“All my longings lie open before you, O Lord.” Psalm 38:9.
“It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills… with the wind and the sunshine.… And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing… Somewhere else there must be more of it.”
This quotation from C.S. Lewis’ novel “Till We Have Faces” offers a glimpse into his life-long experience of a mysterious longing, the pursuit of which he described as central to the story of his life ( A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis, Devin Brown). The longing for beauty, joy and for the place of their source was planted in his awareness as a very young child and was part of what eventually drew him to faith from atheism.
The depiction of longing in the quotation is one of goodness. We know the inner tickle of joy when we long for something we’ve experienced as good, and hope that there’s more where that came from. Longing breathes oxygen into creativity, into the appreciation of beauty and into life itself. Yes, longing can also be painful, arising from searing loss, nostalgia or an indefinable ache for something we can’t name. Whatever our experience, longing is not an aberration but part of our human and spiritual nature. And as so many have observed, we bring longing to prayer.
The opening prayer of the anonymous 14th century work The Cloud of Unknowing (cited in full below) begins with a reference to longing that echoes the Psalmist’s words: “God, unto whom all hearts are open, and unto whom all our longings speak…” This line of the prayer from the translation of The Cloud by Carmen Acevedo Butcher carries the implication that in prayer our inarticulate and even unperceived longings are directed to God and known by him.
Butcher highlights another beautiful aspect of the prayer. “I beg you to cleanse and purify the intentions of my heart, with the unspeakable gift of your grace…” She notes the frequent use of a Middle English word translated intent in The Cloud. Intent, as well as its derivatives, means to stretch towards. The author of The Cloud desires that his readers understand prayer as the practice of stretching towards God. As we witness in the Psalms, we may do so from every imaginable state of heart and circumstance of life. And with the Psalmists we seek God’s grace in purifying the disorder of our longings and desires to align towards him who is our ultimate good. (Psalm 27:11; 51:10-12).
“All my longings lie open before you, O Lord.” We reflected earlier (October 8) on how The Cloud of Unknowing distills our diverse notions of prayer into the simple act of being with God, reaching for him in love and receiving from him. Paying attention to the longings and desires that continually swirl in our hearts and minds and bringing them before God is another expression of this simplicity. Our prayers arise from the gift of what already exists within us, including our longings.
The invitation of prayer is to open and submit to God in the present moment and circumstances, thankful for the longings within us whether joyful or painful, which by his grace draw us to him.
“This longing, this need of God, however dimly and vaguely we feel it, is the seed from which grows the strong, beautiful and fruitful plant of prayer.” Evelyn Underhill.
Imago Dei Christian Communities
1. How aware are you of your longings from day to day? Do you find them surfacing in prayer?
2. How might the idea of intention as stretching towards something shed light on our attachments, motivations and our relationship with God?
3. Reflect on the prayer below as an expression of your desire for God and thanks to him for his presence and grace.
God, unto whom all hearts are open and unto whom all longings speak,
And to whom no private thing is hidden,
I beg you to cleanse and purify the intentions of my heart,
With the unspeakable gift of your grace,
That I may love you perfectly, and worship you worthily.
From: “The Cloud of Unknowing.”