Sunday, September 5, 2021. Rosebud Church, Rosebud, Alberta.
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
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
With age comes the aspect of nostalgia. With chronology of course we gain the benefit of hindsight, experience and, hopefully, wisdom. More of our lives are behind us than ahead of us. We can become whimsical about the richness of past experiences, faces, places, etc. However, as good as it can be reliving them, the exact same experience will forever elude us because WE are different and are therefore incapable of perfectly replicating what we FIRST knew.
It is the “glory days” twenty-five-year-old still hanging out at high school parties. It is the “rose-colored glasses” mentality in which every memory, even of circumstances bad at the time, is a warm bath. It is the “everything was better when I was young” headspace, something empirically unverifiable but emotionally undeniable.
“Our bodies know that they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless,” says O’Donohue. And, there it is, a key to those like me who experience some sense of ongoing dis-location. We are all much more “home” than we realize. Perhaps we stand at the edge of God’s great sea of promise, the shore of possibility, but do so with hands covering our eyes. Our mind has somehow convinced our eyes to remain tightly sealed against all that lives before us as we cry out for what we think is yet to appear.
After all, what really is longing if not the soul’s insatiable desire for communion and reunion with God, with others, with oneself? And, simply being awakened to its presence is the first step toward its fulfillment in real terms, and to joy. He concludes: “The sacred duty of being an individual is to gradually learn how to live so as to awaken the eternal within oneself.”
For now, that’s good enough.
“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.
“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.
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.
Thirst will come. But my life will never be without water.
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?”
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.
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.
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)
Albert Einstein and Augustine of Hippo are different people. They are also the same. Having now exercised remarkable powers of observation and obfuscation, allow me to explain.
Albert Einstein of Theory of General Relativity fame was a troubled failure of a student who became a theoretical physics superstar. He began as Steve Erkel but later became the Tom Brady of the 20th century science world, although rather wanting in groupies I should think. Albert stumbled his way through grade school having revealed a rather less than stellar academic prowess. But his was a great mind waiting to bust out of the starting gate and take a stab at the big world he observed. Better than most as it would turn out.
We’ll call him a good candidate for the Ellen Show.
Augustine of Hippo was a troubled saint-in-training, a self-proclaimed failure whose frat-boy lasciviousness (constantly horny for the lay person) and subsequent coming to Jesus moment is wonderfully outlined in his Confessions. It was the first of its kind. Memoir and theology wed together in a single book. It happens all the time now. Not so much then, however, when even average brains were pushed around in wheel-barrows.
Frankly, as much as I love the guy, he needed to chill a bit on the whole self-flagellation thing. He commits pages to the ravages of soul he encounters from stealing some of his neighbour’s pears. Really, dude? No “boys will be boys” pass on this one, huh? Like, I’m not trying to justify thievery here, but let’s get a grip, shall we? I sin more before morning coffee than this guy ever did, and he gets to be famous?
He’s more Jerry Springer.
What Gus and Al bring to the table however is exactly the same. A stretch you say? Perhaps. But, in a non-dualistic world, where everything is allowed to be interconnected, the starting point for science and for spirituality are one and the same.
My love for science is birthed from the same place as my longing for God. Frankly, I think they work the same turf, just with different conclusions for different reasons. But, in this uni-versitas, one truth, wonder reserved for black holes and quarks feels tellingly like that which the mystics experienced in the throes of contemplation.
For the sciency types, wonder is of the curious kind. The more rational, sensory kind where eye-balls matter more than Bibles. Observation, experimentation, hypothesis, theory, deduction. Repeat. One can hardly look to the heavens without asking how the hell all that stuff got way out there. It really is quite stunning. Go deep-sea diving and one has both dinner and questions. Or perhaps gaze out across the horizon and discern just how flat or round the earth might be (I leave the conspiracies, snickering and finger-pointing to you).
The greatest explorers, scientists, and theologians all began with the same premise. Wonder. But, it is in rather short supply in a world more concerned with body image or retirement savings than all this silliness.
What’s needed is a healthy dose of children. Not by way of breeding (although not entirely a bad thing), but learning from them. If you’re looking for answers to quantum mechanics, modifying your car, or the latest stock tips, don’t ask children. They’ll just show up with enlightened curiosity and wide-eyed wonder.
And, what good is that? Our lust for all things pragmatic chews away noisily at us, forcing misplaced expectations. We wouldn’t want to get our hopes up too high just in case today sucks. Besides, who has time anyway, right?
Rush, run, push, pull, grunt, wheeze, talk, squeeze – and that’s just zipping up our jeans. The real business happens once we get into our car for work. Then we practice a lifetime of adulting, or at least adultifying our child selves, silenced years ago in the frenetics of bills and babies, dishes and disappointments. Our playlist at the ready, we fire up the car (light on style, heavy on sensible) and join the rest of the one-per-vehicle parade floats. None of us dares to look at each other unless it’s to offer that you’re-really-gonna-change-lanes-here?! look of exasperation.
It’s almost cliché to write about the curse of busyness. Everyone’s doing it. Both the busyness and the writing about it. We’ve learned little in terms of how interconnected the universe really is, chaos theory notwithstanding. We’re fragmented, frightened and frazzled, all before coffee break.
These days, in pursuit of spiritual development, I tend to read Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson as easily as I might St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart (Uncle Wiggy as I like to call him). Their aims are different. Their yearning for knowledge the same. Their process is different, although a case can be made for observation and seeing as central to both. Their outcomes just as mystifying. Just as satisfying.
Ironically, I gain as much from reading those whose aim it is to prove God out of existence as those who presuppose that existence. Doctors of astronomy and asceticism, gravity and gratitude, dinosaurs and doxology. They are different, and they are the same. For me, they all begin in the same place. In wonder.
It’s all of a piece. And, if you let it, all of a peace.
Picture of Al found here
Picture of Gus found here
Picture of Uncle Wiggy found here
1. a band of fibrous tissue connecting bones or cartilages, serving to support and strengthen joints.
Already a few days in, we butt up against the tail-end of one year and make our way into another. A tail yet to wag. A tale yet to be written. This was a task best left until all the days of 2017 had been fully harvested and I could start bundling them into manageable piles.
For now, I am compelled to say that, in ways that matter most, I am grateful for 2017. On one level, I’m glad to escort its ass out the door, holding it open as it leaves (the door, that is!). However, it is gratitude that wins out over any other, lesser thing. And, as many have said so much better than I, to be grateful is to be always happy or, at least hopeful that happy will return soon enough.
This has been a year of returnings, of homecoming. I am drawn back to previous iterations of my self, albeit with the benefit of failure-bought wisdom. The overweening esotericism of the past few years is moving aside for a much more sensory guy. Less soul and more smell, feel, carry, see…hold.
I’m beginning to think our souls are much more rooted in our feet, hands, nostrils, eyes, and tastebuds than some airy-fairy nexus untouched and untouchable by we mortals. There is no division of labour. We don’t leave the world and our bodies behind in order to attend to our souls. Similarly, in a full-on, head-first dive into our world, waist-deep in shit and woe, we don’t have to leave our souls behind. They’ll get there first.
There is, simultaneously, a greater depth and immediacy to a life lived in one place at a time as a total and complete entity: body, soul, heart; sweat and spit. It buys back from the bleak, divided landscape of dualism, an holistic sense of peace and unity.
I reflected recently Jesus’ little visit to Sheol where he encouraged the prisoners, stuck in limbo, to look up for “their redemption draweth nigh.” A very physical Jesus went to the disembodied not to tell them that some ghostly, spiritual paradise awaited. The opposite actually. A great banquet with Jesus and friends in a great city was being prepared. Their souls would cough up new bodies, not the other way around.
Advent and its fruition at the Christ Mass says something utterly unique, a truth so utterly transfixing, that all the earliest characters in the drama found themselves winging it. Just a lot of gawking, and fear, and shivering with stuttered awe and wonder. In such circumstances, I dare say we would do the same.
The Christmas story says many things. But, at the front of the line is the simple idea that God is, more than anything else, profoundly physical, actual. Not just ideas to think. Right stuff to say or do. God is with us. God IS us. Conversely, it means we are like God.
There are many out there who, like me, are constantly seeking to nurture something mystical and otherworldly within ourselves as though God were somehow uninterested in the messy little details of our tiny lives. This is not to suggest that we ignore “spiritual” matters in favour of “earthly” ones. It is the growing belief that those are not two sides of the same coin. They ARE the coin. God cares as much about my health, relationships, and the overall physicality of my existence as he does the height of my goosebumps when I pray.
In Jesus, God came not to save our souls. He came to save US. You and me. Body, soul, spirit. In Jesus, God came to realign our past, present, and future into one single unity. He religamented (re-ligion) the disembodied and as such disempowered parts of our humanity. Jesus came that we might become MORE human, not less. And, contrary to what contemporary evangelicalism might have us believe, he came not with some revivalist message of the sweet by ‘n by.
He came to heal our bodies, our memories, our broken bits. To remind us of what we truly are: beloved but broken, loved but lost. Why?
Because we can’t feast at a table any other way.
I don’t wait well. Wow, what a stupid and obvious way to begin an Advent blog post. Since I’ve begun this foray into a rather universal bugaboo and done so at that time of year when nothing fresh could possibly be said about the topic, I might as well carry on.
I am one who cannot abide rifts between friends, jagged edges in places where, with a little faith and work, the rough places could be made smooth; broken bridges to reunite two sides of a single stream.
I am told that I am particularly good at defusing conflict. What these same people are too polite to mention, however, is that I’m equally good at creating it. Be that as it may, I apparently have a gift for big picture thinking, peaceful words toward potentially peaceable outcomes.
Ironically (tragically, if you ask me), those who are called peacemakers generally hate conflict more than any others. Hence, the very gifts with which we’re saddled are just that, burdens to be borne more than wings upon which to fly through the mêlée.
I run at the first sign of even a hint of conflict. When they come, I am more unsettled than anyone but, when the time is ripe, the field of battle well-lit and ready, and the stands full of naysayers and side-takers, I will enter the fray, weak in the knees and, with dry mouth, stutter words of “now, imagine how this might be better.”
I’ve had a reasonable rate of success at this. But what about those times of waiting in which no amount of resourcefulness, faith, seeking, pain or bag-‘o-tricks seems enough? When does one say that to wait is no longer a reasonable option? When do we finally reach the point of no return? The statute of limitations on someone’s good promises? The place where it appears waiting was a bad idea to begin with?
Meet a battle-weary, time-scarred, now largely apathetic Israel who only say they’re waiting for the “coming Messiah.” After such a long absence, why bother arousing hope in that which perhaps was a cosmic ruse to begin with? God’s just playin’ around, testing our mettle. Like me, their best approaches, clearest study, best thinking, most robust faith…are for naught. To wait anymore is, well, just a waste of the necessary energy required to just get along.
This was the environment into which “in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son.” It’s always the environment that God’s Son is most forthcoming. When we can no longer take credit for our astonishing acts of faithful waiting, God comes.
I hate waiting. God loves that because the Gospel of grace, the ultimate peacemaking enterprise, was, is and always will be God’s gig.
Let this Advent be a time of giving up futile fights and endlessly moribund conflicts. Submit to God’s higher waiting; that which is dependent not on our patient endurance, but on God’s perfect track record at keeping promises.
why do we start as something,
give others the impression that that something
is our true something-ness when in truth
we are something much different indeed?
what is the starting place of our deepest self?
When living day to day, how do we know
we’re giving to others that which
comes from living places and not from dead places
merely adorned with glitter and trinkets to make them appealing?
where are the lines drawn between obligation and self-respect?
When does serving another embezzle their need
to capably discover their own inner strength?
When does such a question even matter –
if at all?
how can the coal dust accumulating on my layered soul
be removed to reveal the sheen of love,
framed in hope, birthed of grace that you see?
That I see in my better moments?
I speak no more.
Instead, speak, for your servant is listening.
A while back I began to write about my big prayer experiment. In that piece, I shared the three greatest gifts to my prayer life:
1. Contemplative prayer, I.e. prayer without agenda/lovingly gazing at God.
2. Total honesty in the presence of a God who already knows all my shit.
3. The gift of Intercession.
Nothing has changed with this experiment. I do want to add something, however; something that has utterly revolutionized my prayer life, turning it into something to which I cannot wait to return.
I pray the Rosary.
Big deal, right? Millions do. Well, here’s the thing – I’m a Protestant. We’re supposed to look with suspicion, pity or even hatred at such wayward, Medieval practices believing them to be the rote, meaningless prayers pooh-poohed by Jesus in the Gospels. How could such a ridiculous thing, something held in regard by little, old ladies and superstitious saintly wannabes possibly lead one to the expected spontaneity and relationship we’re led to accept through our more enlightened “salvation prayer” at the end of the 4 Spiritual Laws booklet? Or so we Protestants are taught to think. You remember…the “Accept you’re a sinner/Believe in the Good News/Confess your sins” prayer that, like magic, whisks us from the apparent hell of our present existence into the Thomas Kinkade wonderland of Jesusy goodness? It’s actually a very good prayer. A necessary one.
It’s just so…incomplete.
Actually, I prayed that prayer once, too. Not necessarily that exact prayer, but one just like it. I credit that prayer for bringing a keener sense of articulation and focus to my otherwise meandering picture of me and God. I suppose I could even credit that “salvation prayer” as my come-to-Jesus moment, with the beginning (continuation?) of a journey even deeper into the heart of prayer.
The Rosary has been an important step in solidifying my need to regulate my prayer practice in chronological, tactile and organized ways. It also invites me to see prayer as more than just talking at God. Here, I can sit with another, Someone whose indelible presence ought to leave me breathless and speechless anyway. Although I’ve owned one before, it wasn’t until my dear Catholic friend, Val Dodge Head, gifted me with one I could actually wear around my neck that I began developing a daily practice. Here is the historic Rosary Prayer:
The purpose of the Rosary is to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries in the history of our salvation, and to thank and praise God for them. This is the mountain rapids version of the Rosary Prayer. It begins with the Sign of the Cross and the Apostles’ Creed. This is followed, successively, by The Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father or Pater Noster), 3 Hail Marys, the 1st Mystery of Our Father and Hail Holy Queen. There are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, all of which are divided into the five JOYFUL MYSTERIES, the five LUMINOUS MYSTERIES, the five SORROWFUL MYSTERIES, and the five GLORIOUS MYSTERIES. The Hail Mary is recited ten times (called a decade) between meditating on the mysteries in question. After each decade is said the following prayer requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.” The whole undertaking is a most imaginative blending of redemptive and mystical theology.
Here is my own adaptation.
I begin and end with the Sign of the Cross. The crucifix acts as The Lord’s Prayer both in and out of my Rosary. For morning prayer, the first bead is always Psalm 63 (King James Version), which I memorized many years ago. If in the afternoon, I’ll choose some other Psalm or a Prayer of St. Columba: “Kindle in our hearts, O God, the flame of that love which never ceases, that it may burn in us, giving light to others. May we shine forever in your holy temple, set on fire with your eternal light, even your Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.” The Hail Mary beads are replaced by 3 Kyries (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy). In turn, these are followed, respectively, by the well known Ignatian Prayer, the Anima Christi and the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The decade beads are breath prayers. With these, I practice more contemplative or centering prayer. Phrases such as “peace, be still” or “in the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful” or “holy is your name, O Lord” or, most often, The Jesus Prayer punctuate this time. It is unhurried and allows my mind to cleanse and my soul to pulsate to the sound of God’s own heart. The Mystery beads form a wonderful place for me to pray the daily Lectionary Psalms, various scriptures I have memorized or, on more creative retreat days, I’ll write or read poetry I’ve written. I exit the Rosary the same way I entered, although in reverse order.
The Rosary has been great respite to me since I am living nowhere near the Monasteries I used to frequent in Oregon. God has shown me just how holy even the most unholy places can be. In those places least ideal for luminosity, God has been busily proving me wrong about my previous misconceptions. The mysterious geography of prayer must begin in the cracks and fissures of the human spirit before it gets the added benefit of the babbling brook heard just outside the Monastery gates.
The Rosary has helped.
Lord, fashion the slow calligraphy of your name
in a once stone heart, broken now as sand.
Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,
reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm.
Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back
so that only those I lead can see it.
In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,
bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.
Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints
crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.
And into that holy community of singing silence,
sing, Holy One, sing.
So it is to be, latent but translucent
that weavings and partings both,
secured in their places best suited
to their emergence or demise,
are laid out on God’s table of cards.
The goodbyes of days that turn to nights
that turn to days that turn to timeless
wonders, the crevices where only God’s
fingers fit. They’re too small for me
because I’m too big in me to see
my own smallness in him.
Wreck all chances for shoddy self-repair
and lay the table for a banquet instead,
where bread on my tongue and
the clinking glasses serve to remind me
of a better meal yet to come.
Lord, tie up my expectations like a pretzel
and replace them with a welcome mat
upon which are written only 4 words:
“Thy will be done.”
Lord, press into the soft, unmarrowed places
of make believe love and headstrong hypocrisy
your thumbprint still dirty from
pinching me alive.
Lord, impale me upon the stake of truth,
not the truth of deception in perfect answers
but the Truth that leaves open wounds
on a heart that only looks for niceties.
Lord, sit me down at the base of this wood
pounded together with the same nails
that tore through flesh softer than love,
tougher than hate.
Lord, with meddling tongue tied behind my back
let my hands, now free
show my mouth that it’s silence
has gifted those I now serve.
Lord, interrupt the long stream of my proclamations
of ideas diminished by my words;
words lesser still than those who listen
for something better than words.
Lord, fill my life with the awesome silence
of a boisterous heaven, singing in praise;
for only then will what I say and do
remind others of who you say I am.
Painting by James Seward