One of the emotions that seems to be missing from much modern religious observance, is the feeling of longing for God. The Old Testament and particularly the book of Psalms seem often to present the idea that God is to be approached with an attitude of longing expectation. The one approaching God is likened to an individual who is aware of a great thirst or longing to be in his presence. Various quotations from the Psalms come to mind especially Ps 143: ‘I stretch forth my hands unto thee; my soul thirsteth after thee, like a thirsty land.’ The same metaphor is seen in Psalm 63 where the Psalmist expresses his longing for God: ‘my soul thirsteth for thee, my soul longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is.’ This idea of longing for God, reaching out but not yet finding him, can be contrasted with much modern religious observance which rests on a desire to have an instant and intense experience. These latter experiences would seem to be much closer to entertainment rather than having anything to do with spiritual longing. We have had cause to talk about entertainment as being a key component in much that passes for modern Christian worship.
When we bring into consideration the idea of longing or thirst for God, we are introducing the idea, not of entertainment or any indulgence of feeling, but an exploration of discovering what it means not to have what one wants at that moment. God, in other words, is here experienced as not there and the individual is trying with all their effort and energy to bring him back into awareness. We are effectively talking about a spirituality of absence rather than presence. We are exploring the idea that it is important to accept that sometimes we can be in places where God makes himself unavailable or hidden from sight.
One tradition that seems to be largely forgotten in Christian practice is that of fasting. I am not pretending that I frequently fast, but there are times when I have gone short of food for different reasons. I have a memory of Lent in 1968 when I was brought me into touch with the severe Orthodox tradition of eating no meat and confining food to one meal a day. The physical sense of slight weakness that is the result of such fasting is combined with a certain mental alertness. It is not difficult to see how a longing for physical food could be linked in with and suggest a strong longing for spiritual food or God himself. Certainly that is one interpretation of Orthodox fasting. A deliberate choice to ignore physical comfort is thus not necessarily a bad thing. It creates a reminder in us of how we are dependent, first on God and then on other people for all the things that keep us alive. Other people provide us with access to food, water and shelter. It is when these things are taken away that we begin to appreciate them better. Perhaps we also need to appreciate the presence of God more keenly and this is done most easily when we sense how his presence is sometimes withdrawn from us. All of us have gone through dark periods in our lives, coping with grief or unexplained suffering of various kinds. We find ourselves calling out with the Psalmist ‘how long Lord wilt thou be absent from us, for ever?’ But it is in these moments of desolation that we begin to discover the meaning of a longing and thirst for God. Not in fact to have him conveniently under our control in every situation helps us to understand and appreciate better the times when we do feel he is around us.
Longing for God, but not having him, is not going to be a topic which is preached from the pulpit very often. We are more likely to hear about claiming the victory and being conquerors because of our faith in God. Crying out to God from a place of desolation and pain will never rate highly in the most popular sermon topics. But perhaps we should speak far more about the experience of pain and the way that this experience can deepen not our faith, but our understanding of God. I find myself shrinking from that cliché which tells the individual that his or her pain is somehow ‘testing faith’. This is extremely unhelpful to the one so suffering. What I would want to say to anyone who experiences God’s absence is that they may be able to learn this lesson of longing, hunger and thirst for him, just as the Psalmist did. The person who comes to the end of a time of fasting will appreciate food with a new relish. In the same way a Christian who has been through a dark night, searching for God, will have an acute appreciation of his presence when he is found once more.
I am not involved in spiritual direction in any shape or form but if I were, I would encourage the individual who was facing a sense of the absence of God to explore, not words but the power of the imagination to evoke vivid visual images of love and peace. These images would also involve light and colour. I would encourage anyone to simply create in their minds a safe place where they could be bathed in a light that would represent a powerful symbol of God’s presence in our lives. I spoke, in my piece about ministry to the dying, on the subject of beauty. Once again there the imagination comes into play. In guiding us to create an inward place of peace, love and presence which also involves beauty, imaginative visualisation is helpful in creating a sense of the divine. Who is to say where our imagination finishes and the reality of God himself begins? For myself wordless prayer, using imagery and imagination, plays a larger part in my spirituality today. For example, praying for the sick would involve seeing them receiving healing power rather than my uttering words. Words have their place but for myself I prefer to use the gift of visualising and imagination which reaches out to God in prayer.
I began this reflection with a memory of some notable passages from the Psalms which speak of the faithful reaching out to God in longing and thirst. I would like to finish this reflection by emphasising again the enormous importance of connecting with a deep longing and thirst for God that is inside each of us. None of us should be prepared to make do with entertainment as our experience of worship. Worship may indeed be joyful and fulfilling but it will also lead us at times to contemplate the absence of God as well as his presence. In summary I would repeat that all of us need to experience a thirst for God so that we can know him better when we do find him at the end of our search.