Hiraeth – The Savage Beauty of Our Longing

Photo Art by Laura Aldridge

A number of years ago, I fell in love with a word. Not just any word; it was a word that perfectly voiced a particular spiritual ennui to which all of us in general, me in particular are inclined. That word became the title of my most popular blog series to date: Hiraeth – Making Peace with Longing.

Folks have often asked me to curate those posts into a single unit. I have done exactly that here. It makes for a bit of a long read. But, if you have the stamina, I think this ancient Welsh word, and hopefully my considerations of it, might have something rich to contribute to your own journey of longing and satisfaction and the space between.

To that end, I give you: Hiraeth – The Savage Beauty of Our Longing

I

“The human heart is a theater of longing” -John O’Donohue (Eternal Echoes)

The Celts have a concept, Hiraeth (here-eyeth). It is a Welsh word, about as difficult to define as it is to pronounce.

Let’s try.

It might be defined as a longing, a homesickness for a home to which one can never return. It is the unrequited hope that produces ever more unanswered longing. It is a grieving for the lost places and moments of one’s past – a sense of loss for loving moments and places, fondly remembered. It sits in the dream world where longing, belonging, home, and wanderlust meet.

I’ve lived my entire life in this terrible, wonderful, aching place, rarely able to make sense of it but never able to escape it. I like to think I’m a complex mystic. Others I’m sure simply dismiss it as the cross-eyed musings of a artsy moron. But, I digress…

In a 2003 interview with Val Bethell we get a particularly poignant description of this elusive idea.

“Hiraeth is in the mountains where the wind speaks in many tongues and the buzzards fly on silent wings. It’s the call of my spiritual home, it’s where ancient peoples made their home…high on a hill, where saints bathed sore feet in a healing spring and had a cure….Hiraeth – the link with the long-forgotten past, the language of the soul, the call from the inner self. Half forgotten – fraction remembered. It speaks from the rocks, from the earth, from the trees and in the waves. It’s always there.

Yes, I hear it.

Yes, I understand what hiraeth means.”

As do I.

So, here’s my strategy. While you sit, happily dunking something forbidden and delicious in your coffee, I’m going to prattle on a bit about this concept in a new series of blog posts designed to help get us, okay me, to the pleasantries of shared experience. And, although I’ve written about this thing before, I need to keep doing so. I hope this exercise is more like Michelangelo’s hammer and chisel finding David in the stone than the endless pounding of the chain gang pick on the rubble pile.

Join me?

II

“Longing is the deepest and most ancient voice in the human soul” – John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes

Fellow poet-mystics understand how gratifying metaphors can be. They build a much bigger backdrop upon which to mess about and articulate those things that defy such articulation.

Hiraeth is most helpful here. It is an older word from an older culture at a younger time. It has the thickness of time-honored usage by countless others just as curious and longing as I.

Admittedly, at times when I really should be listening intently to our pastor preach his stellar sermons, I find myself writing in my journal instead. These times are often quite fruitful. Perhaps it’s just the delight in foregoing the reality right in front of me for the one I keep trying to build in my head! Och weel, be that as it may…

A fatigue so deep has set in that I’m calling it depletion. The river has run dry and much of what I’ve done for years feels more like duty than vocation. A restless, ceaselessly searching spirit has been my lot for as long as I’ve been breathing. So, the light of experience tells me that quick and easy answers are not on the menu.

No, this must be borne quietly while I discern alongside it what’s to be done, if anything, to find some inner dampness again.

Hiraeth – the spiritual weight of longing. It’s how I would imagine a 10-mile portage through dense forest carrying a 90-pound canoe might be like. And, without the aid of a decent compass, readable map, or clear reason for the journey in the first place.

Some things just kind of creep up on a person – age, anger, addiction, fatigue, desire, love. They boast a surprising stealth, deftly dodging every conscious attempt at control or even self-understanding. But, perhaps the hardest to pin down is that of longing. It is the most elusive. Like humility of character, it’s the greased pig of spiritual experience. Wrangling it successfully with anything close to keen insight, all with a growing weariness, is like the vain admission of one’s own humility. It’s elusive as it is ironic.

In the morning I glance in the mirror and see a 6’1″, grey-haired, green-eyed, Libra with surprising levels of energy and two pages of life goals. At lunch, the same mirror reveals an older, albeit content and generally successful man, happy for a measure of stability. As evening comes however, it brings an uncertainty. The image is still recognizable with all the right stuff in all the right places.

But the mirror has changed.

It seems farther away somehow, and murky, like soaped up windows in the carwash. The fingerprints could be mine. But, if so, I can no longer tell and, worst of all, I no longer care. What are mirrors good for anyway beyond advancing one’s own skewed self-image? Gawk into one if you like and one is none the wiser – only vainer, and sometimes increasingly less satisfied, with a penchant for forgetting what one has just seen.

Self-understanding is the greatest of God’s ‘under the sun’ gifts. But it comes at a high price. And it comes indirectly, peripherally, sneaking up on us from behind. And its deepest insights generally come at the expense of pain, loss, and suffering. It also comes only in proportion to the willing clarity of a long, loving gaze into the eyes of the Self of all selves; the I Am, the ever-existing font of all personhood and is-ness.

God is stirring. I believe it is why I’m suddenly paying attention rather than affixing to it some scripture on faithfulness that, though informative, speaks at cross purposes to yet others yelling at me to slow down.

I can’t breathe. But God is my aim. And, so, I am once again looking for God.

III

“The voice comes from your soul. It is the voice of the eternal longing within you, and it confirms you as a relentless pilgrim on the earth” -John O’ Donohue, Eternal Echoes

It can be like nailing jello to the wall to truly understand this elusive concept. Thankfully, it’s more like catching a butterfly in the net to uncover healing words, made available at the exact moment they are needed. For me, writing is a net that captures and strives to observe the flitting beauty that, if only briefly, bows to the effort. And longing is a subject ill-suited to casual conversation. It submits better to the broader pulchritude of artistic or literary narrative.

Hence, this series.

Indirectly, I owe these moments to my anam cara, John O’Donohue, no longer hiraeth-ing, but singing with the angels. “The human heart is a theater of longing,” he insists, “There is a divine restlessness in the human heart [but]…the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart” (John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes).

Soooooo, in other words, don’t expect it to simply fix itself or go away anytime soon.

O’Donohue, a Celtic mystic like myself, has uniquely and masterfully captured hiraeth. And longing may well be my greatest gift and most insistent Achilles Heel! Since it is an ubiquitous and stubborn ‘friend,’ the drunk uncle of the soul that never knows when to shut up, slurs a lot, and then disappears behind something, how does one learn to embrace and control it? Is such an effort possible? Is it even advisable? How do I make friends with something that so often feels like an enemy? Why does this seem never to touch so many others in the same way it does me?

Longing is a form of suffering. And every great spiritual writer would urge us to make peace with our sufferings; to come to terms with their eventuality, their persistence and complexity; their chaos. To those outside a conscious spiritual journey this can seem like madness, even masochism! It is especially baffling to those given over to the American gospel of therapeutic Deism with a generous helping of Jesus-my-boyfriend yumminess. Simply pursue your dreams in a can-do attitude and a good work ethic and let America do the rest.

The dreams mantra may claim to have answers, but they are for those with a clear sense of what their dreams actually are. My dream is to come out of sleep long enough to see with my own eyes what’s around me instead of drowning in an overly bloated Rob’s-little-dream-world. It’s how to deal with this ever-present yearning that sometimes just gets too heavy to hold.

In this sense, hiraeth can be unhelpful as it acts like a cloak of mourning over life’s common colds, the things we all must bear. Yearning without any hope of the substance of that yearning.

Instead, let me learn to see first so I can make sense of my dreams.

IV

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 so elusive these days. 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.

Hiraeth.

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 as I’ve already suggest, it 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, 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.

Hiraeth.

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.

Hiraeth.

“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.

V

“The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature” – John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes

At the beginning of chapter one of The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Catholic theologian, Ronald Rolheiser‘s pivotal work, he implants the following poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

“The Holy Longing”

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,

Because the massman will mock it right away.

I praise what is truly alive,

what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,

where you were begotten, where you have begotten,

a strange feeling comes over you

when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught

in the obsession with darkness,

and a desire for higher love-making

sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter,

now, arriving in magic, flying,

and finally, insane for the light,

you are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so long as you haven’t experienced

this: to die and so to grow,

you are only a troubled guest

on the dark earth.

Goethe voices something Rolheiser explores very well in his book. It is what we’ve been examining these past weeks: longing. Rolheiser maintains that longing, or desire as he calls it, is our primary dis-ease. He submits that “there is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace” (p. 3). In fact, he believes desire to be stronger than the satisfaction for which it yearns. And everyone desires – longs – and our spirituality is what we do with that unrest.

Rolheiser goes on to say however that, although we all suffer deep longing, not everyone addresses it in the same way. He compares Janis Joplin’s longing, lived out in the erratic and scattered desires that ultimately led to her untimely death with the more focused and singular desire of Mother Teresa that allowed her a healthy integration and more restful existence. This of course recalls Kierkegaard’s definition of sainthood – someone who can will the one thing.

Stated another way, our spirituality is “about how we channel our eros…what we do with the spirit that is within us” (p. 11). This is for me the greatest challenge since I have so many competing and overpowering inner voices, all clamouring for supremacy. Indeed, willing the one thing first requires the monkeys to quit swinging in the mental tree (thank you Henri Nouwen!). It is also why desire and longing have, for me, been so intimately tied to identity: my is-ness.

I believe this concept is utilized best when determining the growth pattern of our inner lives, specifically our emotions. It does not deny the tiger claw tears in the fabric of our hearts that rich memories can bring. It invites us however to live there in a liminality of time and space, with one eye on the object of our longing, Who in fact dwells comfortably where our elevator originates; Christ at our foundation.

And that is where our discussion will ultimately lead us. For now, I want to explore longing as it pertains to the soul’s need for self-knowledge. And, at the root of self-knowledge is self-love that can find itself anywhere because it belongs everywhere. As an adoptee and one who has seldom truly felt “at home” anywhere, this can be a daunting, even depressing idea since it points to a (be)longing that, again, is never really be satisfied.

Numerous spiritual directors, almost all my friends, my therapist, and of course my wife, tell me I am my own worst enemy. I can talk myself out of anything. I will consistently deny the gifts, apparent to others, that elude me. I will be a willing martyr to delay or defuse conflict and, in my tireless efforts at ensuring my belonging in any crowd, will osmose into their zeitgeist like a chameleon in a tree. “Yup, I can fit here. Hmm, I can make this group work. Wow, this feels good. Now, who the hell am I?”

The result is that I have lived many lives, few of them my own. It makes me a blast at parties, a generally affable guy; the one you want to have sit at your table. It also means I am someone always willing to help change your tire, hear your story, or sing you a song of encouragement when you most need it.

But it can also have more sinister tones.

The loneliness and stress of living in the constant search for the “real me” often drives a relative blindness to boundaries as I push my way into everyone’s acceptance. It means the elaborate construct that has become my life lacks foundation and could all too easily topple into disarray, and often does. I wonder sometimes if it’s the adult version of the kid constantly tugging at the sleeve, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom…” Eeewww.

So, you see my dilemma. The hard path ahead is finding acceptance without expecting it, exercising self-love without bounding over other people’s personal space, and learning to live, contented, in tension when none of it works all the time as I think it should. For me as for others, the longing I experience is most likely the soul’s vocal cries to express the deepest, truest self; the self that is free even in prison, safe even in danger, content even in deep darkness.

We find the satisfaction to our longing once we know we belong. We belong in God’s ongoing cosmological project. We belong to the broader family of beings with whom we co-inhabit this spinning little ball of wonder. We belong wherever we presently are. It means everywhere can be home. It means we never truly have to live as exiles in our own domains.

We are most home when we come home to ourselves.

VI

“Our longing is an echo of the divine longing for us. Our longing is the living imprint of divine desire. This desire lives in each of us in that ineffable space in the heart where nothing else can satisfy or still us”

-John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes

Throughout our series I’ve sought to define the Celtic concept of hiraeth in the following way: “a longing, a homesickness for a home to which one can never return. It is the unrequited hope that produces ever more unanswered longing. It is a grieving for the lost places and moments of one’s past – a sense of loss for loving moments and places, fondly remembered. It sits in the dream world where longing, belonging, home, and wanderlust meet.” 

We’ve looked at the necessity of metaphor in our efforts to understand this, or any, spiritual concept. I’ve invited people into my own personal salve, applied generously on my own longing – writing. We’ve discussed how the spirit of childhood and its built-in mysticism (Jesus called this childlikeness or, humility) is our truest home and the perfect allegory for our own longing – the return to that elemental time of wonder and chaotic delight; to mystery. Finally, we’ve adopted Ronald Rolheiser’s idea that our spirituality is what we do with our longing, the end of which can lead us to God’s greatest gift: self-knowledge.

Longing, as rooted in hiraeth, is a double-edged sword. It pricks us with the sting of yearning while simultaneously acting as a reminder of our finitude. We long for what we most want but which we so often least require. In this way, Hiraeth can be a longing for longing itself. Except, when we return, we discover WE have changed. Capturing even the essence of something is then an impatient storming of the gates of the reality itself. We chase a shadow as though it were the substance of the shadow.

Found here

So, where does this leave us? This enigmatic Welsh word seeks to describe an idea without clear English equivalent. But it’s a start. It gets us somewhere. It has helped me grapple with an incessant gnawing thirst within me, never completely satisfied. And, as is the case with so many of our bugaboos, healing often comes with the process of articulation.

There is still a deeper level to which I am drawn as an apprentice of Jesus, for if anyone understood the exile of hiraeth it was the Son of God. It is here that I diverge from hiraeth in order to turn my attention to longing as understood and experienced in the harbor of Christ. 

All our discontinuities, our divestments, and disenfranchisement are subsumed into Christ Jesus, the exiled One. In the contemporary evangelical mind at least Jesus belonged anywhere but where he willingly chose to come. His truest “home” was within the eternal Trinity, that mystical scaffolding for all human relationships. If indeed one believes Jesus to be the image of the Divine Essence we call God, then his enfleshment becomes that much more jaw-dropping.

Prior to the Incarnation of God in Christ, the archetypal longing in the human soul was crooned in the poetry of the Psalms:

“My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times” (Psalm 119:20).

“My soul languishes for Your salvation; I hope in your word” (Psalm 119:81).

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.” (Psalm 73:25).

“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:2).

“O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

“I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land” (Psalms 143:6).

Biblically, it is an ubiquitous concept. And, with the coming of Jesus, who understood the exile of longing better than anyone, we’re introduced to the promise of a never-ending thirst that is always and never slaked. It is the fulfillment of what hiraeth begins. The richer vein from which we draw means that boring underneath the irascible sea of our lives is an Artesian Well of nourishment. Jesus spoke often of the possibility of satiation found in the existential oneness we experience with God in his name:

“Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life”” (John 4:13-14).

“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst”” (John 6:35).

“Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal” (John 6:27).

“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink”” (John 7:37).

From these sacred words we’re given a glimpse into what lies at the root of all our longing – the need to know and be known, to love and be loved; to be one with the One whose roots alone bring the nourishment from which we will capably thrive in our world fraught with the ache of hiraeth.

And it is good. Very good.

Found here

Thirst will come. But my life will never be without water.

Sacred Spaces (Volume 2)

What follows is an excerpt from a piece that was part of a Lenten blog series I hosted a few years ago on how to introduce the mysteries and beauty of Christian spirituality to everyone, even “the least of these?” How do we make these principles reachable for everyone?

Eyes in the Alley: God’s Beauty for Our Ashes
She fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud ring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.

Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare. She’d seen it before. Often. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.

She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call she wished she hadn’t. “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”

Ashes.

He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much cheap wine, conspired with his stomach against all lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. These days, only shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…well, promise.

Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger, the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce, and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled in aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. And, as it began to snow, he blacked out.

Ashes.

She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, powdered courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.

He pounded on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent. After safely shoeing her daughter away in a back room, yelling for her to lock the door, with quivering hand she buzzed him in.

He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs. It was a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.

Ashes.

Ash Wednesday. Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. Any fuel that had provided light or heat no longer exists. It is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.

In the Gospel however ashes become something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus reveals to us how the ashes of death are turned to the fertilizer of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.

An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed-up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows.

All of us are only a hair’s breadth away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.

May it be so.

(R. A. Rife. Lent, 2014)

Do the Little Things Even in a Time of Pandemic

Justin Coutts is becoming a friend. At least I believe this to be true. At least not in the “pick me, pick me” kind of way, but because we share a deep love for ancient, Celtic wisdom and spirituality. His New Eden Ministry is uniquely devoted to mining the riches of this tradition and he does so with what I call “balanced progressive” approach.

In this post, he shares words from Celtic writer, Kenneth McIntosh. They are words from which we can all benefit. To wit…

In Search of a New Eden

Today I would like to share with you a guest post from my friend Kenneth McIntosh. He is a wise teacher of Celtic Christianity, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and regularly leads forest church gatherings where he lives in New York. Kenneth is the author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life, the Celtic historical-fantasy novel Magic Reversed, recently published Hope in an Age of Fear: The Wisdom of the Book of Revelation, and soon-to-be-published The Soul of the Green Man.

All these titles are available on Amazon in print or Kindle format and I highly recommend finding them. Kenneth and I are both contributing chapters to a book on Celtic Christianity and racism tentatively called A Celtic Witness to Racism being published by Anamchara Books. It’s a really fun project.

I hope you enjoy his reflection as…

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I want to go home

I’ve been reading a wonderful book, “The City Is My Monastery: A Contemporary Rule of Life” by Richard Carter. My wife bought it for me when we last visited St. Martin in the Fields in London last year. It outlines the Nazareth Community established by Richard Curtis, a place where all may come, whether rich or poor, whatever their background, to participate in the common life of Jesus. Curtis, on staff at St. Martin’s and a former monk, reveals his personal journey of discovering community, contemplation, and peace in the heart of London.

What follows is just one of many gorgeous prayer poems found in its pages. A highly recommended read.

I want to go home....jpg

Gorgeous photo thanks to Mr. Roan Lavery

Coming soon…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale

Dear friends, we find ourselves in the midst of a most effervescent time in our journey. It is a white-knuckle, white-water experience of unstoppable force to which we can only close our eyes and hang on. And it’s wonderful. It’s a tale I’ve been longing to tell.

Just not yet.

I’ve only just recently replaced a lost computer, the one upon which I presently type. Therefore, dear reader, I pray patience as I hoist the riggings on this puppy sufficient to the task of bringing you more of…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale.

Until then, peace and laughter, dear souls!

Poulsbo-ing, part 2

Longing - John O'Donohue.jpg

My first installment involving Poulsbo-ing introduced the trajectory seen and experienced in all true spirituality: Longing – Awakening – Union and back again. There, I remarked on what I believe to be my existential preparedness to speak on the topic of longing. Not because I’m the most learned guy on the subject. I can’t readily quote all the heavy weights. Largely because I can speak from my own experience of how longing and its fulfillment (or not) has helped me find some good tools for navigating its heavy currents.

Having read many books on this particular topic, I have to say that my personal favourite is the pivotal work by Catholic theologian, Ronald Rolheiser, entitled The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. At the beginning of chapter one he implants the following poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

“The Holy Longing”

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,

Because the massman will mock it right away.

I praise what is truly alive,

what longs to be burned to death.

 

In the calm water of the love-nights,

where you were begotten, where you have begotten,

a strange feeling comes over you

when you see the silent candle burning.

 

Now you are no longer caught

in the obsession with darkness,

and a desire for higher love-making

sweeps you upward.

 

Distance does not make you falter,

now, arriving in magic, flying,

and finally, insane for the light,

you are the butterfly and you are gone.

 

And so long as you haven’t experienced

this: to die and so to grow,

you are only a troubled guest

on the dark earth.

Rolheiser makes the astounding claim that everyone has a spirituality of some kind. It is either constructive or destructive. But, we have one all the same. And, long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us.

What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality.

What shapes, motivates, and inspires our actions is our spirituality. And what shapes our actions is basically what shapes our desire. Spirituality concerns what we do with desire, how we channel our eros, our animus; our innermost being. Anytime we begin to wake up to the fire that burns in us, we come in contact with that which holds the key to our (dis)content. We begin to awaken to something in us beyond our understanding and control.

What we do with that discontent is our spirituality.

Rolheiser calls desire our fundamental dis-ease. Danish philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard once defined a saint as someone who can “will the one thing.” Have you heard that before? Such a beautiful, succinct definition. Rolheiser goes on to compare the spiritualities of Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin. One managed to capture and focus her eros into a place of integration: the one thing. The other never did. She fell apart, dissipated, and her eros ended up killing her at age 27.

Most of us fall somewhere in between: Princess Diana. Both erotic and spiritual mixed together in a constant battle between the two. 

All things speak to our desire. Some more than others. I’ve often wondered why I’m more readily drawn to movies, books, or stand-up comedy than I am to a bible study or lecture? I wonder if it has anything to do with our topic?

The latter typically (and rather sadly I should add) appeals to our heads, our duty. The former tends to speak more quickly and directly to our passions, our desire; to our life. I believe Eldredge, in his book, The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life We’ve Always Dreamed of reminds us that “Hollywood has mastered the art of speaking to the human predicament.”

In fact, I think movies and art in general speak gospel much more forcefully and accurately to us than those self-proclaimed prophets of the good news, many of whom are basically just peddling one more idea in a saturated marketplace of ideas. Just more information, rather than inspiration leading to transformation.

Longing is costly. It is risky and requires energy and vulnerability, faith, hope. Sometimes we can fool ourselves and others that we live in contentment. More often, it is the mute resignation in the face of muted desire. Our hopes have been dashed so often, that we’ve given up hope but called it contentment.

Either way, our invitation is to awaken to the fire that burns within us. It is a fire burning in hope of union with God and all others. It is the root of all genuine spirituality. 

An exercise in awakening: A Visio Divina of The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Longing – Awakening – Union: the story of the Prodigal Son is a gorgeous microcosm of this process. A young man, impetuous, head-strong, very like many of us were when we were younger (or not!), seeks to satisfy his desires in less than helpful ways. In short order he begins to struggle and finds himself in dire straits. What is it that convinces him to return? Not repentance! That happens later.

Desperation.

Few stories are as emblematic of misappropriation of the heart’s desires as this one. It is found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. A veritable cavalcade of longings, the immediate, abused, misunderstood, and immature desires of a younger son; the unrequited, unspoken, hidden, forgotten, ignored desires of an older son; and the aching, bewildered, vulnerable, yearning desires of a doting father. This story has it all. 

It is a tale of awakening. Awakening to the many levels of longing to which the heart is privy. The entanglements of those levels, and the deepest longing of all, aroused in different ways in different people – for union with God and others.

As many have before, gaze deeply, slowly, prayerfully into it.

What do the characters tell us about themselves?

How does spiritual longing reveal itself in each one?

Where are you in relation to the father?

Do you feel yourself moving in a particular direction? Toward or away from a particular character in the drama?

What stands in the way of your becoming the father? 

Prodigal Son.jpg
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn. Created 1663-1669

Closing Prayer

“Holy One, our Abba, in all our comings and goings, be alone, our deepest longing.”

Poulsbo-ing, part 1

Longing - John O'Donohue.jpg

What follows in this series of posts are in fact my notes from a retreat I recently co-led for a delightful bunch of kindred spirits.

I suppose I should have had a more to-the-point title. But, I would have had to produce something innocuous like “CFDM 2019 Retreat Notes.”

Mmm, sexy.

Failing that, I could have gone with my basic premise: Longing – Awakening – Union. 

Too academy.

Instead, I decided to aim at something less high school journal or quarterback mystics club. A collection of family cabins cuddling an inlet in Poulsbo, Washington was where we did our holy business together. We spent an enriching few days Poulsbo-ing, and loved it!

They are alumni of Christian Formation and Direction Ministries Northwest. A more fun and authentic bunch would be hard to find. They’re about as representative of the kaleidoscope of spiritual seekers as any group can be. All of them thirsty for waters of abundance, hungry for food both spiritual and otherwise, and ready to party.

Bible study “disciples” always take themselves far too seriously. Mystics are better at belly laughs any day. Anyhoo, here’s part one.

Introduction                                                                                                           

All of us are in the process of learning how to pursue the spiritual life; how to discover, nurture, sustain, and propagate a Christian spirituality that is life-giving for us and, hopefully, for others. We’re on the significant journey of learning about our own souls, how they relate to God and to one another, for the distinct purpose of guiding others into those same discoveries.

Of the many ways to articulate this, one might be: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” It is a high calling indeed! Let’s look a bit at this thing we call our “spirituality”.

The entire spiritual enterprise can be summed up in this way:

Longing (Desire)                 Awakening (Awareness)             Union (Formation)

Webster’s dictionary defines desire in the following way.

desire

verb

de·​sire | \ di-ˈzī(-ə)r  dē-\
desireddesiring

As a verb, it is to long or hope for something, to exhibit or feel such longing. For example, to desire an immediate answer. It conveys the potential for one to feel the loss of the same as in “she was sad that men no longer desired her.” As a noun, it reveals something longed for, hoped for; or a conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment. Or, the opposite, ridding oneself of desire in pursuit of some other goal.

Everything we’re about in the process of personal/spiritual evolution and growth hinges on these three things. And, as followers of Father Richard Rohr, or indeed the entire Christian mystical tradition, one would see this formula at work absolutely everywhere in every corner of Christian spirituality. And, not just Christian spirituality, but in most major religions as well. Some iteration of this formula is always at work. We shall discuss this a little more in session two.

It is why mysticism, not theology, will ultimately unite us and bring healing to the world.

The theme of the retreat is formally, desire. However, as an overly melodramatic Enneagram 4, let’s go with the more evocative term, longing. 

I have numerous reasons why this is a happy venture for me to pursue. In a sense, I feel uniquely “qualified” to speak on this particular topic. Certainly not because I have any kind of book learnin’ thereto, although I’ve read dozens on the subject. More because of my particular construction as an individual.

I’m the oldest of three adopted siblings. I have known that powerful longing for one’s first and truest validation of a birth mother who gave me up. It has affected everything I am and do to this very moment. I have struggled to deal with what the psychologists call “the primal wound.” That is, in utero rejection (although she would never say this and I’m happy with how things turned out!), and the process of learning to find the embrace of one’s own mother, and “the breast” elsewhere.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a Scots-Canadian living in the United States. As I’ve discovered over the years, my ancestors were almost entirely English and Scottish, with some deep roots in Canada as well. But, as an adopted child, I grew up never really understanding any of those profundities to which one normally ascribes a sense of belonging. The most elusive concept for me has always been that of “home.”

Trust me, I have known longing.

A thorough going pluviophile, I’ve always yearned for rain. I grew up in Calgary, where rain comes just a few times a year, usually in the form of hail. And, for thirteen years we’ve lived in semi-arrid Yakima.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I longed for the sea but grew up in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Any time we have lived close to the sea, Vancouver, B.C. or McMinnville, Oregon, we’ve been happy as clams (since we’d be closer to their experience).

Trust me, I have known longing.

I ached for all things ancient. I grew up in a very wealthy oil town in a constant state of construction to build all things new; glass and steel monstrosities in place of wood and stone, which much better house our collective memory.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a mystic at heart in a world where such silliness is hardly tolerated. Alberta cowboy culture has precious little appreciation for anything that doesn’t git ‘r done or earn a buck, quickly. “Just get to the frickin’ point, will ya!” I got tired of hearing it when I was more interested in the way to the point more than whatever point they thought needed making.

Trust me, I have known longing.

As a progressive, it’s been a challenge trying to live my Christian story in the good, but oftentimes, stultifying waters of evangelicalism. The mechanistic framework of it didn’t lend itself well to the contemplative endeavour. Nor did it ever have enough room to ask “unacceptable” questions for “unvetted” reasons. I consider myself a moderately progressive contemplative, post-evangelical of Celtic persuasion.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a curious, armchair intellectual who loves rigorous conversation around difficult and challenging topics. I’m an expert in no topic whatsoever. But they all fascinate me. I grew up with family, friends and associates who felt alienated by it. It made for a lonely upbringing.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a recovering alcoholic. That’s a story in itself as you can imagine. But, if there’s one thing alcoholics know well, it’s desire. Crooked, misplaced, askew, but desire, nonetheless. We learn how to coax it, feed it, protect it, and lie about it. And, if anyone knows anything about alcoholics: we’re the best liars in the business. We experience deep longing but understand it least. Why? Because we’ve effectively hid from it rather than turning to face its immensity.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m an ENFP and an Enneagram 4. Need I say more? The world likes to say they love the untamable spirit and unquenchable fire of E4s, but when it comes down to it, they prefer to keep us at arm’s length where we can entertain, be the cool, slightly aloof, friends at parties, or make things more interesting or beautiful. But, just don’t hang around too long, or you’ll bum us all out. By default or design, an E4 is the most complicated person in any room. We have a tendency to make a cottage industry of melancholy. We love to pedal brooding and morbidity. When a person of a different number shares their pain, we inwardly think it quaint or trite by comparison. We’re generally miles ahead of them in that department. Trust me, I have known longing.

As a young boy, I was a shy, escapist lad who lived amidst vast collections of all kinds of things but, primarily, his imagination. On a few occasions, I would have these existential “moments” that would only last a short time. In them, I would get a sense that all was right and good in the world. All childhood anxiety would leave, and I’d be left with a vision or picture of the world as God sees it. I’d be mesmerized…

I share a lot of poetry and writing in these things. It helps keep my thoughts moving in a single direction. I pray you’ll forgive these indulgences. Here may be found an example of one of these contemplative moments as a young boy.

As I’ve grown older and learned of my Celtic heritage, I came to see these moments as descriptive of “thin places” along the journey. How many of you have heard that term before? The Celts believed there were places, both physical and otherwise, where the divine was especially close to us and that we could move in and out of our present realities into something indefinable, effusive. I like to picture it as someone standing behind a thin, white sheet hanging on a clothesline. God’s hand and mine are touching through the thinnest of fabric separating us.

Discussion Questions:

Can you point to a moment or moments in your own life in which you simply knew God’s proximity and presence? When God was decidedly real for you?

What comes to mind for you when we say the words, “desire,” or “longing?”

What images does it conjure?

What feelings does it evoke, either good or bad?

What are the things for which you most long? That you desire most?

 

A Longing Revisited

Rob and Rae, happiest where things are oldest.

As a faith-type guy, some would consider me a bit blurry, outside-the-lines. Generally speaking, I make theologians nervous. Well, the heaven ‘n hell type ones. The most fun happens at the periphery anyway, so we’ll call it good!

As a writer, some might think me a one trick pony, writing incessantly on matters of mayhem and mystics and the marauding spirits of days gone by. Auch, a little chaos never hurt anyone. Really. Right?

I’m fairly banal, all things considered. Eccentric, yes. But harmless. I’m a fairly decent bloke with a thing or two to say about matters spiritual, the crazy conundrums of Celtica, and a harangue or two when the mood takes me. And, amid the din of voices speaking into that life can be heard a single word, rising like Charlie Brown’s enigmatic pumpkin out of the misty soil of my life.

Longing.

One cannot be a contemplative, a mystic, and certainly no Celt, without referring to it ad nauseam. It’s the fodder of our trade. The raw materials of a life lived deeply and well. The whole gospel enterprise can be said to be birthed from the longing heart of God. “For God so longed for us all, that (s)he gave….”

We Enneagram 4s can prattle on about many things. But, anything at all that touches those regions of heart and passion and the long list of indefinable wonders housed in the deep places of our souls? Yeah, that’s our wheelhouse, baby. Let me at it. Leave the how-to manuals and protocols and methodologies to the corporate types. Once they’re finished showing us how to multitask (gag), and get the most out of our days (yawn), we’ll bring the paint job, prog-hipster-coffeehouse banter and acoustic song-craft to speak life back into the emptiness they leave behind.

With that rambling, far too self-aware set up, I get to the task at hand. I want to share a new story that is unfolding. It’s actually an old story with a brand new face. My wife and I are answering a decades-long call, a longing, to move to Britain. I’ve droned on about this longing on many occasions and in different ways. But, the bottom line is that, by summer of next year, we will be making a new home somewhere in Britain.

For greater context, I include below a letter we just mailed out to my congregation. It gives a bit more detail. Thankfully, it doesn’t ramble anywhere near as much as I. (But rambling is what I do.)

                                                                                     Thursday, September 5, 2019

Dear friends,

Serve Globally is the foreign missions arm of the ECC. It partners with local churches and organizations around the world. In Europe, they’re involved in church planting and growth, engaging the arts, spiritual formation, evangelism in a post-Christian context, leadership development, ministry to exploited and/or trafficked individuals, and engagement with refugees and immigrants.

Even before Rae and I met, we both felt called to the UK. Thirty years ago, just before our first anniversary, we worked together in an under-privileged area of Edinburgh, Scotland.  The church wanted us to stay. We desperately wanted to stay. For a year afterwards we prayed and obsessed about returning, but encountered several administrative issues. So, we had a baby instead!

Last July we both knew God was calling us away to something else. We knocked on the door with the denomination to consider church planting. At mid-Winter this year, on a whim, I asked everyone, everywhere if we had any Covenant connections in the UK. At that time, I made a brief contact with Letha Kerl, one of the European coordinators. On March 23, we were supposed to meet with the director of church planting for the PNW to proceed with an evaluation. Because it took three months to arrange that meeting, a desire not to waste his time produced a check in our spirits.

We weren’t free to revisit the call until the final phase of empty-nesting ended. With our boys relocated and established in Calgary, on March 23rd we had a Skype call with Letha and her husband, John. By the end of that call, we were urged to apply to Serve Globally and deepen the discernment process. The more we delved into the paperwork, the more obvious it became that God was leading us back to the UK, and to revisit a call that has never gone away.

Born in Wales, Rae is a British citizen and plans to find a job in her field. She recently attended a worldwide Geographic Information Tech conference where she tirelessly networked and made some wonderful UK connections. Upon discerning with the Kerls, we think it best to live where Rae finds a job. My own ministry will spring from there.

In establishing a Covenant presence in the UK, we don’t go as competition with existing churches. We are invited instead to bolster and support them. One avenue I’m pursuing is working in spiritual formation and the arts with Renovaré UK.  Renovaré is a Christian non-profit organization that is ecumenical in breadth. It encourages Christians to seek continual renewal through spiritual exercises, spiritual gifts, and acts of service. I’m well acquainted with the organization having served for many years at retreats with most of their key people. My master’s degree follows the Renovaré platform.

This will be at least a year in preparing. We don’t see ourselves departing until roughly this time next year as we raise the needed support for myself, dispose of most of our possessions, and get our house ready to put on the market. As well, we have a Missions Equipping Training Event next June at North Park Seminary.

We are planning a fact-finding reconnaissance trip to France and Britain at the end of October. In Paris, we will meet with another Serve Globally couple working with arts and spiritual formation. Then, we travel with them to a retreat in Sête, France, where we will meet the rest of the Europe team. I will be leading worship and Rae has been invited to work on an online mapping product for them.  From there we have many meetings lined up in London, Aylesbury, Edinburgh, and possibly Glasgow. We hope that it will bear fruit for both Rae and I in focusing our respective call.

Thank you for your faithfulness to our family, your ongoing friendships, and for participating with us in this time of prayer, seeking, and discernment. We have deeply loved this church. I believe it has loved us. Since we’d be honoured for Yakima Covenant Church to be our official sending body, you’d not be losing an employee as much as gaining a missionary instead! We pray that as we embark on this adventure together, we will all find places of refreshing in the Spirit and renewal in our shared Christian journey.

This story map, made by my geographer wife is much more fun, interactive way of saying some of the same things.

Thanks to you, my readers, for hanging in there with me and letting me toss around my longings in your faces for these years. You’re brave souls, all.

Your friend in the mystery, R

Unfolding…

Good morning, dear souls. My frequency of posting has been lacking of late. There are some good reasons for this, which shall be made clear in coming weeks.

For now, a brief meditation on sub-realities versus actualities. Peace to you all.Unfolding....jpg

Now and Soon to Come

Good morning, beloved readers.

sunlit forest.jpgI’m sure you’ve noticed that my frequency of writing, along with its content, have changed a bit over the past year or two. No, I haven’t switched to decaf. God forbid such heresy! Yes, I am sleeping well and my diet is fine.

In actuality, it is indicative of some fairly significant shifts in my overall demeanour. In a sense, my outlook is changing. I don’t see it as some kind of Hollywood denouement where the old guy shares his tale from his death bed to curious onlookers. Nor do I understand it to be a return to some fictitious earlier time less fraught with daily perils and troubling anxiety. I don’t believe in “good ole days.” Nor will I ever.

But, indeed, certain movements are afoot. Those changes, some of which I understand, most not, have all contributed to something altered/ing in me. They are only partly alterations in ideology. I am still the slightly warped Celtic-mystic-progressive living with unassuageable thirst, contemplative longing, and a bit moody around the edges. I still possess an undying spiritual curiosity. The mysteries of science and the cosmos remain to me as enthralling as ever. I am in love with the same girl who first captured my attentions over three decades ago. My two boys are more amazing now than ever. I am, in a word, still me.

But something is different. Or perhaps, new. Newly different? Or…something.

What is it you ask? Hang tight for a series of posts, soon to come, exploring these things.  And, by the way, thanks for asking.

Your friend in formation, R