Inside each of us there is a deep, congenital restlessness. We are not restful beings who sometimes get restless, but restless beings who occasionally experience rest. Karl Rahner, I believe, had it right when he said that we do not have souls that get restless, but that our souls themselves are lonely caverns thirsting for the infinite, deep wells of restlessness that make us ache to sleep with the whole world and all that is beyond.
Because of this we can find it difficult to concentrate during the day and to sleep at night. We go through life feeling like we are missing out on something, that life is more exciting and fulfilling for others than it is for us. Our achievements rarely satisfy us because we are always aware of what we haven’t achieved, of missed chances and failed possibilities. Always too, it seems, that we are inadequate to the task, that we cannot not disappoint those we love.
We are always a bit dissatisfied. As Henri Nouwen puts it, in this life, it seems that there is no such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy, but that even our happiest moments come with a shadow, a fear, a jealousy, a restlessness. Inside us, no matter what our age, we are always somewhat lost and full of a sadness that we don’t quite know what to do with. Thoreau was right, we do live lives of quiet desperation. What are we meant to do with that?
An analogy might help us here: We can learn something valuable, I believe, by comparing these feelings to what a baby feels, at a certain moment, in the presence of a baby-sitter in the absence of its mother. As many a frustrated baby-sitter has learned, there can come a moment, usually later in the evening, when the baby grows tired of being titillated by flashy toys, extra sweets, and the continued cooing of the baby-sitter. The baby becomes irritated, cranky, weepy, and finally disconsolate. At point nothing will soothe its aches, except the voice and the touch of the mother herself. The baby needs to hear the mother’s voice and only the mother’s voice, no attempt by the baby-sitter to replace the mother or even to imitate the mother are of much avail. The baby will not be fooled, there comes a moment when only the mother can soothe and comfort. The baby’s disquiet will disappear only when she again hears the mother lovingly call her name.
It’s no different for us really, as adults, in trying to come to grips with our congenital restlessness. We can distract ourselves for awhile, be titillated by flashy toys, be soothed and lulled by sympathetic voices, and momentarily even be content in the absence of our real mother. But there will come a time, usually a little later on in the proceedings when we are a bit more tired and cranky, when these things will soothe no more. We will begin to miss, in the very depths of our souls, the one voice and one presence that can ultimately bring us rest.
Of course that one voice that can soothe, that one voice that we search for among all the others, is the voice of God, the primordial Mother. Ultimately we reach a point in life when there is an ache and a sadness inside us that no one can still and comfort, other than the one who ultimately brought us to birth. Like the baby frustrated with its baby-sitter, we too need to hear our mother lovingly pronounce our names.
The Gospel of John opens very differently than the other Gospels. There are no infancy narratives. Right at the beginning we already meet the adult Christ and the first words he speaks are a question: “What are you searching for?” John’s whole Gospel tries to answer that, but the full answer is given only at the very end, by Jesus himself.
What are we ultimately searching for? On the morning of the resurrection, Mary Magdala meets the newly-risen Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. He approaches her and asks (in words that repeat his question at the opening of the Gospel): “What are you searching for?” She explains that she is searching for the body, the dead body, of Jesus. He says just one word to her in response: “Mary”. He calls her by name and, in that, she not only recognizes him, but she hears precisely what a disconsolate baby cannot hear in the voice of her baby-sitter, the voice of the mother, lovingly pronouncing her name.
In Jesus’ response to Mary Magdala, we learn the answer to life’s most fundamental question: What do we ache for? Ultimately all our aching is for one thing, to hear God, lovingly and individually, call us by name. There comes a moment in the night for each of us when nothing will console us other than this, hearing our names pronounced by the mouth of God.