John Horan reflects on the heart’s longings, on how we may fill our lives with pleasures of all kinds, yet still find our deepest desire unfulfilled – until we discover that union with God was the answer all along.
Our search for happiness and deeper fulfilment is relentless. Each of us knows from our own experience the degree there is unhappiness, restlessness, frustration, lack of fulfilment and perhaps what Thoreau called “quiet desperation” in our lives. Even when we experience some measure of love, friendship, achievement, satisfaction or intimacy with all that is good and beautiful in our world, we may still feel restless and dissatisfied. A feeling of desire or longing for ‘more’ may manifest itself fleetingly or hang around us for ages like a necklace of depression.
In our Western culture there is a sense in which most people are already ‘full’. By and large, with all our basic needs for security, shelter and food being met, we endlessly pursue a plethora of superficially created needs. Maybe we just need to look in our wardrobes or at the bric-a-brac in our homes to get some small idea of how we strive to fill our endless longings and desires.
The trick of all advertisers is to convince us that their product fulfils a need that will lead us to a deeper state of satisfaction. Of course, in the short term, they may succeed, and we bask awhile in the glow of the newly acquired product. But ‘things’ are no panacea for our deepest longings. All they offer us is a lifestyle, when what our souls desire is life. Without being aware of the source and nature of our longings we can easily get hooked on the treadmill of satisfactions which will not fill the hunger.
If only we could tap into the source of a true’ cure’, the cure promised by Jesus when he says we are made for life and to have it in abundance. To find this cure may not be easy. It will mean travelling the road of paradox. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “In order to possess what you do not possess, you must go by the way of dispossession. And … to be restored, our sickness grow worse”.
For you my soul is thirsting
A few thousand years ago the Psalmist struggled with the same human reality: Where do I find fulfilment of my longings and deep desires? Ultimately he arrived at the conclusion: “O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water”.
“A dry, weary land without water” is an evocative image, an image that not only reflected the actual desert landscape of the ancient Hebrews, but also the sense of inner desert of scarcity and thirst that any of us may experience. When our deepest yearnings are unsatisfied there may well be a feeling of ‘withering away’ and of ‘being barren’ within. And we wish for the nourishing waters of new life and fulfilment.
The realisation, when it dawns, that no person or no thing can ultimately satisfy my deepest longings, can be a sobering insight. I suppose, the fact of the matter is, that everything in life ultimately ‘betrays’ us to one degree another, in the sense that – be they relationships or possessions, prestige or success – they can never deliver completely what they seem to promise.
Indeed reality may turn out to be so different from our original expectations that it is unrecognisable. Our earlier dreams turn to ashes. Nothing ultimately seems to satisfy, and we are confronted with the terrible insufficiency of everything there is. Even our certainties crumble in the face of this reality. As they do, we may get a glimpse of an inner emptiness we never knew existed. It is said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, and neither is an attractive proposition. Death, that ultimate betrayer, threatens life itself. So we tend to keep the thought of it at bay on some distant horizon, and hope it will skip us if we keep it from consciousness.
Ronald Rolheiser, in his book Against an infinite horizon, quotes the story of a man who shared his unfulfilled longings with him. His story could be every man’s or woman’s. Even when it appears that people have it all, their restless hearts may still be keeping them very dissatisfied. The maxim “far-away fields look green” did not come into our vocabulary for nothing. I paraphrase his story:
“For most of my adult life, I’ve been too restless to really live my own life. I’m forty-five, but I’ve never really accepted who I am. I run a small town grocery store, married to a good, if unexciting woman, aware my marriage will never fulfil my deep sexual yearnings; and aware also that despite my daydreaming I am going nowhere, I will never fulfil my dreams, I will only be here as I am now in this small town, with these people, in this body for the rest of my life, I will only grow older, fatter, balder and possibly with failing health. But what is sad in all of this is that, from every indication, I should be having a good life. I am lucky really. I am healthy, loved, secure, in a good marriage, living in a country of peace and plenty. Yet, inside myself I am so restless that I never enjoy my own life and my wife and my kids and my job and the place where I live. I’m always at some other place inside myself, too restless to be where I am at, too restless to live in my own house, too restless to be really inside my own skin.”
There is poignancy to this story that may speak to us quite personally. Karl Rahner remarks that “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished”. This reminds us that inadequacy is built into everything when it comes to meeting our deepest desires. There is a transcendent dimension to our longings which needs to be acknowledged; otherwise we’ll never begin to understand our restlessness.
God is the source
Somehow when we are not in relationship to the God-centre, at the core of our beings, it is difficult to be in true relationship to anything or anyone, even to ourselves as human beings inside our own skins.
It took St Augustine many years before he recognised that God was the source of his restlessness. His addiction to promiscuity in his youth is well documented. Then he saw life and desire utterly differently, and pronounced probably his most famous words: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”. Nothing short of union with God can satisfy our deepest desires.
The English poet Francis Thompson makes a similar point. Thompson in his youth felt called to the priesthood but was unsuited for that vocation. He then turned to medicine but twice failed his exams. More failures followed. He failed as a salesman and the army rejected him. When his mother died he became depressed and turned to drugs and became an addict. He moved to London and lived rough in the slums of that great city. He wrote some poems during this time and sent some of them to Wilfrid Meynell, editor of the literary magazine Merry England, who published one of them in 1888. Meynell searched out Thompson and found him near death and despair. He sent him to a sanatorium for a year to deal with his addiction. He then spent a year in a monastery to further heal his spirit and for the next twenty years used his creativity as a writer. Ultimately Thompson saw the object of his deepest longing was not drink, drugs and sex but God. He expressed this beautifully in his poem The Hound of Heaven. There he tells us:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled him down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind.
To satisfy the hurts and longings within him, Thompson had run after false solutions. He says that God, whose love he saw in the friendship of the Meynell family, never abandoned him, but like a hound was following him all the time, even when he was looking for solutions in all the wrong places.
But with unhurried chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – a voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
It is important to look beneath the desires and frustrations that mill around in our hearts and try to follow their roots to a deeper source. There are underlying longings that these desires are expressing, something beyond, which is drawing us ever deeper. The search, as with Augustine and Thompson, for the hidden roots will lead us to God. Our restless hearts will finally lead us home.
This article first appeared in The Salesian Bulletin (July-Sept. 2002), a publication of the Irish Salesians.