In Praise of Longing: Reclaiming Spiritual Passion


At night on my bed I longed
for my only love.
I sought him, but did not find him.
I must rise and go about the city,
the narrow streets and squares, till I find
my only love.
I sought him everywhere
but I could not find him.

(From The Song of Songs)

Love-longing is one of the casualties of the Post-Modern Age. We seem to have come to some kind of corporate decision that relegates spiritual passion to the psychological trash basket of romantic delusion. It’s the same thing we say when two people fall in love: “She is infatuated with an idea,” we declare, “not a real person.” (We learned this in Psych 101, and it explains a lot about our own history of romantic disasters.) Or: “She is a blank screen onto which he projects his own hopes and dreams of love. It has nothing to do with her.” 

The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that one day the lovers will wake up, the scales will drop from their eyes, and they will see each other truly. That, we assert, is when the real work of relationship begins. And that’s when many lovers bail and bolt, only to run the same delusional story on someone else.

Maybe. Or perhaps falling in love is more like what Leonard Cohen said in an interview I read in Interview Magazine while pumping my quads on the Stair-Stepper at the gym years ago. It’s not falling in love that’s the illusion (I’m paraphrasing here); it’s falling out of love. When that intoxicating feeling of awe and connectedness washes over us and penetrates our consciousness, that’s when the shroud lifts and we see that person for who she truly is: a being of exquisite beauty and pure goodness. When we fall out of love, the veil drops once again over our eyes, and we stop seeing our beloved as the holy creature he is.

I believe the same principal is operating with spiritual longing. Many of us start on a spiritual path at a young age, crazed with desire for God. We fast and pray, meditate till we can’t stand up, read and re-read the Gospel of Thomas and the Tao Te Ching, chant kirtan and sing hymns and memorize Rumi poems — all in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Numinous, which has become the object of everything we have ever wanted. And then some well-meaning elder, who has been cultivating wisdom for way longer than we have and has graduated from such sophomoric inclinations, suggests that perhaps what we think is spiritual desire is actually just a case of raging hormones directed at the idea of God, and that we need to let go of attachment and get grounded. 

“Don’t worry,” they reassure us. “It’s a perfectly natural developmental phase. You’ll grow out of it.”

Maybe we’re not supposed to grow out of it. What if the Bride in the Song of Songs represents the very highest state of the human spirit, and when she rushes from her bed (where she has been smoldering in agony all through the night) and onto the streets and plazas in search of the One who has set the blaze, she is forging a direct path to mystical union. A path of fire.

This longing you express
is the return message.
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.

(Rumi, from Love Dogs)

It is true that religion has its limitations, some of which can be harmful (divisive dogma, antiquated rituals, abuses of authority), but the longing of the soul for union with the Divine transcends formal religious boundaries and leaves belief systems in the dust. At the core of every one of the world’s major spiritual traditions lies a heart that burns with yearning for a Presence that cannot be defined by membership in any particular mythic system and cannot be explained by the most precise theology. Longing for God is a trans-religious phenomenon, and so lends itself beautifully to the inter-spiritual quest.

What do I mean by inter-spiritual? I mean an experience of the presence of the sacred anywhere and everywhere we can find it. I mean an Episcopal priest singing the Kol Nidre with her Jewish neighbor and finding the gates of heaven blown open by the ancient Hebrew liturgy and the light of Christ come streaming through. And then the following week there sits the Jew in a pew on an ordinary Sunday morning and when she is invited up to receive communion she overrides her instinctual panic and stands to receive the body and blood of one of the greatest prophets her people has ever known, and then she returns to kneel at the altar rail, her eyes streaming, the taste of love alive on her tongue. I mean an agnostic chanting zikr in a circle of Sufis — Allah Hu — and watching in awe as every preconception he has ever harbored about Muslims being perilous wackos falls away and his spirit soars in remembrance of the One, who is the embodiment of Mercy and Compassion. By inter-spiritual I mean the cultivation of radical humility, and a spiritual thirst so powerful it drives us into the arms of the Beloved wherever we think she may be hiding, even in unfamiliar holy houses. It means being vulnerable enough to be transformed by our encounter with the other.

It means saying yes to love.

O Lord, you Supreme Trickster! What subtle artfulness you use to do your work in this slave of yours. You hide yourself from me and afflict me with your love. You deliver such a delicious death that my soul would never dream of trying to avoid it.
(Teresa of Avila, from The Book of My Life)

Longing is a key that opens the door to the garden where the Beloved is waiting, and has been waiting all along. Stop trying to grow up and grow out of it. Instead, descend. Sink the roots of your love deep into the Ground of Being. This is incarnational spirituality. It is not about ascending some kind of spirit ladder up and away from this messy world into a pure land of equanimity. It’s about fully inhabiting this place, and picking up the tools that come with the package: these glorious, riotous, ravaged hearts that want to praise and burn, these fecund, holy souls that long to see and be seen, these complex minds whose highest task may well be to unlearn everything they think they know, and rest in the mystery of love.

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