Longings of the Soul

In J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, the magician Gandalf told the reluctant and unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins, “There is more to you than you know.”

He said this, knowing that within the hobbit’s veins coursed blood not only from the sedentary Baggins side of the family but also from the swashbuckling Took side. We have a similar mingling of blood within us from a lineage that is both human and divine.

Within us the dust of the earth and the breath of heaven are joined in a mysterious union only death can separate. But that relationship is often a strained one, for while the body is fitted for a terrestrial environment—with lungs to breathe air and teeth to chew food and feet to walk on dirt—the soul is extraterrestrial, fitted for heaven. It breathes other air, eats other food, walks other terrain.

Most of the time, though, we are burrowed away in our hobbit holes and don’t give a thought to our heritage.

Bilbo Baggins certainly didn’t. Not until Gandalf entered his life. The magician entered his life through the front door of the hobbit’s burrow. Before the door shut, a dozen motley dwarfs followed on his heels, and on the turn of its hinges, the quiet world of Bilbo Baggins dramatically changed.

Suddenly he found himself saddled with the unwanted responsibility of hosting a houseful of strangers. After emptying his pantry to satisfy their ravenous appetites, the exhausted Bilbo plopped on the hearth of his fireplace before a crackling fire. As he rested there, the dwarfs joined in singing an ancient song, and as he listened, “something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick.”

Whenever I hear Gorecki’s “Third Symphony” or Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” whenever I read Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching” or Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird, whenever I see the movie Camelot or the stage play Les Miserables, something “Tookish” wakes in me, a sleepy-eyed awareness that there is more to me than I know. And suddenly I want to set aside my walking stick and strap on a sword, leave the cozy security of my hobbit hole in search of some far-off adventure.

Like the dormant gene that wakes with the dawn of our adolescence, rousing us toward adulthood, moments like these reveal we are destined for greater things than make-believe adventures in the fenced-in yards of our youth.

Art, literature, and music waken us to the alluring beauty of that destiny. But, as C. S. Lewis cautions, “The book 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….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 visited.”

The Baggins part of me, though, wants nothing of all this. It wants to sit in its hobbit hole, safe and snug, with an inside latch locking out the dangers and uncertainties of the world beyond its door. Another part of me, though, wants something more. To see more. To hear more. To explore more. To be more.

We live in a constant tension between those two parts, the lofty side of our nature and the lowly side. Like a tree, we are torn between two worlds, a part of us rooted in the soil, another part reaching for sky.

But because our roots can grasp soil more securely than our leaves can grasp sky, the soil seems more real. It is something we can see and hold in our hand. But heaven, heaven escapes our grasp. We can’t hold it any more than a leaf can hold sky.

Yet something of the sky is taken into its pores, and something of the sun is taken into its cells. That is how it receives the carbon dioxide and makes the chlorophyll it needs to live. If the tree is deprived of all the sky has to offer, it will wither, putting more pressure on the roots to provide its nourishment. In the same way, if the soul is somehow shut off from God, shielded from the sunshine of its eternal significance, it will seek significance elsewhere, sending out its roots in search of the right job, the right school, the right organizations to join, burrowing deeper, thinking if it gets enough money, enough power, enough prestige, it will satisfy its longing for significance.

This longing is an essential function of the soul. In this respect the soul is closer to the stomach than to any other of the body’s organs. When the pancreas is functioning properly, for example, it does not draw attention to itself. The stomach does. When we need something to eat or drink, the stomach signals us through hunger or thirst. If we neglect these longings, the louder and more insistent they become. If we neglect them long enough, these longings will consume us.

Before they get to that point, though, we usually reach for something to take the edge off the hunger. When it’s a candy bar we reach for, the consequences aren’t critical. But when those longings are sexual, how we go about satisfying them becomes very critical. “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” said Solomon, who went on to say, in essence, that if we reach into the wrong cupboards to sate that hunger or into the wrong wells to satisfy that thirst, it will destroy us.

The same is true of our spiritual longings. “My soul thirsts for you,” cried David, “my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Our longings for God may not be as ravenous as David’s, but they are as real. Because the hunger hurts, though, we try to take the edge off it in any way we can. One of those ways is with religious activity. And that can include the activity of reading books, listening to tapes, or going to seminars. Through these things, which are often very good things, even nourishing things, we are fed the experiences of others. But they are not our experiences. I can read a psalm about David crying out from a cave in the wilderness, and I should read that psalm, but it is not my psalm. It is not my psalm because it is not my cave, not my wilderness, and not my tears.

For so long in my life I expected my experience of God to be like one of those psalms, structured with pleasing rhythms, full of poetic images, a thing of beauty and grace. What I learned is that those psalms were borne out of great hunger—a hunger that no food on this earth can satisfy.

“He who is satisfied has never truly craved,” said Abraham Heschel, and he said this, I think, because he knew that heaven’s richest food does not satisfy our longings but rather intensifies them.

True food from heaven, food placed for us on the window sills of the soul, is like the Turkish Delight in C. S. Lewis’ children’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In it the Queen of Narnia entices one of the children named Edmund with a magical food called Turkish Delight. It was sweet to the taste and light on the stomach and more delicious than anything he had ever tasted. But here was the magic. The more Edmund ate, the more he wanted to eat, until his appetite became insatiable, and he would do anything for another taste.

The food offered Edmund is similar to the food offered us at windows of the soul only in this respect. The more we taste, the more we long for another taste. And another. Until at last the hunger grows so intense it transforms not only our lesser longings but our very lives themselves.

This longing that wells up in us, though, does not spring into existence on its own. “God is always previous,” is the way the theologian von Hugel put it. “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” is the way Aslan put it, the lion in the Narnia Chronicles who called Edmund and three other children from England into the magical land of Narnia. The way the Apostle John put it was, “We love because he first loved us.”

Maybe, too, that is why we long. “God’s yearning for us stirs up our longing in response,” said Howard Macy in Rhythms of the Inner Life. “God’s initiating presence may be ever so subtle—an inward tug of desire, a more-than-coincidence meeting of words and events, a glimpse of the beyond in a storm or in a flower—but it is enough to make the heart skip a beat and to make us want to know more.”

And it is enough to make us leave behind our walking stick, strap on a sword, and search for that flower whose scent is so enticing, for that music whose echo is so enchanting, and for that far-off country whose news seems too good to be true… …but is.

A Prayer for Nourishment

How inarticulate are the longings of my soul, O God, yet how acute are its pangs.
How incapable am I in understanding those longings, let alone, in tending them.
Feed me with food, O God, that will best nourish my soul, food that will intensify rather than satisfy my love for you and my longing to be with you.
Awaken every eternal seed you have planted in my soul so while I am yet rooted in this earth something of heaven might blossom in my life…

 Ken Guire Windows of the Soul, pg. 48-52

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