Sacred Desire


Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect

Nancy Morrison and Sally Severino are psychiatrists who have been practicing contemplative prayer for many years. Both doctors decided that they wanted to bring the insights they had gained from science together with the insights they had gained through their contemplative prayer practice. What they found is that we are “hard wired” to connect with each other. Our biology is such that we depend on connections with other humans, as well as all sentient beings, in order not only to thrive but to survive.

Drs. Morrison and Severino make their point in a compelling way. I heard them speak at a conference in New Mexico this summer where they defined sacred desire as “the urge to connect and be one with God who is in the universe and in each other.” One of the primary ways that we do this is through what they called resonant attuning – connecting in harmony with the subjectivity of another. Attuning is how we biologically, psychologically, and spiritually connect with one another, and it may be largely non-verbal. To illustrate this they showed us video clips of a mother and baby connecting with each other through eye contact, smiles, and cooing. Both were happy, and empowered by their connection. In another clip a Dad played with his baby in the same way. But after a few minutes, he was told to ignore the baby. In the space of about a minute the baby went from feeling happy, contented, and loved, to being confused, afraid, and sad.

Apparently, when we connect with each other, a certain hormone is released that makes us want to connect more; in short, when we feel loved, happy, and empowered, we want to pass it on to others and our biology helps us do this. According to Severino and Morrison, the more of this hormone we release through resonant attuning, the more there is available to us. In a sense, you could say, there is no shortage of love within us.

You and I know intuitively that this is true. All the great spiritual teachers confirm this. Witness the quote from the Islamic mystic, Hafiz, above. But if this is so, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do we sometimes feel worn out, depressed and unloved? Morrison and Severino explain this through what they call dissonant attuning–connecting in disharmony with each other–or not connecting at all (like the Dad and his baby.)

I thought about all of this today at church when I heard the reading from Matthew’s gospel about Peter seeing Jesus walking on the water. Peter stepped out of the boat and began walking on the water to Jesus. “But,” said the homilist, “distracted by the chaos and confusion around him he took his eyes off of Jesus and began to sink.” What struck me was the priest’s phrase, “distracted by the chaos and confusion around him.” This happens to me all the time as I speed through my packed agenda. I mean well, but somehow I get distracted and take my eyes off of what is really essential —“this great pull in (me) to connect.”  For instance, I may fail to make eye contact with others, forgo the opportunity to smile or offer a friendly pat on the shoulder. Simple things that are also salvific— they heal us.

Jesus told us we have the power to heal each other. The novelist E. M. Forester said all he had learned in life could be summed up in two words—”only connect.” I remember I have the power to heal myself and others when I sit in the silence of my contemplative practice. The demons of distraction and confusion may swirl around me, but there is also the good true hand of the Other reaching through the chaos to heal me.