How Do I Feed People?

Following up on yesterday’s post, I ask simply, “How do I feed people?” For me, the biggest reality behind my encounter with Jesus was discovering I was not alone in an experience that had haunted me all my life (if “haunt” is the right word for something so exquisite and without fear). C.S. Lewis talks of it throughout his work, which was why I instantly knew him for a friend when I read him. It was the experience of Joy, a longing or desire for something (he also called it sensucht) that nothing in this world could satisfy–the “appetite for Heaven”:

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often if I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we ever desired anything else.  You may have noticed the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread.  You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.  Again, you stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw — but at the first words of gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported.  Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of — something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop with a clap-clap of water against the boat’s side?  Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and it all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?  You have never had it.  All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.  But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it.  Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”  We cannot tell each other about it.  It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work.  While we are, this is.  If we lose this, we lose all. – THE PROBLEM OF PAIN

It was a phenomenon I never discussed growing up, precisely because I do not easily expose my heart out of fear. But it was and is present every day of my life and when I encountered it in Lewis I had that sense of homecoming, of meeting a kindred spirit. Neither he nor I had any patience with the tedious “explanations” of sublimated sexual longing or other boring this-world accounts of the desire. I have, to be blunt, lots of sexual experience. It’s beautiful, but this desire is not about that. Nothing in this world is and most of the things that evoke it come out of the blue and have little to do with sex. Things in this world remind me of… Something, but they are not the Thing itself.

Ultimately we find ourselves asking, “what has any of these…to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?” (Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress). 

Lewis’ conclusion, like mine, was that this is because, as St. Paul observes, “creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:20–24). Lewis, had in fact, made a careful study of this experience of Desire or Longing or Sehnsucht and concluded, as I have, that nothing in this world satisfied it, certainly not sex. He writes in Mere Christianity:

Most of us find it very difficult to want “Heaven” at all—except in so far as “Heaven” means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us. Now there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact, and one right one.

(1) The Fool’s Way.—He puts the blame on the things themselves. He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after. Most of the bored, discontented, rich people in the world are of this type. They spend their whole lives trotting from woman to woman (through the divorce courts), from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is “the Real Thing” at last, and always disappointed.

(2) The Way of the Disillusioned “Sensible Man.”—He soon decides that the whole thing was moonshine. “Of course,” he says, “one feels like that when one’s young. But by the time you get to my age you’ve given up chasing the rainbow’s end.” And so he settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, “to cry for the moon.” This is, of course, a much better way than the first, and makes a man much happier, and less of a nuisance to society. It tends to make him a prig (he is apt to be rather superior towards what he calls “adolescents”), but, on the whole, he rubs along fairly comfortably.

It would be the best line we could take if man did not live for ever. But supposing infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us? Supposing one really can reach the rainbow’s end? In that case it would be a pity to find out too late (a moment after death) that by our supposed “common sense” we had stifled in ourselves the faculty of enjoying it.

(3) The Christian Way.—The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”

That, if anything could be called the Story of My Life, is it. And I think it is the story of many millions or even billions of lives (though not of every life since I do not suppose that my interior life can encompass the many different souls of other people. I think St. Augustine is simply right when he says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are rest till they rest in thee.” But I do not assume that my experience of Desire is the only way in which that restlessness is experience by others. There may be, for all I know, lots of ways in which the Spirit calls to people that would be foreign to me. But that is not for me to figure out. What is for me to do is try to express my heart as best I can, so that I might do for others what Lewis did for me by telling the truth about his interior life.

So that is, in large measure, who I am. And my experience has been that when I sought the food I craved, I found it in Christ, fully present in the Eucharist.

That doesn’t mean my story ends there. That doesn’t happen until the Resurrection on the Last Day. For (as not everybohat strangedy knows these days) the gospel does not preach “life after death”. Nearly every pagan and every Jew itn the days of the apostles already believed that. That’s why the apostle’s were totally ready to believe they beheld a ghost when Jesus appeared to them.

Rather, the gospel teaches something infinitely weirder: life after life after death. I can see no reason for that belief on the part of the apostles other than the one they give: that they met the risen Christ and became convinced of his glorified risen body (and, with it, the whole bizarre concomitant belief in renewal of the entire cosmos: the New Heaven and New Earth, that must ultimately issue from that strange event.) The Resurrection is a *massively* inconvenient doctrine. It would be infinitely easier to just have declared Jesus alive as a Spirit. This was more orr less what the Cult of Augustus did wit the object of their worship. And indeed, had the early Christians done so (as the Gnostics did) they could have avoided a lot of persecution since disembodied spooks post no threat to Caesar. But they weirdly insisted that Jesus was raised bodily for no reason that I can see except that he was, in fact, raised bodily.

And this feed my soul because though the experience of Desire is something nothing in this world can fully satisfy, neither can the merely disembodied life satisfy either. I am a hobbit who loves the good pleasures of this world, even though these pleasures cannot fully satisfy either. I love that my body requires food and drink. I love starlight, and autumn mornings and the smell of wood smoke and the feel of my wife’s lips kissing my face and raising my voice in song and a laugh from my belly. All these things and a million more come from God just as much as Desire does and, like the Incarnation itself, combine with Desire as a kind of sacramental revelation of his Presence, calling me onward. I can be complete only with both the Desire and the Creation that evokes, but does not answer the Desire. This is why the Eucharist has always made sense to me. It is the Incarnation itself, edible not only to my soul, but to my guts and bones, for I am both.

I write all this mostly because I thought it good to take the risk of exposing my heart if I am to ever write anything that feeds other people. There is, I think, a place for what is commonly called “apologetics” in the world, particularly for those whose fears revolve around the question, “Is this all just a bunch of bullshit?” But there is also a danger of reducing the Faith merely to apologetics when it is vastly more than that. So I have tried here to express something of my interior life with out the sort of verbal fencing and defensiveness that too often characterizes apologetics.

And I do so simply to ask a question of my readers which I hope they will take up in my comboxes. Namely, what feeds you? And how can I be a part of helping to do that?

I realize this is a peculiar departure from my usual stuff. But I feel like I need to make an unusual departure in order explore things I have avoided exploring out of fear. I hope folks both on my blog and on Facebook will have a fruitful conversation about this and I look forward to what you have to say.


3 Responses

  1. Your musings remind me so much of Ignatius Loyola, Mark. I’m harking back to September to the 2nd in Francis’ series of Wednesday audiences on discernment. He says …

    “In this experience we note two aspects, above all. The first is time : that is, the thoughts of the world are attractive at the beginning, but then they lose their lustre and leave emptiness and discontent; they leave you that way, empty. Thoughts of God, on the contrary, rouse first a certain resistance — “But I’m not going to read this boring thing about saints” — but when they are welcomed, they bring an unknown peace that lasts for a long time.

    Here, then, is the other aspect: the end point of thoughts. At first the situation does not seem so clear. There is a development of discernment: for example, we understand what is good for us not in an abstract, general way, but in the journey of our life. In the rules for discernment, the fruit of this fundamental experience, Ignatius laid down an important premise, which helps to understand this process: “In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures” — to reassure them that everything is fine — “making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason” (Spiritual Exercises , 314). But this will not do.

    There is a history that precedes one who discerns, a history that it is indispensable to know, because discernment is not a sort of oracle or fatalism, or something from a laboratory, like casting one’s lot on two possibilities. The great questions arise when we have already travelled a stretch of the road in life, and it is to that journey that we must return in order to understand what we are looking for. If in life we make a little progress, then: “But why am I walking in this direction, what am I looking for?”, and that is where discernment takes place. When he found himself wounded in his father’s house, Ignatius was not thinking of God at all, or of how to reform his own life, no. He had his first experience of God by listening to his own heart, which presented him with a curious reversal: things that were attractive at first sight left him disillusioned, whereas in others, less dazzling, he perceived lasting peace. We too have this experience; very often we begin to think about something, and we stay there, and then we end up disappointed. Instead, when we carry out a work of charity, do something good and feel something of happiness, a good thought comes to us, and happiness comes to us, something of joy. It is an experience that is entirely our own. He, Ignatius, had his first experience of God by listening to his own heart, that showed him a curious reversal. This is what we must learn: to listen to our own heart, to know what is happening, what decision to make. To make a judgement on a situation, one must listen to one’s own heart. We listen to the television, the radio, the mobile phone. We are experts at listening, but I ask you: do you know how to listen to your heart? Do you stop to ask: “But how is my heart? Is it satisfied, is it sad, is it searching for something?”. In order to make good decisions, one must listen to one’s own heart.”

    Thankyou for sharing your own stirrings.

  2. Hi Mark,
    I have found myself in the unforeseen position of teaching the faith at a Catholic K-8 school. I’m suddenly working outside of my home from the crack of dawn until the sun is about to set. One aspect of this new leg of my journey reminds me a lot of being a younger version of myself, juggling children and all of their accompanying wants and needs. I don’t have much time to myself. This is kind of a relief. I work until I drop so I don’t have much time to be in my head. Thinking too much about my existence and my soul can get me all tied up in a knot. From the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep, there is another person in front of me. Sometimes there is a line of them. Lately I’ve been waking up in the silence of the night, and instead of feeling annoyed by this, I see it as an opportunity to deeper prayer. I barely have time for the news. I haven’t felt this much peace in my soul in quite some time.

  3. >>Namely, what feeds you? And how can I be a part of helping to do that?<<

    As a Catholic, I enjoy reading Scripture, learning what it was like in those days, the culture, Lectio Divina, etc. It is only thanks to Vatican II that I can read and study and absorb so much. Before that, well, the Bible would be in Latin, and a specific form of Latin at that, and if I wanted to know what it said or meant, I had to go find a priest and ask him. Catholics have only had serious Bible study since the 1940's or so, thanks to Pius XII. It is with thanks to our Protestant brethren that there is so much more knowledge since they have been studying Scripture for over 500 years. So I think you are in a unique position as a former Protestant to share your knowledge and application of Scripture.

    I agree with one of the commenters on the previous article, that it is also a relief to know that I am not alone in the outrage against certain ideologies and errors that permeate our society and church today. I find it very courageous of you to speak out and write about such injustices, inconsistency, hypocrisy, and gaslighting that occurs with the right in our country today. I certainly give thanks to God for you and pray for God's blessing on you.

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email