Longing, Desire, and the Face of God

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

At the center of our experience lies an incurable dis-ease, a disquiet, a restlessness, a loneliness, a longing, a yearning, a desire, an ache for something we can never quite name. For what are we longing? What would satisfy our restless energy?

Anne Frank, in her famous diary, asks exactly this question: Today the sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I am longing - so longing - for everything. To talk, for freedom, for friends, to be alone. And I do so long ... to cry! I feel as if I am going to burst, and I know it would get better with crying; but I can't. I'm restless, I go from room to room, breathe through the crack of a closed window, feel my heart beating, as if it was saying, 'can't you satisfy my longing at last?' I believe that it is spring within me; I feel that spring is awakening. I feel it in my whole body and soul. It is an effort to behave normally, I feel utterly confused. I don't know what to read, what to write, what to do, I only know that I am longing.

That same question is asked everywhere. What would satisfy us? Why this relentless restlessness? In her Children of Violence series of novels, Nobel-prize winning novelist, Doris Lessing, has her heroine, Martha Quest, pose that question as life's central question: Towards what is all of our energy directed? Devoid of a religious perspective, Martha can only understand human desire as blind, erotic energy, a kind of voltage, ten thousand volts of energy inside us. For what? For whatever we choose - creativity, love, sex, hate, martyrdom, boredom.

What are we longing for ultimately? What would satisfy our restless hearts?

Classically, Christian spirituality has answered the question with a single image, all of our restlessness and disquiet is ultimately a longing to see the face of God. Most famously, Augustine put it this way: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you! In writing that, Augustine drew upon personal experience, but also upon a motif that had long expressed itself within religious men and women.

The idea begins early in the Jewish scriptures: Already at the time of Moses, people are asking the question: Who can see the face of God? We see this in Moses himself when he goes up the mountain to meet God. He asks to see God's face. God replies: No one can see the face of God and live! (Exodus 33,20) However, when Moses asks this question his desire is still quite literal, his desire is to physically see God.

But as their faith matures, the people of the Israel begin to understand this motif differently. Longing to see the face of God eventually is understood not so much as the physical curiosity to see what God looks like, but rather as an image, a symbol, an end-point for all human desire. To see the face of God is to have all desire quenched, all restlessness stilled, all aching quieted. To see the face of God is to attain complete peace. This is what the Psalmist means by the words: As a deer yearns for flowing streams, so I yearn to see the face of God. I thirst for the living God; when shall I see the face of God? (Psalm 42,1-2)

By the time of Jesus, the idea is everywhere present in Jewish spirituality that the only answer to human longing is to see the face of God. To see God' face is to come to peace. But we are still left with the question: Who can see the face of God? How is this to be achieved?

Jesus gives an answer: Who can see the face of God? He answers simply: Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see the face of God. (Matthew 5, 8) That simple phrase then became a one-line mandate to encompass the entire spiritual quest. The Desert Fathers, the classical mystics, and subsequent Christian spirituality in general have focused on one thing in their praxis - attaining purity of heart so as to see the face of God. To work at attaining purity of heart is the ultimate spiritual task.

It is also life's ultimate task. We long for many things and like Doris Lessing's heroine, Martha, are both buoyed up and fatigued by our own insatiable energies. These energies push us in every direction, towards creativity, love, sex, hate, martyrdom, boredom. Sometimes we know what we want, a particular relationship, achievement, acceptance, status, job, or home, and we believe that we will find peace by attaining it, but experience has taught us that full peace of heart will not be found, even there. Where will it be found? In purity of heart, in removing those things inside of us that block our connection to the author of all the persons, places, beauty, love, color, and energies for which we ache.