Read an Excerpt
THE UNIVERSAL LONGING
Everybody’s got a hungry heart.
In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to explore the galaxy. A golden record called The Sounds of Earth was affixed to each of the twin spacecrafts—a message from earth to anyone out there in the universe who might be listening. It contained both music and the sound of a human heartbeat.
Annie Druyan served as the creative director of NASA’s famous Voyager Interstellar Message (VIM) Project. Along with Carl Sagan and a few others, she was entrusted with the task of coming up with earth’s message to the rest of the universe. Reflecting on the experience in a 2009 interview, she recalled,
The first thing I found myself thinking of was a piece by Beethoven from Opus 130, something called the Cavatina Movement . . . When I [first] heard this piece of music . . . I thought . . . Beethoven, how can I ever repay you? What can I ever do for you that would be commensurate with what you’ve just given me? And so, as soon as Carl said, “Well, we have this message, and it’s going to last a thousand million years,” I thought of . . . this great, beautiful, sad piece of music, on which Beethoven had written in the margin . . . the word sehnsucht, which is German for “longing.” Part of what we wanted to capture in the Voyager message was this great longing we feel.
A song of human longing launched into space . . . It’s all the more poignant based on the Latin root of the word “desire” (de sidere—“from the stars”). It’s as if NASA’s scientists were saying to the rest of the universe: “This is who and what we are as human beings: creatures of longing.” And hidden in that basic “introduction to who we are” seems a question for extraterrestrials, almost a test to see if we can relate to them: Do you feel this too? Are we the only ones? Are we crazy?
Perhaps even more we wanted to say to any other intelligent life out there, “If you feel this longing, this ache for something too, what have you done with it? Have you discovered anything that can fill it or cure it?” As Annie Druyan relates, “We were hoping that, you know, maybe things like passion and longing . . . are not just limited to our narrow experience but might be something . . . felt on other worlds.”
And how best to communicate that longing we feel? Music. “We thought that the vibrations of the music would speak for us in ways that the machine itself and maybe the pictures and the other things that we had to offer wouldn’t,” explained Druyan.
Longing for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful
What is it about music that can stir such emotion, tap into such profound movements and yearnings of the soul? I remember the first time I felt it. I was maybe eight years old, and Bruce Springsteen’s anthem “Born to Run” came on the radio. At the end of the song as “the Boss” opened his rib cage and gave free rein to some kind of cosmic cry of his heart, something broke open inside me. I didn’t even know what he was singing about, but lying in my bed with my head near the radio, it was as if a crack to the universe opened on my bedroom ceiling and something “ginormous” rumbled through my soul.
The music of Bruce Springsteen and U2 takes up a large section in the sound track of my life. So it was a special treat for me when Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. That night the Boss put his finger on what I first felt lying in bed almost thirty years earlier: “A great rock band,” he said, “searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. They want the earth to shake and spit fire, they want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out.” Then he paused and said a bit sheepishly, “It’s embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from music, except, sometimes it happens.”
Yes. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes we hear a certain song or piece of music and it awakens something inexplicable at our core . . . an ache, a burning, a throbbing, a yearning . . . Beneath our rather surface-y contentment with the workaday world, beneath our desire to earn money and live until Friday, there’s a much deeper desire, isn’t there? We’ve all felt it. Indeed, that collective cry that arises from the depths of our humanity for something to fill these hearts is what makes us human. Desire is part of our design, and if we follow it through to its furthest reaches we seem to intuit that it will lead us to our destiny.
That hunger, that nostalgia, that longing can be awakened not only by a favorite song, but also by a favorite movie or poem, or through an encounter with the beauty of creation (type “double rainbow” into YouTube for a dramatic example of the latter). Sometimes it comes late at night when everything’s quiet, we can’t sleep, and we’re all alone with the rhythm of our own breathing and heartbeat. In those moments, if we’re brave enough to feel it, we sense the desperation of our own poverty, our own need. We’re made for something more. And that “something more” is missing. It eludes us. But whatever “it” is, we want it. And it hurts.
The Greek philosopher Plato called that interior yearning eros. Eros was the Greek god of love and was identified by the Romans with Cupid. Cupid comes from the Latin word cupere, “to desire.” Cupid, of course, conjures up the image of the winged boy with his bow and arrow. The human yearning we’re exploring in this book can certainly be experienced as a kind of piercing arrow that wounds the heart, so to speak, making it “bleed” in a desperate search for satisfaction and fulfillment. But eros shouldn’t be limited merely to romantic love or sexual desire. While eros certainly has sexual connotations that we shouldn’t (and in this book won’t) neglect, the meaning of eros is broader than that. Plato described eros as our longing for all that is true, good, and beautiful. Sad thing is, most of us don’t know where to direct that fire inside, so we end up getting burned and burning others. When that happens, the temptation can be to blame the “ache” itself, and to want to squelch it somehow, to snuff it out.
“Yet there is no escape from the burning desire within us for the true, the good, the beautiful,” writes Dominican father and playwright Peter John Cameron. “Each of us lives with the unextinguishable expectation that life is supposed to make sense and satisfy us deeply. Even the most jaded atheist feels cheated if he doesn’t experience meaning, purpose, peace—in a word—happiness in this life. But just where does this universal expectation for personal fulfillment come from?” he asks. “It isn’t something we drum up or manufacture on our own. Rather, the burning yearning for ‘what is real’ is incorporated into our design. This burning can lead either to the torment of pain or the torrent of love. It will either consume us or consummate us.”
There it is: what we do with that “ache” in our bones is no small matter. It’s no footnote in the grand scheme of things. What we do with our yearning is precisely what determines “the grand scheme of things” in each of our lives. What we do with eros—where we take it—will determine whether we are consumed or consummated, whether we are brought to ruin or reunion . . . with whatever that “something” is we’re seeking.
The yearning of eros reveals that we are incomplete, and that we are in search of another to make “sense” of ourselves. Although that yearning originates deep in our souls, it’s also manifested in our bodies. Our very bodies tell the story of our incompleteness: more specifically, those parts of our bodies that distinguish us as male and female.
Think about it—a man’s body makes no sense by itself; and a woman’s body makes no sense by itself. Seen in light of each other, the picture becomes complete: we go together! Is this merely a biological reality that resulted from a random evolution? Or might a loving God be trying to tell us something fundamental about who he is and who we are by creating us this way? Consider the possibility that human sexuality—our maleness and femaleness and the call to “completion” inherent there—is itself a message from God. Consider the idea that our bodies tell a story that reveals, as we learn how to read it, the very meaning of existence and the path to the ultimate satisfaction of our deepest desires.
From the Christian point of view, our creation as male and female is a “sacramental” reality: a physical sign of something transcendent, spiritual, and even divine. In the biblical understanding, there exists a profound unity between that which is physical and that which is spiritual. This means that our bodies are not mere shells in which our true “spiritual selves” live. We are a profound unity of body and soul, matter and spirit. In a very real way, we are our bodies.
We can see this truth in the fact that if I were to haul off in a fit of rage and break somebody’s jaw, he wouldn’t sue me for property damages; he’d sue me for personal assault. Our living bodies are our living selves. And this means our bodily maleness or femaleness speaks to our deepest identity as persons. As John Paul II observed, our bodies show us who we are and also who we are meant to be.
Indeed, the moment we are born (or even sooner today with sonograms), we are personally identified by our sex organs. “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” And as this sexual identity develops and matures it expresses itself as an undeniable cry of the heart for completeness. Who doesn’t remember the tumultuous years of puberty, when that sense of “incompleteness” is awakened and the yearning of eros (in the specifically sexual sense) presents itself with all its angst and mayhem?
The poetry, myths, and literature of the whole world explore this link between sexuality and man’s quest for “something more”—for completeness, happiness, fulfillment. In ancient philosophy, Plato believed that the human being was originally spherical and complete in himself but was later split in two by the god Zeus as a punishment for pride. Plato said that men and women were constantly seeking their “other half,” longing to rediscover their original integrity.
In the Judeo-Christian perspective the division of the human race into two sexes is not a result of punishment but is part of the original and “very good” design of the world. Still, in the biblical narrative “the idea is certainly present that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become ‘complete.’ The biblical account thus concludes with a prophecy about Adam: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24)” In other words, man finds a certain completion in giving himself fully to woman, and woman in giving herself fully to man—a gift so intimate that the two become “one flesh.”
Eros: Yearning for Infinity
In the New Testament we learn that this “prophecy about Adam” was ultimately a prophecy about the “New Adam,” Christ the Bridegroom, who would leave his Father in heaven to become “one flesh” with his Bride, the Church (see Eph. 5:31–32). What an astounding proclamation! The Christian faith proclaims not only that God loves us, but that God loves us in such an intimate way that the Scripture compares that love to the love of husband and wife in their most intimate embrace. In fact, God made us as sexual beings—as men and women with a desire for union—precisely to tell the story of his love for us. In the biblical view, the fulfillment of love between the sexes is a great foreshadowing of something quite literally “out of this world”—the infinite bliss and ecstasy that awaits us in heaven. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, erotic love is meant to provide “not just fleeting pleasure, but also a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude [blissful happiness] for which our whole being yearns.”
“We talk about different ‘sexual orientations’ in human life,” says Lorenzo Albacete, a physicist turned Catholic priest and a beloved professor of mine. “But the ultimate orientation of human sexuality is the human heart’s yearning for infinity. Human sexuality, therefore, is a sign of eternity.” This means sex is not just about sex. As we learn to “read” the story our bodies tell as male and female, we discover that sex is meant to point the way to the ultimate fulfillment of our every desire. Now, let me clarify—this is not to say that sexual activity is itself our ultimate fulfillment. That’s the major mistake the world is making today. When we aim our desire for infinity at something less than infinity (like sex), we’re inevitably left wanting, disillusioned, and disappointed. But, again, sex is meant to be a sign, a foreshadowing of ultimate fulfillment.
In short, that combustible force called eros is meant to be the fuel that launches our rocket toward the infinite. And from this perspective it’s all the more meaningful that NASA scientists launched Beethoven’s “ode to longing” out into the far reaches of the galaxy—looking, hoping, groping, perhaps, for some answer to the question What are we human beings looking for? What are we to do with that deep ache we feel inside for “something”?
It seems to me we have three choices, three offerings held out by three distinct “gospels.” The word “gospel,” of course, means “good news.” Everyone is searching for some “good news,” some promise of happiness. Each of the three “gospels” that I’ll outline in this book offers a promise of happiness determined by a specific orientation of our desire, a specific invitation for how to direct or how to deal with our hunger. I put “gospel” in quotes, however, because not every promise held out to us is truly good news. Each of the three “gospels” purports to be good news, but it’s up to us to test each one, poke holes in it, see if it holds water, see if it pans out. I call these “gospels”:
GOSPEL #1: the starvation diet
GOSPEL #2: fast food
GOSPEL #3: the banquet