Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent: Holy Longing

"Let me seek you in desiring you, Lord,
let me desire you in seeking you"
~ St. Anslem

Journey of the Three Magi to Bethlehem
Leonert Bramer, New York Historical Society, Oil on panel, 1638-40

My walk with the Lord has always consisted primarily in a deep sense of longing. Longing to feel the Lord's love truly; longing to sense His presence in my life; longing to know the depths of His mercy; longing to experience His spirit in prayer. For a quite awhile, particularly in my late high school and college years, I experienced a very wrenching period of the dark night of the soul. Not only was my heart longing to feel the Lord's presence, but I felt empty and felt that He was ions away from me. Gradually the intensity of this spiritual dryness has given way to a more apparent consolation from the Lord; the newfound joy in prayer and my relationship with Christ, particularly over the past two years, has filled my heart with gratitude. But nonetheless, I still feel that the incessant longing, the constant restlessness in my heart defines much of my spiritual experience even now.

For a very long time I was frustrated that while people around me seemed to be receiving consolation in prayer and an attractive sense of contentment in life, I continued to be discontent. I felt like I kept begging Him to make His presence known to me, and my prayers fell on deaf ears.

Then in a very grace-filled moment during an All Saints Vigil a few years ago, one of the reflections listed the forms that holiness takes in people; one of the things listed was a burning desire for the Lord. For the first time in my restless walk, I realized that desire for God is a grace in itself; that holy longing is a form of prayer and devotion.

This realization gave me much hope, and renewed my spiritual life in a very dynamic way. I realized that God wasn't simply ignoring my prayers, He was gently feeding me, but at the same time also placing in me a hunger to go deeper.

Since that moment, I have been less frustrated with my "plight", but instead have really embraced meditations, words, and homilies that speak of the beauty and the gift that a longing heart is.

At Mass this week, our parish priest in my home town talked about how Advent is a season of holy longing. It is a time when we do not yet see the Christ-child, but we recognize in a deeper way our desire for our Savior. Advent is a season of eager anticipation, when we allow our longing for Christ to become all the stronger; the more we realize that we need desperately need Jesus, the more room in our hearts we make to welcome our King.

So during this Advent season, we not only need to recognize the reality that our hearts are restless until they rest in Christ, but we make this very yearning our prayer.

In closing, I would like to highlight a wonderful section of an article about Monastic Prayer and the prayer of desire, by Fr. Columban Heaney. If you have time, you really should read the whole article here.

"The idea of waiting is found in many of the psalms. For example, Psalm 39: "I waited, I waited for the Lord till he stooped down to me"; and Psalm 41: "Like the deer that yearns for running streams so my soul is yearning for you, my God". Listening, watching, yearning, longing, thirsting this is what prayer consists of. It does not involve complicated mental activities; it is a simple way of communicating with God. This is the way we communicate with people who are close to us; it is also the way we communicate with God who abides in our hearts. Words are totally inadequate when communicating with God. They are incapable of expressing the deep sentiments of the heart. Only simple but profound expressions of the heart like yearning and watching are able to sustain the depth and intensity of our silent, unspoken prayer.

St. Augustine has expressed this beautifully in the following passage from his Commentary on the Psalms: "All my longing is known to you". Not to men, who cannot see into the heart but to you, my God, is all my desire laid bare. Does your longing lie open to him? Then the Father, who sees in secret, will give you your heart's desire. This very longing is your prayer. Not for nothing did the Apostle tell us 'to pray without ceasing'. Did he mean that we were to be perpetually on our knees, or lying prostrate, or raising our hands? If that is our idea of prayer, I consider that unceasing prayer is beyond our capacity.

There is another kind of prayer, however, interior and continuous: the prayer of desire. Whatever else you are doing, if your desire is for the Sabbath rest, you do not cease to pray. So, then, if you do not wish your prayer to be interrupted, do not let your longing flag. Ceaseless longing will be your ceaseless cry. Let your love fail, and you will fall silent. Who are the people whose cry is silenced? Are they not those of whom it is said: 'Since iniquity has been at large, love has grown cold in the hearts of the majority of men'? Love grown cold means a heart become silent; burning love is the heart's cry. If your love is abiding, your cry will be continuous; a continuous cry is a sign of abiding desire, and abiding desire means that you are ever mindful of your heart's repose" (l9).

St. John Chrysostom teaches the same: "You should not think of prayer as being a matter of words. It is a desire for God, an indescribable devotion, not of human origin, but the gift of God's grace" (20)

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