During my theology studies in graduate school, and a year before my ordination as a priest, I started to get migraine headaches -- almost every week. Life was moderately stressful, and I had suffered from migraines before, but never with such intensity. I decided to see a doctor.
After some tests, the doctor said that he had seen a "spot" on my test results. He suspected that it was a small tumor under my jaw, which would have to have it removed.
On the morning of the surgery, lying on a cold hospital table, with tubes snaking out of my arms, I was consumed with fear. My friend Myles, a Jesuit priest and physician who worked at the hospital, introduced me as a Jesuit to the physicians and nurses in the operation room.
A nurse stuck a needle in my arm and placed a mask over my face. I had seen this dozens of times in the movies and on television.
Suddenly an incredible desire surged up from deep within me. It was like a jet of water rushing up from the depths of the ocean to its surface. I thought, "I hope I don't die, because I want to be a priest!"
I had never felt it so strongly before. Of course I had thought about the priesthood from the day I entered the Jesuit seminary, and had felt drawn to the life of a priest throughout my training. But never was there a time when I felt that desire so ardently.
When I awoke, it was if I had been asleep for only a few moments. In my foggy state, I heard someone calling my name. Since Myles had told the physicians and nurses that I was a Jesuit, they assumed I was already ordained (which I wasn't yet). So the first thing I heard, seemingly immediately after having this intense desire to become a priest, was a nurse saying softly, "Father? Father?"
It was a surprising -- and rather funny -- confirmation of my longtime desire to be a priest. During my recuperation I realized why Jesus, in the Gospels, may have asked people what they want. "What do you want me to do for you?" he asks the blind beggar named Bartimaeus, before healing him. Naming our desires tells us something about who we are. In the hospital I learned something about myself, which helped free me of doubts about what I wanted to do. It's freeing to say, "This is what I desire in life."
Expressing our desires brings us into a closer relationship with God. Otherwise, it would be like never telling a friend your innermost thoughts. Your friend would remain distant. When we tell God our desires, our relationship to God deepens.
Desire is a primary way that God leads people to discover who they are and what they are meant to do. On the most obvious level, a man and a woman feel sexual, emotional and spiritual desire for one another, and in this way discover their vocations to be married. A person feels an attraction to being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, and so discovers his or her "vocation."
Desire helps us find our way. But we first have to know them.
The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. Our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God's desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly.
Desire gets a bad rap in many spiritual circles-- because desires are often confused with selfish wants. But our selfish wants -- I want a new car because my friend has one; I want a bigger TV because my brother-in-law has one; I want a more expensive suit so that people will think I'm cool -- are different than our deep, heartfelt longings, which lead us to God. And it takes time to be able to discern between the two kinds of desires.
Desire is a key part of spirituality because desire is a key way that God's voice is heard in our lives. And our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for God.
The Rev. James Martin is a Catholic priest and culture editor of America magazine. Before entering the Jesuits in 1988 he graduated from the Wharton School of Business. This essay was adapted from his new book, "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything."