All life is fired by longing. The simplest of plants and the highest of human love have this in common—yearning, restlessness, a certain insatiable pressure to eat, to grow, to breed, to push beyond self.
Yet longing is something that is rarely examined, despite the fact that it lies at the very heart of the soul.
What is longing? What does it mean to yearn? What is this insatiable press inside of us to eat, to drink, to make love, to want to be outside of our own skins and to want to make ourselves immortal?
Mostly it is unconscious, a dark relentless pressure to reach beyond ourselves.
We see this already in plants. A friend of mine shares how, after buying a house, he decided to get rid of a bamboo plant in his driveway. He cut the plant down, took an axe and chopped down deep into the earth, destroying as much of its roots as he could.
Then he poured bluestone, a plant poison, on what remained. Finally, he filled the hole, where the plant had been, with several feet of gravel which he tamped tightly and paved over with cement.
Two years later, the cement heaved as that bamboo plant began to slowly make its way through the pavement. Its life principle, the blind pressure to grow, was not so easily thwarted by axes, poison and cement.
There is an incredible power, a blind pressure, to grow in all things living. If you put a two-inch band of solid steel around a young watermelon it will, as it grows, slowly burst that steel.
The life-push outwards will have its way. The pressure is always there. All of nature is incessantly driven to eat, to grow, to breed, to fight for more life. Humans are not exempt.
We see this, unconscious still, in the way babies eat and in the hormonal drives of adolescents. There we see a drivenness, impossible to thwart or deny. Life pushes outward, reaches outward, yearns, longs and pushes.
And we see it, a bit more conscious now, in adult restlessness, in our greed for experience, our hunger for sex, our insatiability, our push beyond chastity, and even in our escapes into daydreams, alcohol and drugs.
We are ever the bamboo plant, blindly pushing upward; the baby, unconsciously crying for food.
The earth is ablaze with the fire of God. Part of that fire is burning longing—blind pressure, incessant hunger, relentless hormones, insatiable restlessness and crying dissatisfaction. People have always had their own ways of trying to explain this.
Many ancient peoples believed that the human soul was a piece of divine fire that had somehow become disconnected from God and it was this divine fire blazing within us, trying to return to home, that made us restless. For them we were on fire because our immortal soul was trying to escape from a mortal body.
That idea, the soul as divine fire, might strike us as rather naive and dualistic, but it is in fact a beautiful metaphor that captures and soothes the imagination in ways that most analytical psychology never can.
Where it errs is only in its dualism. The fire, the relentless pressure, is not only in the soul, it is in everything else as well. The cosmos is all of a piece. The chemicals in your hand and in your brain were forged by the same furnace, the furnace of the stars. The story of life, body and soul, is written in DNA—and relentless yearning lies just as much in the cosmos and the DNA as it lies in our hearts and souls.
And what is it all for? Why do bamboo plants push blindly through walkways? Why are we always hungry? Why do the hormones of our body and the rages of our soul give us so little peace?
In the end, longing and yearning are not really sightless at all. They may be experienced as blind pressure, driving life to eat its way through driveways, food, sex, friendship and creativity, but they are the Spirit of God, groaning and praying through us.
Ultimately, this is what Scripture is talking about when it tells us that when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit of God prays through us, in groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26). At its root, all longing is for the fruits of the spirit; all life, all eros, and all energy, blind or conscious, yearns for charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, fidelity, mildness and the union that chastity can bring .
Whether it’s a bamboo plant pushing through a driveway, or a baby blinding taking food, or an adult man or woman kneeling in supplication, the yearning is for this.
What touches you is what you touch. Advent is the season to touch these longings and to let them touch us.