but not the will? If the will does not have its desires, how can Scripture say: The children of men will find their hope under the shadow of your wings, they will drink their fill from the plenty of your house, and you will give them drink from the running stream of your delights, for with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we shall see light (Ps 36:7-9).

Show me one who loves; he knows what I mean. Show me one who is full of longing, one who is hungry, one who is a pilgrim and suffering from thirst in the desert of this world, eager for the fountain in the homeland of eternity; show me someone like that, and he knows what I mean. But if I speak to someone without feeling, he does not understand what I am saying.

You have only to show a leafy branch to a sheep, and it is drawn to it. If you show nuts to a boy, he is drawn to them. He runs to them because he is drawn, drawn by love, drawn without any physical compulsion, drawn by a chain attached to his heart. “Everyone is drawn by his own desire.” This is a true saying, and earthly delights and pleasures, set before those who love them, succeed in drawing them. If this is so, are we to say that Christ, revealed and set before us by the Father, does not draw us? What does the soul desire more than truth? Why then does the soul have hungry jaws, a spiritual palate as it were, sensitive enough to judge the truth, if not in order to eat and drink wisdom, justice, truth, eternal life?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, that is, here on earth. They shall be satisfied, that is, in heaven (Mt 5:6). Christ says: I give each what he loves, I give each the object of his hope; he will see what he believed in, though without seeing it. What he now hungers for, he will eat; what he now thirsts for, he will drink to the full. When? At the resurrection of the dead, for I will raise him up on the last day (Jn 6:40). (Tractate 26.4-6)

“The will has its own desires.” This is a beautiful enrichment of our understanding of the interrelationship between the will, desire, and the natural inclinations of human nature. As we have seen, ever since the introduction of the ideal of the “freedom of indifference,” human liberty has been seen as intrinsically opposed to any external (or internal) givens in reality or in human nature. In this understanding, a choice or act is free to the degree that it is not influenced by any other factors. But in the more holistic and healthy understanding, a choice or act is free to the degree that it conforms with the authentic meaning of our nature, to the degree that it expresses human flourishing in conformity both with the orientation of our God-given being, as well as with the nature of reality as a whole.

Thus, we can understand the human person—and human nature—in a simple and integrated way as someone who has been oriented to live by desire, and to find fulfillment in the fulfillment of desire. And in all the different “parts” of our humanity, this desire is manifest and operative. Our senses themselves are “hungry,” as it were, for contact with reality, thirsting and reaching out to be in communion with what is real: our eyes to behold the light of day and the beauty of form and the radiance of being; our ears to hear meaningful and harmonious sound; our mouths to receive nourishing food and drink; our smell to welcome the fragrance of what is pleasant and good; our sense of touch be in in direct contact with the world in which we live. And these physical senses are passageways, mediums through which we experience the reality of the visible creation; they are the doorways of the body into the subjective consciousness of the person, the “I” who lives in the body and as the body.

In other words, as we take in sensation from outside of us, this sensation becomes a living reality within us, alive in our spirit. It comes to take up its abode, as it were, in our heart. What is the heart? The heart is the innermost core of the person, the reality to which we refer when we say “I.” It is that most intimate sanctuary of our solitude before God, the core of our personal individual mystery as the image of God. It exists in relation with the Trinity and is called into the full flourishing of this relationship in intimacy, an intimacy that is also realized in relation to all other created persons and permeates our contact with the whole universe. The heart is not something that can be “defined” or reduced to rational understanding, but it is something experienced in every experience and at the root of every experience. It is the very core of our consciousness, and yet also surpassing our consciousness, as the foundation of our being in God’s original gift. It is the wellspring of our being, as it were, as well as the very substance of our being in its inmost essence. It is our foundational relation with the sustaining love of God which constitutes us as a person—as spirit—which is also incarnate in the body, and oriented, through the body, to relation with all visible and material things. Thus, as relation, as ceaseless dependence on the sustaining love of God, it is also ontological substance, the gift of our very being and existence, in its own right, from God’s creative generosity.

Here we see how solitude and unity are deeply related in the very constitution of our being. For the very substance of our personhood, given by God to us as an inalienable possession, is also ordained towards communion, and in communion alone finds its fulfillment. And it is precisely through the nakedness of gift—both in reception and in surrender—that the solitude of our inner being experiences and lives the communion for which we were made. And precisely in this way the deep constitutive relation at the core of our being—our heart—comes to fill and permeate our subjective consciousness with the lived experience of communion, the lived experience of gift. And here the experiences of the body and the deepest inner meaning of the heart (and thus also of the spirit) come together in the richness of a single subjective life of love and intimacy.

I have spoken of the body and the senses, and also of the heart as the inner core of the person. What else is important to acknowledge in order to understand the contours of our humanity, and of the desires that this humanity expresses? Well, as I have mentioned before, the heart is not to be understood as a merely spiritual reality—even if it has its roots in the spirit—but also as the living core of our bodiliness. This is a profound paradox, of course, for a mere body cannot have consciousness of subjectivity (an awareness of “I”), and yet our “I” is alive precisely in the midst of our experience of our bodiliness, even as it is a spiritual, and not merely a bodily, reality. This is precisely the mystery of being a soul-body unity (psychosomatic). But let’s not get caught up in trying to grasp and comprehend these mysteries, which can be fully known only in the lived-experience of human existence. I want, rather, to try to speak a little about the contours of our inner experience of consciousness, about the atmosphere of our inner life as persons. I have spoken much more about this in other books, but I will give a summary treatment here.

Upon deep reflection, we can acknowledge that there are three fundamental facets of our consciousness that have primacy over all other: thinking, feeling, and choosing. These are expressions of what are called the three spiritual faculties, rooted as they are in our personhood. These faculties are: 1) the mind/reason, 2) the will, and 3) the affectivity. These are deeply interrelated and always operate together, even if they are distinct in their expression. And in fact, in their integrated state, and at their root, they are one in the meeting-place of our heart.

The mind refers to our capacity for rational thought, for conscious awareness of self and the world in ways that are not possible for animals. And the mind, understood authentically, is much richer than we often suppose, as it consists not merely in our reasoning capacity—the capacity to, so to speak, “think things through”—but also in our very capacity for intuition and contemplative awareness, which surpass the confines of discursive reason while also being true (in fact the truest) forms of knowledge. The mind has an inner orientation toward the truth, given by God himself. The mind is hungry for truth, for a living contact with the whole of reality in the form of knowledge. And this knowledge is not a kind of “possession,” but rather a relation. It is a primal communion with being in the form of seeing and knowing.*

The will refers to our capacity for free choice, for the exercise of liberty in self-determination. It is also, as expressed above, the faculty of our orientation towards the good, our desire to be in contact with the good that fulfills our nature. It operates in harmony with the mind in knowing and discerning the contours of this good and seeking it. In fact, the good and the true are but two facets of a single reality, presented under different dimensions. The will has two primary ways in which it expresses its activity: The first is the freedom of sanction or disavowal, of saying “yes” or “no” to good or evil, right or wrong. The second refers to the freedom to choose a particular course of action, to direct one’s actions in a given way and in given circumstances. The first exercise of freedom is always fundamentally possible, even when at times, for various reasons, we find ourselves incapable of expressing choice or activity in the second way.

Finally, the affectivity refers to our capacity to be “moved” by reality as it presents itself. In this respect, affectivity is but the inner resonance of feeling present within every act of knowing or willing, while also, for its part, drawing the mind and the will to act, spurring them on or sustaining them. And the affectivity has a particular orientation towards, and relation to, beauty. Affectivity, while not a faculty of choice, nor of knowledge properly speaking, nonetheless “informs” both the mind and the will with the sense of goodness and truth, which present themselves to the human person in a particularly full way precisely under the form of beauty.

All three of these faculties, as I said, are best understood not as “parts” of us which operate independently of one another, but rather as different facets or dimensions of our single consciousness. They are dimensions of our subjectivity, our “I,” in different modes of receptivity to and relation with reality. And in their fullest maturity, they grow into union and harmony with one another. And this harmony occurs in the realm of the heart, in the inner core of the person, where mind, will, and affectivity are moved together by what is true, good, and beautiful—all three which are but dimensions of the single essence of Being which is Love.

After trying to glimpse the contours of our inner consciousness, we can return to the text from Saint Augustine above. This passage is indeed incredibly rich, and it shows how deeply the human person lives from desire. In a certain sense, desire is everything in life. If I desire, I am alive, but if desire were entirely to die in me, I myself would be dead, even if I continued to live. Yes, and this desire is not merely for pleasure of the body, but for a living contact with the whole of reality. Indeed, in and beyond anything that can be directly sensed, and yet also within it all, my heart thirsts after spiritual beauty, goodness, and truth, hungers to eat of eternal wisdom and to drink from the torrent of God’s delight (cf. Ps 36:7-9).

What does this mean, to be drawn by desire? Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps 37:4). The heart has its own desires; it takes delight, for example, in the bread from heaven. The poet could say: “Everyone is drawn by his own desire,” not by necessity but by desire, not by compulsion but by pleasure. We can say then with greater force that one who finds pleasure in truth, in happiness, in justice, in everlasting life, is drawn to Christ, for Christ is all these things.

What Saint Augustine refers to as the “desire of the heart” is but a manifestation of our humanity’s capacity—rooted in our being as a person—to long for and reach out to goodness, beauty, and truth. Yes, and he acknowledges that these desires do not draw us away from Christ; they are not obstacles to closeness to him. Rather, insofar as they grow and are expressed according to their innate orientation—insofar as they make contact with beauty, goodness, and truth—then they draw us near to Christ. And, on the other hand, only Christ himself can fulfill, in the fullest measure, the depth of these longings and desires implanted within us precisely to impel us, in all things and beyond all things, into the welcoming embrace of the Trinity.

The will longs for and reaches out to everlasting goodness, the mind longs for and opens itself to receive and to conceive eternal truth, and the affectivity longs for and reaches out to be espoused to everlasting beauty. These three spiritual faculties of our personal being, as I said, are simply three dimensions of our living consciousness as the image and likeness of God—as an “I” opened out to enter into loving relationship with a “You,” with a world of “you’s,” and with the whole creation. Mind, will, and affectivity are simply the manifestation and expression of the inner heart, its distillation and incarnation in our relationship with the world that God has made, and aspiring to a direct contact with God himself. They surge out from this innermost place and surge back again, into the unspeakable depths of our inner sanctuary where we abide in our innate uniqueness before the loving and tender gaze of the Trinity.

And it is in this sacred space, harnessed as we are by desire, that the Spirit of God himself touches us, ravishing us with the sweetness of the divine beauty, healing the wounds that would constrict or misdirect our desire, and drawing us in the fragrance of Christ into the bosom of the Father. Here there is a convergence of desire, as the human heart, touched by grace, becomes docile to grace, and begins to breathe in harmony with the breath of the Spirit in a holy synergy of love and surrender. This union and co-operation, this co-breathing, co-knowing, and co-loving of God and the human person, is the fullest flowering of the gift of redeeming grace given in Christ Crucified and Risen.

This is how Thomas Aquinas could speak of the “new law” of the Gospel in this way: “[W]hat predominates in the New Testament Law, the source of its strength, is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ. Thus the New Law consists principally in the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the Christian faithful” (Summa Theologiae, II.I.106.1). Yes, this is the truth of those beautiful words of Saint Paul, “Those who follow the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom 8:14), and the fulfillment of the promise God made through the Prophet Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ez 36:25-27)

As Saint Paul says further:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. (Gal 4:4-7)

“Abba” is the word that children would use to address their father, their papa, their daddy, a word that is so easy for little mouths to pronounce. Ab-ba… Pa-pa… Thus this gift of the Spirit in our hearts is the gift of confident trust (parrhesia)—the trust of a little child who knows that he or she is unconditionally loved. It is the profound awareness that I have a space in the heart of God, indeed, that the heart of God is an open space of welcoming and sheltering love for me. Thus, the capacity to say “Abba” to God, the fruit of the presence of the very Spirit of the Son alive within me and crying out within me “with inexpressible sighs” (Rom 8:23)—is also the most basic fruit of the experience of true affirmation.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:15-17). When I am affirmed in this way by the love of God, I am set upon the solid rock of my own unique identity as his incomparably beloved. And in this security in my own uniqueness within his love, I am able to progress ever more deeply into the fullness of living relationship with him. I am able to open myself wide to receive the gift of love that unceasingly comes to me from without, to abide in a living relationship of tenderness and affirming love with all that is, and to grow into the full flowering of the intimacy for which my heart was created, and in which alone I will find true and enduring rest.

+ + +

*Pinckaers distinguishes five natural inclinations proper to us in our humanity: 1) the inclination to the good; 2) the inclination to self-preservation; 3) the inclination to sexual union and the rearing of offspring; 4) the inclination to the knowledge of truth; 5) the inclination to live in society. (cf. p. 407) Notice how all of these are founded precisely in the goodness of our own personal dignity and in our orientation towards intimacy through self-giving. Thus this natural understanding of the inclinations harmonizes entirely with the personalistic approach towards life and love that I am trying to illustrate in this book as the decisive reality that gives ultimate meaning to all else. Numbers 3 and 5, for example, are directly related to our desire and need for the communio personarum as realized in marriage, parenthood, and friendship, etc. Number 2 is born of our incomparable dignity as a person “chosen by eternal Love,” as the reverence for the primal gift of our own existence. Number 1 and 4 both relate to the orientation of our being, and all of our faculties, towards reality, towards fulfillment in communion with the objective beauty, goodness, and truth of all that is.

*I would also add that a dimension of the mind is the so-called faculty of the “imagination” or “memory.” This, in more classical treatments of the spiritual faculties, took the place of the affectivity. But properly speaking it is a form of knowledge, albeit one that makes use of information and memories received through the senses and stored in the brain. It seems most simple to me, therefore, to retain the three faculties of mind, will, and affectivity, while understanding the imagination as being part of, and at the service of, the mind. As such, of course, it also provides fuel for the will and can also move the affectivity (as we see, for example, in the case in which traumatic memories can evoke profound affective responses within us, e.g. of sorrow, compassion, or regret).

i. Ibid., 404-405.