Go to the Limits of Your Longing
Rainer Maria Rilke
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
(Book of Hours, 159, translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows)*
I’ve been in a season.
The worst of it is that this season seems typical of people like me — middle-aged, empty-nested, hard-working. It looks like I’m just unfulfilled and cranky.
Nothing could be further from the truth (well, maybe cranky … but certainly not unfulfilled). I love my family, my work, this stage of life. I love Jesus and am motivated to plumb the depths of following him. I love my people, and have no desire to escape them. Mine is not a mid-life crisis, though it does look like a yearning for something more. Or different. Something.
The yearning has frustrated me. I’ve flailed about looking for the cause, blaming it on my own lack of progress in my main area of ministry. That is usually my dafault setting. If things don’t “feel” right, ministry must be to blame. I seem to live in a chronic state of discontent with what can be but isn’t. Sometimes the discontent motivates me to try harder; most of the time, I allow those frustrations to push me right down into a pit of discouragement.
A friend who lovingly listened to my angst said she suspects I’ve been misdiagnosing my longings. She has heard me sing this song before. Hearing the same tune again, my friend asked a profound question: “What if you let the longing work for you, and not against you?”
She went on to poke around in my spirit and we discovered that yes … my deepest desires are vertical, not horizontal. I do want to know the heart of God. Far more than temporary successes, I hunger for deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit. I long for eternal things. My spirit resonates deeply with Paul’s: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am grateful to know the Holy Spirit groans with me when I don’t have words to express my own deep yearnings (Romans 8:26).
Yet, the frustrations and unidentified aggravations that mark life have been trained by time and repetition to roll down into some undefined rut of unfulfillment — manifesting as empty complaints, causing me to search for cures in the wrong places. Work harder, my frustrations urge. Or look for an escape hatch. Netflix. Mindless surfing. Words with Friends. Anything to divert me from transcendence.
But what if our longings are not for things we can consume, but for something else entirely — something deeper, more legitimate, like Heaven, or the Kingdom to come or for deeper, more intimate communion with God? What if they are for worship or for the souls of lost people waiting to be found? Surely this would be a better target for my longings. Is it possible it is also the right target? Is it possible that what feels like frustration over the horizontal is actually our whole spirit groaning for the eternal? For transcendence, because that is how we’re made?
Misdiagnosing causes us to lean out, to allow our lack of spiritual imagination to steal all the good and eternal out of what ought to be holy longings. Misdiagnosis saps us of spiritual productivity. On the wrong trajectory, our groans work against us. No wonder so many middle-aged people buy Harleys. We’ve lost our ability to interpret the wordless yearnings of the Spirit.
How would a fresh diagnosis of your own deep longings change your next choice? How would it alter your prayer life, your work life, your church life, your next conversation with God, with someone in the waiting room with you? Are you leaning out, when you should be leaning in?
Go to the limits of your longing, the poet advises. Flare up like a flame. Don’t let your last emotion get the last word. Transcend. Rise above. Get in touch again with the Deep, with the Holy Spirit. Let your longings take you toward the Kingdom, which is home for you.
Which is what you were made for.
*I’m grateful to Ruth Burgner for passing this poem along. Ruth also deserves credit for asking life-giving questions.