At the core of experience, at the centre of our hearts, there is longing.

Ron Rolheiser, OMI

At every level, our being aches and we are full of tension.  We give different names to it: loneliness, restlessness, emptiness, longing, yearning, nostalgia, wanderlust, inconsummation. To be a human being is to be fundamentally dis-eased.

When Augustine says: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” he is, of course, pointing out the reason why God would have made us this way. And, as his prayer indicates, the ultimate value of longing lies precisely in its incessant nature, by never letting us rest with anything less than the infinite and eternal it guarantees that we will seek God or be frustrated.

But beyond its ultimate purpose, to direct us towards our final purpose, the experience of longing has another central task in the soul. Metaphorically, it is the heat that forges the soul. The pain of longing is a fire that shapes us inside. How? What does the pain of longing do to the soul? What is the value in living in a certain perpetual frustration? What is gained by carrying tension?

Superficially, and this argument has been written up many times, carrying tension helps us to appreciate the consummation when it finally comes. Thus, temporary frustration makes eventual fulfillment so much sweeter, hunger makes food taste better, and only after sublimation can there be anything sublime.

Already centuries before Christ, Jewish apocalyptic literature had the motif: Every tear brings the Messiah closer. Taken literally, this might sound like bad theology – a certain quota of pain must be endured before God can come -but it is a beautiful, poetic expression of very sound theology: carrying tension stretches, expands, and swells, the heart, creating in it the space within which God can come.

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