A LONGING HEART – Our desire for God

December 24, 2007

A LONGING HEARTOur desire for God

We choose all

“Our hearts are restless,” wrote St. Augustine, and that truth remains fundamental to the human condition. Human restlessness, human desire, human yearning – none of it ever seems finally and fully satisfied. The baby beginning to crawl and explore the environment is an expression of human restlessness; the journeying of the first Carmelites who left their homes to gather in a valley on Mount Carmel was fuelled by the same desire. We are truly pilgrims.

We humans never have enough because, with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, we choose all. And we will never rest until we get it. The Carmelite tradition recognises this hunger in the human heart and says we are made this way. We are made to seek and search, to yearn and ache, until the heart finally finds something or someone to match the depth of its desire, until the heart finds food sufficient for its hunger. We name that food, that fulfilment, that goal of human desire, God. Carmelites have been intentionally pursuing that elusive, mysterious fulfilment for 800 years. “I wanted to live,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila, “but I had no one to give me life…” (1)

We believe that, named or not, every human being is on this quest. We can assume this: that every student in our school, every member of our parish, every pilgrim to our shrine, every candidate in our seminary has an openness to the transcendent mystery we name God. Time and time again the desire will be denied, the hunger temporarily satisfied, the yearning stifled, distracted, weak. But we know it is there and it will emerge in one form or another. Our tradition has the power, the language, the imagery to help illumine what people are experiencing in their innermost being.

The Carmelite tradition attempts to name the hunger, give words to the desire, and express the journey’s end in God. The human heart will forever need this clarification of its wants. Carmel has wanted the same thing and will walk with anyone who is met along the way. We cannot satisfy their hunger, but can help them find words for it and know where it points. We can do it, and have done it, in art, in poetry and song, in counselling and teaching, in simply listening and understanding. And we can warn people that eventually all words fail and at times all we have is the desire itself.

One contemporary author observes that a serious problem in spirituality today is a naiveté about the desire or energy that drives us. Our God-given spiritual longing, which may be expressed in numerous ways, including creative, erotic energy, is dangerous for us if not carefully tended. We are naive about this deep desire within us and are not alert to its danger. Without a reverence toward this energy and ways of accessing it and keeping it contained, most adults waver between alienation from this fire and therefore live in depression, or allow themselves to be consumed by it and live in a state of inflation.

Depression, in this sense, means the inability to take child-like delight in life, to feel true joy. Inflation refers to our tendency, at times, to identify with this fire, this power of the gods. “…We are generally so full of ourselves that we are a menace to our families, friends, communities, and ourselves.” Unable to handle this energy we either feel dead inside or are hyperactive and restless. “Spirituality is about finding the proper ways, disciplines, by which to both access that energy and contain it”.(2)

Desires of the Carmelites

This dilemma would be understood by the saints of Carmel, They approached this flame found deep in their humanity and were burned and purified by it in their encounter. Teresa of Avila understood it as the water Jesus offered the Samaritan woman. More fire than water, it increases one’s desire. “How thirsty one becomes for this thirst!” (3) John of the Cross begins his poem The Spiritual Canticle by complaining, “Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me moaning? You fled like the stag after wounding me; I went out calling you, but you were gone.” (4) John’s understanding of our humanity is that we wake up in the middle of a love story. Someone has touched our hearts, wounding them, and making them ache for fulfilment. Who has done this to us, and where has that one gone? Those questions haunt every human being’s journey, and propel every step from the crawling of a baby, to a Pope’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and all the human endeavour in-between.

John complained that our desires are like little children. We pay attention to them and they settle down for a while. But soon they are up and noisily disrupting the peace of the house. Or, our desires are like a longed-for day with a loved one; but the day turns out to be a big disappointment! John’s understanding of our humanity is that we have a hunger for which only God is sufficient food.

Thérèse of Lisieux found her deepest desires captured by the image of heaven: heaven as the never-ending Sunday, the eternal retreat, the eternal shore. The eternal shore is a particularly. evocative expression holding her heart’s yearning. She chose all in life, and this image for her is an expression of all that she desires. But no image or concept fully expresses her longings:

“I feel how powerless I am to express in human language the secrets of heaven, and after writing page upon page I find that I have not yet begun. There are so many different horizons, so many nuances of infinite variety ….” (SS. 189)

We reach out to this and that, lured by a promise of fulfilment, but only to be disappointed time and time again. Using Thérèse’s image, we arrive at many shores, but each time we realise it is not the eternal shore.

Spirit and psyche inhabit the same country of the mind. Spirit is the dynamism in us to fullness of being, to knowing all, loving all, being one with all. Psyche expresses these desires with primordial images drawn from the body, from the earth. Psyche connects the organism of the body and its rootedness in the cosmos with the transcendence of spirit and its yearning for fullness. Our images of hope, such as of eternal shore, express both psyche and spirit.

Psyche’s images are freighted with spirit’s yearnings. They may stir up and express our longings for peace and justice, they may open us to profound repentance, they may throw light on our existence and illumine our path, they may provide hopeful scenarios of our future beyond this life, as Thérèse’s did. But, none of them is adequate to finally and fully express the desires within us, the desire that we are. Our deepest yearning to know and to love, to be one with, all there is, is never fulfilled. Our deepest hungers never find sufficient food in this life. Our wants are given voice, but what do we want?

Theologian Bernard Lonergan believed that if we follow the trail of our deepest desires, expressing them in truth, facing them, and responding to their call in our lives, we will undergo conversions. Our wants, our desires will be purified and transformed, until more and more we want what God wants in a consonance of desire.

What do the men and women in our parishes, our retreat houses, in counselling want? Everything! Count on it, and minister to it. And we say to ourselves and them, that the hunger within us is so deep and powerful that, acknowledged or not, only God is sufficient food. When Jesus preached the present and coming Reign of God he was speaking precisely to the deep desires, the holy longing in the hearts of his listeners.

“March 24, 2000 was the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador. He was killed while celebrating Eucharist in a Carmelite chapel. Romero’s conversion from a rather traditional, professional cleric with a sincere but otherworldly piety, to an outspoken courageous shepherd of his people, came because he saw the longing in the faces of his people. As he celebrated the funerals of those killed by the powerful, and read off the names of the disappeared, he found it was his duty more and more to give voice to these voiceless ones, to express their oppressed longings – to embody in his courageous presence the holy longing of the Salvadoran people.”

To assist people in hearing and voicing their deepest longing is part of Carmel’s continuing ministry. The first Carmelites established conditions in their small valley which would bring order to their multiple desires. Each inhabited a cell and the cells surrounded a chapel, in which they daily remembered God’s desire for them. Teresa of Avila founded enclosed communities within which the women could open themselves to the full force of their desires in affectionate friendship with the Lord and one another. She encouraged them to follow the lure of their depths as their fragmented desires found healing and reorientation. Both she and Thérèse believed firmly that if God has given us such longings God will ultimately fulfil them. We are not a useless passion.


Our Carmelite tradition acknowledges the hunger for God deep in the human heart. This yearning or longing propels us through our lives as we seek a fulfilment of our heart’s desire. This deep current of desire within our lives is the result of God having first desired us. God, the first contemplative, gazed on us and made us lovable, and alluring to God. The Carmelite tradition does not speak of an annihilation of desire, but a transformation of desire so that more and more we desire what God desires in a consonance of desire. As Teresa of Avila said simply, now I want what You want.

Questions for reflection

How do I experience this longing, this hunger, which is ultimately for God?

Am I aware of a fundamental disease – restlessness?

Can I find places in my life where this yearning is expressing itself?

What gives me deepest joy and delight in life?

When do I feel the most creative and alive?

Do I push away, ignore, or suppress it, or do I find ways of honouring this fire within me?

How do I give expression to my deepest longings?

What activity embodies them and keeps me hungering for their ultimate fulfilment?

How do the people, among whom I minister, express their deepest yearning, their hearts’ desires?

How do I, with them, find the language for this yearning, and celebrate it as gift which points to God?