Poulsbo-ing, part 2

Longing - John O'Donohue.jpg

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.

Desperation.

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? 

Prodigal Son.jpg
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn. Created 1663-1669

Closing Prayer

“Holy One, our Abba, in all our comings and goings, be alone, our deepest longing.”

Hiraeth – making peace with our longing, conclusion

contemplation

“Our longing is an echo of the divine longing for us. Our longing is the living imprint of divine desire. This desire lives in each of us in that ineffable space in the heart where nothing else can satisfy or still us” -John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes

Throughout our series I’ve sought to define the Celtic concept of hiraeth in the following way: “a longing, a homesickness for a home to which one can never return. It is the unrequited hope that produces ever more unanswered longing. It is a grieving for the lost places and moments of one’s past – a sense of loss for loving moments and places, fondly remembered. It sits in the dream world where longing, belonging, home, and wanderlust meet.” 

We’ve looked at the necessity of metaphor in our efforts to understand this, or any, spiritual concept. I’ve invited people into my own personal salve, applied generously on my own longing – writing. We’ve discussed how the spirit of childhood and its built-in mysticism (Jesus called this childlikeness or, humility) is our truest home and the perfect allegory for our own longing – the return to that elemental time of wonder and chaotic delight; to mystery. Finally, we’ve adopted Ronald Rolheiser’s idea that our spirituality is what we do with our longing, the end of which can lead us to God’s greatest gift: self-knowledge.

Longing, as rooted in hiraeth, is a double-edged sword. It pricks us with the sting of yearning while simultaneously acting as a reminder of our finitude. We long for what we most want but which we so often least require. In this way, Hiraeth can be a longing for longing itself. Except, when we return, we discover WE have changed. Capturing even the essence of something is then an impatient storming of the gates of the reality itself. We chase a shadow as though it were the substance of the shadow.

Shadows

So, where does this leave us? This enigmatic Welsh word seeks to describe an idea without clear English equivalent. But it’s a start. It gets us somewhere. It has helped me grapple with an incessant gnawing thirst within me, never completely satisfied. And, as is the case with so many of our bugaboos, healing often comes with the process of articulation.

There is still a deeper level to which I am drawn as an apprentice of Jesus, for if anyone understood the exile of hiraeth it was the Son of God. It is here that I diverge from hiraeth in order to turn my attention to longing as understood and experienced in the harbor of Christ. 

All our discontinuities, our divestments, and disenfranchisement are subsumed into Christ Jesus, the exiled One. In the contemporary evangelical mind at least Jesus belonged anywhere but where he willingly chose to come. His truest “home” was within the eternal Trinity, that mystical scaffolding for all human relationships. If indeed one believes Jesus to be the image of the Divine Essence we call God, then his enfleshment becomes that much more jaw-dropping.

Prior to the Incarnation of God in Christ, the archetypal longing in the human soul was crooned in the poetry of the Psalms:

“My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times” (Psalm 119:20). “My soul languishes for Your salvation; I hope in your word” (Psalm 119:81). “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.” (Psalm 73:25). “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:2). “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land” (Psalms 143:6).

Biblically, it is an ubiquitous concept. And, with the coming of Jesus, who understood the exile of longing better than anyone, we’re introduced to the promise of a never-ending thirst that is always and never slaked. It is the fulfillment of what hiraeth begins. The richer vein from which we draw means that boring underneath the irascible sea of our lives is an Artesian Well of nourishment. Jesus spoke often of the possibility of satiation found in the existential oneness we experience with God in his name:

“Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life”” (John 4:13-14). “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst”” (John 6:35). “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal” (John 6:27). “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink”” (John 7:37).

From these sacred words we’re given a glimpse into what lies at the root of all our longing – the need to know and be known, to love and be loved; to be one with the One whose roots alone bring the nourishment from which we will capably thrive in our world fraught with the ache of hiraeth.

well-w-bucket

I anticipate much more thirst to come. But my life will never be without water.

Series image found here

Shadows image found here

Bucket and well image found here

Hiraeth – making peace with longing, part 5

contemplation

“The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature” – John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes

At the beginning of chapter one of The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Catholic theologian, Ronald Rolheiser‘s pivotal work, 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.

Goethe voices something Rolheiser explores very well in his book. It is what we’ve been examining these past weeks: longing. Rolheiser maintains that longing, or desire as he calls it, is our primary dis-ease. He submits that “there is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace” (p. 3). In fact, he believes desire to be stronger than the satisfaction for which it yearns. And everyone desires – longs – and our spirituality is what we do with that unrest.

Rolheiser goes on to say however that, although we all suffer deep longing, not everyone addresses it in the same way. He compares Janis Joplin’s longing, lived out in the erratic and scattered desires that ultimately led to her untimely death with the more focused and singular desire of Mother Teresa that allowed her a healthy integration and more restful existence. This of course recalls Kierkegaard’s definition of sainthood – someone who can will the one thing.

Stated another way, our spirituality is “about how we channel our eros…what we do with the spirit that is within us” (p. 11). This is for me the greatest challenge since I have so many competing and overpowering inner voices, all clamoring for supremacy. Indeed, willing the one thing first requires the monkeys to quit swinging in the mental tree (thank you Henri Nouwen!). It is also why desire and longing have, for me, been so intimately tied to identity: my is-ness.

I believe this concept is utilized best when determining the growth pattern of our inner lives, specifically our emotions. It does not deny the tiger claw tears in the fabric of our hearts that rich memories can bring. It invites us however to live there in a liminality of time and space, with one eye on the object of our longing, who in fact dwells comfortably where our elevator originates; Christ at our foundation.

And that is where our discussion will ultimately lead us. For now I want to explore longing as it pertains to the soul’s need for self-knowledge. And, at the root of self-knowledge is self-love that can find itself anywhere because it belongs everywhere. As an adoptee and one who has seldom truly felt “at home” anywhere, this can be a daunting, even depressing idea since it points to a (be)longing that, again, is never really be satisfied.

Numerous spiritual directors, almost all my friends, my therapist, and of course my wife, tell me I am my own worst enemy. I can talk myself out of anything. I will consistently deny the gifts apparent to others that elude me. I will be a willing martyr in order to delay or defuse conflict and, in my tireless efforts at ensuring my belonging in any crowd, will osmose into their particular zeitgeist like a chameleon in a tree. “Yup, I can fit here. Hmm, I can make this group work. Wow, this feels good. Now, who the hell am I?”

The result is that I have lived many lives, none of them my own. It makes me a blast at parties, a generally affable guy; the one you want to have sit at your table. It also means I am someone always willing to help change your tire, hear your story, or sing you a song of encouragement when you most need it.

But it can also have more sinister tones.

The loneliness and stress of living in the constant search for the “real me” often drives a relative blindness to boundaries as I push my way into everyone’s acceptance. It means the elaborate construct that has become my life lacks foundation and could all too easily topple into disarray, and often does. I wonder sometimes if it’s the adult version of the kid constantly tugging at the sleeve, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom…” Eeewww.

So, you see my dilemma. The hard path ahead is finding acceptance without expecting it, exercising self-love without bounding over other people’s personal space, and learning to live, contented, in tension when none of it works all the time as I think it should. For me as for others, the longing I experience is most likely the soul’s vocal cries to express the deepest, truest self; the self that is free even in prison, safe even in danger, content even in deep darkness.

We find the satisfaction to our longing once we know we belong. We belong in God’s ongoing cosmological project. We belong to the broader family of beings with whom we co-inhabit this spinning little ball of wonder. We belong wherever we presently are. It means everywhere can be home. It means we never truly have to live as exiles in our own domains.

We are most home when we come home to ourselves.