Psalm 63 describes the Psalmist as thirsting for God. She or he longs for a connection with God in much the same way we long for a drink of water after working hard under a relentless sun, or that our body craves food after days going hungry.
Psychology is just beginning to catch up with what mystics like this Psalmist have always attested: that the elemental needs of human beings are not just food, drink, and shelter but also connection, community, and meaning. So now psychologists have begun to explore helping people find meaning in life, use practices like mindfulness (based loosely on the meditation practices of mystics), and are developing an openness to spirituality as a part of a fully human lives.
Jesus spoke of this longing by saying we cannot live by bread alone, and by describing the path his teachings shows as being like bread of life for the hungry and an ever-flowing fountain of water for the thirsty.
C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory talked about this hunger as an inconsolable longing, and suggested that this longing was at the heart of his fantastic stories of Narnia and other stories about journeys to new worlds, when he wrote: ““In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter… The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
The longing of spirituality is a longing for a connection without something deeper, truer, something at the heart of Creation. Christians picture this as connecting with the Sacred One who is ever a dance of joy, an embrace of love, shared by the Father who looks at all Creation as beloved, precious just simply for being God’s children, the Son who is God coming alongside us within our own human experience, and the Spirit who is pictured like a mothering dove embracing all of creation in Her wings of love. Yet in other faiths this central reality is pictured differently – in Buddhism, for instance as the silence and peace in which the noise of this world finds its meaning and connection. In some Native or indigenous faiths it is pictured as something like the heartbeat at the center of creation & life itself which the practices of that tradition help you slow down to hear and then move in step with like a dancer moving in step with the rhythmic music of life.
Every culture and age produces paths of spirituality, from the ancient mystics of Hinduism to modern teachers of mystical encounter not associated with a set religious tradition. This suggests the value and need to quiet one’s self before the noise of the world and get in touch with that heartbeat at the heart f creation. It suggests the re-emphasis in psychology and in medicine of bringing practices and insights of ancient spirituality like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and reikhi are a step forward for all of us, recovering ancient insights are busy dog-eat-dog world often overlooks.
I remember a time in college when I was riddled with doubts. Though studying to be a preacher and in my first real job as a preacher, burning questions had begun to haunt me from experiences when I was in religion gone wrong. Having seen the heartache that abusive forms of spirituality produced I began to worry about being another perpetrator of the same. I began to sit and wonder about my own religious experiences. What if there was not some Sacred other on the other end of the phone, if I was simply praying to myself or to the world at large? What if what I got in touch with in the silences where I listened for God was just my own soul, or some connection with other people? The thought horrified me. And on the surface it makes as much sense as what I had always been told: a loving God is there for me.
I remember being haunted by these thoughts and taking a walk along the towering trees and brick-lain paths at the Christian college I was at one cool autumn night. As the golden leaves fell about me it dawned on me: And what if it is? What if like the best music and poetry of the world, all our religions are just symbols, metaphors for our lived experience in this world? I remembered how when religions were pushed down as Hitler did to Jews, as totalitarianist regimes in Asia & Eastern Europe did to most faiths, it continued to thrive. I thought about how all cultures create paths toward this mystical encounter I wondered if was truly another Person connecting with me. I thought of how even nonreligious people find themselves fostering connections with this Sacredness I know as God, sometimes through connections with nature or a Higher Power in AA, sometimes in meditation. I did not know yet then as I do now that many of these paths do not consider what they get in touch with as a personal Deity as I did but in the very way that seemed then a denial of faith itself – a connection with our deepest self, with our shared human connection, with nature. But it dawned on me how vital to finding meaning, finding purpose, having a full life this connection is. I realized if there was not a God we would make one up in some ways, because this sense of longing for connection is as essential to the human soul as a need for love, food, shelter. I realized even if all I have are but metaphors and symbols, there is something real, something that connects me with each person, with all nature, which these metaphors point to.
I have days again I wonder from time to time “Is it all true?” Where I am haunted by what may not be. Now I return to that experience, to the conflict between my doubts and that longing that I find inconsolable without connection with that Sacred All which connects all people, all creation, all time and space within its loving embrace. I remember what I found in that moment: the reassurance that though I cannot know the symbols of my faith or any faith are literally true, I can know that they are all true in a certain way. They are true in the way that the words “When A Man Loves a Woman” which I sang to my wife on our wedding night are true. Literally, no she may not be the only woman in the world like the love songs sing, but she is to me. And though some aspects of my faith, or yours, or another person’s may not be literally true, that path and those words are true as well in the same way. They speak of this inconsolable longing, resolved only in connection. Like love, the Sacred is beyond all words. Yet when you are embraced by it and embrace it in return, there is a wholeness that enters your life that though you may not understand, gives you wings to learn to fly. To soar about the chaos of this world, or better yet to plunge into with poise and peace.
May you find your path to connection, knowing that it is living that connection and the paths it opens up that matters, not knowing if the details of how you & I picture it are the same. For I know just as when another man sings to his wife she is the only woman in the world, it is as true for him as it is when I sing it of my wife, I know when you speak of your spiritual path in words different than my own, we both have drunk deep of the same water that quenches all spiritual thirst.
And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,
Progressive redneck preacher,