Essays About Longing For

Grieving Mary, by Fra Angelico, c.1437–1446, Museo San Marco, Florence

THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATION

At night on my bed I longed for my only love.
I sought him, but did not find him.
I must rise and go about the city,
the narrow streets and squares, till I find my only love.
I sought him everywhere but I could not find him.
SONG OF SONGS 3:1–2

O Lord, you Supreme Trickster! What subtle artfulness you
use to do your work in this slave of yours. You hide yourself
from me and afflict me with your love. You deliver such a
delicious death that my soul would never dream of trying to
avoid it.
—Teresa of Avila, THE BOOK OF MY LIFE

I’ve had enough of sleepless nights,
Of my unspoken grief, of my tired wisdom.
Come my treasure, my breath of life,
Come and dress my wounds and be my cure.
—Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, “I’ve Had Enough”

THE FIRE OF SEPARATION

There is a longingthat burns at the root of spiritual practice. This is the fire that fuels your journey. The romantic suffering you pretend to have grown out of, that remains coiled like a serpent beneath the veneer of maturity. You have studied the sacred texts. You know that separation from your divine source is an illusion. You subscribe to the philosophy that there is nowhere to go and nothing to attain, because you are already there and you already possess it.

But what about this yearning? What about the way a poem by Rilke or Rumi breaks open your heart and triggers a sorrow that could consume you if you gave in to it? You’re pretty sure this is not a matter of mere psychology. It has little to do with unresolved issues of childhood abandonment, or codependent tendencies to falsely place the source of your wholeness outside yourself. The longing is your recognition of the deepest truth that God is love and that this is all you want. Every lesser desire melts when it comes near that flame.

You realize that not everyone experiences this. For some people, the spiritual journey is not so dramatic. It’s less about the overwhelming desire for union with some invisible Beloved than it is about quietly waking up. It’s about developing compassion, rather than suffering passion. There are people who never doubt that God is with them, and so there is nothing to long for.

But there are those, like you, who have felt the Divine move like an ocean inside them, and, incapable of sustaining an unbroken relationship with that vastness, feel they have been banished to the desert when the wave recedes. There is a tribe of holy lovers, who have tasted the glorious sweetness that lies on the other side of yearning, when the boundaries of the separate self momentarily melt into the One, before the cold wind of ordinary consciousness blows through again, and restores your individuality. You would risk everything to rekindle that annihilating fire. You would leave your shoes at the door and run after the cosmic flute player, if only you could hear that music one more time.

You give up everything for one glimpse of the Beloved’s face. You sneak into his chamber in the middle of the night and say, “Here I am. Ravish me.” But when you awake the next morning, swooning and alone, you realize you missed the entire encounter. You throw your clay cup on the cobblestones and it shatters. You thought you would marry, bear babies, make a career in broadcasting. You wander city streets during siesta hour and wonder where he is sleeping. Your longing and your satisfaction are reciprocal. The moan of separation is the cry of union. . . .

This Beautiful Wound

Sometimes an arrow of love pierces the heart and penetrates the deepest core of the soul so that she doesn’t know what has happened or what she wants, except that all she wants is God. She feels like the arrow has been dipped in a poisonous herb that makes her reject herself for love of him. She would gladly give up her life for him. It’s impossible to explain the way God wounds the soul or to exaggerate the agony it causes. It makes the soul forget herself entirely. Yet this pain carries such exquisite pleasure that no other pleasure in life can compare to that happiness. The soul longs to die of this beautiful wound!
—Teresa of Avila, THE BOOK OF MY LIFE

The Transverberation of Saint Teresa. Josefa de Óbidos, 1672

Death has been my owngateway to the numinous. I did not pick this path. I have simply experienced an unusual number of tragic losses, which propelled me to plunge into spiritual practice as if my life depended on it, which in many ways it did. As the years went by, death after death continued to reveal traces of grace. As long as I can remember, my sorrow has been the catalyst for my longing for God.

Yet the inner harvest these multiple losses yielded did not prepare me for the avalanche that would sweep through my life, annihilating everything in its path. The year I turned forty, the day my first book came out, a translation of DARKNIGHT OF THE SOUL by the sixteenth-century Spanish saint John of the Cross, my fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car crash.

Saint Teresa, church window, Convento de Sta Teresa, Ávila de los Caballeros, Spain

Suddenly, the sacred fire I had been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss, instantaneously dropped into the vast stillness and pulsing silence at which all my favorite mystics hint. So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face, I was suspended in the invisible arms of a Love I had only dreamed of. Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water.

So this was the state of profound suchness I had been searching for during all those years of contemplative practice. This was the holy longing the saints had been talking about in poems that had broken my heart again and again. This was the sacred emptiness that put that small smile on the faces of the great sages. And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back.

But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.”

I didn’t do it right away, nor was I able to sustain it when I did manage a breath of surrender. But gradually I learned to soften into the pain and yield to my suffering. In the process, compassion for all suffering beings began unexpectedly to swell in my heart. I became acutely aware of my connectedness to mothers everywhere who had lost children, who were, at this very moment, hearing the impossible news that their child had died. I felt especially connected to mothers in war zones, although I lived in safety and abundance in America.

Saint Teresa, by Lieven Mehus, 1683

Interdependence with all beings has never again been an abstract concept to me. I am viscerally aware of my debt to every blade of grass. Innumerable, unexpected blessings emerged from the ashes of my loss: a childlike wonderment and gratitude in the face of the simplest things: a bowl of buttered noodles, reading poetry to my husband in bed, two horses prancing across the field behind our house. These are the blossoms that unfold from my growing relationship with the Mystery of Love. This is the holy potion that has been given as the antidote to my brokenness.

Grief strips us. According to the mystics, this is good news. Because it is only when we are naked that we can have union with the Beloved. We can cultivate spiritual disciplines designed to dismantle our identity so that we have hope of merging with the Divine. Or someone we love very much may die, and we find ourselves catapulted into the emptiness we had been striving for. Even as we cry out in the anguish of loss, the boundless love of the Holy One comes pouring into the shattered container of our hearts. This replenishing of our emptiness is a mystery, it is grace, and it is built into the human condition.

Few among us would ever opt for the narrow gate of grief, even if it were guaranteed to lead us to God. But if our most profound losses—the death of a loved one, the ending of a marriage or a career, catastrophic disease or alienation from community—bring us to our knees before that threshold, we might as well enter. The Beloved might be waiting in the next room.

THE IMMOVABLE SPOT

The Great Sixteenth-Century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila was not always in love with God. In fact, during her first twenty years in the convent, she alternately envied and disdained the girls who openly wept with the pain of separation from their Beloved. Teresa prided herself on being a practical person. “God dwells among the pots and pans,” she declared. If one of the young nuns in her care displayed a tendency toward altered states of consciousness, Mother Teresa would yank her from the chapel, stick a broom in her hand, and order her to sweep the portico until the delusion passed.

One day, however, during her thirty-ninth year, the Holy One rushed the boundary Teresa had built around her heart. The efficient nun was bustling through the halls of the convent, readying the place for an upcoming festival, when she noticed a statue of Christ at the pillar unceremoniously propped against a wall. Irritated, Teresa bent to pick it up. Suddenly, her eye caught his, and she was transfixed.

Ecstasy of St Theresa (detail), by Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1652. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune

Christ’s face radiated unbearable suffering and unconditional love. Even as his back was bent and scored with lacerations, the blood dripping into his eyes from the thorns that pierced his scalp, he gazed at Teresa with a tenderness that felt absolutely personal and offered her his undivided attention. Never had she felt so fully seen. Never had she imagined herself worthy of such a love as he was pouring upon her.

Teresa’s knees buckled and she slid to the floor at his carved feet. Then she kept going. She unfolded her body in full prostration, pressing her face to the ground, arms stretched above her. Her heart overflowed and she began to cry. She cried tears of longing and tears of fulfillment. She wept with remorse for never having loved Christ as he deserved to be loved, and she wept with supplication that he never, ever leave her.

Like the Buddha as he sat in meditation under the Bodhi Tree, vowing not to move from that spot until he had broken through to enlightenment, Teresa drove a bargain with her Lord. She told him that she would not get up until he gave her what she wanted: the strength to adore him and never to forsake him again. Once the dam had broken, all the tears of a lifetime cascaded through her heart, and Teresa lay weeping for a long time. When she was spent, she rose transfigured. From that moment on, Teresa of Avila began to undergo the stream of visions, voices, and raptures for which she is so famous.

Near the end of her life, Teresa finally experienced the union of love she had so fervently longed for—in what she referred to as “the seventh chamber of the interior castle,” where the Beloved dwells at the center of the soul. Once this love had been consummated, all the supernatural phenomena fell away, the ecstatic states and levitations ceased, and Teresa became a fully integrated being. Like the bodhisattva in the Buddhist tradition, Teresa found the highest expression of spiritual love in dedicating herself to the service of others. ♦

Reprinted by permission from Mirabai Starr, GOD OF LOVE (St. Paul: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, April 2012). From Parabola Volume 38, No. 3, “Power,” Fall 2013. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. 

 

After school, whenever I walked into my family’s home in Davie, Florida, I was always reminded of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which decimated nearly 64,000 homes some 60 miles away in the city of Homestead. Andrew—all Floridians are on a first name basis with their hurricanes—still lived on via the duct tape my uncle had applied to our jalousie windows. Even after the tape was removed, a large X of residue remained that my mother never bothered to scrub off.

Two things are funny about this: First, I didn’t actually experience Andrew, because I didn’t move to Florida until 1993. Second, that was the extent of hurricane preparations back then—duct tape to be sure that if the windows shattered, the glass would stick together, instead of splintering into tiny and dangerous little pieces. When you’ve grown up with hurricanes, their memories—like the tape residue—never quite go away.

My first real hurricane was Erin in 1995. Then nine years old, I had no idea what to expect, but figured that all hurricanes were the same and this one would tear my house apart. So I took matters into my own hands. I got that green plastic mover’s wrap you can find at U-Haul, fully wrapped the 13-inch CRT television I’d negotiated having in my bedroom, and put all of my books, Barbies, and beanie babies in plastic storage bins.

During Erin, every window in our home was covered with plywood, so inside the house it felt like it was 2 a.m. even during the day. I plopped down to watch the living room TV, but all broadcasts had the same information on loop until the next National Hurricane Center forecast was released (every 6 hours). After several hours of this, I decided that my house was not going to flood and that I could unwrap my bedroom television and go back to watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

I don’t mean to be flip—I know that hurricanes can kill people and destroy entire regions, and, when response and relief are slow to arrive, the aftermath of these storms can be even deadlier, as Puerto Rico is tragically experiencing right now.

The author as a child in front of her family home in Davie, Florida, October 28, 1994. Photo courtesy of Dulce Vasquez.

But for those who have lived in hurricane-prone places, these epic disasters can come to feel routine. For me ever since Erin, hurricanes have been business as usual to me. Floridians rarely flinch at anything weaker than a Category 3. You go through the motions: put plywood on the windows, get enough water and non-perishable goods, fill every car you own with gas to the brim, and hope for the best.

As a kid, I always hoped the hurricanes would come during the week so school would get cancelled. If we were really lucky (which I was a few times), the storm would hit on a test day and I’d have a few extra days to study.

The familiarity of the pre-hurricane procedure was, in its way, comforting. My family would sit on the couch and flip between The Weather Channel and Spanish news. My mom would go up to the TV and point to all possible trajectories, always deciding that we’d be a direct hit. My dad would then reason with her. But we were all experiencing it together.

The feeling that this was a holiday continued during the lull after the storm passed through. It almost feels like Christmas morning, where everything is quiet, and no one is in the streets yet and riding their bicycles.

The storms, like birthdays or holidays, eventually become part of the way you remember life.

In 2004, there was Ivan, which made me late for my first day of college in Chicago. The airport didn’t reopen until an hour after my flight was supposed to take off. Similarly, Ernesto in 2006 made me one week late to my study-abroad program in Paris.

I remember Katrina. My mother’s prediction of our home being a direct hit finally came true in August 2005 when the eye of Katrina made its first landfall just north of Miami as “only” a category 1. It was nothing compared to what happened in Louisiana, but it still managed to leave a million Floridians without power and cause $630 million dollars’ worth of damage.

In the lull after that storm, sitting in my bedroom, I managed to write to one of my dorm mates from college, who lived in New Orleans. I warned that as a category 1 storm, it’d been very powerful, and hoped he’d be careful. He wrote back to confirm he and his family had evacuated to north Florida. When we got back to school a few weeks later he let us know that his home was under 6 feet of water and was a total loss.

That same season was when I experienced my first hurricane from afar. Wilma ripped through Florida later in 2005. It was one of the latest-forming storms I can remember, hitting in late October. Comfortably welcoming fall in Chicago, I talked with my parents every day. They called to say they were safe and had a generator to power the fridge. Within a few days, my dad had run hundreds of feet of extension cords to power our three neighbors’ refrigerators. It took three weeks for their power to get restored.

A map showing the author’s family home during Hurricane Irma, September 6, 2017. Photo courtesy of Dulce Vasquez.

I still visit often, but I haven’t lived in Florida since 2005. As it happens, no major hurricane since Wilma in 2005 had made direct landfall in Florida, until this year. Over the last 12 years, my family had dealt with warnings and evacuations, and my parents, instead of scurrying to Home Depot for plywood, replaced those outdated jalousie windows with some double paned windows with beautiful colonial grilles. To protect them, they invested their tax refunds on accordion shutters that take no more than 5 minutes per window to close.

But Irma brought the hurricanes back home. From Los Angeles, where I live, I started tracking Irma as soon as it became a category 5 storm. On Monday, my mom texted “Looks like pinche Irma is coming.” Harvey had just destroyed Houston, and this was poised to be an even stronger hurricane, so there I was again, every six hours looking for the next National Hurricane Center forecast update.

On Tuesday, I asked my mom if they wanted to evacuate, and volunteered to book their flights. She said they’d wait and make a call on Thursday. On Wednesday, I sent my mom a graphic of the latest trajectory, which showed Irma blowing directly through their house. I asked again if they wanted to evacuate.

On Thursday my mom said she wanted to evacuate but my dad didn’t want to. My anxiety and frustration grew. That night I had a dream that the roof of our home tore off. On Friday, I took action and told mom that the safest place in the house was in the bathroom (most inner, central place in the house, without windows). I wasn’t sure if that’s true or not, but it made me feel better.

On Saturday, my aunt, uncle, and cousin came to my parents’ house—they live in a mobile home and those are always unsafe. Curfew started at 4 p.m.

On Sunday, as soon as I woke up and still in bed, I texted my mom to check in, but my iMessages were not going through. That meant they lost power and/or cell service. I started to panic. I texted everyone else in the house: Mom, Dad, brother, cousin, aunt. Nothing. Finally, after what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of my life, a message finally came through. All were safe. Relief.

Through the whole process, every ounce of me wanted to be there, in the storm with my family.

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