O God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.

We pray these words with sincerity. Do we ever really mean them? Can we honestly say that the heartaches that drive us to our knees are a longing to see God? When we’re obsessed with an ache that won’t let us sleep, can we honestly say we’re thirsting for God?  At first glance, no. Our existential thirsts tend to be more earthy, more self-focused, and more erotic than would merit the claim that they are a longing for God.  Only the rare mystic (or perhaps one of us in a rare moment) can, at a given time, examine her burning desires and say honestly, what I want is God. I’m longing for God.

However, there’s another side to this. We need to make a distinction between what we explicitly desire and what we implicitly desire within that same desire. Allow me an earthy example as an illustration. Imagine a man on a given night feeling restless and seeking out sex with a prostitute. Is he longing to see the face of God? Is he longing for union inside the body of Christ? Explicitly, no. That’s the furthest thing from his mind, at least from his conscious mind. However, there’s something else inside his awareness at that same time (which he in fact knows but of which he is not explicitly aware). His desire, which on this evening has constellated so strong sexually, is in its true intent a desire to see the face of God and to be in union with others inside the body of Christ. Implicit in what he is hungering for is what St. Augustine expresses in his famous axiom: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. He is longing to see the face of God.

In teasing out this distinction between what is explicitly intended in an act and what is implicitly contained in that same act, we should not conflate this with our notions of conscious and unconscious. These latter terms are psychological categories, valid and important in their own right, whereas explicit and implicit are philosophical terms, slightly different in meaning, with a particular insight into what is actually contained in any act. Again, perhaps an example can be helpful. Imagine yourself making a simple, elementary judgment. You look at a wall and say, this wall is white. That’s what you are aware of explicitly at that moment. However, for you to make that judgment (This wall is white) you also at the same time have to know, know implicitly, really, and as surely as you know that the wall is white, some other things.  First, that the wall is not green or any other color; and, further, that you cannot say that the wall is not white without denying the truth of what you are seeing. These latter dimensions are something you in fact know, but of which you are not consciously aware.

Now, apply this to the man whose desire drives him to have sex with a prostitute. We see that what is on his mind explicitly at that moment is not any desire to see the face of God or to be in union inside the body of Christ. Far from it. However, as he is engaging in this act, he implicitly knows that this is not what he is really searching for and that he cannot pretend that it is. This implicit knowing of these other dimensions is not just a function of conscience, but a function of knowing itself.

There are multiple implications from this, beyond not feeling false guilt for the fact that, most times, we find ourselves congenitally incapable of making God the real focus, main object, and the All of our desires. Mostly we don’t see our obsessions and heartaches as having God as their real object. I suspect that this is because we do not conceive of God as containing the powerful allure, attractiveness, beauty, color, and sexuality that can so obsess us in this world. I wonder if anyone (outside of a mystic) has ever obsessed about seeing the face of God because he or she sensed that in God there was even a richer beauty, attractiveness, and sexual allure than can be found here on earth. Do we ever imagine God as infinitely more interesting and alluring than any sexual partner on earth?

Sadly, the God of religions is hard to long for! That God, while philosophically perfect and alluring, is existentially devoid of the real beauty and eros that obsesses us on earth.

Therese of Lisieux, young doctor of the soul that she was, offers us this warning: Be careful not to seek yourself in love because you will end up with a broken heart that way. Thankfully, an implicit knowledge of what we are actually longing for can help save us from that.