At the core of experience, at the centre of our hearts, there is longing. At every level, our being aches and we are full of tension. We give different names to it – loneliness, restlessness, emptiness, longing, yearning, nostalgia, wanderlust, inconsummation. To be a human being is to be fundamentally dis-eased.
And this dis-ease lies at the centre of our lives, not at the edges. We are not fulfilled person who occasionally get lonely, restful people who sometimes experience restlessness, or persons who live in habitual intimacy and have episodic battles with alienation and inconsummation. The reverse is truer. We are lonely people who occasionally experience fulfillment, restless souls who sometimes feel restful, and aching hearts that have brief moments of consummation.
Longing and yearning are so close to the core of the human person that some theologians define loneliness as being the human soul; that is, the human soul is not something that gets lonely, it is a loneliness. The soul is not something that has a cavity of loneliness within it; it is a cavity of loneliness, a Grand Canyon without a bottom, a cavern of longing created by God. The cavern is not something in the soul. It is the soul. The soul is not a something that has a capacity for God. It is a capacity for God.
When Augustine says: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” he is, of course, pointing out the reason why God would have made us this way. And, as his prayer indicates, the ultimate value of longing lies precisely in its incessant nature, by never letting us rest with anything less than the infinite and eternal it guarantees that we will seek God or be frustrated.
But beyond its ultimate purpose, to direct us towards our final purpose, the experience of longing has another central task in the soul. Metaphorically, it is the heat that forges the soul. The pain of longing is a fire that shapes us inside. How? What does the pain of longing do to the soul? What is the value in living in a certain perpetual frustration? What is gained by carrying tension?
Superficially, and this argument has been written up many times, carrying tension helps us to appreciate the consummation when it finally comes. Thus, temporary frustration makes eventual fulfillment so much sweeter, hunger makes food taste better, and only after sublimation can there be anything sublime. There is a lot of truth in that. But the pain of loneliness and longing shapes the soul too in other, more important, ways. All great literature takes it root precisely in this, how carrying tension shapes a soul. Longing shapes the soul in many ways, particularly by helping create the space within us where God can be born. Longing creates in us the stable and the manger of Bethlehem. It is the trough into which God can be born.
This is an ancient idea. Already centuries before Christ, Jewish apocalyptic literature had the motif: Every tear brings the Messiah closer. Taken literally, this might sound like bad theology – a certain quota of pain must be endured before God can come -but it is a beautiful, poetic expression of very sound theology: carrying tension stretches, expands, and swells, the heart, creating in it the space within which God can come. Carrying tension is what the bible means by “pondering”.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin left us a great image for this. For him, the soul, just like the body, has a temperature, and for Teilhard, what longing does is to raise the temperature of the soul. Longing, restlessness, yearning, and carrying tension raise our psychic temperatures. This, a raised temperature, has a number of effects on the soul:
First, analogous to what happens in physical chemistry, where unions that cannot take place a lower temperatures will often take place at higher ones, longing and yearning open us to unions that otherwise would not happen, particularly in terms of our relationship to God and the things of heaven, though the idea is not without its value within the realm of human intimacy. Put more simply, in our loneliness we sizzle and eventually burn away a lot of the coldness and other obstacles that block union.
Moreover, this sizzling, longing, brings the messiah closer because it swells the heart so that it becomes more what God created it to be – a Grand Canyon, without a bottom, that aches in lonely inconsummation until it finds its resting place in God.