“Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing.” ∼ W. H. Auden
“I did not know my longing until I encountered You.” ∼ CL Hymn
The desire for God is a drive as deep as it is indestructible. There can be no other longing as profound or pervasive. And on the strength of its universality, its wonderful and all-encompassing ubiquity, we cannot understand ourselves as other than religious beings. Contingent creatures, that is, whose existence stands in precarious relation to an infinite and necessary God. (I say precarious because, while the connection remains, we are free to resist its attractions.) This is not an insight, incidentally, available only to metaphysicians. Nor is it rocket science. The fact is, we remain in a state of such “repining restlessness,” as the poet George Herbert reminds us, that only God can allay the soul’s agitation. Wasn’t that Augustine’s whole point in writing his Confessions? To show that the heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee? Clearly there is nothing in nature equal to the exigencies of the human heart. And if this world will not assuage the appetite for ultimacy, then perhaps we really were made for another.
Is that why the ceiling of the Pantheon, that splendid pre-Christian temple, stretching 142 feet into the heavens, remains open? How else were pagans to ensure that the upward surge of the spirit would be given unimpeded access to the gods? Just as the fact of tropism exists among the plants, propelling them in the direction of the sun, so too in the spiritual order there exists a theo-tropism, thanks to whose attractions the soul is drawn to that horizon of the Absolute we theists call God. “We are Grand Canyons,” Ronald Rolheiser writes, “without a bottom, longing for completion, for perfect communion with Another, whom we will not experience this side of heaven.” As old Plato would say, we are children of poverty. Which is why the glass is never half-full; it is always empty.
We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all
And yet there is One who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.
∼ Rainer Maria Rilke
So what do we call God’s answering response but the definitive disclosure of divine love, soliciting our freedom for a life of unending communion with him and his angels and his saints. Yes, but to negotiate our way from one to the other, from the state of exile in which we languish to the eternity for which we long, requires hope, a supernatural virtue on whose exercise everything depends.
What then is hope? And how does one get a handle on it? Josef Pieper is wonderfully lucid on the subject. It is, he says, “the confidently patient expectation of eternal beatitude in a contemplative and comprehensive sharing of the triune life of God.” What is immediately striking about that description, it seems to me, is the high level of certitude at which the claim is cast. So strong and secure is the structure of hope, in other words, that we may say, as Paul emphatically does in his letter to the Romans (8:24), we shall be saved by it. There can be no threat to the edifice of hope save our refusal to be enfolded by it. Not even the devil, for all that his fury and hatred exist to undo the work of God, not even he may breach the fortress of our hope without our consent. Hope expects nothing less than God himself, and so we turn in resolute and childlike trust to the One who offers the hand that draws us safely home to him.
“What strange arithmetic,” exclaims Charles Peguy in his poetic masterpiece, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, as he watches his “little girl Hope” awaken the heart of God no less, to go in search of a single lost sheep that has wandered off from the ninety-nine who are doing just fine and will soon fetch a fair market price. How very odd of God to have so little business sense in exercising a stewardship so reckless of risk. “And yet this,” Peguy tells us, “is how the books are kept with God.” He takes an intense, infinite even, interest in the least prepossessing of his sheep. How incomprehensible a mystery we are faced with here. Who can parse it? How could it be that the loss of one lousy sheep should cause God excruciating distress? Indeed, so determined is God on rescuing the least and the lost that he suffers his own heart to break upon the wheel of the world’s injustice. “It’s unfair,” comments Peguy. “What is this invention, this new invention,” in which the weight of the lost exceeds all those who never needed to be found? “We have no right,” writes Hans Urs von Balthsar, “to fix prematurely the dimensions of the mysterious work of the Son.” After all, he is only carrying out the wishes of his Father in heaven, that not “one of these little ones be lost” (Mt 18:14).
I love how Emily Dickinson puts it in her charming and idiosyncratic way. “Hope,” she tells us, “is the thing with feathers. / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all.” And why will it not stop? Because prayer is its voice, the very language in which the song is sung. Whose constant rhythmic beat is to beg God for all that we do not yet have. Reminding God, as it were, of the promises he made to us in The Our Father, a set of petitions coined by Jesus himself to allow mercy to overmaster justice.
The Father knows all this, of course. And appears delighted to see the lengths to which the Son is willing to extend its blessed efficacy. “When he says those three or four words to me,” says God, speaking in the Voice given him by Peguy, “making those three or four words move ahead of him.”
After that he can go on, he can tell me what he pleases.
Because, you understand, I am disarmed.
And my son knew it well.
It is because of those “three or four words,” that the Father permits himself to be vanquished. How exquisite the irony that this unconquerable God should take pleasure in seeing his Son confound the Father’s justice with wave upon wave of mercy. “Those three or four words which move forward like a beautiful cutwater fronting a lowly ship. / Cutting the flood of my anger.”
But unless we pray, nothing happens. We need the “little implement,” as Miss Dickinson calls it, “Through which men reach / Where presence is denied them / They fling their speech / By means of it in God’s ear.” And why would he not listen to the importunities of those he loves? Isn’t that how he looks upon the sheer nakedness of our need? Who but the beggar, as Luigi Giussani has often told us, is the true protagonist of history? With arms outstretched, he turns trustingly to God for everything. And why not? When you have nothing to begin with, anything you get is sheer surplus. The thinnest slice of unbuttered toast becomes a meal equal to Babette’s Feast.
But we mustn’t hang fire awaiting the summons, especially as it has already been issued. We really are loved by God. And he will settle for nothing less than our hearts. It is not just that we long for him, but that he longs for us. Sister Wendy Beckett tells us that we must remind ourselves over and over: “I am the beloved. God longs for me, he presses on my heart with a tender, humble hunger for me. He wants to possess me: when I let him, it is prayer.” Indeed, to be the object of so divine a desire, so consuming a fire, “is so terrifying and so awful that we can see why we shrink from believing it.”
But we must not only believe it, we must behave as though it were true. And who more than Mary is positioned to mediate hope, to impart that holy desire without which we shall never be happy? From its perfect perch in her soul, hope radiates out to all who stand in need of it. Again, I repeat, who is better qualified than she to serve as beacon of hope? “With her ‘yes,’” Pope Benedict reminds us in his moving conclusion to the encyclical letter On Christian Hope, “she opened the door of our world to God himself; she become the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us.”
When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see you cousin Elizabeth, you became the image of the Church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Crisis Magazine and is reprinted here with kind permission.