The Book of Acts VI - Passion versus Longing
Acts 9: 1-20
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."
So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."
This is an incredibly well known story in scripture – the moment when the arch-enemy and persecutor of the Way, Saul, converted from his persecuting ways and became instead the uber-Apostle, the one whose writings and influence fills most of the rest of the New Testament story of the early church.
There are so many things that I would like to bring out of this passage. I could talk about the mysterious and powerful ways of God, who reveals Jesus to Saul and so changes the whole course of the church at a crucial time. I could talk about the living presence of Jesus, who still confronts and encounters us – sometimes in dramatic, and often in not very dramatic, ways. I could talk about the faithful obedience, and forgiveness, of Ananias, and what it must have been like for him to fearfully enter the house of the persecutor and pray for the one who had hurt his fellow followers of the way.
But today I want to take an angle on this passage that's maybe not immediately obvious, but that I have been pondering for a wee while. Today I want to reflect on passion and longing, and to explore the differences between them, by way of what we see in this story and how it reflects the wider story of the Bible.
I will never forget a conversation between some friends of mine several years ago. One friend was speaking of passion as a source of motivation, and as the basis of calling or vocation, or even the will to live. And this other, very dear to me, friend simply said “I don't experience passion. I never have. And this makes it very difficult for me to look forward to anything, or to know what I want out of life, and to have any sense of feeling positively about the future.” This from a woman who in my eyes, had a really coherent sense of self and intention, who seemed so clear about her values, who served others in a way I greatly admired. No passion. And she regretted that fact. And still struggles with it today.
I wonder how many people feel like they're living kind of weak or sub-standard lives in comparison to those who seem so passionately motivated, who speak of their passion in passionate ways, whose eyes have the light of passion shining in them. I think that I have been in the past a much more passionate person than I am today. Today I'm too tired to experience passion, or I seem to have lost the spark that helped me to feel inspired about the path I'm walking. But I'm also wondering whether I actually want to re-discover passion, or if there's something else that I want to access inside myself, and whether that something is really more like 'longing', than 'passion.'
Let me go back to the text for a while before pondering this question.
Here is Saul, breathing murderous threats, and heading off to Damascus with the express purpose of exterminating the Jesus followers and stamping out the Way. He gets the required paperwork to ensure that he can arrest whoever he wants. He's a passionate guy. We tend to read this through the eyes of the Christians, and see him at this point in his trajectory as simply the evil villain.
But imagine seeing him through the eyes of his synagogue friends – here he is valiantly ridding the world of heresy and blasphemy and going to great lengths to do so. He knows who he is - a pharisee and a law keeper - and he knows his mission. He's passionate about it.
How many times have we been lit by the fires of passion in a cause that has more hate in it than love? How many of us have a story of crusading, passionately, for something that, when we look back, we no longer feel was right? This is the thing with passion – it's a strong driver and it makes us motivated and strong. But it's value neutral – it can inspire all manner of goodness, and it can also underpin all manner of badness.
Saul is blinded when he meets Jesus. After hearing the words that blast him out of one paradigm into another – I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting – he gets up off the ground, and even though his eyes are open, he can't see. I hear resonances here with Jesus words to the Pharisees in John 9, his encounter with the blind man. 'I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.' Passion, of the kind displayed by Saul, or the Pharisees in the story, may light up our eyes and help us to get up in the morning, but it doesn't necessarily 'see' the world, or the other, with any clarity or truth. Passion is simply an energy that drives and motivates us, that makes us powerful, but it leaves our biases and our inner blindness unchallenged.
When Jesus met with Saul on the road to Damascus, he graciously reached through the passion to the real Saul. By blinding Saul, Jesus ensured that he could no longer focus his passionate energy to look outward while remaining inwardly deceived. Instead he had to look inward and confront the reality of the living Jesus and his own deviation from true righteousness. For three days, fasting and praying, Saul prepares himself to receive new sight. And the passage tells us that in this state he sees a vision of a man named Ananias coming and laying hands on him. With the temporary halt of his passionate momentum, Saul learns to see with his inner eye. And, we are told that part of what he will learn in this space is that instead of inflicting suffering, he will learn to receive it in the same way as Jesus did. It is in this state of receptivity and incapacity, I think, that Saul shifts his axis of motivation from passion to longing. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is longing, if not just another word for passion? Am I splitting hairs here? I'll try to define what I mean. Longing is the place within us that knows when things are not as they should be, and that grieves, and that wants things to be different. Longing is a picture of hope, an imagining of a better life, and also an acknowledgement of the distance between what is now, and what is yet to be. Longing has a quality of yearning and inclining toward, like a plant to the light, like a lover to the beloved.
It is informed by an inner vision that has been shaped by God. It is not our own good idea, or our drivenness or personality, nor is it restricted just to some types of people – it is in all of us, and it is there because that is how we are made. Longing is the part of us that was made for God, that desires God, and remains unfulfilled as long as we avoid God. Longing is the discomfort of exile, of being able to see clearly what is lost and broken in our current circumstances, but remains hopeful of a homecoming to wholeness. Longing connects us to the world, because we recognise that we are all yearning for the same thing, whatever language we do that in.
Longing is the story of the First Testament of the Bible – the longing to be released from captivity and slavery, the longing for a homeland, the longing to be God's people, the longing of the prophets who saw so clearly what life with God was meant to look like, the longing for the Messiah who would come and fulfil and bring about the vision of the prophets. Longing is the lamenting of the Psalms, and the question 'how long O Lord'? And longing is the shape of the kingdom of God preached in the New Testament – that which is already present but not yet fully revealed.
Longing has an ethical compass – rather than being value neutral - because it is inspired within us by what we can know of the presence of God and the word of God, and the pain of the absence of God, and by the vision of God's realm made manifest on the earth. When longing acts, it does so in love, and in tandem with God's Spirit. Longing can be as tireless and as persevering as passion in its drive for justice and for change, but it is not blind as passion can often be, because it sees with the inner eye that recognises and embraces reality. It is not blinded by the smallness of the self, because individual longing taps into the greater longing which flows within all people, and the whole creation.
Essentially, longing is love. Where there is passion, not infused by longing, we often find people walking a knife edge between love and hate. The one can so quickly become the other. Anger is a great driver of passion, and while anger is not in itself bad, it can often narrow our vision or lead us into hate or contempt when we're not vigilant. Saul loved his God, and the law, enough to kill and persecute. What fuels and drives us one day, can become toxic to us the next. Passion often struggles to forgive, because its energy so often comes from pushing one side of a dualism as far as it can go. Longing, on the other hand cannot hate, because it sees all things and people as caught up in this big story of loss and exile and can sorrow with the other, rather than demonising them.
And so Ananias enters the house where Saul is praying and says 'Brother Saul.' And prays for him. Ananias' longing overcomes his understandable fear, and Saul is healed.
How does this relate to my friend who feels only half alive because she doesn't experience passion? How does this relate to me and any of us who feel as though what may have motivated us in the past isn't getting through any more? And how does it relate to those of us who are genuinely passionate personalities?
The last of these first. I do not mean to speak against passion, simply to say that passion is a smaller part of the story than longing, and needs to be on its guard against being misguided or driven. I would encourage passionate people to go on being passionate, by all means! But perhaps also be very careful to take the time to locate that passion in a vision of God and of life that is big enough, and embracing enough, and rooted in longing, so that the passion will be guided by love and truth. People with passion have a responsibility to explore their strength of feeling and motivation from an inner place of prayer and listening, before pressing outward in ways that either build up or break down.
For those of us who have lost our passion, or never had it, or have been disillusioned either by the after effects of our own passion or another persons...how then shall we live?
My sense for myself at the moment is that my task is not to try to re-ignite passion, or to seek it. My task is to locate longing within myself, and desire, and to wait for an authentic calling that matches up my individual longing to the wider story of God's longing, and the longing of the people of God, for all things to be restored and redeemed. How do I do this? I try to recognise tiny moments of resonance between my heart and what's happening around me.
What are the little movements of soul, the flutterings of recognition that tell me something authentic is happening, that call forth a response from me? I generally know that something important is going on when I cry, particularly on hearing someone else's story. I try to notice my tears and ask what they're resonating with. Longing is often suffused with sorrow, and tears can give us a clue to where our heart is.
Sometimes, there will be a word or an image that repeats and repeats in us that crystallises our sense of longing... We might find ourself using that word often to describe a sense of unease, or a desire that we have across a number of different parts of our lives...a word such as 'home', or 'belong' or 'beauty' or 'lost' or 'connected' or whatever it may be.
Longing might be revealed to us in dreams that tell us what our heart knows but our mind doesn't. Clues to longing may be found in laughter, or anger, or a surge of desire. The shape and content of longing is developed, too, as we become familiar with the story of God in the Bible, and as we learn to read our own culture through the lens of this biblical story. Whatever the 'method', the thing about longing is that it won't necessarily propel us into action or even feel very motivating. It may make us sadder or more dissatisfied in the short term. But what longing does is shape our souls, so that we learn to recognise where God is. We learn to see properly. We resonate with the ache of the world. We learn the vocabulary of faith, hope, and love from the inside out.
And, I trust that when we are formed in this way, we become those who can act decisively. We become those who can respond to the calling of God in a given moment. We may find we have a stronger inner sense of purpose. We may not experience that thing that people call 'passion', in terms of intensity or motivation to strenuous activity, or great conviction or certainty, but we might be people that know and can do the right action in the right place at the right time. I believe that the great saints we admire were people who knew longing in their bones. They may or may not have been passionate. But their legacy to all of us is one of standing fast in what they knew, acting in accordance with an inner world that was shaped by a vision of God and how things could be, and an ability in God to see how to get from here to there, even in small ways.
Yeats' immortal poem 'The Second Coming' begins with these lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
If this is a description of our times, then perhaps what is needed is not more passion, or intensity, but a formed longing that enables us to hold the centre even as things fall apart, and that renews conviction. Let those with ears to hear, listen to God, and then the falcon might hear the voice of the falconer again.