“Longing is the deepest and most ancient voice in the human soul” – John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes
I’ve written much about longing; of home and exile and the mystical realities available to me as a child that seem these days so elusive. And I suppose I’m just Freudian enough to believe that it’s no coincidence. I write of these things because, in a very real way, I long for longing itself. And even C. S. Lewis would agree that often the sweetest longing of all is unrequited longing tinged in hope.
For me, to feel is to live. To live is to experience that life in magical, almost indescribable ways. A lofty goal considering the numerous inconsistencies, injustices and unpredictability of it all! In fact, I believe many of the issues that have troubled me in my adult years have been my unrelenting, but futile attempts to return to places I have been, or may have been, or perceived myself to have been.
When I was younger I never had to look far for the sheer magic of life to come to me. It just came, powerfully and often. I remember feeling exceptionally safe as a boy, smothered in the sun-drenched kindness the God of my understanding allowed into my young life. Although it is hard for me to determine the veracity of many of those experiences, given my penchant for romanticism, there are a few memories that return faithfully every time.
Staring out our front room window into a snow-pocked night sky, heavy flakes of snow floated effortlessly past the streetlights on our street performing dances of joy on their way down. I was transfixed. I cannot remember if I was alone or if my Dad was in the room, but it is a memory that has stubbornly stayed with me. Other instances include the simple joys of hunting for unique rocks in our back alley to add to my growing collection. Or, perhaps sitting on our living room floor playing with my dinosaurs, rockets, or reading my favorite “Book of Knowledge.”
The concept of hiraeth is one that has been part of my experience since I was a boy. I just didn’t know it at the time. It is inexplicable really but is most readily compared to that feeling of homesickness for a place to which one can no longer return. It’s not just physical space or actual friends. It is a state of being.
Finding the true home for my entire being has been difficult. Either my geography is wrong or I have the right address but my soul is off-center and the address is lost in an ardent cry that both will find each other. But thankfully, “Location, location, location,” for the mystic, means something decidedly broader. The soul needs so much more than just a return address.
Think of a place and time when your life was particularly magical. Then, return there five years later. The place remains the same. Many of the same people may still be there, in similar capacities, even living in the same homes. But, as good as it can be, one’s experience can never be the same.
Growing up a mystic was challenging. First of all, I cannot properly define a mystic now, let alone that of my childhood. Oddly satisfying experiences of the eternal goodness of things would wash over me, leaving me almost breathless in their weight. For a few moments, all was remarkably well and as it “should” be. Nothing changed particularly, but what was normally benign and unremarkable, became perfectly “right” somehow. I saw the world as it was meant to be seen. Then, nothing.
It would vanish as inexplicably as it came. Sometimes I would cry afterward from the sheer beauty of it all and would wish for it to return.
With age comes the aspect of nostalgia. With chronology of course we gain the benefit of hindsight, experience and, hopefully, wisdom. More of our lives are behind us than ahead of us. We can become whimsical about the richness of past experiences, faces, places, etc. However, as good as it can be reliving them, the exact same experience will forever elude us because WE are different and are therefore incapable of perfectly replicating what we FIRST knew.
It is the “glory days” twenty-five year old still hanging out at high school parties. It is the “rose-colored glasses” mentality in which every memory, even of circumstances bad at the time, is a warm bath. It is the “everything was better when I was young” headspace, something empirically unverifiable but emotionally undeniable.
“Our bodies know that they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless,” says O’Donohue. And, there it is, a key to those like me who experience some sense of ongoing dis-location. We are all much more “home” than we realize. Perhaps we stand at the edge of God’s great sea of promise, the shore of possibility, but do so with hands covering our eyes. Our mind has somehow convinced our eyes to remain tightly sealed against all that lives before us as we cry out for what we think is yet to appear.
After all, what really is longing if not the soul’s insatiable desire for communion and reunion with God, with others, with oneself? And, simply being awakened to its presence is the first step toward its fulfillment in real terms, and to joy. He concludes: “The sacred duty of being an individual is to gradually learn how to live so as to awaken the eternal within oneself.”
For now, that’s good enough.