Filling the infinite

This is the concluding post in the six-part series, I Can't Get No Satisfaction. (Finally! I loved skiing and all, but I'm ready for some spring photos!)

Life is a paradox and calls us to wrestle with an ultimate tension, illustrated thus:

We believe something, we know it to be true when it becomes embodied to us or in us. And yet, the embodied expression is never enough. It doesn't fill the well.

Take Love for example. We believe in love when we are engaged in loving relationships as a body, when we actually experience love. Love is known in personal contact.

More specifically, consider the experience of someone in a committed, loving, and sexual relationship. You are loved in the most intimate ways by your partner, experiencing bodily delight and escstasy and simple day-to-day companionship and affection, and all that love still doesn't completely fill your love "well". You still carry an ache, a craving, a desire for more knowing, more communion, more love.

Many humans seek a Divine connection to find love. But the way we know the Divine is in our bodies, in our experiences, and so the Divine becomes embodied and we're back to the beginning.

It's the tension of the good and honest pursuit of a thing, bodily and spiritually, and the thing not quite fully satisfying, therefore pushing us to pursue the thing. We live our lives in this loop.

That thing might be security, connection, beauty, self-worth, authenticity, or wisdom. We seek so many things. And I don't mean things as idols or objects but as expressions of the Divine, attributes of God.

What is it we're seeking in the Divine if not a deep knowing of belonging, self-worth, connection, security, love, etc?

It is as much the ache, the emptiness, a deficit of these things that drives me to seek God, as it is the fulfillment I experience when I encounter God.

Years ago I heard this quote, attributed to Blaise Pascal.

There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man, and only God can fill it.

This was further simplified in sermons I heard to "there's a God-shaped hole in your heart and only God can fill it".

I liked that quote in my younger years as it implied a simple strategy for living, with a further implied outcome. Fill that God-shaped hole with God and all will be well. And if all is not well, you just don't have enough God in your God-shaped vacuum. Just get more God.

The problem is that it didn't prove true. I couldn't fill the hole.

Maybe because Pascal actually never said we have a God-shaped vacuum and has been misquoted. But more likely, because this idea of filling a hole is an oversimplification, and daresay, a falsification of the spiritual life.

What Pascal actually wrote in Pensées is this:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

I can loop through that second sentence over and over again, but what jumps out at me most is "this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object".

The infinite is a space without borders, it is immeasurable and unlimited.

It can't be filled. Pascal writes it can be filled with the infinite but filling the infinite with more infinite is more space without borders, impossible to measure or calculate.

We do not find satisfaction in filling an infinite space. Instead, we experience an ache at the edge that keeps pushing us deeper.

Did you see The Greatest Showman this winter?

I saw it three times, in the theatre. Slight overkill but there was good cause for each time. Subsequent showings were fun but did not touch me like the first, in which I cried, laughed, clapped, hooted and hollered at this joyous spectacle of humanity. Historical accuracy aside, it was art.

I loved the music. The repentance of From Now On. The resurrection of Come Alive. The celebration of human form and expression in This is Me (the real me). But in my current philosophical leanings the anthem I most identified with was the haunting melody of Never Enough.

Ah, here it is. The heartbeat of my spiritual self.

Never enough snowy woods, skiing, security, connection, adventure, laundromat-moments of contentment. Never enough prayer, meditation, and contemplation.

Never enough God.

And I don't mean the heavy-handed guilt of "are you reading your bible and praying every day?" What I'm talking about is that the deeper I go, the more I quest, the more I read and pray from desire (not guilt), the more I experience God embodied in my life in nature, self, others, and experiences, the more I want. It's never enough. It only whets the appetite for more.

And that's what keeps the whole thing rolling.

It's the ache, the absence, as much as the presence, of God that keeps us searching.

It's the disjointed Monday mornings after a ski weekend of feeling fully alive and at-ease in the world and yourself. It's questioning your place in your community, a bit unsure where you fit. It's the tension of living in the city but being drawn to the woods.

It's every place I experience the dissatisfaction or un-ease, a sometimes aching loneliness, a tension in life between what is and what I'm drawn to be, where I'm drawn to go. That's where I experience and embody God, in the emptiness. And as soon as that space is filled with what I seek (often in the giving of what I seek) I notice another ache, another space, another place in my life to experience and embody the Divine.

Unless you remain a small child in your intellectual and spiritual development, you will live a life of contradiction, complexity, ambiguity, and nuance. You will never be fully satisfied in life. Fully secure, fully loved, fully valued.

Whatever it is you're looking for, you won't find the full embodied expression of that idea in your environment, activities, or relationships. And the means by which you seek these things may conflict with those closest to you. So let's add irony to the list of life conditions.

And here's the kicker, you won't find the complete fullness, the satisfaction, the everything you're looking for in a spiritual practice, or set of beliefs either. You don't fill infinite space.

There will always be a gap, an ache, an edge, an unmet need in ourselves - financial, relational, physical, intellectual, spiritual.

That gap, the taste of something good and the longing for more, drives the whole enterprise.

Skiing, sex, or spiritual practice, it's all the same in principle.

We don't like the tension, the not-enoughness, the deficiencies, the complexity, the infinite edge of uncertainty, etc. but those are the very catalysts for moving us towards the thing we seek, even if it's never fully realized.

Living well and loving well, being human, is about accepting this reality while still wholeheartedly seeking to embody the very things we feel will never be enough in our lives.

If you are fully satisfied and live without tension or contradiction in your life then this has been a baffling series for you. (Or you've gone through the maturing process and can't remember what it was like before you reached enlightenment.) But if you know the ache of which I speak, if you feel tension around what is vs. what you wish was true, if you feel disjointed or even disembodied at times (like the real you is living somewhere else), if Never Enough feels like your anthem somedays, maybe there is some solace for you in the idea that your experience is what drives the whole spiritual and physical enterprise of your life.

And that when you embody the thing you seek - love, freedom, security, self-worth, etc. - you bring that forth in the world, for yourself and those around you. You make that thing true. But it does not, will not, fill the infinite. And you might feel let-down, disappointed, disillusioned, misled (or many other emotions). Maybe you felt you were promised fulfillment in faith, marriage, career, travel, children, etc. And if you're like me you might wonder, where did I go wrong? why am I not satisfied?

This might sound depressing, but it's not. There is freedom here. There's less pushing and striving, less judging and condemnation. There is heaps of grace for all that infinite space, and all our inadequacy and deficiencies.

I know I won't experience the thing I seek fully, either within my spiritual or physical reality. So I'm free to stop feeling like a failure in the lack. I'm free to rest even in tension and disappointment. I'm free to be at-ease in myself even if my surroundings, situations, or circumstance isn't the best fit.

There will never be enough nature and beauty, woods and big skies. Never enough skiing. Never enough flowers in my garden. I will never know my husband's heart, mind, and spirit to the depths I desire. I will always ache for more of God. I will always be compelled by the mystery, the absence of understanding, and carry a healthy dose of skepticism with the search. There will never be enough time to pursue the many things I want to learn. I will not be able to love my children and my parents to the extent I want. I will never know complete unconditional, unquestioned, at-ease at all times belonging. There will never be enough security.

But I seek to embody what I desire anyway, to live it and give it. And in those very actions - the embodying, the living, the giving - I move closer to the realization of my heart's desire but I never reach it. Because if I did I wouldn't seek it and if I wasn't seeking it I wouldn't be working to live it. And working to live it is my work in the world.


If any of this resonates with you, you might enjoy the work of theologian and philosopher Pete Rollins. I especially love podcast interviews with him, like this recent one on The Bible for Normal People. Check out interviews also with The Liturgists, The Deconstructionists, and Rob Bell.

Renee Tougas participates in affiliate marketing, including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Whenever you buy something on Amazon from a link you clicked here, I get a (very) small percentage of that sale. See disclosure for further explanation.

  • Tina

    Tina on May 8, 2018, 1:41 a.m.

    Thank you for sharing this wisdom, Renee. I will have to check out Pete Rollins since so much of this resonates with me.

    reply

  • Anna

    Anna on May 11, 2018, 8:38 a.m.

    "Unless you remain a small child in your intellectual and spiritual development, you will live a life of contradiction, complexity, ambiguity, and nuance. You will never be fully satisfied in life. Fully secure, fully loved, fully valued."

    Beautiful words. Thank you.

    reply

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