Longing – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

Saints and religious geniuses seem to live on more than one plane. They derive their inspiration and vision from the sight of another reality that informs their view of “this world”. Torn between different planes of existence, they suffer and long. The following texts express a sense of longing that cuts across religions. Is the phenomenon the same? What, if any, is the significance of addressing the longing to different objects? What would you consider to be the positive impact of this longing?

Sources 91, 67, 6, 46

Source 91 (Jewish): Rav Nachman, Sipurey Maasiot – The Heart and the Spring (The Tale of the Seven Beggars – the Third day)

3:4 For this True Man of Kindness is in truth a very great man. And I (i.e. the speech-impaired one who is telling all this) go and collect all the kindnesses of truth, and bring them to this True Man of Kindness. And the main way time comes to exist (for time itself is created) is via the kindnesses of truth. And I go and collect all the kindnesses of truth, and bring them to the True Man of Kindness. 3:5 And there is a Mountain, and on the Mountain stands a Stone, and from the Stone goes out a Spring.

And every thing has a heart. And also the entire world has a heart. And the Heart of the World is a complete structure (komah) — with face and hands and feet, etc. But the nail of the foot of the Heart of the World, it is heartier (in Yiddish, hertziker) than the heart of anything else.

And the Mountain with the Stone and the Spring stands at one end of the world, and this Heart of the World stands at another end of the world. And the Heart stands facing the Spring, and hopes and yearns always very much that it should come to the Spring, in very very great yearning. And it cries out much to come to the Spring. And also the Spring longs for the Heart.

3:6 And the Heart, it has two weaknesses. One, because the sun hunts it and burns it (because it longs and wants to go and draw close to the spring), and the second weakness is because the Heart has a great kind of yearning and longing, that it always longs and hopes, and yearns — so much that its soul goes out — to go to the Spring, and cries out, etc. For it stands always facing the Spring and cries out “na gevald!” [an exclamation in Yiddish like “aha!”] and yearns for it much, as mentioned.

3:7 But when the Heart needs to rest a bit, that it should catch its breath a little (which they call ap safen) then comes a Big Bird and spreads its wings over it, and shields it from the sun. And then it has a little rest. And even then, during its rest, it looks also facing the Spring and longs for it. But since it longs for it so much, why does it not go to the Spring? Only, when it wants to go and get close to the Mountain, then it does not see the slope, and it cannot look at the Spring. And if it does not look at the Spring then its soul will go out, for the root of its life is from the Spring. And when it stands facing the Mountain then it sees the head of the slope of the Mountain, where the Spring stands. But as soon as it goes and draws close to the Mountain — then the head of the slope disappears from its eyes (and this can be understood tangibly), and then it cannot see the Spring, and then its soul would go out, God forbid. And if this Heart would pass away, God forbid, then the whole world would be annulled. For the Heart is the life of every thing, and certainly nothing can endure without a Heart. Therefore it cannot go to the Spring; it only stands facing it, and longs and cries out, as mentioned.

Commentary by Zvi Mark and Biti Roi: Four years before his death, R. Nachman changes the form of expression, by means of which he communicates with his disciples. Rather than offering teachings he turns to storytelling. His stories are characterized by their phantastic style and are structured as stories within a story. Here is a story from the story of the seven beggars, told about half a year before R. Nachman passed away, in 1810. The description of the longing of the heart to the spring and the paradox of growing close (if he draws too close to the spring he will no longer see it and die, while he cannot but continue longing to draw close) addresses one of the fundamental paradoxes of the mystical life: on the one hand, the drive for union to the point of annihilation and death; on the other, the need to maintain autonomous existence, facing God. In this story R. Nachman seems to reject the path of mystical union, suggesting instead human existence in separation from God, without renouncing the longing which is presented as the fundamental movement that sustains the entire world.

Source 67 (Hindu): Nammalvar in the temple-town of Kutantai (Kumbakonam):

What am I to do? Who is my support?
What are you doing with me?
I desire nothing
that anyone other than you can fulfill.
You reclined in Kutantai
that is surrounded by beautiful walls.
Glance at me; resolve that all the dear days
that I, your servant, have yet to live
shall pass with my holding your feet.

Your glory spreads as far as sight,
and then extends beyond the horizon, too;
your body includes all the worlds,
O [Lord,] there is none comparable to you.
You recline in Kutantai,
that prospers with virtuous people.
Longing to see you, I sean the skies,
I cry, I weep, and I bow.

I weep and I bow, I dance to see you,
I sing and I call, I search everywhere.
My sins cling to me, I cringe with shame.
[Lord] you recline in Kutantai
amidst fertile, bounteous fields.
[Lord] whose eyes [bloom wide] like a red lotus flower,
show me, your devotee, [the way] to reach [the splendor] of your feet!

Perhaps you will destroy my sorrow, perhaps not,
but I have no support other [than you],
O Lord who hold as your weapon
the discus with a whirling mouth,
When it is time for me to pass on,
my body will be limp, my soul will falter;
you then must will that I should not be weak
but clasp only [the splendor] of your feet.
TVM 5.8.3-5, 8

Commentary by Vasudha Narayanan: Nammalvar articulates his longing in many ways. In roughly about a fourth of the Tiruvaymoli verses, he speaks through the persona of a woman, in language reminiscent of the Song of Songs. Sometimes, it is in the voice of a young girl (called “heroine” in classical Tamil poetry) who is longing for her beloved; sometimes, it is the voice of the mother or a friend of this heroine, commenting on the passion of this young girl. Nammalvar’s union with Vishnu, a union which he thinks is the ultimate one happens here in the last verses. He says he will never let his love go. In the last set of verses on the Tiruvaymoli, Nammalvar speaks about being totally united with Vishnu and exults in this union.

Source 6 (Christian):St Gregory, (Carmina 1.1.29. JP Migne (ed). Patrologia Graeca. vol. 37. 507-508)

A Hymn to the Divinity

You stand above all things that exist.
What other way could we rightly begin to sing of you?
How can words chant your praise
When no word can ever speak of you?
How can the mind consider you
When no thought can ever grasp you?
You alone are unutterable
From the time you created all things that can be spoken of.
You alone are unknowable
From the time you created all things that can be known.
All things cry out about you
those which speak, and those which cannot think;
For there is one longing, one yearning,
That all things have for you (Rom. 8. 22-23).
All things pray to you, that comprehend your plan,
And offer you a silent hymn.
In you, the One, all things abide
And to you all things endlessly converge
Who are the end and goal of all.
You are One, and All, and None of these.
You who bear all names,
How shall I ever name you?
You who can never be named?
What heavenly mind can ever penetrate
those veils above the clouds?
Be merciful, You who stand above all things.
What other way can we rightly sing of you?

Commentary by John A McGuckin: Gregory brilliantly represents in his own gentle person and in his writings, a sublime synthesis of philosophy, culture, holiness, poetry, philanthropy and mysticism. Such a weaving together of these lofty elements is rarely found in the history of religious geniuses; many of whom seem to specialize by standing out in a few only of these areas. Gregory strikes me as a master in so many fields: and as someone who has brought all his talents into a deeply religious, social yet mystical wholeness. This is why, for me, he has a claim to true religious genius, and can still serve today as a model for a dynamically engaged religious philosophy that is transcendent and yet world-affirming. He wove his thought, his moral attitudes, his doctrinal and philosophical speculations into the ‘seamless garment’ of a gentle yet politically active life that was marked by life long compassion and scholarly labor, always tending to inclusiveness and advocating the cause of reconciliation in society. He is an icon of how successfully to weave together disparate skills, insights and aspirations in a deeply integrated, balanced, cultured and religions lifestyle. He is a zealot for God; advocating a zeal that casts out all bigotry.

Source 46 (Muslim): Rumi, “Song of the Reed,” the opening verses of the Masnavi

Listen to the way this reed flute grieves, telling stories of its separations:

“Ever since I was torn from the reed bed, men and women lament from my cry.

“I want a heart that’s torn from separation, so I can explain the pain of longing.

“Whoever remains far from his source one day seeks again the time of union.

“I was mourning during every gathering, joined with both the wretched and the lucky.

“Everyone liked me from his own opinion, but none sought out my secrets from within me.

“My secret is not far from my lament, but mere eyes and ears are not illumined.”

Body is not hid from soul, nor soul from body; but none has the power to see the soul.

The reed’s lament is fire — it’s not the wind! Whoever lacks this fire, may he be nothing!

It’s the fire of love that fell into the reed, and it’s the boiling of love that fell into the wine. (Source: Masnavi-i ma`navi 1 :1-10, ed. M. Isti`lami, trans. C. Ernst)

Commentary by Carl W Ernst: These verses display a startling innovation in the form of the Persian mystical epic. In previous treatments by masters such as Sana’i and `Attar, this genre adhered to the formal conventions of beginning with praise of God and the Prophet Muhammad. In contrast, Rumi begins with a powerful invocation of the image of the reed flute as symbol of the human soul cut off from its divine source, and its haunting melody expresses the divine longing that only the experienced can understand (Rumi also broke the rules in lyrical poems, where he never used a signature line to end his verses as most poets did). The intensity of Rumi’s expression of love and longing is enhanced by the realization that few are capable of grasping it. Nevertheless, the surprising focus on the agony of the human soul, in place of formally Islamic theological doctrines, is extraordinarily effective in making this experience available to the reader.