This emptiness which was formed in him as a result of falling away from God, kindles in him an incessant craving that nothing can satisfy. This craving is vague but constant (St. Theophan the Recluse).
That times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you– even Jesus (Acts 3:19-20).
The hunger for fullness and the reality of Jesus. How many times in the gospels is it recorded that Jesus went out of his way to personally touch and heal. Recount the hemorrhaging woman, recount the blind man, how many times does the encounter include a deeply personal and holy interaction.
We live in a time where intimacy is too tied in with sensuality. When the sort of intimacy that Jesus brings is wrapped in light as with a garment, its covered in holiness, its filled with whole love, a love that brings us more fully into who we are. This love takes us more deeply into ourselves, when we encounter it we feel more fully human. We become like Moses at the burning bush or the Apostle Peter at the Mt. of Transfiguration. We know we are seeing something holy and we give way to what is before us.
Perhaps the hardest thing to heal for each of us is inward alienation. An alienation born by sins of the flesh, the world, and the devil. An alienation born of trying circumstances, a lack of stability in our closest relating, an alienation born of our own pride and inability to seek the good and our own deep woundedness and the wounds of others. Consider Henri Nouwen on his journey towards wholeness “This place had always been there. I had always been aware of it as the source of grace. But I had not been able to enter it and truly live there.”
Nouwen saw the vision of wholeness in Rambrandt’s the Prodigal Son in the kind and loving embrace of the Father. A moment of profound blessing and love in the middle of ruin and sin. The Father is like the Holy Trinity reaching out to us in the midst of our pain and misery and turning, as we doubt as if to say ‘is this too good to be true’ the Trinity says ‘blessing, wholeness, fullness, life.’
Consider the gospel of Luke on this moment “his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Les Miserables moves us for similar reasons. Especially towards the end of the story, to find love and grace and to end one’s striving in holy love moves us deeply. It is our most natural desire, its what orients us at times, to find some peace for the inward alienation.
But being moved by these stories and seeing it from afar is not the same thing as dwelling and inhabiting holy love whether in our love for God (more common) or even in a particular relationship (less common).
So what helps us heal our self-alienation. As St. Theophan puts it our constant but vague craving? How do we like the children of Israel enter the land of milk and honey.
If we try and go into that land or that place of healing before God is ready for us or the dynamics are good, we will easily fail.
So what is the way forward? How do we start? Consider these words of scripture:
Be holy, because I am holy (1 Peter 16).
The pursuit of God and seeking first the kingdom not only in pious practices (prayers, scripture, and worship), but practices that overflow into our actions and relating (mercy, forgiveness, compassion, self-control) build the muscles and lay, all of these lay, the groundwork for the healing of self-alienation. But in and of themselves these practices and actions are insufficient for the healing to begin. It is grace. The free gift of God acting in each of us and in particular relationships that establish this level of closeness in our relating with God or with a particular person.
When we are inwardly alienated what stability can be used to heal this? What dynamics can the Trinity work with when we are so easily tossed like the seas, one day pursuing God, the next pursuing the world, the next pursuing our favorite team, the next trying the next fade, and so on and so on. Or if we are like the elder son, lulled to sleep in the service of the Lord. We neither experience the full embrace of the Father, but simply experience a dullness in our faith. A dullness which leads to slackness and sin as full and entangling as that of the younger son. Without vibrancy we don’t have much to stand on in our journey towards Christ.
The sure fire method and approach is to cultivate a soft heart. A heart that grieves fully over ones own sin. If we are the younger sin we must focus our efforts on repentance, realizing the extreme danger we are in. To repeat the Jesus prayer often is one method to cajole the heart ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.’
If we are the elder son we have much work to do because we have already disregarded our Father’s house. The elder son may begin with habits that are hard for his pride to bear, such as regular prayer (praying the holy hours for instance), humility, repentance that leads to tears. If the older son in us can be humbled and God grants the gift of tears than surely salvation has visited his inner abode and the path towards amendment of life can begin. We should not forget that we are to persevere to the end and not easily give up, especially if our heart is already hardened, in good time our gracious Father will give us a right spirit instead of a heart of stone.
The gospel is not just partial good news. It’s not merely a set of beliefs, it’s beliefs that are fully embodied and dwelt in. The children of Israel weren’t just given a land they were told to dwell in the land. Consider the words of the Psalms “dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). It’s not a simple possession but a full embodied dwelling therein.
The only type of thing that truly heals our inward alienation is for our inner desires and our orientation to move towards something that’s much more full. Again St. Theophan on this point:
Every feature of the divine order condemns and rebukes him with his former unreasonableness and carelessness. This impresses him all the more because, at the same time, his spirit sees the obvious insignificance of the former sinful order, which deserves his contempt. By this action the heart is released from its former bondage and becomes free.
This freedom and character than takes work to mold. This is but the beginning of repentance. Repentance is followed by the pursuit of holiness, the fully taking off of sin (lust for money, power, significance, other people, selfishness) and replaced by actions commended by Jesus himself (mercy towards those who have specifically wronged you, compassion towards those in dire circumstances, love for those who also pursue the Lord fully, self-control to not be bothered and perturbed when one encounters sin, peacefulness of heart which guides every moment).
As this builds the dull ache changes. Instead we find joy ineffable. We find holiness. At times the gift of a spiritual brother or sister who can be closer to us than our very hearts because there is holiness and wholeness in the inner chambers and recesses of our soul is given.
Here we can can find peace and true rest which enables creative love and kingdom fruit. At such points it will be said of us he has acquired peace in himself and look how those around him flock to find that peace as well.