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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
All steamed up
March 2002

It was an advertisement using sex to sell kettles that finally convinced me ours was a culture in its death throes. The key word in bridging this sad synapse was, of course, "steamy": the thinking presumably being that, driven doolally by desire, satisfaction would only be found by purchasing the sultry spout and feline flex of a Russell Hobbs. In my bachelor days I tried this once, and believe me, it doesn't work.

Within a culture so utterly and embarrassingly sold out to the idolatry of desire, so desperate to make everything sexy – including, it would seem, the kitchen sink – the church might be forgiven for acting like an awkward parent watching a saucy sitcom – shuffling uncomfortably before slipping quietly from the room.

The cheapening of desire in the emotional marketplace should, however, prompt the recovery of a rich theme in Christian spirituality, namely, that our deepest longings are an echo of our desire for God. "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God", writes the psalmist: "my soul thirsts for God, for the living God".

But before the kettle manufacturers hit upon this irresistible gap in the market, Christians would do well to consider how divine desire might shape and refine the others that surge within us. For the implications of such Psalms – let alone the Song of Songs – are pretty fundamental, suggesting as they do that human desire finds its source in the thirst, not for the fleshpots of Egypt, nor even for a nice cuppa – but for eternal refreshment.

This is the gist of the highly-charged encounter at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4. Here, a woman drained and deserted by her sexual history hears the shocking promise of new fulfilment – the "spring of living water welling up to eternal life" which Jesus offers. A parable for our times if ever there was: through a surface of dry desire, living water drawn out of the depths.

Augustine, the father of Western theology, had a not dissimilar encounter with Christ – he it was who in his Confessions wrote how we "cannot be content unless we praise you (God, that is), because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you". So aware was Augustine of "the gulf of carnal pleasure" and so eagerly had he leapt into it throughout his youth, that his Christian conversion understandably required a fairly serious renunciation of sensual pleasures.

Augustine's dramatic about-turn has affected the way Christians think ever since, and has often meant that, rather than harnessing the wild horses of desire, we have locked them up for fear they will bolt. Browse through the history of the Western church for an affirmation of bodily passions and you will be browsing for quite some time: ascetics, yes, of course; puritans – certainly, how many would you like? But kettles, you say? I think not.

St Paul is so often blamed for all of this, but he seems to have understood these things far better than he is usually given credit for. He found in Christ a freedom, not from desire per se, but from desires that lead to death – from those drinks which just increase your thirst. Our bodies and our minds, he urged, should be offered to God so that his will, his desire, might begin to refresh and transform our own.

Two current books well worth a read which address this vital issue are Philip Sheldrake's Befriending Our Desires (more pro-kettle, as the title suggests) and Johann Christoph Arnold's A Plea for Purity (rather anti-kettle, but good, nonetheless).

Whereas the latter is a bit like a cold shower, the former is more of a warm bath: both of which in my experience can be equally invigorating at different times. The Sheldrake book is especially interesting: personal maturity comes, he suggests, when we begin to discern our deep desire for communion with God amidst the others which so enrapture and distract us. Ideal reading for Lent, if you can just simmer down.
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
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