On Feb. 12, 1944, 13-year-old Anne Frank wrote the following words in her now-famous diary. “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 centre 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 doesn’t 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”; G.M. 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, once 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 erotic and “dis”-eased, 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 of 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 of 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.