Erik Varden (Photo: Lupe de la Vallina)

Erik Varden: Broadening desire

In the March issue of Tracce, the Norwegian bishop speaks about the search for love in today's world. The key to living it. And why Mary Magdalene would be “an excellent patron saint for the twenty-first century.”
Anna Leonardi

If in The Shattering of Loneliness he took us on a journey of discovery of God as an answer to the cry of our time, in his latest book, Chastity, Erik Varden addresses a bold theme, which to today's world may sound like a cold gust from a distant era. The two titles actually have a much deeper correlation than might seem. "Chastity is a fullness," explains the author, a Trappist monk and, since 2020, Bishop of Trondheim in Norway. "It is an attitude towards things and people that springs forth when the human heart is invested by that embrace that heals and fulfils its most radical expectations. That is why it is reductive to equate chastity with 'not doing' and 'not being'. It is a state of grace. And a virtue for everyone.” These are words that suggest a way forward in an ultra-secularised society, where relationships between people can turn into a swamp when they are used to fill a void, rather than to share a superabundance.

Relationships today do not seem healthy. Many analyses agree on diagnosing unbridled individualism as the main cause of the symptoms of distrust, incommunicability, envy, loneliness. What do you think?
It is a gloomy picture. At least partially. Of course, these exasperations exist, but there are also very healthy tendencies. What I notice during my pastoral activity is a search for sociality, for communion even in the most secular contexts. Here in Norway the numbers of people seeking voluntary work is very much on the rise: the desire to do things with and for others is flourishing. This means that postmodernity’s individualistic tendency is not everything, there is also the perception that being imprisoned in oneself is not a path to happiness.

What does it mean in this context to talk about affectivity, love, friendship?
Today I find it crucial above all to understand friendship. We are in a time when intimate relationships are reduced to eroticism or sentimentality and this makes them fleeting, temporary. Friendship, on the other hand, has a more rational aspect, it is an elective affinity. It is a type of relationship where it is easier to surprise that yearning to find a stable foundation and in which one can sense that one's personality can nourish and build itself. Ultimately, Christian holiness is identified as the capacity for friendship. Christ told us: 'You are my friends. I have called you friends.' Friendship is a privileged area where we can train and learn to live all other relationships.

Do you see evidence of this today?
Yes, that is why I do not feel desperate. Perhaps those of us in northern Europe, who have always experienced the various trends of western societies in advance, are now moving up the slope and see the light at the end of the tunnel. Although many seem to be stuck, the desire to build relationships and to recognise that we are dependent on each other appears to be irreducible, a seed from which something new can be generated that makes the world more human.

In your latest book, Chastity, you state that we need to “broaden (infinitely) the range of desire. Only thus can we learn to seek proportionate responses to what our flesh faints for and to spare ourselves repeated frustration.” Can you elaborate on this dynamic?
Desire is an expression of our being made by God. It is something intrinsic to human nature. We are inhabited by an echo, a call. It is the Lord who makes the likeness of Him sing in us. Desire is the engine of my life because it directs it towards a fullness, which is communion with God lived also in the relationships with others. Our sin is a sabotage of desire, which is fragmented towards many different objects. But if we look where that deep desire takes us, we realise the relativity of all the things that are not enough to fulfil it. And, at the same time, we recognise them in their truest value, because only in the light of that which quenches life's thirst does even every little thing reveal its meaning.

There is an episode in Fr. Giussani's life that led him to have a similar intuition. It was a summer evening full of stars, and as he was leaving his parish on his bicycle, he surprised a couple embracing. After a few pedal strokes he stopped and asked them: "Excuse me, what does what you are doing have to do with the stars?". Years later, commenting on that moment, he said: “I rode away glad because I had discovered what the moral law was: it is the link between the triviality of the instant and the whole complex of factors that make up the universe.”
I find myself in complete agreement with his observation. The link with the wholeness of self and the universe is the key to living love and every relationship with patience and sacrifice. For a Christian, nothing can be trivial, everything is understood anew, if lived in the light of the ultimate purpose, which is the good of the world. This passage reminds me of Jack, the latest novel by the American writer Marilynne Robinson, where the protagonist, the foolish son of a 1950s Missouri reverend, one night meets Della, a young woman. Jack offers to stay close to her but at arm's length, so as to protect her and not make her uncomfortable. The two spend the night talking and there is a pivotal moment when she looks at him as no one ever has; in her eyes he is not a stranger but “a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world.” Jack feels himself being looked at – as he really is – inside his being and is drawn, despite himself, to become aware of it. He knows that there is something in her that uniquely recalls something in him. And this is the link to purpose that Giussani speaks of.

What do we re-start from when we come up against weakness and frailty, our own and others', and loosen this ultimate tension?
In the monastic context, two moments during the day are dedicated to the examination of conscience. What have I done with the possibilities given to me to live today? How have I lived my relationships with things, with my brothers? This self-knowledge is a necessary step because it makes me more attentive to myself and to others. And to the impact that what I do or do not do can have on others. The Fathers call it 'humility', which is nothing more than a healthy realism that makes us say goodbye to all the images we construct of ourselves. This is made more difficult in the virtualized world we live in where we conceive of ourselves in idealized terms. The ability to look at myself as I am is the first step to standing in front of the other. For which I begin to feel responsible.

What does that mean?
If I conceive of myself as the sun in a universe of extinct stars, I will always remain the sole subject of a relationship. Sure, I may realise that others exist, but I do not recognise any meaning in them. Instead, if I discover that I am made for the relationship, I also discover myself responsible for that relationship. I can be a source of good for the other's life, but I can also inflict deep wounds. There are relationships – I am thinking of those between parents and children – where this is very clear. It is a reciprocal relationship where, however, it may happen that a father or mother has to give up being seen, or even accept abandonment. It is possible to make this sacrifice by remaining firm in your loving purpose, which means always keeping the door open. This is a delicate matter, because there can be an unhealthy tendency to sacrifice oneself to save the other. Let us remember that there is only one saviour, and it is not me, and that there are relationships that only patience can heal. This also applies to spouses. The human being becomes truly human when they express this ultimate feeling of dedication to the good of the other. Instead, we are dedicated to claiming our rights, to singing the litany of our traumas.

You wrote that Mary Magdalene would be “an excellent patron saint for the twenty-first century.” Why?
This woman is a 'healed' woman. Healed from deep wounds. Someone who went through a 'school of love', which first and foremost is a school of freedom that made her capable of both intimacy and detachment. She enters the Gospel scene full of her thirst, to love and to be loved. Her encounter with Christ transforms the meaning of her deepest longing, even if the process takes time. Mary Magdalene listens and learns. Her journey from a vulnerable woman to a witness of the Resurrection is something our time needs to look at.