Listening through Longings

Feb 20 / Terri Conlin
I don’t know what I want. Not really.

My initial desires began with loving and knowing God, good creative work, belonging, a healthy, loving family, productive parenting, a generous heart. And if I’m honest, smooth skin, a slim frame, and good fairtrade coffee. Nothing wrong with those desires, but they only skim the surface.

Our true longings live deeper and are more daring. Yet they are muffled by many things: societal noise, busyness, cultural expectations, churning hearts, surface wants, and even our own grief, shame, and fear.

I need help sifting my deeper desires.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes in “Sifter,”

I thought immediately
of soft flour showering through the little holes
of the sifter and the sifter’s pleasing circular
swishing sound, and wrote it down. ¹

Because desires are born deep within, they need help rising to daylight. Several things have helped my sifting and sussing: upheavals, quieting and reorienting my life, and spiritual direction. All are part of a listening life.

A series of upheavals led the way – loving a child with autism before understanding his unique view of the world, my husband’s double bypass heart surgery followed quickly by life-threatening pneumonia.

Initially, all I did was slow my pace of life and create white space in my calendar. It seemed small, but it was significant. That editing made room for walking outdoors and listening to voices of neurodiversity, contemplatives, and mystics. Those conversations touched deeper longings for compassion, living in the Gospel story with Christ at the center of time, and collaborative church community.

Whole new worlds began to open up. Those openings allowed deeper longings to stir and rise like bread in the oven.

Generous listening is key to knowing who we are, who made us, and what we are made for. Still, when it comes to desires, their origin and nature may be opaque even to us. How do we know if we are sensing a surface desire, a disordered desire, or a healthy desire, one God himself might have planted?

Psychiatrist and priest Gerald May describes a three-part process that begins with desire, moves to intention, and ends with control (action). During this process, he advises slowing down to expand the space between desire and intention, for it is in intention that we have freedom for human authenticity. ²

As we explore our longings, we may find a clash of desire and fear, some of it healthy. What if our desire takes us far from the God we love? This is why it is hope-filled to spend time with our intention.

May suggests we stay close to God in the enlarged space while we discern our next beautiful thing before we act. This a form of “statio,” an ancient monastic practice of stopping one thing before beginning another. ³ Another word for this holy unhurried pause is Selah, the musical rest found throughout the Psalms. It is a moment to pray, watch, and breathe deeply.

Spiritual direction can provide valuable space for the process of sifting our interior longings. In the shared company of another soul, we are given room for separating, sorting, and passing ingredients (desire, intention, action) through smaller holes toward lightness, refinement, and mutuality with Trinitarian God.

Spiritual director Janet Ruffing writes, “Claiming our wanting, becoming conscious and choosing it, holds us open to God’s desiring and ours becoming one.” ⁴

This awareness is where the process of sifting our interior longings - separating, sorting, and passing ingredients (desire, intention, action) through smaller holes toward lightness, refinement, and mutuality with Trinitarian God – enters.

Jesus displayed our deepest desires in human skin – staying close to our Father, trusting him in desert places, welcoming and forgiving friends, belonging to our Father as a beloved child. When exploring our deep desires in our own time and place, we need our Brother, Savior, Friend Jesus. And we need each other. Alone we may never gather the strength and bravery to travel through our longings to discover our mutuality with God.

When we sift our desires with a companion in the presence of Jesus Christ, we invite Christ’s ongoing incarnation to pass through us. We tend to forget that Jesus’ Incarnation has never stopped. It continues through us. ⁵

Naomi Shihab Nye again,

When bad days came
I would close my eyes and feel them passing
through the tiny holes.
When good days came
I would try to contain them gently
the way flour remains
in Time, time. I was a sweet sifter in time
and no one ever knew. ⁶

While God may be doing the initiating and sustaining, we are encouraged to participate, not only on the surface. Deeply, authentically, and daringly through our longings to his heart.

Questions to Encourage Explorations of Desire:

Notice when your eyes are alight, your voice rises or falls to a whisper, your breath catches, or tears prick your eyes. Notice times of inexplicable peace. Where are you? What is being said, seen, sung, or remembered? Ask someone you love to notice with you.

When you quiet culture, politics, or shame, what longing repeatedly rises within you? Talk to Jesus. Listen to his reply. Journal what you’re hearing over time. Bring your conversation to spiritual direction.

¹ (Nye 2005, 42)
² (May 1991, 47)
³ (Chittister 1990, 176)
⁴ (Ruffing 2000, 27)
⁵ (Rohlheiser 1998, 76, 79)
⁶ (Nye 2005, 42)

Chittister, Joan. 1990. Wisdom Distilled from the Daily. New York City: Harper Collins.
May, Gerald. 1991. The Awakened Heart. New York City: Harper Collins. Nye, Naomi Shihab. 2005. A Maze Me. New York City: Greenwillow Books. Rohlheiser, Ronald. 1998. The Holy Longing. New York City: Crown Publishing.
Ruffing, Janet. 2000. Spiritual Direction - Beyond the Beginnings. New York City: Paulist Press.

Terri Conlin

Terri Conlin is a certified Spiritual Director, writer, and occasional preacher. She has a BA in Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin and a MA in Spiritual Formation from Portland Seminary. She thrives when creativity and resilience flourish together in God’s sheltering places. Terri and her husband live among the rainy firs of Oregon. They have four grown children and seven feisty grandchildren she calls the Wonders. Most days you can find her outside walking or writing about spiritual formation while sipping dark roast coffee in a thrifted mug.