The heart is the place where we can see and be seen, and so discover who we are. It’s where “freedom of choice” really lies, Marrocco writes. Photo by Joshua Davis on Unsplash

Questioning Faith: Pay attention to the yearning of the heart

  • January 15, 2019

Stopping for lunch en route to a big city, my companion remarked:  “My grandmother grew up in this town. In those days, it was beautiful, a thriving and energetic community.”  

We marvelled driving through this economically-depressed village with little industry, shabby versions of once-handsome buildings, plenty of money-mart and pawn shops, food banks and shops for lease. It’s not abandoned, but neglected and suffering (like many small towns these days). This change didn’t happen all at once, but through a long series of small actions and inactions, outside and inside the community, that have left an air of disappointment and defeat.

It was a stark visual image of an inner reality I’ve observed, in myself and people I work with. Things happen to us, little or big, causing sorrows and disappointments. We bear them, but they chafe and aggravate, often without our realizing, like blisters hidden inside ill-fitting shoes on a long hike. It can happen so quietly we don’t even know we’ve ended up beaten-down and defeated, like the neglected village. 

Disappointment, bitterness and resentment can build up and up in us without our noticing. But like a tomato left in the back of the refrigerator, these sorrows don’t go away, and unattended they start oozing liquid and collecting mould. What can we do?  

In the case of tomatoes, clean the refrigerator regularly, or use them for science experiments. In the case of ourselves, regular soul-care. Mouldy tomatoes remind us that things need to be cared for; packed-down bitternesses remind us that hearts need to be cared for — far more than we tend to think — far more carefully, tenderly and consistently than often happens. 

These bitternesses are the shadow-side of the deep longing in us all, a fundamental aspect of our humanity. We may not want it, we may ignore or try to drive it out, but it won’t go away, though it might get thoroughly squished down and feel extremely unwanted and unloved. We’re designed that way, with a built-in yearning — sometimes ignorable, alternately frustrating and delightful, always a little out of reach.  

This is the transcendent touching the transcendent. “Deep calls on deep in the roar of your waters” (Psalm 42:7). 

Science can’t explain it, art can’t encompass it, but both benefit from it. Many scientific and artistic accomplishments are disciplined expressions of an inner yearning.   

We may experience it as wanting what someone else has; coveting can be a bent or broken version of our inner longing. Indeed, all sins come from bent or broken versions of some wonderful God-given part of us humans (evil is not creative). Like bitterness, coveting eats away at us, even if we seemingly get what we wanted. For our inner yearning can never be quenched in this way.

“Sin is what frustrates love,” a homeless man said recently. Love flows out of experiential knowledge of who God is. It empowers us to act in a righteous way which addresses our bitterness at the core. 

Until we do that, our endless distractions with politics and politicians, buying and selling, will always be necessary as a release. So will oppression and injustice, including the “small” ways one human being can oppress another, or himself. 

Did you make New Year’s resolutions? Where did they come from? If they required you to grit your teeth and rearrange things that were in your power to rearrange, you may want to go back and see if they addressed the core of you or only frustrated your longing. What do you yearn for?

To be human is to be hungry and thirsty. Bitterness is hunger and thirst frustrated. Must we put up with it? Actually, we can’t, except at the cost of heart-sickness. Today’s culture suffers bitterness and frustration, disappointment and defeat, from not paying attention to the yearning at the heart of us.

This is not the sentimental Valentine’s Day “heart.” It’s heart in the patristic sense, the heart as the “eyes of the soul.”  The heart is the place where we can see and be seen, and so discover who we are. It’s where “freedom of choice” really lies. 

As theologian Hierotheos Vlachos writes, we can understand a person only by approaching her in the heart. This is the way Jesus met people. He never had to ask about anyone because He always knew what a person had in her (John 2:25).

It’s not through what we think we possess, but through our longing that we can meet another — and heal our own bitterness. Our hunger can lead us to become bread for one another. “The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question,” says philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev.

If you attend to the inner places of disappointment and bitterness, and follow them to your heart, what will you see? 

“As the deer longs for running streams, so my soul yearns for you, O God”  (Psalm 42:2).

(Marrocco can be reached at

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