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The Secret of the Human Heart

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 8, 2013)
In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece, who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which the truths of the faith were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his fifth letter:

Dear Krystal,

Something tremendous has happened to you. That's clear from your letter.

I cannot say I know a lot about the Norse Mythology you have been reading in World Literature, but I do at least remember the Germanic stories of The Ring of the Nibelungen, because I remember my Dad taking me to see the great operas by Wagner based upon them when I was a boy. Mysterious and magical tales indeed!

I understand that when you watched portions of those operas with your class, the stories became more than just another great set of fantasy tales. For you, they became what the Irish call "a thin place": a place where the veil between worlds suddenly, unexpectedly, became translucent. I mean, for you they became the occasion of something truly awesome: an experience of the mysterium tremendum.

I know you may not be familiar with that phrase; it comes from the academic study of religious experience. But you wrote about it without realizing it:

I just wanted with all my heart to be within that magic Circle of Fire when it surrounded the sleeping heroine Brunhilde; I just wanted to follow the Norse gods when they journeyed up and up into Valhalla; I wanted to cry out: "Please take me with you! Please don't leave me behind! I don't want to stay here; I want to be with you!" A ridiculous desire, I suppose, but that's how I really felt. Like how I felt at times when my Dad read to me The Chronicles of Narnia when I was little. Narnia is where I belong; it's my true home. So what am I doing here? And how can I find the door in the wardrobe again that will take me there?

It's not ridiculous at all, Krystal. I have felt it too. I think everyone has at one time or another, if they were willing to admit it. The Romantic poets and composers of the 19th century knew all about it. We like to laugh today at the excesses of "Romanticism"— but I am convinced they were on to something.

I remember when I was a teenager going on a summer camping trip with friends. We hiked into the deep woods for several miles until we came upon a shelter, a "lean-to," at the base of a forested hill, with the open side facing a broad fresh-water stream. The water flowed down the hillside, winding as it went, cascading over the rocks at every turn. As that stream water splashed and swirled, it almost sang to us, and when twilight came, I felt this desperate, inconsolable longing to follow that stream up the hill, right to its hidden source — at the same time knowing full well I could never find it. And all the while, the stream sang its mystery to me, and comforted me in my grief.

I can never forget that evening. It was only years later that I heard a piece of music by the composer Ravel (I think it was the start of his Daphnis and Chloe, suite #2) that in some distant way captured what I had experienced of that stream in the twilight.

It has happened to me other times as well. I remember it was Christmastime, and I was staying at my parents' home in New York. I woke up one morning, and gazing at the bedroom window, saw that there was fresh snow falling. In my drowsy state I looked out of that window upon a birdbath in the back-garden below. Everything in the garden was blanketed with snow: the azalea bushes, the dogwood trees, even that little birdbath was gilded with white, as several sparrows and finches perched upon it and rinsed their feathers in the not-quite-frozen water. It was a vision of perfect peace and tranquility, perfect beauty. For a few brief moments, everything was just as it ought to be, and I drank it in like a man dying of thirst, longing for it not to change, and knowing very well that it would.

It's funny that you should mention The Chronicles of Narnia, Krystal, because their author, C.S. Lewis, wrote more about these kinds of experiences than anyone else I know. In fact, it was one of the reasons that he and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien wrote their fantasy stories in the first place: to try to unlock this secret that we all keep buried within ourselves, this painful desire that we try to smother with food and drink, sex and pleasure, radio and TV, burying ourselves in an avalanche of consumer goods and "busy-ness" in order to deaden the pain. But Lewis and Tolkein would not let their readers forget their longing for home. Lewis once wrote in his essay, The Weight of Glory:

We want ... something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, nymphs and elves — that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image ... Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.

I am going to quote for you here several long passages from Lewis's writings on this subject, Krystal, just because they are some of the most important words he ever wrote — and to save you the trouble of looking up the passages yourself (I know you have more than enough to do to get ready for your end-of-semester exams!).

First, in a famous passage from his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes for us these experiences of painful longing:

I will only underline the quality common to [these] experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from both Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

Notice what he says at the end of this passage: that "Joy is never in our power." That's really the same thing you said in your letter to me: you said that no matter how many times you went back and listened to those operas of the Ring story, even to the very moments in those operas that had so deeply moved you, you could not seem to re-create the same feelings. All you had left was the sweet memory of those experiences, not the experiences themselves. So, whatever you had been longing for, it was evidently not just the endless repetition of opera highlights — otherwise the return to the highlights would have been an encore experience of "Joy" as well.

It's the same for me. I went back to that stream in the forest in later years — several times — but while those visits brought back the memory of that sweet, inconsolable desire, I was never able to re-create the experience itself. It's just not in our power to do so.

Lewis described other aspects of "Joy" in the third edition of his book The Pilgrim's Regress, which fit perfectly with your experience, and mine:

The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute, and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world. ...

In the second place, there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire. Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring. Thus, if it comes to a child while he is looking at a far off hillside he at once thinks, "If only I was there;" if it comes when he is remembering some event in the past, he thinks, "If only I could go back to those days." If it comes (a little later) while he is reading a "romantic" tale or poem of "perilous seas and faerie lands forlorn," he thinks he is wishing that such places really existed and that he could reach them. If it comes (later still) in a context with erotic suggestions he believes he is desiring the perfect beloved. If he falls upon some literature ... which treats of spirits and the like with some show of serious belief, he may think he is hankering for real magic and occultism. When it darts out upon him from his studies in history or science, he may confuse it with the intellectual craving for knowledge.

But every one of these impressions is wrong. ... For I myself have been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat.

This may be the deepest mystery of all about you and me, Krystal, and indeed about the entire human race. We are told that we are creatures genetically well suited by evolution to match our natural environment in this world — then why do we so painfully long for something that nothing in this world can satisfy? What possible biological "survival value" could these repeated, inconsolable experiences of "Joy" have for our species, except to keep us searching for the unattainable, and in a perpetual state of grief for never having found it?

"Nothing Buttery" has no resources to explain this, only pathetic attempts to explain it away. But even the proponents of Reductionism admit, when their guard is down, that this is the painful secret of their own hearts too. The leading 20th century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote this in his autobiography: "The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain — a curious wild pain — a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite."

Well, bless old Bertrand Russell for his honesty. What he was willing to admit in passing, however, Lewis treated as the central mystery of his own life story. In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis shared with his readers the conclusions he had come to about his lifelong search to unveil this mystery:

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 that no marriage, no travel, and no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would ordinarily be 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 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 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.' ... But supposing infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us? Suppose one really could catch 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.

Then Lewis offers us a third Way, in one of the most famous passages he ever wrote. He suggests that this longing that nothing on earth can satisfy must be a natural desire (like our desire for food and drink and safety) rather than an artificial, socially constructed desire (like a desire for a new dress or a sports car), because it is common to all humanity; it is not the creation of society, advertising, or fiction. He writes:

Creatures are not born with [natural] 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 not 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. ...

There is a subtle shift in this last quote, Krystal: you may have noticed it. In the others Lewis spoke about Joy as something that we experience only in rare, distinct, painful moments of longing for something that nothing on earth can ever satisfy. But here he writes as if there is an underlying, inconsolable desire that forms the backdrop to almost everything we think we desire in this life.

He explained this best in his book The Problem of Pain, so I'll share this one last quote with you before I close:

There have been times I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that 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 it 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 have 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 a 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, or the 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 in 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 ever 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, 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.

What is this nameless thing that we so desperately long for? Lewis calls it "heaven." Krystal, you called it "home," the place we were made for, and "Valhalla," where the heroes find eternal rest. I think the ancient philosopher Boethius said it best: what we really long for is the endless possession of perfect, boundless good. We know very well that this is what we all want because no one would ever turn it down if freely offered, and it would leave no desire unsatisfied; our search and longing finally would be at an end. But what can "perfect, boundless (infinite) good" be other than God himself, the Infinitely Perfect Being? St. Augustine knew this. He wrote about 5 million words in his lifetime, but one sentence stands out among them all: "You made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts will never find rest until they rest in You."

So we have come to the door of the secret of the human heart, the "Secret Garden" within each one of us. We cannot flee from that door, try as we might. Even if we attempt to run away from it, He beckons us to come back, both in momentary stabs of Joy, and in the inconsolable desire hidden in all our desires.

The only question is: Will we open the door and step in?

Love to you always,
Uncle Robert

Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit
• Letter #4: What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.

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marylouise - Nov 10, 2013

your letters to your niece are beautiful and pinpoint what is going on in my soul as well. Thank you for sharing them.