My first installment involving Poulsbo-ing introduced the trajectory seen and experienced in all true spirituality: Longing – Awakening – Union and back again. There, I remarked on what I believe to be my existential preparedness to speak on the topic of longing. Not because I’m the most learned guy on the subject. I can’t readily quote all the heavy weights. Largely because I can speak from my own experience of how longing and its fulfillment (or not) has helped me find some good tools for navigating its heavy currents.
Having read many books on this particular topic, I have to say that my personal favourite is the pivotal work by Catholic theologian, Ronald Rolheiser, entitled The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. At the beginning of chapter one he implants the following poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
“The Holy Longing”
Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.
In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you
when you see the silent candle burning.
Now you are no longer caught
in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making
sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter,
now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
Rolheiser makes the astounding claim that everyone has a spirituality of some kind. It is either constructive or destructive. But, we have one all the same. And, long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us.
What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality.
What shapes, motivates, and inspires our actions is our spirituality. And what shapes our actions is basically what shapes our desire. Spirituality concerns what we do with desire, how we channel our eros, our animus; our innermost being. Anytime we begin to wake up to the fire that burns in us, we come in contact with that which holds the key to our (dis)content. We begin to awaken to something in us beyond our understanding and control.
What we do with that discontent is our spirituality.
Rolheiser calls desire our fundamental dis-ease. Danish philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard once defined a saint as someone who can “will the one thing.” Have you heard that before? Such a beautiful, succinct definition. Rolheiser goes on to compare the spiritualities of Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin. One managed to capture and focus her eros into a place of integration: the one thing. The other never did. She fell apart, dissipated, and her eros ended up killing her at age 27.
Most of us fall somewhere in between: Princess Diana. Both erotic and spiritual mixed together in a constant battle between the two.
All things speak to our desire. Some more than others. I’ve often wondered why I’m more readily drawn to movies, books, or stand-up comedy than I am to a bible study or lecture? I wonder if it has anything to do with our topic?
The latter typically (and rather sadly I should add) appeals to our heads, our duty. The former tends to speak more quickly and directly to our passions, our desire; to our life. I believe Eldredge, in his book, The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life We’ve Always Dreamed of reminds us that “Hollywood has mastered the art of speaking to the human predicament.”
In fact, I think movies and art in general speak gospel much more forcefully and accurately to us than those self-proclaimed prophets of the good news, many of whom are basically just peddling one more idea in a saturated marketplace of ideas. Just more information, rather than inspiration leading to transformation.
Longing is costly. It is risky and requires energy and vulnerability, faith, hope. Sometimes we can fool ourselves and others that we live in contentment. More often, it is the mute resignation in the face of muted desire. Our hopes have been dashed so often, that we’ve given up hope but called it contentment.
Either way, our invitation is to awaken to the fire that burns within us. It is a fire burning in hope of union with God and all others. It is the root of all genuine spirituality.
An exercise in awakening: A Visio Divina of The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Longing – Awakening – Union: the story of the Prodigal Son is a gorgeous microcosm of this process. A young man, impetuous, head-strong, very like many of us were when we were younger (or not!), seeks to satisfy his desires in less than helpful ways. In short order he begins to struggle and finds himself in dire straits. What is it that convinces him to return? Not repentance! That happens later.
Few stories are as emblematic of misappropriation of the heart’s desires as this one. It is found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. A veritable cavalcade of longings, the immediate, abused, misunderstood, and immature desires of a younger son; the unrequited, unspoken, hidden, forgotten, ignored desires of an older son; and the aching, bewildered, vulnerable, yearning desires of a doting father. This story has it all.
It is a tale of awakening. Awakening to the many levels of longing to which the heart is privy. The entanglements of those levels, and the deepest longing of all, aroused in different ways in different people – for union with God and others.
As many have before, gaze deeply, slowly, prayerfully into it.
What do the characters tell us about themselves?
How does spiritual longing reveal itself in each one?
Where are you in relation to the father?
Do you feel yourself moving in a particular direction? Toward or away from a particular character in the drama?
What stands in the way of your becoming the father?
“Holy One, our Abba, in all our comings and goings, be alone, our deepest longing.”