Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Freedom from Longing

"The greatest freedom is the freedom of longing." I have been trying to sort that out, to see if it makes sense for me.

This statement, found in some recent reading, was presented as a truism, presumably reflecting Buddhist ideas. The process of enlightenment involves a freedom from preoccupation with desires and the future: it is grounded in the now. To be asborbed with the desire for sexual fulfillment or for money, power, etc. is to be enslaved by one's own emotional life.

So far so good. I can't argue with that and in fact believe strongly in the power of the present as the only reality, where God is to be found. I have written about Christian mindfulness, exploring this idea in detail.

But as I think about longing, I also think, from the Western (Christian) angle, of the ongoing longing for beauty or happiness that motivates my life--even the longing for the deliverance of death if I were suffering with incurable pain. Such longing seems natural. It is related to hope, the calm expectation that pain will cease, that friends will call, that a trip may be both possible and rewarding, a longing for greater and greater degrees of love, of more and more beauty, whether in art or music or nature. The hope that the earthly struggle and pain of existence will one day come to an end so that I can be released into an unknown joy.

I keep thinking of the Psalms with the longing of the soul for God, unreachable yet with a motivating energy, pushing us toward greater perfection in prayer. We long for a peace that surpasses understanding even though it can't find fulfillment on this earth.

Of course, our hearts are restless with a burning longing that is frustrating and never satisfied: these are the desires to be burned away. They take us out of the present into worry and mental anguish. But there is also the refining fire of peaceful longing, I think, that longing of trust that involves hope.

I hope this is not so abstract that it's unclear or meaningless. There seems to be a difference between the freedom from desire (longing) and the need for spiritual longing, even if that longing has to do with earthly beauty and pleasure. I never want to be free of such longing.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

My first reaction to this post was a simplistic one. It’s a principle that is axiomatic, I believe: The human heart will never be satisfied unless unity with God is attained. This cannot happen in human life, therefore, freedom from longing is unattainable.

Those who might disagree, even those who might thump their chests and proclaim that that they long for nothing, do not really know themselves, I believe. They will have moments when they feel incomplete and don’t know why, or feel a certain emptiness that they can’t identify. They might not admit it even to those who are closest to them; they might not admit it even to themselves, but they will feel something, and it will be their heart’s innate longing for unity with God.

But you, In contrast to my simplistic reaction, about the concept of freedom from longing, are able to step away from the question and examine it objectively. I admire this ability of yours, and I enjoy reading what you write.

I also admire your expression, “refining fire,” because I think it’s a very apt description of the concept you express.

That term also reminded me of the concept in the section below expressed about the “souls of the just” in the reading from Wisdom (3: 1-9) that is used so often at funerals, and is one of my very favorite readings:

Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine,
and shall dart about as sparks through stubble;
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord shall be their King forever.

Ah yes, the souls of the just. May we all be among them at the end of our lives.