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.

A Prayer at Pentecost

Another Pentecost, primed and ready to light little forever fires…

innerwoven

Come, Lord, and puncture all sadness that slowly burns like the hot coals of unrequited desire. Find the swollen, pulsating nerves of need and soothe them in the cooling condensation of your breath. Gnaw through ropes that bind up heavy hearts to the slow, grey stones of our thoughts and spit out the pieces of hope that are false or starving.

Instead, spew out upon our waiting the wanton goodness of Spirit. If this heavy dark is to seal up the tomb of our seeing from the womb of our birthing, let it have the fragrance of heaven, like dawn in spring or autumn’s twilight. Sweep this floor of dirt and bitterness with a broom of grace, held together by holy promise – the promise that new life is only a resurrection away.

And resurrection is the language most suited to the burning tongue of eternity.

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Quaranthings: Birds, Books, Bathtubs, Blogs

My wife and I are quarantined. One man’s prison is another’s paradise as they say. The forthcoming ramblings emerge because, at present, I cannot. So, when faced with much time and little to do, one needs places to squeeze the cheese and blurt out some thoughts: quaranthings.

Birds

We are in southern Alberta in late Spring (or, in the indigenous language of territorial Calgarians, fourth winter). In our two-week quarantine digs it is achingly quiet. And yes, it is snowing. For the third day in a row. In late May. Welcome to southern Alberta in late Spring, or almost any time of year really.

Remove all the insistently effusive city noise and birdsong rises to the aural surface like moonlight bouncing on evening water. Except, it is morning, and their songs jostle the air around in delightful patterns of grey-green notes which tickle ears and strengthen resolve.

Not to belabour the point but, these are songs I never stop long enough to hear. Listening to them, even deciphering or pretending to interpret them, seems so much easier when, in utter silence they so prominently emerge to present themselves.

Sometimes we like to imagine heaven as a great candlelit cathedral drowning in the broad sounds of thrumming choirs. Yet, something tells me we might be surprised to discover how often Jesus – who loves sparrows, lilies, mustard seeds, lepers, and counting hairs – shushes everything so he can hear the birds in the morning, the crickets at night (apparently, heaven is in Nebraska).

Books

I’m not alone in bibliophilia. In fact, buying, hoarding, studying, defacing, loving, and buying more, books has been my sport of choice for many years. My expertise has landed me in good company with others similarly afflicted. Book nerds: we find each other. That knowing look of glassy-eyed wonder and swollen noses from walking into posts is recognizable to anyone.

This is only Day 5 of 14 and I’m almost finished book 2. To the readers in the crowd that would normally be good news, congratulations and queries abounding. However, it is book 2 of the 3 books in total I managed to squeeze into my bag before leaving to come here. Ah yes, now the anxiety level rises in the pit of every bibliophile’s stomach. All that time left and nothing to read? Indeed. Pray for me. Maybe the third book will somehow last for over a week.

Of course, my overly-clever wife looks sideways at me, flashing her Kindle. Something about the Internet and endless downloadables. Okay, as an old school kinda guy I admit my issue is self-inflicted.

Frankly, it’s a gift to have unapologetic time for reading. Not just any reading, too. Guilty pleasure reading. Books with no apparent benefit to either career or self-betterment. Books perfectly designed to help lure me away from the temptation of perpetual improvement – the curse of the self-obsessed.

Bathtubs

What’s not to love about lavishing to the point of languishing in a hot, soapy bath? Showers are quaintly utilitarian by comparison. It’s the I’m-too-busy-just-git-r-done way to wash. To the bathtub guild, speed and even clean aren’t the issue. It’s the spirituality of it all – hot water on clammy skin, add time, epsom salts, and of course, a book, and we are transformed into wrinkled, wobbly Jello-saints with whom decent conversation might actually be possible.

I’m aware of the hoggy water usage and the ever-so-slightly poshness of time spent in the tub. However, if you’ve ever sat with me after a long run in unnecessarily absorbent clothing and you’d certainly insist that a simple shower might not do the trick. Actually, once your eyes stopped watering you’d pour it yourself on my behalf. Trust me, I get it and I’m grateful for your involvement in my self-care.

My love affair with the bathtub started young. Even as a boy I could happily wile away hours at a time in hot-become-tepid water. They were so important to me that I would fight for first dibs on our limited hot water. That way, I could apologize to whomever followed rather than whine like a banshee over the misfortune of insufficient hot water for my tubbish mysticism.

Thank you, Bobby Darin, for the precision of your own watery observations. “Splish splash, I was takin’ a bath, long about a Saturday night…”

Blogs

You are reading this on a platform cleverly called a “blog.” It is a “web log,” or better, a long and chaotic rambling of insufficiently edited TMI from someone you’ve never met nor intend to ever meet who takes too long to say nothing of any real consequence. Therefore, dear friend, if you’ve made it this far, you’re my hero.

I’ve been putting far-too-personal journal entries on the World Wide Web now for about twelve years. I am one of about six hundred million others all vying for your Internet attention. And well over half a million new websites are added every single day. Talk about your rush hour traffic. L.A. or Mexico City at 5:00pm have nothing on that!

Still, here we are. I write because it’s so much cheaper than therapy and generally more effective than the mood-altering substances which ruled my life for too many years to recall. And, I have the gift of time, a certain level of presence of mind, and you dear souls with which to share a few words of mental reconnaissance. We can see ourselves in each other and be the better for having shared our stories together.

That’s about it for now. I congratulate you for meandering with me over the space of a few words, cast aimlessly about with no other purpose but to perambulate in quarantine.

“These are a few of my new quaranthings…”

A Coddiwomple Continues

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It’s been awhile since we’ve been here together. For that I apologize. The biggest part of a blogger’s life is unassailable responsibility to the community gathered around him or her. It means staying in touch regardless of how chaotic, or not, one’s life becomes. Because, after all, into every life some chaos must come, right?

However, in a sense I do not apologize. Not in the strictest sense. Instead, I see the ellipsis between this entry and the last as indicative of time for preparation, for transformation, for contemplation; even, for rest. These have been days of conquest, rising to claim what God keeps tossing into my garden. These have been days of trust, quietly waiting upon God who promises that, doing so will bring rewards well beyond the waiting. Most of all, they have been days of joy. Holy joy borne of resting in cosmic realities of Presence and process.

Rae and I continue our journey toward life and ministry in the U.K. We wrap up our brief sojourn at a basement suite provided by good friends as we drive to Spokane on Sunday. To Canada on Monday where we quarantine for fourteen days (and hopefully still like each other afterwards!). We visit my family, many friends and say goodbyes. Then, Rae flies to London on June 30th where she begins the unwelcome task of finding a suitable job.

At 57 years old.

During a pandemic.

With no other income!

As for me, I continue pursuing ministry partnerships and financial supporters.

As an artist not a fundraiser.

During a pandemic.

With no other income!

We are not daunted however having come to believe this to be God’s call for us. We thank you, dear readers, for your interest in our journey. We thank those of you who have chosen to partner with us financially (link below). Most of all, we thank you for being our friends and simply walking alongside us.

Enjoy this song performed by a group of us a year ago. It’s a song I wrote meant as a formal charge to the congregation to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” It is our theme song as we push into this, our coddiwomple of soul.

Peace, dear ones.

If you can, join our ministry family as a sustaining partner here.

Viral Dailies, Easter…

Rob's Lit-Bits

Easter morning. A triptych of Easter poems I’ve composed over the years, “Morning, breath”, “After the tomb”, and “Death’s death.”

Most of us have heard the story. Now, we must learn again how to breath…

resurrection.jpg

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Morning, breath

As morning reaches where only night had been,

dew once more settles on the brittle earth

and breath returns to one,

so all can breathe again.

After the tomb

When blood, still damp, soaked through

the sleeves of shrug-shoulder’d men,

did you cry for their laughter?

Were your accusers held in sleep

when Mary’s shaking hands

held fast your plundered feet?

How long before bewildered men

and doting women find again

their reasons for remonstrance?

Will a miracle suffice

to fill the gaps in minds too young

not to lust for proof?

Were the angels surprised

to find their silenced songs

reignited for their fittest subject?

Did you know these…

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one saturday

Saturday Vigil started with a very heavy stone…

Rob's Lit-Bits

so now it comes to this

a day, laid out to flay and scandalize

night reserved for a more macabre affair

some spikes, some wood,

some dereliction of hope, one cosmic corpse

and in these longest of hours

lay light itself

without so much as a yawn

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A Piper Toots His Own Horn

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, I reblog the story of how I came into possession of my current bagpipes. It is a tale of whim and woe, laughter and tears, murder and mayhem. Well, perhaps rather less of all that. But, it remains a story for which I am forever grateful. May the tunes ever continue to ring out!

innerwoven

For forty plus years I have submitted myself to being assaulted by a screaming five-legged octopus wearing tartan underpants. To the lay person – I am a bagpiper. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline (or me), demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old.

Calgary, 1971
I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to heartbreak. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery – the place where I found music, booze, girls (keep that bit a secret…

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Bagpipes

In honour of International Bagpipe Day, 2021.

Rob's Lit-Bits

bagpiper

Notes rise like smoke

choking out all others

with the rough hands

of time and tragedy.

Their beautiful hums

sing a sustained song,

peering with insistent gaze

into hearty souls

and soulish hearts.

Broken teeth still chatter

with the bite of loss

and the taste of pain.

But this broad sound

rises to the occasion

like no other.

A land, many times stolen,

is the only crucible fit

to shape this enduring

roar, this brutish beauty.

She, soaked in brine of peat

and multicolored limbs,

snorts in stoic disregard

for all that dares

impede the moorish march

of belief in yesterdays.

Any old fool can pose

a lust for tunish repast

‘round doilied tables of tea and greed,

disgust of the rich, the divas of demand.

Not this sweet savage,

not this tumble down lullaby

haunt of kings, joke of ghosts.

In her misty-eyed song

you’ll find no sorrys,

just…

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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)

Rev’d ‘n Ready!

The nature of this blog has been primarily to share matters of spirituality, the shared concerns of our common journey in and toward the Divine. I make no apology for this emphasis. It impacts us all. Equally.

Everyone of us is on a journey of one kind or another. Some feel stuck in unhealthy feedback loops, the shrill noise of everything threatening their peace daily. Others may be in a fog of doubt or uncertainty or cynicism. Still others feel like a young puppies, wagging happy tails, ears perched to hear all the new joys a day will bring forth.

In recent years, my journey has brought me out of a long, dark hallway of faith deconstruction, a general cynicism about most things, and a cottage industry in unrequited longing into more broad and spacious lands. This is how it goes with most lives. Light is only light when understood against darkness. And shadows, for all their nuanced grey, make things interesting. We learn best this way.

Or, so it would seem.

Again, no apologies. Just an honest assessment of my lay of the land, spiritually speaking. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

I suppose I mention this here because, contrary to what I might normally post here for you dear folks, what follows will feel more…conventional. A step into the great pastoral P.R. as it were!

This is gleaned from our most recent Mailchimp newsletter. We send it about once a month and it outlines where we’re at in our pursuit of ministry in the UK. I hope you don’t mind. Better still, I pray you find here something of benefit to your souls, despite this bald advertisement of new things on our horizon.

Come, walk with us, will you?

*We’re participating in the upcoming Serve Globally Europe team retreat, Washington State edition, in mid-April.

*Rae honed her resumé and has begun sending them out. At our age, that’s always a faith venture! I will develop my ministry from wherever Rae finds work – most likely somewhere near London or Edinburgh.

*Given the state of affairs globally with the pandemic, we’ve decided to stay put until after we’re vaccinated. Then, we’ll head to Canada for a few weeks to visit family and friends and continue raising prayer/financial support.

Rae and I share a heart for the disenfranchised, especially millennials, and we’re passionate about sharing Jesus in non-conventional, contextual ways. My goal is to weave together contemporary liturgies, the arts, and spiritual formation in developing creative ways to reach agnostics, “exvangelicals,” the de-churched, and the un-churched.

Our current donor initiative is “Project 21 – Coffee Money Gospel.” We invite you to become a sustaining member of our community by contributing only $21 (or more) per month. Three dollars, seven times a month (or the opposite if you’re given to more uptown drinks) – coffee money!

For all of those who have joined our community as partners in ministry, thank you! But, we still have a long way to go before we can get to the mission field. With enough of you joining us, we’ll be there in no time. Then, we’ll share a coffee in your honour!

We invite you sign up for our newsletter. Email me anytime at robert.rife@covchurch.org. For details on how to give, see our page on the ECC website.

We love you all. We are ever grateful for your friendship, support, and laughs. Come and join us to be part of what God is doing in post-Christian Britain.

Rob and Rae