Posted December 7, 2010
Longing, Desire, and the Face of God
By Ron Rolheiser
"Like a deer yearns for flowing streams, so my soul yearns for you my God." "My soul keeps vigil for you in the night."
We've all heard these lines, prayed them, and in our more reflective moments tried to mean them; but, mostly, our hearts have belied those words. We haven't really, at least not in our more conscious thoughts and feelings, longed for God with any real intensity and in our beds at night our souls are generally keeping vigil for someone other than God. But, for this, we need not apologize.
We are human beings, not angels, and nature and instinct conspire to direct our gaze and our desire towards this earth. It is persons and things of this earth for which our hearts long with intensity. Moreover, our longings are wide and promiscuous. We ache for a lot of things, though are most intense longings mostly have to do with yearning for a soul-mate and with emotional and sexual consummation.
Those desires, at first glance at least, generally do not appear as holy or God-directed. Indeed, they seem the opposite. What we long for with deep intensity and what our souls keep vigil for in the night is, most times, someone or something much more earthy and erotic than what we associate with God. For example, when we see someone hauntingly beautiful or when we experience strong sexual attraction, what are we feeling inside of ourselves in the face of that radiance? For whom is our soul keeping vigilance at that moment? For what are we longing?
We dare not associate what we are feeling at those times with the holy sentiments we express in our psalms and prayers. And we are the poorer for that, religiously and humanly. First of all, that desire, far from being unhealthy, is in fact a sign of health. Beauty is meant to be honored; we are meant to feel that powerful attraction and pull, including its sexual component. Beauty, of course, is also meant to be respected and not violated. Our capacity to honor beauty is a sign of health and our capacity to not violate that beauty is a test of that health, though that's not the point here.
The point here is that, consciously and unconsciously, we understand these powerful earthy and erotic attractions as taking us away from God and as something we need to give up in order to move closer to God. Our desire for God and our more earthy and sexual desires are perceived as competitors, incompatible, demanding that we renounce one for the other. That misconception, more than we imagine, hurts us.
Why? Because everything that is beautiful and attractive, however earthy and sexual, is contained inside of God. God is the creator of all that is beautiful, attractive, colorful, sexual, witty, brilliant, and intelligent. All that we are attracted to on this earth, including the beauty that allures us sexually, is found inside of God and our attraction and longing for it here on earth is, in the end, a longing for God. Our souls need to keep vigil at a deeper level.
This is what many of the saints and mystics intuited when they felt such intensity in their longing for union with God. All that is beautiful and attractive is found inside of God and is found there in a form that exceeds our experience of it here. The saints and mystics rightly intuited that God is more interesting, more beautiful, and more sexual than anyone or anything here on earth. Hence their longing for God could indeed be compared to a thirsty deer longing for a drink from a cool stream.
We experience the same longing and the same intensity, except we never associate those feelings with God, though we should. The ache that we feel within ourselves in an obsession, in a powerful sexual desire, and in the face of stunning beauty is, ultimately, a yearning for God because everything we desire, be it ever so human, fleshly, or sexual, is inside of God, the author of all that is good. Our souls too thirst for God and they keep vigil for God at night, even though mostly we are unaware of it.
But we never really understand this. If we did, we would, like the saints and mystics of old, become obsessed with God, instead of being obsessed only with what we find attractive here on earth. Some of us are obsessed with beauty, some of us are obsessed with finding a soul-mate, some of us are obsessed with sex, some of us are obsessed with truth, some of us are obsessed with justice, and some of us are obsessed with the energy, color, and pleasures of this world. But very few of us are obsessed, or even much interested, in God who is the author of beauty, sexuality, intimacy, truth, justice, energy, color, and pleasure.
Why aren't we more interested in the One of which these things are only a pale reflection?