Nostalgia, Reality & the Voice of God

Source: Pixabay.com
Source: Pixabay.com

I had trouble sleeping last week. I would wake up in the middle of the night and find myself stricken by nostalgia, longing for the times when I was studying or working overseas. This usually resulted in me getting up in the mornings not only-sleep deprived, but having my half-waking haze peppered by feelings of angst.

A chat with a friend about these past experiences over the weekend helped me realise that a very basic component of the angst was borne out of the physical limitation of being here in Australia. Put another way, the laws of physics placed a real limit on my desire to stretch myself beyond Australian shores and be back on European or American soil. Not just for a brief stint, but to be really back there, living in those places, all at once. I wanted to be living in all the countries, and yet through physical, professional and economic limitations, I am confined to just one. I want to have all the options in life, and for the same reasons, I am also confined to those afforded by the city I am currently in. In these circumstances, my limits acts as a brake on my desire.

When my nostalgia and my desire to act on that nostalgia come up against my limits I get tempted to think that, in the face of the frustration of my desires borne by my many limitations, I am meant to be somewhere else.  Moreoever, I cannot shake the feeling that I am being called by God to be somewhere else, to this place that formed a part of my past.

It was at this juncture that I started reading the notes from a retreat run by Fr Julian Carron, the leader of the ecclesial movement Communione e Liberazione (The title of the retreat was My Heart is Glad Because You Live, Oh Christ). A segment of those notes spoke to the very issues of nostalgia, of limitations that press against your desires, and of trying to discern the voice of God in the face of these circumstances. Seen in the light of these notes, both of these experiences are subsets of the same sensibility, outworkings of what the movement’s founder, the late Fr. Luigi Giussani, called “the religious sense” – the desire for more than what circumstances are allowing you to do at any given moment.

To the question of nostalgia, Carron reminded us that what God calls us to is not in the realm of fantasy, but in light of the real circumstances of your life. Thus nostalgia, being more than a passive memory but a longing for an experience from your past, runs the risk of turning one away from his or her circumstances. What compounds the tragedy, Carron says, is that often nostalgia is a longing for “the place I have never succeeded in reaching. But it is what we would have wanted to be…”. As indicated in a past post, our nostalgia is more often than not a longing for a utopia, a non-place, a mirage of our past experience.

What then of the border that lies between our desires and the pushback against them by our circumstances? Carron addresses this at two levels. At one level, Carron cites Giussani in acknowledging the reality that is borne by the limitations to our desires. Giussani, via Carron, states that “you do not belong to the limit…and for this reason you are pushed, driven, drawn to try to grasp more, know more, penetrate more”. At the same time, the inability to break through the limits of our circumstances should be an occasion to our realisation of a fundamental poverty, one that corresponds with a fundamental need for God to purify, direct and yes, realise, your desire.

The limitations that you face, Carron concludes in this section, constitutes an opportunity. In his words, our constant experience of limit is what “enables us to recognise the accent of [God’s] voice when it echoes in our life”. It is not our turn to the fantasy of nostalgia in which the voice of God can be discerned, but in the reality of our circumstances, and the limitations that come with them. It is not an abstract voice, but a voice that acquires an accent, complete with stops, emphases and intonations, when it touches the very real cleavages between our desires and our circumstances.

In the Christian tradition conversion, referred to in greek as metanoia or “turning towards”, is never simply a once off, but a constant process. We are always called to turn away from things and turn back towards the face and voice of God. It might very well be that part of our metanoia, might involve a turning away from the fantasies we conjure back to the real textures of our own lives, since it is in the structure of those circumstances that the glimmers and echoes of the Word that informs those structures can be found.

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