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RESTLESSNESS, SPIRIT and the MARTYRDOM of OBSCURITY
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame,
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
(T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets)
Restless Hearts Yearn for God
WE ARE FIRED into life by a madness that comes from our incompleteness. We awake to life tense, aching, erotic, full of sex and restlessness.
This dis–ease is, singularly, the most important force within existence. It is the force for love and we are fundamentally shaped by our loves and deformed by their distortions.
Shakespeare called this our “immortal longings” and poets, philosophers, and mystics have always recognized that, within it, there is precisely something of immortality.
Religiously, we have surrounded this longing with chastity and mystique.
Ultimately our restless aching was seen as nothing less than the yearning within us for God. Augustine’s interpretation of this eros was seen as the proper one: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The longing was understood religiously: Adam, missing his rib, longing for Eve, man and woman, woman and man, longing for a primal wholeness in God and each other. This was high longing, eros as the spark of the divine in us, the fire from the anvil of God imprisoned inside us like a skylark, causing hopeless disquiet!
In the light of such divine restlessness we lived as pilgrims in time, longing for a consummation in a kingdom not fully of this world, caught, in Karl Rahner’s words, “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, inconsummate, but knowing that here in this life all symphonies remain unfinished.”
In such a view, we pursued each other, embraced each other, and loved and made love to each other against the horizon of the infinite, under a high symbolic hedge. Love, romance, sex, and passion were sacred things, surrounded by much chastity and mystique.
Today that hedge is lower, the mystique and the chastity are less. We no longer embrace against the horizon of the infinite and our aches are no longer seen as longing for the transcendent.
Instead, for the most part, we have trivialized this longing, making it mean something much more concrete. The longing is for the good life, for good sex, for good successes, for what everybody else has, for the sweetening of life.
There is little mystique in this. Plato, in his Symposium, tells of his students sitting around "telling wonderful stories of the meaning of their longing.” Mystics, in their writings, tell of their deep longing for consummation within the body of Christ.
Today we rarely sit around and tell wonderful stories of the meaning of our longing, and, ordinarily, there is little talk of aching for consummation within the body of Christ.
Our stories are, for the most part, of yearnings more concretely channeled. It is a rare self–understanding today which lets one believe that his or her aches and yearnings are mystical. We are not accustomed to think in such high terms, our symbols are more humble.
Our aches and longings are seen as directed toward what we can attain, practically, in the here and now, achievement, success, sex, limited love and enjoyment.
There is nothing bad about these things, but, in the end, if we define our deepest longings as directed toward them in themselves, we end up in despair. Eventually, we no longer believe that we can recover a primal wholeness through the embrace of another, the perpetuity of our seed, and the contemplation of God. We lower our sights. We trivialize our longing.
We no longer see our longing as a congenital and holy restlessness put in us by God to push us toward the infinite. Instead it becomes a tamed and tame thing, domesticated, anesthetized and distracted. We are restless only in a tired way (which drains us of energy) and not in a divine way (which gives us energy).
And so we should ask ourselves the question: What kind of lovers are we?
Are we still fired into life by a madness which lets us understand the insatiability of our hearts as a call to infinite love? Do we still see ourselves as pursuing each other, embracing each other, and loving each other against the horizon of the infinite? Do we still understand ourselves as meeting on holy ground with all the mystique and chastity that this implies?
Or, do we believe that life is best lived without such mysticism, high romance, high eros, and high chastity? Do we still tell each other wonderful stories of the meaning of our longings or do we discourage each other from raising our eyes above the immediate?
Do we cry with each other and support each other in the frustration of our incompleteness or do we give each other the impression that there is something wrong with us because our lives are inconsummate and our symphonies are incomplete?
Do we still take our longings and emptiness to God in prayer or do we demand that life gives us, here and now, the full symphony?
Do we lovingly and gratefully receive the spirit of our own lives, despite the tensions, or do we live in angry jealousy?
Are we loving against an infinite horizon or is our eros directed only towards the concrete sweetening of life?
What kind of lovers are we?
Longing Is Our Spiritual Lot
ON FEBRUARY 12th, 1944, thirteen-year-old Anne Frank wrote the following words in her now famous Diary (Pan, 1968):
Today the sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I am longing—so longing—for everything. To talk, for freedom, for friends, to be alone.
And I do so long…to cry! I feel as if I am going to burst, and I know that it would get better with crying; but I can’t, I’m restless, I go from room to room, breathe through the crack of a closed window, feel my heart beating, as if it is saying, “can’t you satisfy my longing at last?”
I believe that it is spring within me, I feel that spring is awakening, I feel it in my whole body and soul. It is an effort to behave normally, I feel utterly confused. I don’t know what to read, what to write, what to do, I only know that I am longing.
There is in all of us, at the very center of our lives, a tension, an aching, a burning in the heart that is insatiable, non–quietable and very deep. Sometimes we experience this longing as focused on a person, particularly if we are in a love that is not consummated. Other times we experience this yearning as a longing to attain something.
Most often, though, it is a longing without a clear name or focus, an aching that cannot be clearly pinpointed or described. Like Anne Frank, we only know that we are restless, full of disquiet, aching at a level that we cannot seem to get at.
When we look into history, philosophy, poetry, mysticism and literature we see an astonishing variety of ways in which this aching is expressed.
For instance, many of us have read Richard Bach's little parable, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. This book spoke deeply to millions of people. It is a very simple story: Jonathan is a seagull who, when he comes to consciousness, is not satisfied with being a seagull. He looks at his life, and the lives of other seagulls, and he finds it too small: “All a seagull ever does is eat and fight!” So Jonathan tries to burst out. He tries to fly higher, to fly faster, to do anything that might break the asphyxiating limits of being a seagull. He does not know what he wants, he only knows that he is hopelessly restless, that he must break out. Many times he crashes and almost kills himself, but he keeps trying.
This is a story obviously more of the human heart than of a seagull. It describes our search, our aching, our congenital propensity for the limitless, the free, the total embrace.
In more abstract ways, this has been expressed in history: Philosophers speak of “a desire of the part to return to the whole”; mystics speak of “the spark of the divine in us”; the ancient Greeks spoke of something they called nostos, homesickness (a feeling of never being at home, even when you are at home).
The Vikings called it “wanderlust,” the insatiable need to push further and further into the horizon; Shakespeare talked of “immortal longings”; Gerard Manley Hopkins called the human spirit “an imprisoned skylark”; Augustine prayed to God: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”; e. e. cummings, poet, said: “For every mile the feet go, the heart goes nine.”
All of these feelings are in all of us. We are all deeply and hopelessly subject to dis-ease, incapable in this life of finding lasting rest. This restlessness, however, must never be seen as something which sets us against what is spiritual, religious and of God.
In fact this hopeless aching and lack of ease is the very basis of the spiritual life. What we do with the eros inside us, be it heroic or perverse, is our spiritual life.
The tragedy is that so many persons, full of riches and bursting with life, see this drive as something which is essentially irreligious, as something which sets them against what is spiritual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our erotic impulses are God’s lure in us. They are our spirit!
We experience them precisely as “spirit,” as soul, as that which makes us more than mere animals. Our soul is not an invisible kind of tissue floating around within us, that stains when we sin and cleanses when we are in grace and which ultimately floats away from the body after death. Our soul is our eros, our minds and hearts in their deep restlessness.
Living the tension that arises out of that is the spiritual life. In that sense, everyone has a spiritual life—either a good one or a destructive one. Our spirits make it impossible for us to be static, we must move outside ourselves.
That movement outward (which is experienced as a double tension: a hunger which drives us outward and an attractive outside person or object which draws us outward) is either beneficial to us or destructive. When it is beneficial, we have a good spiritual life; when it is destructive, we have a bad one.
It is important, therefore, that we do not identify the spiritual life with something which is exotic (for religious fanatics), extraordinary (for professional contemplatives), or as something which is not for those who are full-blooded and full of eros.
It is non–negotiable. If you are alive, you are restless, full of spirit. What you do with that spirit is your spiritual life.
The Martyrdom of Obscurity
WE CRAVE FEW THINGS as deeply as self–expression.
Deep within the eros that makes us restless and dissatisfied lies the incurable need to express ourselves, to be known, recognized, understood, and seen by others as unique and as having deep riches inside us.
Self–expression, being known and being experienced in our depth, is vital to living and loving. A heart which is unknown, unappreciated in its depth and lacking in meaningful self–expression is always a restless and frustrated heart. It is normally, too, a competitive and bitter one. But meaningful self–expression is difficult and full self–expression is impossible.
In the end all of us live in obscurity, unknown, frustrated. Our lives are always smaller than our needs and our dreams. Ultimately we all live in small towns, no matter where we live; and save for a few brief moments of satisfaction, spend most of our lives waiting for a fuller moment to come, waiting for a time when we will be less hidden.
From this frustration stems a tremendous restlessness and dissatisfaction. Each of us would like to be the famous writer, the graceful ballerina, the admired athlete, the movie star, the cover girl, the renowned scholar, the Nobel prize winner, the household name. But in the end each of us is just another unknown, living with other unknowns, collecting an occasional autograph.
Our lives always seem too small for us. We sense ourselves as extraordinary persons living very ordinary lives. Because of this sense of obscurity we are seldom satisfied, easeful and happy with our lives.
There is always, too, much still inside us that wants expression, that needs recognition, that feels that something very precious, unique and rich is living and dying in futility.
And in truth, seen only from the perspective of this world, much that is precious, unique and rich is living and dying in futility. Only a rare few achieve meaningful self–expression. There is a certain martyrdom in this. Iris Murdoch has said: “Art has its martyrs, not the least of which are those who have preserved their silence.” Lack of self–expression, whether chosen or imposed by circumstances, is a real death.
Like all death, however, it can be paschal or terminal. If merely accepted as inevitable it leads to bitterness and a broken spirit. If linked to the paschal mystery of Christ, if it is seen as an opportunity to enter the hidden life of Christ, it leads to a new ease in life, to restfulness; and it lays the ax to the root of our competitiveness, anger and bitterness.
Today we are called as Christians to the martyrdom of obscurity. Christianity always invites its adherents to martyrdom. To be a follower of Christ demands that one lay down one's life. But this takes various forms.
For Jesus and his apostles, as for many early Christians during the times of the persecutions, martyrdom meant physical death. They had to give up the possibilities that this life offered in order to remain true to a more distant possibility—permanent intimacy with God and each other. In dying they entered the hidden life of Christ.
That type of martyrdom is still being asked of Christians in many parts of the world, notably in Latin America.
In North America and Western Europe, however, at least of many of us, a different kind of martyrdom is being asked. Our culture persecutes its Christians in a different way. Affluence and leisure have created a higher psychic temperature. These have focused us on interpersonal, sexual, artistic, athletic and scientific achievement. In a word, they have focused us on self–expression. In our culture meaningful self–expression is everything; lack of it is death. Yet it is this death that paschally we must enter.